Baku (Baki)

Baku - Azerbaijan - location mapLocated on the southern shore of the Apsheron peninsula, Azerbaijan's capital was founded 1,500 years ago. The first written reference to Baku dates from 885, although archaeologists have found remains of a settlement predating by several centuries the birth of Christ. The city became important after an earthquake destroyed Shemakha and the of the 12th century and the Shirvanshah, Ahistan I, made Baku the new capital. There are a few theories about the origin of the name, the most widely known being that Baku comes from bad kube, meaning "city of winds".

Azerbaijan - Baku: Baku coat of arms on the city walls (photo by M.Torres)The climate is sunny and arid, with gale-force winds that sweep through on occasion, caused by masses of polar air. Baku is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and is Azerbaijan's largest city, with wonderful beaches, spas and a striking setting on the salty Caspian Sea.

The basis of Baku's economy is petroleum. The existence of petroleum has been known since the 8th century. By the 15th century oil for lamps was obtained from surface wells. Commercial exploitation began in 1872, and by the beginning of the 20th century the Baku oil field was the largest in the world. Towards the end of the 20th century much of the land's petroleum had been exhausted, and drilling had extended into the sea. Baku ranks as one of the largest centres for the production of oil industry equipment. The World War II Battle of Stalingrad was fought to determine who would have control of the Baku oil fields. Fifty years before the battle, Baku supplied half of the world's oil production.

Baku: old town map (Icheri-Shekher)In recent years oil has made the city affluent again, but Baku is still a conservative place. You don't see many women covering their heads, but you'll notice many small revealing details e.g. ladies go to the toilet for a cigarette, couples don't kiss in public...

Today's Baku is really three cities rolled into one: the old town (icheri shekher), the boomtown and the Soviet-built town.

Baku: city center mapThe centre of Baku is the old town, which is also a fortress. The walled city of Baku became in December 2000 the first location in Azerbaijan classified as world cultural site by UNESCO. Most of the walls and towers, strengthened after the Russian conquest in 1806, survive. This section is picturesque, with its maze of narrow alleys and ancient buildings. Wander the cobbled streets past the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, two caravansaraies (ancient inns), the 11th-century Maiden's Tower (nice view of the harbour), the baths and the Djuma Mosque (it used to house the exquisite Carpet and Applied Arts Museum, but now is a Mosque again... and by the way the carpets are now at the former V.I. Lenin museum). The old town also has dozens of small mosques, often without any particular sign to distinguish them from the next building.

The boomtown, south of the old city, was built after massive oil exploitation began nearly a century ago and has interesting beaux-arts architecture. Fine arts, history and literature museums are located there, all housed in the mansions of pre-Revolutionary millionaires.

Azerbaijan - Baku: waterfront - Neftchilar av. and Azadlyg sq. - Government house and Park Inn hotel - Baku's new skyline - photo by M.TorresModern Baku, mainly a Soviet brain-child spreads out from the walls, its streets and buildings rising up hills that rim the Bay of Baku. The flow money brought by the oil industry in the 21st century changed the skyline, with numerous tall building of doubtful architecture and quality framing the city.

Greater Baku is divided into 11 districts and 48 townships. Among these are townships on islands in the bay and one island town built on stilts in the Caspian Sea, 100 kilometres from Baku proper ('Oil Rocks').

Baku and Sumgait - Apsheron peninsula / Abseron Yasaqligi (in Russian)If you have a the stamina, it is worth walking uphill to the Martyrís Cemetery, formerly the Kirov park (there is also a funicular, but it's often out of order, so you better take a taxi). This area is now dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during the war with Armenia and also to the 137 people who were killed on 19 & 20 January 1990 when Soviet tanks and troops took to the streets of Baku. Photographs of victims featured on each tomb-stone are sobering and poignant. Now 20 January has become a national holiday of deep emotional meaning.

Many expats working oil industry in the oil industry are to be found around Baku, but tourists are still a rare sight. The government has be busy campaigning abroad, but Baku and Azerbaijan are still not 'tourist ready'. However things are changing and Baku boasts its first tourism information center, at Hajibeyov St. 36, created with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

history, images
Main Sights in Baku
Maiden's Tower
Azerbaijan - Baku: Maiden's tower (Gyz Galassy) - Unesco world heritage site - photo by M.TorresLocated in the walled town (Icheri-Shekher) the Maiden's Tower (Gyz Galassy) is Azerbaijan's best known landmark and the de facto symbol of Baku. You can climb its eight floors and enjoy a magnificent view of the old town and Baku bay. The cylinder shaped tower is about 30 metres tall with a diameter of 16.5 metres and walls 5metres thick. Archaeologists estimate that the tower was started in the 7th or 8th century and  enlarged in the 11th or 12th century by a Massud ibn Daud, as a kufic inscription reveals. Built on a coastal rock, that made tunnelling under it impossible, the tower as a bizarre projection at the base which gives it the appearance of a retort (closed on Sunday).

Shirvanshahs' Palace 
Divan-khane - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / Shirvan-Shah's Palace ensemble (15-16th century) was built when the Shah's capital was moved from Shemakha to Baku. This was the most prominent architectural complex in the medieval city. Some of the builings in the complex far surpass the palace in splendour. Despite having built in different periods without a single plan the several contruction form an harmonious whole.

The palace is a two story building, with service rooms on the ground floor and state rooms on the uper floor. Built in the 15th century by Halilullah I the palace remained intact a hundred years. After Baku was taken by Shah Ismail the palace was abandoned.

Shirvan Shah's burial vault - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / to the palace is the Divankhane rotunda. crowned with a faceted cupola of pointed arches, echoing a similar arcade in the courtyard. The stone carving of the portal - with intricate ornamentation and kufic inscriptions - is striking. 

In the complex you can also see the 14th century the Bei-Kubad Madrassa Mosque, the Shah's family tomb (the turbe) and  the tomb of Seid Yahia Bakuvi (a court astronomer) the Turkish built eastern Gate and the baths.
(closed Monday/Tuesday)

Juma Mosque
Baku: kids at the Djuma Mosque (photo (c) Miguel Torres / Juma (friday) mosque hosted for a long time the carpets museum, but is now back to its original use. The building you can see today dates from the early twentieth century, courtesy of an oil baron, but stands over the remains of preceding buildings. Its main attraction is the intricate stone ornamentation. 

The Imam and his assistants are Turks who studied in both Iran and Iraq. Services were on several occasions restricted by the authorities, due to 'radical' content.

City Walls
City walls - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / walled city of Baku became in December 2000 the first site in Azerbaijan classified as world heritage by UNESCO.  Most of the walls and towers, strengthened after the Russian conquest in 1806, survive. You can climb the walls near the Kileli mosque.
Academy of Sciences (Presidium)
Academy of Sciences (Ismailia palace) - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / built by local millionaire Nagiev as a tribute to his dead son and to house the Ismailia Moslem charitable society it later was later ceded to the Academy of Sciences to house its Presidium. The architecture is mock italian Gothic by Polish architect Joseph Ploshko, imitating the Contarini palace in Venice. Behind it you can find the city wall and the Djebakhana tower. (The main building of the Academy is located near Baku State University)
Weddings' Palace
Baku: Weddings palace - Palace of Happiness
Located on the corner of Ahmad Javad and Muxtarov streets and also known as "Palace of Hapiness" this building is Baku's main wedding venue. It came about as another extravaganza by a local millionaire: a Oil Baron Murtuza Mukhtarov built it as a surprise Valentine gift for his Ossetian wife. The beautiful building is an imitation of an italian construction, designed by Polish architect Joseph Ploshdo and constructed by the Quasomov brothers. (closed Monday and Thursday). The palace also houses the administrative offices of Azerbaijan's Composer's Union.
The 26 Commissars Square
Baku: 26 commissars memorial - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / centre of this large square is a dramatic monument with a man coming out of the ground with a large stone circle hovering above it. 

The monument pays tribute to the 26 bolshevik commissars from the Baku commune defeated by the Turkish in 1918 and later slain in Krasnadovsk  (now Turkmenbashi). 

The Communists blamed the British for the killings and the unfortunate fighters became heroes in Soviet Azerbaijan. Today, the flame that burned in their monument is gone. 

Akhundov Library - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / square has a quiet garden and is the location of the always well guarded Turkish embassy and of the Akhundov library, Azerbaijan's main book repository. Each arch on the façade is home to a statue of a local literary figure.

The Boulevard
Neftchilar avenue - The Boulevard - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / broad and shady pedestrian walkway runs downtown along the edge of the Caspian Sea. Its promenade and neat gardens are popular with people of all ages and favoured by young couples. At its centre, just across Neftchilar avenue is the government house and the largest Soviet style hotels. A large oil derrick style tower dominates the horizon, showing the time and the weather.

al fresco restaurant - the Pearl - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / the water there are numerous rides and amusements for children - including a Ferris wheel, that can provide some nice views. For the rest of the visitors there are outdoor billiards, chess tables, tea houses and cafés. During the summer small boat cruises in the bay are available. The popular Terrace Disco and the Garden bar are located on the boulevard. 

Fountain Square
Fountain square - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / square is Baku's most fashionable area, where you go to see and be seen. The square is surrounded by sophisticated restaurants and shops. The long and often dry fountain serves as an endless bench for lazy afternoons and evenings.
Government House
Baku: Government House (photo (c) Miguel Torres / on what was till the late 19th century a moor, used for hunting, today's government palace is nothing but the former "house of the Soviets". The magnificent outside architecture is the result of a competition won in 1934 by muscovite architects L.Rudnev and V.Munts. The works started soon after the competition but the war and further delays only allowed for the building to be completed only 20 years after. German prisoners of war or widely used in its construction. Its 12  floors are more appealing outside than inside. A 12 metre tall statue of Lenin by D.Kariagdy is long gone.
Opera and Ballet Theatre
Baku: Opera and Ballet Theatre (photo (c) Miguel Torres / both inside and outside, this early twentieth century art nouveau building has an interesting metal decoration on the façade and a gilded interior. It was commissioned to architect N.Bayev by the Mayilov brothers. Located on Nizami street, behind the 26 commissars square.

Although you can see high quality performances, tickets are still rather inexpensive.

Nizami Museum of Literature
Azerbaijan - Baku: Nizami literary museum - photo by M.TorresThe Nizami museum of Azeri Literature was originally built as an hotel.  It façade is decorated with dark blue and turquoise majolica. Inside the ogival arches are statues of outstanding Azeri writers of several periods: Fisuli, Vaghif, Mirza Fatali Akhundov, Natavan, Djalil Mamedkulizade, Djafar Djabarly. Its 23 rooms contain over 3000 exhibits: illuminated manuscripts, calligraphic art, rare editions, photographs and films, etc. Formerly the Metropol hotel. Istiqlaliyyat street, 53.
Carpets Museum
carpets museum - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / the Lenin museum, the neo-classical building now houses the Carpet and Applied Arts Museum and above it the Theatre Museum. The  Kerimov carpet collection is a must in Baku, with exhibits from all periods, styles and from both Azerbaijan proper and the Azeri provinces in Iran (closed Monday).
State Philarmony
Azerbaijan - Baku: Aliaga Vahid bust - Muslim Magomayev State Philarmony /  philharmonic - architect G.Termikelov -  Istiglaliyyat Street - photo by M.TorresMagnificent building by architect G. Termikelov, dating from 1912 and surrounded by a pleasant park. It's a domed structure with towers in renaissance style, design was based on the casino in Monte Carlo. The acoustic conditions are excellent. Performances are often also held outside. Istiglaliyyat Street.
Nizami Cinema
Azerbaijan - Baku: Nizami cinema - Bulbul avenue - architects S.Dadashev and M. Usseinov - photo by M.TorresThe main cinema in the city is a 1930s modernist (Constructivism) building designed by local architects S.Dadashev and M. Usseinov. Quintessential (good) Soviet Architecture. Hosts many civic events. Located on Bulbul avenue.
Taza Pir Mosque
Taza Pir mosque, Baku (Tazapir, Teze Pir, Teze-Pir, Tezepir) Mescidi, Taza Pir Mascidi)- AzerbaijanThe most impressive mosque in Baku, finished in 1914 and built in honour of the philanthropist Nabut Khanum Ashurbekova. It has an impressive stone façade with twin minarets and a large dome. 

A must see! Very popular in Soviet times. Slightly damaged by the 2000 Baku earthquake, but quickly repaired. M. Fataly street.

The Train Stations
Electric Train station - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres /  train stations create a lively market area, dominated by the statue of Azeri play writer Jafar Jabbarli. Here you can buy about anything, enjoy a glass of kvas on a summer day, meet people from all over the country, or simply enjoy the city's life... but don't forget to mind your wallet.

Steam Train station - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / two large buildings are the "Steam Railways station" and the "Electric Railway Station". The first is a late 19th century domed construction with an arab style tower, the latter has an eclectic mix of styles from the 1920s, with hints of art nouveau. 

The USSR's first electric railway line ran from this station linking Baku to the oil townships of Sabunchi and Surakhani.

Zorge Park
Bakihanov st. (Kura-Araks vodstroi building and Zorge park) - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / park running along Bakihanov street where you can enjoy pool outside. The main landmark is a monument to Soviet Spy Richard Zorge: two huge penetrating eyes (he was an ethnic German from Azerbaijan who eventually died at the hand of the Japanese).
Martyrs Lane (Shahidlar Hiyabany)
Azerbaijan - Baku: monument on Martyrs' Lane  - Shahidlar Hiyabany - photo by M.TorresFormerly the Kirov park, the space is now dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during the war with Armenia and also to the 137 people who were killed on 19 & 20 January 1990 when Soviet tanks and troops took to the streets of Baku (often called "Black January"). Photographs of victims featured on each tomb-stone are sobering and poignant. Now 20 January has become a national holiday of deep emotional meaning. 

A large memorial to the Turkish troops killed fighting against Russia in the early 20th century  is located here, as well as the 'martyrs mosque' also built by the Turks. Not far from the Turkish memorial there is a small wall acknowledging the British soldiers killed in the same conflict. No homage if made to the brave men of the Russian army fallen in the same war.

Republic Palace, named after Heydar Aliyev
Heydar Aliyev palace - Republic Palace (former Lenin palace of culture) - Baku - Azerbaijan (photo (c) Miguel Torres / the V.I. Lenin palace of culture, then the Republic Palace, like many other places it was renamed after Heydar Aliyev folllowing his death. This concrete and glass building faces a wide square with gardens and fountains and the red tower of the National Bank of Azerbaijan. 

The Republic palace can seat an audience of 2000. Its contruction dates from the 1970s, with a desing by architects V.Shulgin and E. Melkhisedekov.

Shikhov Beach
Shikhov: Caspian skyline (photo (c) Miguel Torres / the summer some self-styled entrepreneurs clean parts of the beach and charge and admission fee of a fee manats. Many vendors offer assorted drinks and food. In the low season Shikhov is a good place for relaxing walks or some jogging on the sand.
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