Baku, Azerbaijan – Day 1 of 2

Before I jump into things I want to clarify the primary reason why I’ve been holding off on submitting posts about the rest of my trip. I visited both Azerbaijan and Armenia in close succession, and as many of you are aware, they don’t like each other very much. I wanted to avoid having anything about either on my blog until I had left both countries. While I don’t have anything politically negative to say about either, I just wanted to keep myself safe. The hospitality and friendly nature of the Azerbaijanians was wonderful, and Baku was a pretty neat city overall, however I didn’t have the same experience in Armenia, and I’ll elaborate more on that in a few days.

Today I woke up at around 9:00am since I arrived so late last night. Breakfast at my hotel was complimentary, and I had four different options to choose from. I chose more of a traditional English breakfast with eggs, beans, sausages, etc.

Before I jump into my adventures lets learn a bit of history about Azerbaijan, and its capital city Baku.

Azerbaijan History

The history of Azerbaijan dates back to about the 9th century BC when Scythians and Iranian Medes settled in the area to the south of the Aras River. The Medes had a substantial empire between 900 and 700 BC, which was later integrated into the Achaemenid Empire around 550 BC.

In the 3rd Century AD Azerbaijan was occupied by the empire of Iranian Sasanids, and in the 7th Century by Arabian Khalifat. The area was populated heavily by Iranians and Arabs, and Islamic religion and Turkish language were widely adopted around that time. The Arab empire fell, and then the Mongols invaded. Throughout the 13th and 15th centuries the area was rules by the Mongol II-Khans, and later on by the Persians. From the 15th century onwards Azerbaijan was constantly fought over for its port access due to its location being in the middle of trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

In 1828 the land was split up by the Russians and the Persians, and was maintained that way until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. There was a very short period of time between 1918 and 1920 when the country was independent, however the Soviet Union invaded the area in 1920 and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, where it remained until the Soviet Union Collapsed. Azerbaijan declared itself independent on August 20th 1991.

Baku History

Baku is the capital city, and the largest city in Azerbaijan. It also happens to be the largest city in the Caspian Sea, and in the Caucasus region, as well as holds the title for being the lowest lying capital city in the world, located at 28 metres (92 feet) below sea level. Remember the Caspian Sea, isn’t really connected to the other oceans, but is actually a massive lake that is called a sea.

Baku’s city name is a Persian name meaning wind-pounding city, which is definitely the case. It was extremely cold and windy the entire time I was here. The history of the city dates back to 96 AD, where there is some early evidence of the Romans occupying the area. I’ve already gone through the general history of Azerbaijan above, and that’s also applicable in the case of Baku as well. The city is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000 and is an important scientific, cultural, and industrial center, especially il since the Russians built the first oil-distilling factory there in 1837! Today Baku has nearly 5.1 million people living in the city. It also hosts Formula 1 races there annually, and has one of my favourite race tracks due to it being so technical.

Exploring Baku

After breakfast I started exploring Baku for the day. My first stop, the Gasimbey Bath Complex, was literally right outside of my hotel. The bath house, which also was named Sweet Bath for the sweets served to bathers with their tea, was built in the 17th century. It’s located within the old fortress walls, where my hotel was located. You can also see a beautiful Baroque style building behind it.

From here I could also see a great view of The Flame Towers. The Flame Towers are a group of three skyscrapers that vary in heigh from 161 to 182 metres (528 to 597 feet) tall. The three flame shaped towers symbolize the elements of fire, and reference Azerbaijan’s nickname of “The Land of Fire”. Azerbaijan gets that nickname because there’s an “eternal” natural gas fire that burns just north of the city. The towers were completed between 2007 and 2013, and contain 130 apartments, a Fairmont hotel with 250 rooms and 61 services apartments, and over 33000 square metres of office space.

Also from here I could see the Azerbaijan State Museum of Art, which is the largest art museum of Azerbaijan. It was founded in 1936, and in 1943 was named after Rustam Mustafayev, a painter and one of the creators of realist scenography in Azerbaijan. The museum is housed in a beautiful Baroque-style De Bour mansion. Fun fact, some artwork was stolen from the museum in 1993, however was retrieved later on.

Just a few steps away I noticed a pretty spectacular brutalism (modernism) style building that houses the Executive Office of the President. This 12 storey building was completed in 1990 and the entire facade consists of marble and granite.

You’ll notice a trend that many buildings and sights are in close proximity to one another, and you’d be right, especially in the historic district. That even goes for my next stop, the Baku State Philharmonic Hall, which is across the street from the Executive Office of the President. The Baku State Philharmonic Hall is a beautiful Renaissance style hall built between 1910 and 1912 at the request of the city elite. It was designed by Soviet architect Gabriel Ter-Mikelov. The building consists of the main Summer Hall, which houses 1100 seats, as well as the Winter Hall, which houses 610 seats. It’s design was inspired by the architectural styles of buildings of the Monte-Carlo Casino in Monaco. It was originally built as a club for the wealthy people of Baku to use for banquets and entertainment. During the Russian Civil War it was used as a place for the general public. From 1918 to 1920 meetings of the first parliament of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic were held there. In 1936, the club was reorganized into a resident for the Philharmonic society. In August 1937 the building underwent renovation and was named after composed Muslim Magomayev. In 1995 the building was closed to undergo another renovation, and remained closed for over 8 years without undergoing any renovations because of substantial damage from underground waters. The restoration eventually resumed due to the order of President Heydar Aliyev, and was eventually opened again in 2004.

From here you can see a unique looking glass pyramid, which houses the Icherisheher Metro Station. The station, built in 1967, was originally called Baki Soveti until it was renamed in 2007. In 2008 the station underwent renovations between July and December. I would later use this station throughout my trip, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

Behind the metro station, within the old walls, stands the Statue of Aliaga Vahid, which is dedicated to the Azerbaijani poet and ghazal singer. What’s a ghazal you may ask? It’s a form of poetry. Also, here’s a photo of the beautiful walls!

Another short walk away is the The Azerbaijan State Economic University, which was founded in 1930 and is one of the biggest educational institutions in the area. It has 14 faculties that educate 18500 students annuals. The university offers nearly 60 programs, and employs nearly 1000 staff members. Unfortunately, I can’t find much information on the original campus building, but it certainly is beautiful. It appears to have a renaissance architecture style to it. 

Next door is Ismailiyya Palace, a historical building that currently serves as the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences. This Venetian Gothic building was designed by Józef Plośko and constructed between 1908 and 1913. It was originally constructed for the Muslim Charity Society at the expense of millionaire Musa Naghiyev, an oil magnate who eventually died a few years later.

From here you can see The Gate of Shammah, also known as the Double Castle Doors, or Qoşa Qala Qapısı. The gates originate back to the 12th century. Originally consisting of only one gate, a second gate was built in 1883 when the Gate of Zulfigar Khan was more there when the front wall of the castle was pulled down. Many of the stones of the demolished castle were used to build houses. Between the tower there is an emblem of two lions facing each other with a bulls head between them.

I walked through the Gate of Shammah to explore more inside the old city walls. You’ll notice I basically was bouncing in and out of the old city walls, which is a fairly small area encompassing only 53 acres of land. Despite the small area it is still home to about 3000 residents.

Located within, and actually attached to the North East wall is Maiden Tower. The Maiden Tower is a 12th century tower that stands 30 metres (100 foot) tall, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower is an excellent example of pre-Islamic architecture, also known as Zoroastrianism. There’s unfortunately not a lot of history about the tower, so it’s not sure if it was used as a temple, observatory, a water tower, or something else. The tower is built in a cylindrical shape and stands about 30 metres tall, with a diameter of 16.5 metres wide. The walls at the ground floor are five metres thick! The tower has eight floors, and each floor can look down onto the other, so if you look down from the top floor you can see down the entirety of the building.

Alright, so it was finally time to venture a small bit away from this very tight area to The Residential Building of Scientists. The building was built in 1946, and was a joint design by architects Sadig Dadashov and Mikayil Useynov. The housing complex is a very unique design and resembles that of a castle.

From here I could spot a funicular, so I decided to ride it to the top. Who doesn’t like a funicular? They’re fun! For $0.50 I rode the strange funicular to the top. Usually funiculars are on a constant slope, however this funicular started off at a medium steepness, almost levelled out, and then got extremely steep towards the end. At the end I was dropped off at the bottom of The Flame Towers; how cool!

Rotating just 90 degrees North I can see a sizable memorial dedicated to Hazi Aslanov, a major-general of the Soviet armoured troops during World War 2.

Rotating another 90 degrees to face East I can see the Baku Turkish Martyr’s Memorial, which is dedicated to the Ottoman soldiers killed during World War 1.

There was a very expansive area overlooking the lower areas of Baku, so I walked its entirety. From the top there is Shaidlar Monument and Martyr’s Lane, and you can also see lower Baku below.

Shahidlar Monument, also known as the Baku Turkish Martyrs’ Memorial, is a memorial dedicated to the Ottoman soldiers killed during World War 1 in Azerbaijan. The monument was designed by Turkish architects Hüseyin Bütüner and Hilmi Güner. There’s a perpetual flame located at the bottom of the monument that has been burning since the monument was built in 1998.

Martyrs’ Lane is dedicated to the 15000+ people that were killed by the Soviet Army during Black January in 1990, and the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988-1994. Approximately 14000 Azerbaijani’s, 1130 Turkishish, and 92 British were killed.

After enjoying my views at the top I started walked down the long windy road back to lower Baku. I had already clocked in nearly 15000 steps at this point in time, and it was only 11:00am! On my way back down I saw Gulustan Palace. Gulustan Palace, formerly known as the Gulustan Wedding Palace Complex during the Soviet era, is a convention center owned by the Azerbaijani government. The unique looking brutalism style building opened in 1980, and was designed by Alish Lambaranski, H. Amirkhanov, N. Hajibeyov, T. Sharinski, F. Rustamova, N. İsmayilov, K. Kerimov, and Abbas Alasgarov. It was built for mass city and nation-wide events. The palace has two floors and a basement, and houses a 100 seat cinema, a café, 2 bars, a disco room, souvenir shop, a 960 person main hall, a restaurant, and a banquet room.

After walking to lower Baku I decided to visit the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which contains the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world! It was first opened in 1967, and moved to its new dedicated building in 2014. It contains over 10000 items including ceramics, metal works, jewelry, and carpets. It was interesting learning how carpets were made, and the sheer amount of detail that goes into making them. The neat thing is the building looks like a rolled up carpet!

From here you can see a weird spaceship looking building, which was actually just a shopping mall called Deniz Mall. Fun fact about Azerbaijan, it’s illegal to take photos inside malls and metro stations, and government buildings, and is punishable by a heavy fine and the possibility of a prison sentence. It looked really unique inside, however I didn’t want to chance it, so a picture of the exterior will have to suffice. I was hungry, so I decided to check out what the mall had to offer. I settled on a chicken shawarma because it was quick, easy, and cost effective. I also purchased a coffee from McDonald’s, as I was starting to struggle with my energy levels. By now I had reached 22000 steps!

After eating some much needed nourishment it was time to continue exploring Baku. Upon exiting the mall I turned and started walking South towards Baku Eye, a large Ferris Wheel located on Baku Boulevard overlooking the sea. The Ferris Wheel was constructed between 2013 and 2014 by a Dutch Company called Dutch Wheels, and was opened on March 10th 2014. The Ferris Wheel stands 60 metres (200 feet) tall and has 30 enclosed cabins. 28 of the cabins are built to hold eight people, and there are two VIP cabins that can hold four people. Each cabin is also air conditioned and contains a TV screen. Since it wasn’t peak tourism season, it wasn’t operating. I must note that overall it felt I had most of the city to myself, as I didn’t see any obvious tourists there. That’s my preferred time to travel.

A 180 degree rotation from the Baku Eye sits one of the prettiest Art Deco buildings I’ve seen, the Sheraton Baku Intourist. This historic Art Deco hotel was built in 1934. It was recently renovated in 2015 by MKV Design, North West Construction, and Pasha Construction. The hotel features 140 rooms, and a restaurant and bar. On the exterior of the building the large original clock, a signature Art Deco feature on many buildings in the era, was retained and restored to its original glory. Sadly the hotel was undergoing renovations yet again, otherwise I would have stayed here. It opens up again in a few months.

This was as far South as I was willing to walk, especially with the insane crisp wind blowing in my face, so I started to walk North again, stopping at Mini-Venice, which is located in Dənizkənarı Milli Park. It’s a cute little recreation of Venice, where you can pay to take a ride in a gondola. It was also not operational, since it wasn’t tourism season.

Located on the North side of Mini-Venice, still in Dənizkənarı Milli Park is Swans Fountain. The fountain dates back to the 1960’s when seven swan statues and a fountain were erected along Seaside Boulevard. They were created by inspiration from the poet Nizami Ganjavi’s “Seven Beuties” poem. In 2007 the boulevard underwent substantial reconstruction, and the fountain and swan were replaced, however in 2018 following an initiative by Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva the fountain and swans were restored to this historical glory. The replacement fountain and swans were designed by sculptor Murad Sujaddinov.

Continuing my walk North along the shoreline I came to Mirvari Café, which is normally one of the main attractions of Dənizkənarı Milli Park. You can usually enjoy a cup of coffee here looking at the sea, however it was closed, and looked almost abandoned. It was built in 1962 by architect Vadim Shulik per the request of a Baku City Executive named Alish Lemberansky. This beautiful Art Deco style building resembles that of a flower petal from above. The unique building is constructed over 8cm thin reinforced concrete, and it doesn’t have any walls. The ceiling smoothly flows into supports. It reminds me significantly of the La Conca Motel building in Las Vegas, which currently serves as the main entrance to Las Vegas Neon Lights museum. See my blog post on that here.

Continuing North for just a few minutes I came to The Baku Clock Tower, which was constructed in 1936. It was originally used as a parachute training tower and was considered the tallest tower in the Soviet Union when it was built, standing at 75 metres (245 feet) tall. The tower was operational until an accident occurred in the 1960’s. It remained unused until 2008, when it was repurposed as a memorial and a clock tower. The tower displays the time, wind speed, barometric pressure, and various sea water information. You could hear the wind hitting the metal, creating an earie howling sound. It was pretty weird!

From here you could walk out onto Baku View Point, which provides beautiful views of Baku’s entire curving coastline. Remember that view I could see from upper Baku when I get got off the funicular?

A 180 degree turn from the viewpoint and you can see the Independence Museum of Azerbaijan. The Independence Museum of Azerbaijan was establish in 1919 and was originally located in the Parliament building. It didn’t last very long and was liquidated in 1920 when the Soviet’s arrived. The small collection was divided up and most was sent to the Azerbaijan State Musuem. The Independence Museum didn’t come back until 1991 after Azerbaijan claimed its independence from the USSR, and now houses a collection of over 20000 items in an impressive Soviet style building that used to be a Lenin Museum back in the former Soviet days. I opted to not explore this museum in the interest of preserving my time for museums that interested me more.

Continuing my walk further North along the coast line I saw this weird egg shaped looking building, which happened to be the Park Bulvar Mall. Knowing the correct protocol, I only took photos of the exterior of the building.

After passing the mall I came to my favourite Baroque style building in Baku, if not one of my favoruites in the entire world. It stands strongly above the main Formula 1 Grandstand. The Azerbaijan House of Government is a Baroque style building constructed between 1936 to 1952 to house the various state ministries of Azerbaijan. It is located on Neftchiler Avenue and faces Baku Boulevard. The building, designed by Lev Rudnev, and V.O. Munts, can hold 5500 people. The construction of the building also led to the construction of Lenin Square, which was renamed later on to Azadliq Square after Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991. In 1955, a monument dedicated to Vladimir Lenin was installed in the front of the building, however after Azerbaijan gained its independence it was removed, and replaced by a large Azerbaijan flag, which wasn’t currently on display.

I had two more stops left, and then I was going to call it a day, as I had walked over 30000 steps, and my feet were feeling it. Second last stop was The National Security Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan (DTX). It’s housed in a building that is definitely from the soviet era. Guess what… you’re not supposed to take pictures of government buildings and I didn’t realize it was, so here you go!

Final stop for today was the Palace of The Shirvanshahs,  also known as The Palace of Happiness, or the Palace of Marriage Registrations. The Neo-Gothic style building is located very close to my hotel, and was designed by Polish architect Józef Płoszko, and was constructed between 1911 and 1912. It was originally built for Azerbaijani Oil Baron Murtuza Mukhtarov for his wife Liza. French Gothic style was chosen because Liza was astonished by that particular architecture style after a recent trip to France. The couple lived in the palace until April 1920, when the Bolsheviks began to occupy Azerbaijan. Three Russian officers entered the building on April 28th 1920 and were shot by Mukhtarov before he committed suicide. In 1922 Soviet authorities turned the building over to the Ali Bayramov Club, a female run organization that trained women on a variety of vocational skills. Afterwards the building functioned as Shirvanshahs Museum, the Palace of Marriage Registrations, and now the Palace of Happiness. The palace underwent a major restoration between August 2001 and July 2012, when it was reopened to the public.

It was time to go back to my hotel to rest for a bit. I edited some photos until it was time to get some dinner at Qaynana Restaurant. I had a local dish called Piti, alongside a delicious salad smothered in fresh dill. Piti is the national dish of Azerbaijan. It consists of mutton, tomatoes, potatoes, chickpeas, and a dollop of fat (Goyruk) on top. It is cooked in a clay pot.