Baku and Yanar Dag

In the hour of adversity, be not without hope; for crystal rain falls from black clouds.

Nizami (1141-1203)

Baku is a changing city. Sometimes this change may be uncomfortable to some as newer building fill the skyrise and road after road is torn up and re-laid. Not always in the name of progress but Cambodian style (i.e. for filling pockets).

This withstanding, the city has some attractive boulevards, monuments buildings and old town. The timing of my trip to Azerbaijan was to visit of my best friends Sasha as she returned. She introduced me to some of her friends and also we walked through the Old Town. The town itself is small but attractive. There are lots of small streets so even in this small section of Baku it is possible to wander of the tourist path and just explore picturesque quiet and dusty streets. In the Old Town are two particularly interesting attractions. One of them being the Maiden Tower.

The Tower has a commercialised tragic love tale, about a young maiden jumping from the tower to reject a Kings advance and protect her chastity. In some versions she was engaged to a guy but imprisoned by the King. In any case the end of the story is tragic but it is just that a fairy tale.
A far more plausible hypothesis is the fact that the tower is called a maiden’s Tower from the fact that the defences could not or at least believed not to be penetrable.

Inside the tower are put a number of theories over the possible use. The displays inside are not particularly interesting but after a shirt climb of a few levels you will be treated to a panoramic view of Baku. Inside the tower I came across some Azeri (I presume) girls who wanted me to record a birthday greeting for the sister of one of them.

The other main attraction is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs built in the 15th century. The site contains an old mosque (no longer in use) and several displays. The stalactite belt of the minaret apparently reads, “The greatest Sultan Khalilullah I ordered to build this minaret. May Allah exalt the days of his governing and reign. The year of 845” (1441-1442 in the Gregorian calendar).

Don’t Mention the War!
To borrow the phrase from John Cleese…however in this case it is not a comedy or joke. Guidebooks and those that I have met that have been to Azerbaijan do all say this. Azerbaijan and Armenia had a bitter war. Despite cohabiting in some cities peaceable, underlying tensions and agent provocateurs helped start another tragic flame. According to a survey over 97% of Azerbaijanis disapprove of having an Armenian friend. This figure may be lower in Armenia but it is still an extremely high figure of 70%. As a result of the conflict Azerbaijan had lost up to 20% of its territory and many (to put it lightly) were displaced.
Those who were killed both civilians and army are remembered in monuments and anniversaries. Memories run really high and the Trailblazer guidebook says even trying (or I would add not even trying but being perceived to) give a ‘balanced’ position runs possibility giving great offence. Some evidence of the once Armenian community in Baku still exists in the now closed St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral). There was also an Azeri community in Yerevan before the war.

Outside of the Old Town there is the promenade along the Caspian. To a few I was a tourist attraction having being asked by a guy to pose with his baby! Anyway it was never tiring not obtrusive, the newer development in the area has resulted in some leafy boulevards, artificial mini lakes etc and plenty of eating options.

At night time some of these areas look particularly beautiful. The flame towers (so called as the resemble flames and by extension Azerbaijan) are lit up beautifully by night and nearby there a small mosque, and also a memorial with an eternal flame to Azeris who died fighting in Qarabagh.

I also visited Yana dag (“Burning Mountain”), reachable by bus #217 from the metro station Koroğlu. It is a continuously burning natural gas fire (even in the rain) that has been burning for a 1,000 years. There is a decrepit tea house (shut when I was there) but not much else in the area. However the journey was worth the effort. There are other fires in Azerbaijan although Yanar Dag is perhaps one of the easiest. Such fires may have been the cause for the popularity of Zoroastrian in pre Islam Azerbaijan.
While in Baku I attended liturgy at the Holy Mryrrbears Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
They were very welcoming and I was asked to carry the cross during the procession. The Church one of several Russian Orthodox Churches in the capital is beautifully adored with mosaics and has the relics of Apostle Bartholomew. Martyred in Baku (then Albanus).