Woke up early after only about 2 hours sleep, thanks largely to the snoring efforts of my traveling companions, and decided to just get up and start exploring Baku. Made my way downstairs at the hostel to be confronted with doctors and patients and wheelchairs on the first floor… WTF??!! The running semi-joke is that we were actually accommodated in a mental health clinic, which is somewhat appropriate after having spent over a month (and for some, 2 months) together as a group. And, to be honest, it sort-of looked like that kind of institution from the outside, seen in the clear light of day…
Given our delay in getting off the ferry, we only had 1 day to explore Baku, so I walked the 4kms into the Old City and joined a walking tour (can never do too much walking!). Our guide was great, and the reason I love doing walking tours so much is that you get to ask all sorts of other questions about the country and culture as well.
We started off in the Maiden Tower – a predominantly 12th century structure and one of the key symbols of Baku. It seems to have served many purposes throughout its history, starting off as a Zoroastrian Fire temple (around the 5th century), and later a solar observatory (~12th century) given that “the 30 stone protuberances on the tower’s lower section and 31 protuberances on the upper section correlate to days of the month”, and the fact that the sun shines through slit windows in the upper section of the tower on the equinoxes.
Its strange shape is to make the structure earthquake-proof, but also forms the shape of the ubiquitous “buta” – a popular motif in Azerbaijan signifying the sun and fire. You can also see an internal water well and plumbing – not something I typically associated with these ancient structures before this trip!
It actually has a good museum inside, with explanations in English, an awesome electronic book with many of the legends about the tower in it, and good views from the rooftop, so definitely worth a visit!
Directly opposite the Maiden Tower is an open-air museum featuring many tombstones with different styles of writing, figures, and gravestones in the form of a ram.
From there we poked our head into one of the old Caravanserais – to get a glimpse of what these structures were like inside. This one is now set up as a restaurant, and apparently the chandelier was given to Baku by Pope John Paul II!
We also spent a lot of time going through the Shirvanshahs’ Palace (15th Century) – which is quite extensive. Most impressive parts for me were the throne room (no photos allowed), and this stained-glass window from Sheki – there is no glue/nails – it is held together through careful balancing of all the wooden pieces
And the bullet-holes in the walls. Every time I see an artifact of war like this, I cannot imagine the circumstances leading to it. It is so far removed from my reality, but relatively recent history in many of the countries I travel in.
I also loved this 1970 paper etching of “Baku – the capital of oil” by J.M. Mufitzade. Sometimes a piece of art really just captures you 😊
I also found some paintings that used crude oil as “paint” in an Art Gallery I’d popped into earlier in the day. Given the focus on oil in Azerbaijan, I thought this was a really interesting idea too!
After the walking tour, I wandered down to the waterfront to join with tons of other people strolling the really pleasant parkland that has been created there. Great views of the Flame Towers, and really just an amazingly pleasant place to sit and watch people.
You definitely need more than one day in Baku to explore it properly, but I really enjoyed what little I did see!
BTW – did you know that Baku is located 28m below sea level? It is the lowest lying national capital in the world and the largest city in the world located below sea level!