Azerbaijan celebrates its past and present for world to see
Billing itself as the “Land of Fire”, Azerbaijan is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. The country is a nexus of ancient historical empires with European and Asian inheritance, and a “new” nation which has undergone an extraordinary transformation from the post-Soviet 1990s to an oil-enriched host of Formula 1 and Europa League football.
Bounding on the east coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the territory of Azerbaijan can be traced back to the late Stone Age and is related to the Guruchay culture of Azokh Cave.
Petroglyphs in the Gobustan National Park, dating back to the 10th millennium BC, indicate a thriving culture. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered to be of “outstanding universal value”.
Azerbaijan is home to a vast variety of landscapes. Over half of the country’s landmass consists of mountain ridges, crests, yailas, and plateaus which rise up to hypsometric levels of 400-1,000 meters (including the Middle and Lower lowlands),
Tourists normally feel the charm of a country beginning in its capital. It’s the same experience in Azerbaijan.
Baku is one of the most important tourist destinations in the Caucasus. The capital city has many amenities that offer a wide range of cultural activities, drawing from both a rich local dramatic portfolio and an international repertoire.
Among them is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who also designed the London Aquatics Center for the 2012 Olympics and Beijing Daxing International Airport, the venue was opened in 2007.
The city also boasts many museums such as Baku Museum of Modern Art and National Museum of History of Azerbaijan.Among all these cultural sites, the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum is a must-go place for its uniqueness to foreign tourists. The museum displays Azerbaijani carpets and rug items of various weaving techniques and materials from various period.
Established in 1967, the museum moved from the Juma Mosque to the current place, a modern building near the Caspian coast in 2014, and has become a research, training, cultural and educational center where many events, such as exhibitions, international symposiums, and conferences, are held.
The structure of the building looks like a rolled carpet. Designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz, it took over six years to construct.
Walking along the streets in Baku would be a unique experience mixing the ultra-modern as well as the very-old, as the city is collided by the country’s Turkish, Russian, Persian and European identities on every street.
Even in its calm moments, Baku will find ways to confuse you. For instance, as you stroll along its promenade on the shores of the Caspian Sea, you are actually 28 meters below sea level. The city is the lowest lying national capital in the world and also the largest city in the world located below sea level.
The Old City, or Icheri Sheher, is a maze of narrow sandstone streets of Baku’s oldest and most mellow quarter.
From the 12th century, this place was the center of the Shirvanshah dynasty, which ruled over what is now Azerbaijan until 1539.
During the period of ancient Silk Road, the Old City was one of the main sites on the route between China and the Europe. It witnessed the prosperity and sinking of the ancient Silk Road.
Today about 3,000 people still live within these stone walls and work in the art galleries, cafes and bathhouses. These Turkish-style hammams (bathing establishment) open from very early in the morning until very late at night, with separate opening hours for men and women.One of the oldest buildings in the Old City is Qiz Qalasi, known in English as the Maiden’s Tower. This UNESCO-listed tower is not much to look at, but the stubby stone fortress is the setting for dozens of Azerbaijani myths and legends. From the top of the tower, there are clear views out over the Caspian Sea.
When you walk in the Old City, touching the walls of some old buildings constructed in the 12th century, you can see the modern parts with three blue skyscrapers not far away.
The fancy buildings are called Flame Towers－three shimmering skyscrapers covered with LED panels that light up at dusk, transforming the towers into a flickering red and orange fire in the evening.
The towers are built as symbols of flaming oil fire as the modern parts of Baku were built with oil money.
At the start of last decade the city went to jaw-dropping lengths to show off its astronomical wealth, and futuristic buildings now completely dominate the skyline.
Throughout the night the skyscrapers morph into a digital waterfall, and image of the Azerbaijani flag. These displays are visible from everywhere in the city and gazing at the flames, especially, is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Perhaps Baku’s biggest contradiction is that, as you stare at its futuristic landmarks, you’re also really looking into its past.
Azerbaijan fell into an economic crisis soon after the Flame Towers, Heydar Aliyev Center and the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum were completed, which put a stop to the outlandish new buildings.The country is still astoundingly wealthy－the annual Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix isn’t the only time of year when the streets are filled with expensive sports cars－and Baku is beginning to go mainstream as well.
At the foot of the Caucasus mountains lies an escape from the hustle and bustle: a wooden chalet called the Palace of Shaki Khans.
Gorgeous but tiny, it is another must-see place in Shaki, an ancient Caucasus city 240 kilometers from Baku in the Northeastern Azerbaijan.
The palace, which is also a UNESCO-listed site, was built in 1797 as a summer residence of the Shaki Khans, one of the most powerful Caucasian khanates who established Afsharid Iran.
Perched high in the mountains, the summer palace is painstakingly symmetrical and more cosmopolitan than one might think for a mountain refuge. French stained glass, Russian wood, Ottoman ceramics, and Iranian mirrorwork decorate all of the facets.
Measuring 32 meters by 8.5 meters on the exterior, the summer residence is a two-story masonry structure elongated on the north-south axis and covered by a wooden hipped roof with long eaves.
The layout of both floors is identical－three rectangular rooms are placed in a row, separated by narrow, south-facing corridors that provide access to the rooms. The floors are accessed separately to accommodate their public and private functions.
One can easily imagine the early 1800s when the Shaki princes sat in its now-quiet halls, speaking of their grandeur. Those same princes spent their nights fearing what would happen when the world’s warlords would finally discover their corner of the mountains.
Azeri is the official language of the Azerbaijan, and Russian is spoken widely here. However, you will not find it hard to communicate with locals in English when traveling because the English education is popularized in the country after its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
If you want to start your travel in Azerbaijan, you will arrive at Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport, one of the six main airports of the country.
In the city of Baku, you can see around by taxi, buses, metro or other public transportations. But if you want to make a trip to Shaki or other cities, renting a car or booking a chartered car with an English-speaking guide may be a good choice.