My brother and I were so elated once we got hold of our Azerbaijan visa. It was June last year when the Azerbaijan government allowed Travisa Outsourcing Process to process tourist visas for Americans who want to travel to Azerbaijan. Their staff was accommodating and even gave us tips to best enjoy our 7 day tour of this beloved country. It took 5 days to have all our travel papers stamped and processed, together with our plane tickets. Having pre-arranged everything, by the middle of July, my brother and I boarded the Azerbaijan Air via Istanbul, we were the only two Americans on that flight that landed in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. I thank my brother who works as an Electronic Engineer in another state for bringing me along on his holiday; it was a perfect time to renew our bond as brothers after living apart for 2 years.
Since Azerbaijan is a relatively small country most of its attractions are concentrated in the Absheron Region specifically in the capital city, Baku. Traditional Azeri music welcomed us as we started our tour of Old City Baku. We indulged ourselves in history by wandering the maze of the Old City. The whole area has many interesting buildings and well maintained historical sites. Narrow streets, monumental buildings, and photographic scenes are nestled inside this walled city. It was also full of little stores that sell everything from groceries to carpets, antiques and souvenirs (all bargains!). There were also a variety of restaurants offering Azeri meals at affordable price. We checked out the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a really beautiful old building; Baths (hamam) were great as well as the historical importance of the place. It has a museum inside, a courtyard and a mosque.
We climbed Baku’s famous landmark the Maiden Tower (Qiz Qalasi). Built mostly on a coastal rock, it overlooks the Caspian Sea from the far end of the old town. So many stories came out how this tower was built but the most believable as locals say was, a King wanted to marry a young girl but the girl does not want to. To save time she asks him to build a tower for her honor then she will marry. Once the tower was completed, she threw herself off its top, hence the name Maiden Tower. Inside the tower was a small museum with interesting facts about Azerbaijan.
We passed a narrow street from the tower to get to Icari Sahar, to experience a real sense of the Old Islamic Center. Inside we found mosques, minarets, Arabic architecture, carpets, and exotic flavors in small shadowed garden cafés. Most of the oil companies’ offices are found behind these old town walls. Between the Old City and the Fountains Square stands the most visually imposing building called the Nizami Museum of Literature. Its façade features a pleasant mix of oriental architectural style. The museum contains books, illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, carpets and other artworks of the 12th century poet Nizami Gandzhevi. The statues at the ogival arches were leading Azeri literary figures. The museum has great content but there was little translation from Russian to English.
Then we proceed to check out the Academy of Sciences which is located near the Baku University. The gothic building was originally built by a local millionaire named Nagiev as a tribute to his dead son and to host the Ismailia Moslem Charitable Society and the Presidium. Behind it is the Djebakhana Tower. We spend the rest of the day strolling along the Fountains Square. By night time there was a free concert and the lovely fountain basks in colorful lights. Full of people, cafés, tea houses and restaurants, we enjoyed a good meal of sturgeon with pomegranate sauce and sheep cheese. It’s a relaxing fountain surrounded by greeneries and few seats to watch the local populace walk by. Truly the heart of the city!
Next day we played laser tag sports at the ETX Lazer Strike. It is the first world class professional double – level laser tag sports arena in Azerbaijan. As sci-fi fans we had a great time playing tags. It was fun! Then we proceed to visit the Martyr’s Lane (Sehitler Hibayani), a cemetery dedicated to the Azeri heroes who fought for Azerbaijan’s independence. It is a genuine memorial overlooking Baku Harbor. The image of each person is etched onto a polished black stone. It is located proximate to the National Parliament and Flame Towers. We felt sadness as we pass by rows of black grave stones, but were comforted by the super panoramic view of the city from the terrace at top of the hill.
From there we rented a cab to get to the Gobustan Rock Art, just south of Baku. We hired a local guide to take us to the ancient Petroglyphs (rock engravings). It was interesting to check the rock art of our predecessors and to admire the amazing scenery around it. It was history written in rock, on a natural setting. The rocky landscape was spectacular and the atmosphere on the secluded caves was absolutely unique! The museum depicts how the hunters would chase animals over the cliffs to their deaths. The paintings gave me a bit of a shiver and goose bumps. We also checked out a Soviet – era prison located about a kilometer away from the museum.
About 15 minutes away from the museum, our knowledgeable Azeri guide led us up to the Mud Volcano. It was amazing to see a volcano that does not spit lava but mud! Our guide kept warning us not to get close to the caldera or on the volcano fields. As we went back we passed by the Shirvan National Park and took photographs with the gazelles living there. The landscape around the semi desert and the view of the Caspian Sea was worth the trip.
To enjoy our last day in Azerbaijan we took a short bus ride from the town of Baku, we felt like Indiana Jones when we visited the Ateshgah – Fire Temple. We witness a ground on fire and flames from the escaping gas everywhere. It is a proof that Baku and the Absheron Region are rich in oil and gas. It’s also a very interesting ancient monument of Zoroastrianism, the religion that was practiced in Azerbaijan before the coming of Islam. There were creepy life size figures showing how devotees of fire worship did penance. Most of them were reminiscent of torture chambers. From the top we saw the Oil-Boomtown, an area of oil fields facing the coast.
Then we passed by the Mimar Sinan – Sahidlik Mascidi, a Turkish mosque built after its independence. We spent the rest of the day visiting the Cuma Mosque; its main attraction was the intricate stone ornamentations. Across the mosque stood the Carpets Museum, formerly known as the Lenin Museum, it also houses the Applied Arts Museum and just above it the Theatre Museum. A visit to the Kerimov Carpet Collection is a must! It exhibits carpets from all periods, styles, from both the Azeri and Iranian people. We took photographs beside the Turkish Martyrs Monument; a large memorial dedicated to the Turkish troops killed fighting against Russia. Not far from this is a small wall honoring the British soldiers killed in the same conflict.
I arrived clueless but I left filled with so much knowledge and wonderful memories of a great trip with my brother. The country of Azerbaijan surprised me in so many ways; I was totally mesmerized by its wonderful sceneries, interesting political history, and a mix of the old and modern attractions. I love it the way it is. Azerbaijan is indeed “The Land of Fires”. I don’t know when, but we will definitely revisit this beautiful country some time to continue our trip, exploring the left over parts of Azerbaijan…