Baku & the Old City
I had been to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, two times since I arrived in country. The first time I went during training with my cluster and two LCFs. The mission that day was for the LCFs to give the volunteers a cursory introduction to Baku, show us where the PC office is, where the ex-pats hang out, take us on a whirlwind tour of the Old City (Icheri Shaher), and much like the rest of PST shove way too much into a just a few hours. The second time I went was with two other volunteers for the day. Last weekend I made the decision to explore Baku on my own. Baku is a glorious city and perhaps one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Its most recent history spans nearly one thousand years, but its oil rich land and sea has attracted interlopers, healers, and explorers to the area since pre-history.
Like any spoiled American who’s been somewhat voluntarily practicing abstinence from a few mild addictions, namely premium coffee, good red wine, & international cuisine, my first order of business was to find a place that could make me a grand cup of espresso. Oh how I miss that deep dark smoky smell of freshly ground beans brewed to perfection and topped with a dollop of hot creamy frothy white milk. Azerbaijanis are not coffee drinkers, and thankfully Starbucks has not found its way onto any corner in Azerbaijan, but there are enough ex-pats in the capital city who have brought their desire for gourmet coffee beverages to the land of fire. I was directed to a café located down a windy cobblestone road, and had the first of several cappuccinos that weekend. Later that evening my guidebook led me to an Italian restaurant where I sat down to four star service, a three star meal of Caesar salad, seafood risotto, and two very delicious glasses of Italian red wine. It was lovely. I spent two plus hours in that restaurant slowly savoring every bite & sip while finishing an epic novel I started well over a month ago.
Icheri Shaher is hands down the main attraction of Baku. It is the original city of Baku and is where thousands of people, merchants, & royalty lived, sold their wares, and ruled until the early 1800’s when Russia annexed the city and opened its port for trade. The city is fortified by a wall that snakes its way around and encircles the city entirely. Someone told me that the wall is 5 meters thick (that’s a bit more than 16 ft. wide). I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is certainly thick and probably nearly impenetrable. There used to be two walls, but at some point the outer wall was destroyed and today only the inner wall exists. With its new port on the Caspian, imports and exports allowed money to flood the city and Baku began to grow outside the city’s walls. In 200 years Baku went from being a tiny little city enclosed by a wall, inhabited by less than 7,000 people to a large metropolis of over 2,000,000 people that practically spills into the sea. Today, inside the city, one can find traditional carpet sellers’ carpets hanging over and across Medieval, modern, and contemporary sculptures, monuments and walls alongside snow globes that have floating sculptures of the old city and hundreds of renovated apartments occupied by the wealthier inhabitants of Baku, ex-pats and foreign embassies
It took me an entire day to meander through the streets of the Icheri Shaher. I rented an audio tour so I could become more familiar with the city’s history. My first stop was at the Maiden’s Tower. Historians are not entirely sure what the tower was used for, but there are many legends associated with it. The most interesting yet twisted of the legends is about a king who fell in love with his beautiful daughter and asked for her hand in marriage. Repulsed by her father’s proposal yet obligated to fulfill his desire as her father and her king, she agreed to the marriage if he would build her a tower from where she could view her father’s kingdom. The king agreed to his daughter’s wish and had his architects design and build a tower. Each time the builders announced they were done the king’s daughter said that she wanted another story added to the tower. Finally, upon completion of the tower, the princess climbed to the top to view her father’s kingdom and threw herself over, thus killing herself to avoid the incestuous marriage. Sounds like the plot of a perfect soap opera. In all likelihood, the tower was probably used as a lookout point, and as a light tower. This factoid isn’t anywhere as interesting as the legend.
There is a lot of controversy as to how they use the buildings of the old city today. Unlike in the states, there doesn’t seem to be the same concern for the preservation of all of its historic monuments. Apparently, in the last several years, many of the buildings have been torn down and rebuilt with stable contemporary structures that look and feel old, but are not. While there are parts of the city that are preserved as archaeological and historical sites, such as the Maiden’s Tower, and Shirvanshah’s Palace (he was a ruler), there are other parts that have been turned into commercial sites such as the many caravansaries, or the mansions built by the family of Nobel during the oil boom years. Baku was a stopping point for tradesmen traveling along the Silk Road. The caravansaries served as inns where these travelers would stop, feed and water their camels, take a bath, eat a meal, have a drink, and catch up on some sleep–sort of resort along the Silk Road, if you will. Today these caravansaries remain in tact, but have been converted into tourist restaurants where one can eat traditional Azerbaijani national dishes, and be entertained by minstrels and dancers. These thickly built brick by brick buildings have a multitude of dark, cold rooms, cellars, and cave-like dwellings that are covered with carpets, pillows, tables and chairs to give them a ‘cozy’ sort of feel. Unlike Shirvanshah’s palace, which is rather bleak and cold, the caravansary carries in its stone walls the sorted stories of the past. When walking through them one can easily be taken back in time.
There’s an area in a newer part of Baku called Targova. This is where the ex-pat bars are. On Sat. night I went to a restaurant/bar called Adams. I didn’t go to be with ex-pats, though if I had run into a couple of familiar faces it would have been a welcome encounter, I went to Adams to eat Indian food. There are two known restaurants in Baku for Indian cuisine. One is outrageously priced, and the other is Adams. Since I blew my wad on dinner the night before I wanted to have a budget meal Sat. night. Little did I know what I was walking into when I went to Adam’s. Really, I was expecting a bunch of ex-pats, but it seemed that there was an even divide between the numbers of locals and the numbers of ex-pats. Since I’ve been in AZ, my encounters have been with Azerbaijanis who don’t drink, and with men and women who don’t socialize too much with each other in public particularly at night. In Baku, the rules are a little different. At Adam’s there were Azeri women abound who were smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and booze, wearing long fake fingernails, lots of jewelry, too much makeup and pants that were a little too tight. These women were not young girls. They were probably my age. Now it would be easy to assume that they were ladies of the night practicing one of the oldest professions in the world, but I don’t think they were, at least not in the traditional sense. No, these ladies were well acquainted with the 70 plus elderly men from the Queens country who were probably in Baku working for British Petroleum. They were drinking together, playing pool, hands were in places that indicated there was more than friendship between some. It made me blush, and then it made me kind of sad. Of course I realize that these are just assumptions on my part. I did not talk to these people and I do not know what their stories are, but it’s certainly not a wild assumption on my part to think that some lonely old men are looking for companionship in what can be a lonely and somewhat cold foreign land and that these relatively young ladies are looking for their tickets out of a country that does not offer women much in the way of self expression or opportunity. The situation for these women would only be exacerbated if they are divorcees with children because once a women has been married (which usually happens before age 25, so these women have likely been married) she is used goods and the chances of her finding another companion are difficult at best.
Baku is really an amazing city. There is so much diversity and culture there compared to what the rest of the country offers, which is relatively homogeneous. The government has put a lot of money into refurbishing the city. The architecture is very European, the Bulvar, or waterfront, alone is stunning, and there are always people out and about strolling on it or one of the many fountain parks that cover the city. I could see living in Baku for a year just to experience AZ from a totally different perspective, and I’ll definitely go back to explore areas I didn’t get a chance to see.