Azerbaijan: Christmas Between the Caucasus and Caspian

Prior to our travels, I could not have found Azerbaijan on a map without a bit of effort, but the country and region have a rich history reaching all the way back to the Paleolithic period. Much of the country was frequently traversed by Silk Road merchants during the hay-day of overland trading. This resulted in a broad range of religions from Islam to Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity all mixing into its history and monuments. Its natural wonders and modern architecture also provide an attractive reason for visitors.

A woven carpet art piece depicting an offshore oil rig.

Tsarist Russia appreciated the rich oilfields of Azerbaijan, and Baku was producing about half of the world’s oil supply by the 20th century. Baku reportedly found oil a decade prior to the United States, in 1846. Oil made the country a modern staple in the Far Eastern Europe/Central Asian world. Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union for many decades and the main languages still spoken are Azeri and Russian with very few people knowing any English. Hannah and I struggled a little with communication but got by in taxis using an app and everywhere else using our now excellent charades skills.

Baku

The capital of Azerbaijan was bustling and always full of traffic. The taxi drivers in the city were truly fearless, driving fast (when the traffic let up) and squeezing into some of the tightest spaces imaginable. Our hotel butted up against the Caspian Sea. The White City Boardwalk stretched along the shores and the strange smell of crude oil wafted across strolling visitors as it simultaneously pumped life into the country.

We enjoyed the traditional bread and fare and once again speculated on whether we could clumsily recreate it back home. At this point in the trip, that list of hopeful recipes is quite long and I doubt our cooking skills and modern appliances will hold a candle to the traditional ovens and time honored traditions of their cooking. Baku’s Flame Towers are one of its most memorable monuments.

We also toured the carpet museum where the art and history of carpet making and unique designs of the region were on display. We also toured the Palace of the Shirvanshahs to see some of the Silk Road history that I craved.

Christmas was not quite the same in a country that is predominantly Muslim. There were decorations themed for New Years celebrations and our hotel hosted a disappointing “Christmas Brunch,” but Christmas mass in English was the only part of the day that felt like Christmas. As a present to ourselves and to make the day special, I thought I would book us tickets to a ballet performance of the Nutcracker. Moscow’s ballet is world renowned and we were in former Soviet territory so I thought perhaps it would be a “feeder team” like minor league baseball in the states. Well, it was…sort of. Hannah and I spent an evening at what would be best described as a middle school/high school recital of the Nutcracker. It was in the legitimate professional theater in Baku, but we quickly realized our mistake when droves of family members arrived and started snapping pictures with flash during the not quite professional performance. It was a night we won’t forget. The theater was nice at least.

Sheki and Kiş

Traffic jam due to sheep crossing!

Hannah’s mother put us in touch with a friend, Rhona, who lived with her husband as expats working in Baku. Unfortunately they moved back to the US right before we arrived, but she graciously connected us with her friend Violetta, to take us out to a quaint, historic town on the other side of the country.

After a 4 hour drive west, the city of Sheki appeared like a small metropolis. The route consisted of rolling grasslands, fields of sheep, and switchbacks through the Caucasus Mountains. Sheki’s signature red roofs rose like a stairwell up the mountain’s lower reaches as we reached the Palace of the Shaki Khans.

The palace was well preserved and intricately painted on the inside. The most beautiful aspect were the stained-glass windows. They faced the sun and when the rays reflected off the murky, but intentionally positioned pond outside the building, the colorful reflections danced along the floor, ceiling, and walls every day.

Violetta and her husband took us to a nearby restaurant for dinner called Restoran Qaqarin. It was named after the first man to enter space, Yuri Gagaran. Vi suggested we try the Sheki specialty, a dish called Piti. It was slow cooked lamb, chickpeas, and potatoes in a broth all contained inside of an earthenware dish. We ate outside and it quickly banished the cutting December wind.

Our next stop, Kiş, was especially important to Violetta. She practices Eastern Orthodox Christianity and this church’s background couldn’t help but make you consider the majesty of God. Our small SUV squeezed through the narrow stone streets and up to the gate of the Caucasus Albanian Church. The church construction reports to being built around the 11th/12th century AD. Underneath the current church, however, are tombs and burial sites that record back to 3000 BC, which was incredible to see.

Behind all of this history, the Caucasus Mountains shield the region from extreme weather from northern Scandinavian cycles of cold and snow. The elevated slopes appeared furry from the dense trees while its top-most parts were covered in snow. I checked our location on Google Maps and realized we were only about 8 miles from the border of Russia on the other side of those mountains. I spent the car ride home in thought about the former Soviet Union and how vastly different its parts were, yet it remained intact for so many years.

Yanar Dag

Rhona generously put us in touch with her former driver, Shukur, who transported us around the Baku suburbs to several popular sites. The first was a stop at Yanar Dag. Imagine the earth on fire. That was essentially what greeted us as we stepped down the amphitheater to the flames. A natural gas fire stays perpetually lit as the gas seeps out of the ground. It was neat, and a nice place to warm our hands on the cold day.

Shukur shed some light on the history of the surrounding suburb. Pre-Soviet times, families would dig holes in the backyards of their homes and collect oil out of the ground which they would go and sell at local markets. He said this all came to a stop of course when the Soviets moved in and displaced many and began drilling in the area for its own oil needs. Still, Hannah and I marveled that ground oil was so easily accessible there.

Ateshgah

“Atash” is Persian for “fire”. The main alter held a perpetual flame. Throughout history this place stood as a temple for various uses including Sikh, Zoroastrian, and Hindu worship. The temple was likely built sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries and was heavily used during the Silk Road periods by Indians on their way West to trade their wares. Sometime in the 1960’s the flame actually went out due to extensive oil extraction in the area. The site was preserved and the flame has since been re-lit by piped gas from nearby Baku.

Gobustan

Gobustan is a natural park reserve with jagged rock formations and nearby mud volcanoes. It lies south of Baku and about 80 miles north of the Iran border. The area is an archaeologists dream. Petroglyphs and rock carvings like those I had only seen in history books adorned the rock faces in abundance. Depictions of different scenes such as aurochs, warriors, and boats were common inside the rock crevices and revealed the history of different time periods of human existence. The artwork claims to be between 5,000 and 20,000 years old. I was uncertain what to expect prior to our arrival, but seeing something so very old, and still in existence, was truly amazing.

Mankind, especially in war or occupation, has destroyed so very much of its own history. In 7th grade or so, I recall learning about the fire of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt and feeling immense sadness at the time, that the world would never know what knowledge and secrets lay in that special place. I had a similar feeling in knowing the modern day fighting in Syria has destroyed many of its most beautiful historic sights. Visiting Gobustan and seeing the petroglyphs firsthand gave me an opposite feeling of hope that perhaps modern transcendence will allow for better respect of a culture’s ancestral past.

Mud Volcanoes

Hannah and I were in hot debate about whether we could make it to these. The sun had begun to set and we were on the tail end of 2 long days in a row. We shirked the “we can’t do it all” attitude and went for it. A local Azeri driver crowded us into his Soviet-era 4×4 Lada and we made off across the muddy tracks.

These were not massive volcanoes like one might expect. But they were reasonably tall spires of caked dirt with volcanic-like openings at the top consisting of bubbling mud. The phenomenon is due to a mixture of water and methane gas from underground mineral deposits. The guides demonstrated by dropping matches and lighting the methane releases on fire. They also used old water bottled to collect the mud for tourists to use as facial masks later. Hannah and I speculated on the not so healthy benefits of spreading what could be crude oil infused mud on one’s face.

My wife calls me “her Labrador”, because I am allegedly clumsy, fun, impulsive, and overly optimistic at times. While at the volcano, I spent some of the time throwing mud and rock chunks in the craters to create pressure differences that resulted in small “eruptions” and bubbles to form. After one quite large chunk, I was showered with specks of the light grey mud. It seemed to only spread as I tried to rub it away. My jeans, jacket, shoes, and hair showed the signs of my playful curiosity. As we entered our upscale hotel to end the day, a wedding or private event was underway with a large crowd of very well-dressed people. I sauntered by quickly in my mud-splattered clothing, already cognizant of how out of place we were at such a nice establishment.

Azeri Thoughts on the Former Soviet Union

While we were driven around by Shukur, he shed some background on life in the former Soviet Union. As we drove to Gobustan outside the city, we passed a number of oil refineries and shore shipping facilities. He explained the area we were driving through was previously carved into different Soviet blocs. In order to pass through, citizens stopped at a number of police checks similar to border control to have their documentation reviewed.

These Soviet era cars are all over Baku. They are big and blocky, but resilient.

Shukur presented a relatively balanced perspective on the former Soviet Union. He told us that everyone had a job and was provided a place to live, and in some ways that made things simpler. This struck us as interesting. On our journey, Hannah and I found that inhabitants of former Soviet countries that were closer to the epicenter of the USSR and mother Russia typically held a more favorable or at least positive perspective of its past. Those living in more satellite locations such as Romania voiced paradoxically discontent opinions on Communism and its corruption of their political systems.

Our time with Shukur was refreshing and enlightening. He was quiet, but happy to share when asked a question or when he thought information pertinent. He was former military and police and also held jobs as a dentist and held a degree in economics, as well. I asked him about areas around Azerbaijan. He had family in Russia and said he might have had a very different life had he moved there when they asked him to earlier in his life. He had also visited Iran but disclosed it was not his favorite destination. Though Iran is mostly Shia Muslim like Azerbaijan, it is much more restrictive on what can be said or done and hijabs are compulsory for women. He also mentioned he has a daughter wanting to study medicine in Turkey. Shukur was a family man and spoke fondly of his wife and children, and dog, too which was unusual since Muslim cultures typically treat dogs as outside pets. I explained that, as my parents have had children grow up and move out, they seem to fill the gap with a new dog. I suggested he should try the same, which was greeted with a big laugh and smile. He was kind and patient and the few similar experiences we had were enough to bridge the large culture gaps for a fun day.

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