Flame And Fortune (Welcome to part 2)

Caucasus and effect

The strong Azerbaijan relationship with fire seems to have some mythological connections as well. According to Greek legend, the Caucasus (they called it Kaukasos) was considered one of the pillars supporting the world. It seems that Prometheus was chained here and his liver was eaten daily by an eagle – this was his punishment for sharing the secret of fire with human beings. Today, the region seems to be thriving on the legacy left behind by Prometheus.
Fire is worshipped across various religions and cultures, and the proof of that is a place called Ateshgah. Some distance away from Baku, Ateshgah – literally, the home of fire – was a place that attracted pilgrims from Zoroastrian, Hindu and Sikh religions because of its eternal fires. Owing to natural gas deposits, seven fires used to burn in this area. A structure built here sometime during the 17th-18th centuries formalized it as a place of worship with cells for monks. Today, a single fire burns in an altar at the centre of the courtyard. The source of natural gas was cut off by the Soviets drilling for gas. Today, the gas is piped in to keep the fire burning. Still, Ateshgah is a revelation as Sanskrit, Gurmukhi and Persian inscriptions are seen here – it’s a place to reflect upon to see how far our ancestors used to travel, for trade or spiritual purposes.

The Caucasus area, which falls between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, is occupied by countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, while parts of Iran, Russia and Turkey also come under it. The human history of this region goes back over 40,000 years – which can be seen in the area called Gobustan, about 70 km from Baku. Driven by Iman in a Mercedes-Benz Viano, we are on our way there, with Emin our guide talking about the petroglyphs we are about to see there. The rock formations and the petroglyphs are remarkable. As it happens with places that preserve ancient human settlements, it is an eerie spot – you’d get a similar feeling when you visit Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh to see the cave paintings. The Gobustan Preserve has over 6,000 rock carvings or petroglyphs, which show scenes from about 40,000 years – people hunting, dancing and fighting of course, as well as various animals and rituals. More “immediate” inscriptions are left behind by a Roman legion sometime around the 1st century AD who seemed to have passed by this place here. Slightly iffy weather meant we couldn’t drive beyond to see the mud volcanoes – where mud keeps oozing out from under the Earth, to give the place a dystopian vision of the future.It is livelier at Shamakhi, the capital of the Shirvanshahs from the 9th century – about two hours away from Baku. Part of the Silk Road, Shamakhi has an imposing 8th-century mosque. It seems to also have had some sort of cultural and trade links with India and China. If you ever visit this place, don’t miss Yeddi Gumbaz, at the top of a hill overlooking the town. It is essentially a large cemetery, with only three mausoleums remaining with many others destroyed. Built around the 18th century, the place has parts of many mausoleums strewn all around, giving it a melancholic feel. The graves belonged to the family members of Mustafa Khan, the last khan of Shamakhi. I felt sad to leave this place, but we had more to see. We drove through the lovely Lower Caucasus mountains to reach the resort town of Gabala. It is a picturesque place built to enjoy the view of the mountains. The Tufandag Mountain Resort has a cable car ride which is a pleasant enough experience and we mostly had it to ourselves till a huge bus carrying a bunch of Pakistani tourists arrived. It felt like home.

The Lower Caucasus are stunning – the landscape feels like the Himalayas, only a bit shrunken in size. The crystal clear rivers gurgle, smoothing out and rounding the pebbles further, the coniferous trees stand out against the slopes and the valleys give stunning views of the countryside. It is a great drive to Sheki – an ancient city of Azerbaijan and located on the slopes of the Caucasus. We drive to see the little Kish village, which has an ancient Albanian church built sometime around the 1st and 2nd centuries – considered the first church in the Caucasian region. We walk our way through the village, in time to see a vast procession of battered Russian-made Lada cars winding down the village road, blaring their horns and shattering the peace of the place. It is a wedding procession and we are fortunate to see the villagers celebrating it. The Kish church looks like a place where an Indiana Jones movie could have been shot – where you would expect to stumble upon ancient Christian reliquary or the skeletons of a monk or two hiding an enormous secret. Well, imagination apart, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl at least thought there was something over here, so he has visited Kish and conducted research in this region. There’s even a bust of the famous adventurer and ethnographer close to the church.

Sheki’s piece de resistance, however, is the palace of the Sheki Khans, a summer residence built-in 1797. Beautiful inside out, the palace is a great display of the stained glass-and-wood craftsmanship unique to the area called shabaka. Visitors are let inside only in batches so as not to crowd the place and it also allows you to dwell peacefully and take in the marvels of the architecture, the artistry and the dexterity of the craftsmen. Winter sunlight streams into the palace through colourful pieces of stained glass held up by glue-less and nail-less geometric patterns of hand-carved wood. The effect is simply exquisite. The wooden floor looks like a carpet of made of colourful pieces of light and the façade, windows and doors are lit up in elegant, harmonised patterns of colourful light. The art of shabaka or shebeke goes back to the 9th century, and master craftsmen deftly insert pieces of coloured glass into wooden lattice patterns made using walnut or oak wood and fitted tightly via grooves and notches, obviating the need of nails or glue.
We step out into the sunshine and look back at the summer palace – you can barely make out the dazzling effect of shebeke from outside. We walk into the warm sunshine into picturesque Sheki town. We pick up some souvenirs, take some pictures of a beautiful caravanserai converted into a hotel and buy some more local sweets for taking back home. The best part of Azerbaijan is that it’s not so expensive despite one manat working out to about forty rupees.
We rest our weary feet and take in the superb, celebratory open-air ambience of the curiously named Gagarin restaurant and watch the locals celebrating life and the cuisine along with their families. The next day, we would be flying back from Baku to Mumbai. In the meantime, the three of us silently wished that this wonderful trip to this beautiful country would never end.

By Srinivas Krishnan

If you’ve missed out on the first part then here’s a link to it!

Flame And Fortune

Flame And Fortune

An oil economy, the celebration of fire and a rich cultural heritage give Azerbaijan its distinctive identity. Make sure you and your family discover it, before others do!

There used to be a rhyme we used to sing when we were kids: ‘Fire in the mountain, run, run, run.’ I have no idea about the relevance of that rhyme, but it certainly could be about this place: Yanar Dag in the Absheron region of Azerbaijan. Here, the fire burns all the time. And it’s been burning since, well, someone accidentally lit it maybe over half a century ago. It’s an incredible sight – a long line of angry yellow-and-orange flames licking the base of the mountain, giving it the name Yanar Dag or ‘burning mountain.’ The reason for this perpetual fire is a huge concentration of natural gas below the ground, something the Absheron peninsula seems to have more than enough of. We reached this geological marvel at an opportune time. It was chilly and we warmed ourselves up. The crackle of the flames, the fire working its way upwards, the glow around the base of the hill and the warmth of the place made it a fine fantasy setting for a scene from the Lord Of The Rings or the Game Of Thrones.

It was Yanar Dag that stoked my curiosity about Azerbaijan. As I read up about this little country sitting on vast reserves of fossil fuel, more reasons to visit presented themselves. One was Ateshgah, which started as a Zoroastrian fire temple, then for a while was adopted by Hindus and other fire worshippers as a pilgrimage spot and a resting place or caravanserai on the Silk Route. There was Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, with its cutting-edge architecture that pushed design boundaries. Baku had recently served as a venue for Formula One races, the most-watched motorsport event in the world.  Would Baku be a brash, in-your-face Dubai wannabe or would it retain some of its Eurasian charm? It was time to find out. A call went out to The Wanderers and after a few weeks of planning, I was in an Air Arabia flight with my wife and my 12-year old son heading towards the Caucasus.

Come Baku

Heydar Aliyev is everywhere. The former President and acknowledged father of modern Azerbaijan, he came to power soon after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the country became a republic. Between 1993 and 2003, he put in place several policies and reforms that led to Azerbaijan slowly finding its feet and standing on its own in the comity of nations. Since the country was naturally blessed with oil reserves, Aliyev negotiated with countries and companies to drill, produce and export oil.  The prosperity this has brought is reflected in tall, glass façade towers of Baku, its burnished monuments, broad, smooth roads, a beautiful waterfront boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea, gardens and citizens amenities. The money has also been well-used in preserving the Azerbaijani heritage and culture – a source of pride for locals, and a magnet for visitors.

Many places are named after Heydar Aliyev, as you would have guessed. The most prominent one in Baku is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, a stunning, white, fluid monument designed by the queen of modern architecture, the late Zaha Hadid. My first vision of it was through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of my signature suite at the Hotel Fairmont Baku. The Heydar Aliyev Centre stands out in the distance like a lick of white flame amidst all the other buildings surrounding it. To the right was the curve of the Caspian Sea, reflecting the grey clouds looming over it.

The Fairmont itself is a Baku landmark, occupying one of the three iconic Flame Towers. Our room was a beautifully laid-out suite with a large living room plus bedroom, walk-in closet and a well-appointed bathroom including a television built into the looking glass. Oh, and did I mention the personalized Rose 31 toiletries? Or the distinctive red ‘Egg Chair’ designed by Arne Jacobsen – considered a design classic in modern furniture – in the living room

Built upon a hill overlooking virtually the entire city, the Flame Towers are a modern architectural wonder. As the name suggests, the towers resemble the flames of a glowing fire. If you followed the Baku Grand Prix, you would have seen it already in the race footage. For my 12 year-old, the high point of the location was the Lamborghini showroom in one of the towers, where a monstrous Urus SUV was holding pride of place. But the best part of the Flame Towers would reveal itself to us only when night fell.

A short distance away from the hotel is the Highland Park, a somber memorial to Azerbaijani martyrs. From the Park, one gets another of those spectacular views of the city and the Caspian Sea that makes Highland Park a must-visit, especially at night. If you can peel your eyes off and turn around to look at Flame Towers, you are in for another gob-smacking sight: the Flame Towers going up in flames! The façades of the Flame Towers cleverly function as display screens by using over 10,000 LEDs, so it’s an ongoing spectacle of fire and other graphics that can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city, at night.

Our first meal was had at Fountain Square where we were introduced to Azerbaijani cuisine at the Nergiz Restaurant. The qutab, which is essentially flatbread stuffed with meat or cheese or garden greens, was an instant hit and featured regularly on our plates through the course of our stay. And of course, plov – which is a different take on our own pulao – done in Azerbaijani style. Throughout the trip, we experimented with different local preparations, all with the help of our guide Emin, who was ready with helpful suggestions and tips.

During the days, we crisscrossed the city, taking in its period architecture, built during Baku’s 19th century oil boom. As you would expect, the city attracted people, along with their cultures, from all over. Many of the buildings of this period of prosperity at the turn of the 20th century exhibit Victorian and Western influences. What was remarkable were the busts of various prominent residents of the key buildings carved in relief on the ground floor walls that showed you who stayed where. A nice touch. Of course there are heavy, concrete structures – almost Brutalist in their design – built during the Communist Soviet era. These however are offset by the flamboyance of the buildings built during the oil boom. There is something majestic about this aspect of Baku, much like the Indo-Saracenic and Neo-Gothic buildings that add to Mumbai’s grandeur.

But Baku also has an ace up its sleeve that India’s financial capital doesn’t: a medieval town in its centre called Icheri Sheher or the Old City. You need an entire day to explore this part of Baku. It is a UNESCO heritage site and the oil money has gone into bringing back its past glory. Defensive walls built in the 12th century enclose a maze of lanes, alleyways, buildings, mosques, hamams and more. To me, the most attractive part of Icheri Sheher was an abandoned caravanserai that looked so alive as if the traders had just packed up and left with their goods and their animals to other exotic destinations. You can actually visualize this resting place for travelers would have been centuries ago, with its central courtyard with a well and a magnificent shade-giving tree and rooms all around the periphery. For most people however, the Maiden Tower is the key landmark of this area – you will find it everywhere in the souvenir shops. The origins and functions of the Maiden Tower or Giz Galasy are mysterious. If you see its shape, you’ll understand. It’s a rather unique structure for a tower – perhaps it served as a watchtower combined with a defence battlement overlooking the Caspian Sea.

Icheri Sheher has a history going back to the Paleolithic period and there are influences as well as evidence of the presence of Zoroastrians, Sassanians, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani and Ottomans. The Shirvanshahs – a dynasty – that gave Azerbaijan its identity as well as the flowering of its culture built a palace here in the 15th century. The palace also serves as a museum which gives a pretty good idea of how life was lived during their rule.

The Old Town is a great place to shop for artefacts and souvenirs (better to buy carpets at the hard-to-miss Carpet Museum, which, er, is built to resemble a rolled-up carpet!) as well as to pause for a while and have a meal. We explore Baku in the night, especially the vibrant and youthful Fountain Square area as well as take the air at the Boulevard where old, nostalgic Azerbaijani songs emerge from speakers and period photographs of the city are on permanent display. So much more to do in Baku, but there’s more to Azerbaijan…

(to be continued in the next part)

By Srinivas Krishnan

Flame And Fortune (Welcome to part 2)