A visit to Baku

'My visit to Azerbaijan left me with an intense sense of ambivalence.'

 THE HEYDAR Aliyev Cultural Center (photo credit: MOTTI VERSES)
THE HEYDAR Aliyev Cultural Center
(photo credit: MOTTI VERSES)
The third successive Formula 1 Grand Prix race was staged on the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, the last weekend of April. This is the most prestigious car race in the world. Last year, a $400 million agreement was signed that stipulates that the race will be held here for the next 10 years. Well before the race was set to begin, large clunky security blocks and ugly fences were erected on some of the city’s most attractive streets.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has been making monumental efforts with Formula 1 to transform the Caspian Sea oil superpower’s capital city into an international tourist destination. The city, which just one generation ago was still under the thumb of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, now seems to be right on track. In recent years, dozens of spectacular office buildings, museums, shopping centers and hotels have been built.
Baku has a plethora of heritage sites open for visitors, among them the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which includes the 12th century Maiden Tower, an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Azerbaijan Airlines’ direct flight on its shiny new Dreamliner (or alternatively on Israeli airlines Israir or Arkia) is only a two-and-a-half-hour trip from Ben-Gurion Airport. Visiting Azerbaijan is the next best thing for Israelis who can only imagine visiting Dubai or other cities in the United Arab Emirates.
Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport, named after the country’s first president, is an impressive, extremely modern structure. Autoban, the Turkish architecture studio that designed the airport, won numerous international awards for this project; the Baku airport is the most beautiful terminal I’ve ever seen. The process of procuring a visa felt daunting at first glance, but in the end, Azerbaijan’s immigration police were quite efficient. I was also happy to see that Israelis pay only $20 for a visa, whereas EU citizens are required to pay almost double that rate.
A fast highway leads to Baku’s Old City in the small, open bay on the Caspian Sea. The wind is constantly blowing outside and pedestrians keep their jackets zipped up even when the skies are blue. The city isn’t known as the Windy City for nothing. It’s hard to miss the country’s Olympic Stadium, which stands out prominently and is reminiscent of some of the world’s most modern stadiums built especially for the Olympic Games. Baku is not yet on the Olympic Games host city list, but the country will undoubtedly become a host nation faster than we might imagine.
During my stay in Baku, I spent a lot of time speaking with locals. I was amazed at how complex all the intercultural and ethnic issues were for residents of Caucasus countries, which actually seemed much more troublesome than the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. There are about 10 million Azeris (or Azerbaijanis) living in the country, most of whom are secular Muslims. They share a border on the south with Iran, which is also home to 25 million Azeris, who make up more than one-third of Iran’s population, which is another complicated situation altogether.
For some reason, the Azeris love Israel and trade relations between the two countries (oil from Azerbaijan and weapons from Israel) provide a win-win situation for all parties. The Azeris feel a cultural, ethnic and language affinity to the Turks, but feel threatened by Armenia, which does not live at peace either with the Azeris or with the Turkish people. Rather, Armenia seeks protection from Russia in its struggle to protect itself from the multiple Muslim countries on its border. I recommend that before visiting Baku, tourists take some time learning about this complex balance of power.
DURING THE few days I spent strolling through the city, I learned a tremendous amount about both the ancient and modern traditions and architecture found in Baku. Aliyev, who has been the head of state since 2003 when his father died, has been reelected a number of times in elections in which there were no opposition candidates running against him. This phenomenon is not uncommon in former Soviet republics. Policemen can be found on every street corner, providing security, but Aliyev’s regime has also been the subject of intense criticism from within as well as from without.
I couldn’t, however, escape being impressed by the remarkable growth in Baku during his tenure. The Flame Towers, a trio of skyscrapers that are illuminated by 10,000 high-powered LEDs and display burning flames at night, are by far the most prominent buildings in the city.
Nearby is the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which displays hundreds of carpets that have been woven over the last few decades across the country. These carpets reflect Azerbaijan’s unique art and ancient tradition in contrast to the modern buildings’ extravagance and innovation.
As we wandered around the narrow alleyways of the city, we passed many quaint restaurants that serve local ethnic dishes at dirt-cheap prices. We decided to eat at the Mugam Club, where we enjoyed a nice bowl of traditional dyushbara soup (chicken kreplach), eggplant and bean salads, which were all incredibly tasty. Most of the main dishes seemed to contain mutton and were served with a raw vegetable salad with parsley, scallion and coriander.
The highlight of the city is certainly the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, which was designed by Zaha Hadid. Some people claim that it is a megalomaniacal structure that was designed to perpetuate the Aliyev dynasty. There is some truth in this claim, but the center is truly amazing. (When you visit, make sure you don’t skip any of the wings. The mini-Azerbaijan floor is fantastic, the doll exhibition is extraordinary, and the artwork by Aleksey Beqov fascinating.) The architect, Hadid, who unfortunately died a couple of years ago at the age of 65, was born in Iraq, lived in the UK and won a number of prestigious architectural awards.
I also recommend taking a day trip outside the city with a tour guide. Alternatively, you could just hire a taxi driver to shuttle you around for the day. While driving along the coast of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest enclosed body of water, you’ll see endless oil pumps, which account for 70% of the country’s revenues. The oil is pumped through the second-longest pipeline in the world that starts in Baku, continues through Georgia and then finally reaches Ceyhan,Turkey.
Another few sites outside of the city that should not be missed are the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, which features more than 6,000 rock engravings; the Zoroastrian Ateshgah Fire Temple; and the Yanar Dag Burning Mountain, which is a natural gas fire that blazes continuously.
My visit to Azerbaijan left me with an intense sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, there are a number of different ethnic groups that practice a variety of religions that are bunched together under one non-democratic regime. On the other hand, after my visit I felt hopeful that this secular Muslim state in the Caucasus, which recognizes Israel as a legitimate nation, will continue to prosper and maintain its peaceful coexistence.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.