City of winds
The windy city of Azerbaijan, Baku, located 28 metres below sea level, is known for its medieval attractions
Mohan K. Tikku

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, has its equivalent of Delhi's Walled City. It is called Ichari Sheher, the Inner City. Many of the landmarks that dot its lanes, by lanes and handkerchief-sized courtyards hark back to the medieval ages when the place used to be a bustling trading centre on the Silk Route. But the most prominent of the city's landmarks is the Maiden Tower. It is a huge pillar built with stone and mortar. It is also a Unesco Heritage site.

The legend behind the Maiden tower is that a beautiful maid gave her life for her love at this place. Another version says that the tower is called Maiden because it was never conquered by any invader. The Tower nevertheless stands as a dominating presence on the local landscape, and has become the brand image the city is recognised by.

Not very far from the Maiden Tower, there are two medieval serais across a narrow lane. One of the serais has a strong India connection. The young guide tells us that the bigger of the two serais was used by traders from India. It consists of a hall and a few chambers where the traders used to stay. Down below there is an equally, large basement cellar that was used for stocking the goods and, at times, parking camels as well.

The most prominent of the city's landmarks is the Maiden TowerThe main room and the underground cellar have now been redesigned into a high-end eating joint. The dimly lit place, of course, retains an old-world charm, and is among the more expensive restaurants in this part of the city. It is treated as an elite destination and is a tourist attraction. Apart from its historical associations, the place is known for its good food. The walls are adorned with photographs of visiting dignitaries who have eaten here. No wonder some of them were persuaded to change into local costumes before being photographed.

Not far from the two serais stands an impressive statue of poet Aliagha Vahid (1894-1965). Vahid is to the Inner City what Mirza Ghalib is to Old Delhi. He is celebrated as a ghazal writer, and is credited with having introduced the ghazal as a genre into Soviet literature. His satirical ghazals were particularly popular, and did not spare even the Soviets during the later years. But the Soviets preferred to leave him alone, so one is told, mainly because he was so hugely popular that they did not want to make an issue of him.

Love child of Paris and Dubai

Baku sweets called pechenie; and (right) historical buildings in the Inner City (Ichari Sheher)

The new city of Baku looks different. More than anything else, it is an expression of the affluence that came with oil. Every night buildings in the city, which is now the capital proper, are lit like a Christmas tree. A lot more electricity is spent in lighting up the exteriors of the buildings than their insides.

It has to do not just with the fact of an energy-rich economy, but equally as a mark of pride the people take in the city buildings. The building boom followed the discovery of the country's huge oil reserves and the affluence that came in its wake. With that the new buildings and the boulevards began to be seen as symbols of the country's tryst with modernity.

Baku changed from being a seaside trading town into a modern city after it found oil in the last quarter of the 19th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Azerbaijan was supplying nearly half of the world’s oil. The new affluence expressed itself in a surfeit of buildings copying the neo-classical architecture of Paris. Decades later, as the 1973 oil crisis sent petrol prices shooting through the roof, Dubai became the new model in design and material for buildings in the Azerbaijani capital. Not surprisingly, the new city is often described as the love-child of Paris and Dubai.

Flagpole race

On September 1, 2010, Azerbaijan proudly announced the inauguration of what it described as the world's tallest unsupported flagpole. And at the time, the Guiness Book recorded it so. A huge Azeri national flag, measuring 70 by 35 meters, itself the world's largest, fluttered from its top. But the Caspian winds proved too strong for a flag of that size. It was soon replaced by a more modest version.

The supposed glory of being home to the world's largest flagpole too turned out to be short lived. A year later, neighbouring Tajikistan announced the setting up of a flagpole in capital Dushanbe that stood three meters higher, pushing Baku to the second position. That was the Tajiks way of celebrating their two decades of freedom from Soviet rule.

Miniatures museum

Baku has about a dozen of museums. Among these is the museum of miniature books. It was started by Zarifa Salahova, a private citizen from her personal collection, a little over a decade ago — and is billed as the world's only museum of its kind.

Zarifa came from a family of book lovers. One of her three brothers became a leading artist. She devoted herself to collecting miniature books at a time when the Russians were still running the place. The museum now houses over 4,300 volumes described as “gems of abbreviated truth”. Among the oldest is a 17th century miniature edition of the Koran. For the rest, there is a whole range of authors from Pushkin and Dostoevsky to the European masters. In all, 47 countries are represented on its shelves.

Open house

Baku is a fairly open and liberal city to be in. Here, most women prefer to be seen in western dresses and are into all manner of jobs. You meet them guiding tourists and managing businesses or working as university teachers and senior bureaucrats. There is no curfew on night life and the bars remain open till past midnight. Women drive around at all hours without any incidents.

Seeing young boys and girls paired on benches on the boulevard skirting the Caspian seashore, it left me wondering what our moral police, would have done here. They could not have done much except, perhaps, jumping into the Caspian!


How to reach: There are no direct flights between New Delhi and Azerbaijan. You either fly through Istanbul or through Moscow. Istanbul is the shorter route.

Where to stay: Many world chains have hotels in Baku.

What to see: The downtown Fountains Square, the One and Thousand Nights Beach, Shikhov Beach, Oil Rocks and the 17th century Baku Ateshgah or Fire Temple in Surakhani, a suburb of greater Baku.

What to eat: Plov, a rice-based dish, with more than 40 varieties. A variety of kebabs and shashlik, including lamb, chicken, and fish (baliq) kebabs, served with a pomegranate sauce called narsharab. Typical Azerbaijani desserts are sticky, syrupy pastries such as pakhlava and halva. Other traditional pastries include shakarbura, peshmak, and girmapadam.

Where to shop: Baku has several shopping malls; Park Bulvar, Metro Park, Aygun city, etc. Nizami street is one of the most expensive streets in the world.

What to buy: Azerbaijan is famous for its carpets, but silk, pottery and copper also make for great souvenirs.