JWM MAGAZINE 32
ith its oil-fueled economy, glitzy high rises and
hotel-studded coastline, it’s easy to see Baku as the
Dubai of the Caucasus, but there’s more to the place
than that. This bustling corner of the Caspian Sea
is rich with history— the Persian, Ottoman and
Russian empires once converged here — and with
golden beaches, mud volcanoes and snow-capped mountains just a few hours’
drive away, there’s always something to do.
Azerbaijan’s glitzy capital is rich in oil
and glamour—but also beauty, heart and soul.
BY JENNIFER DAVENPORT AND MARCUS WEBB
ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI
FROM THE OLD ...
A morning spent wandering the limestone streets of the Old City is the perfect
introduction to Baku. The historical core is a city within a city, a cobbled
mesh of old mosques, markets and mansions encircled by medieval walls. At
its center is the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs ( shirvanshah.az), a
three-tiered sandstone palace protected by UNESCO. The self-guided tour
( 12 manat, or US$7) will pull you through the lovingly restored rooms while
filling you in on 600 years of Azerbaijani history.
Afterward, wind your way through the alleys
to the Maiden’s Tower. While this 12th-century
tower has long been eclipsed by newer skyscrapers, it still boasts some of the best views
in the city. In fact, once you’ve clambered to the
top, the spectacular sights of Baku Bay just
might take away what little breath you have left.
If you have time for a quick day trip, ancient
splendors include the Ateshgah Fire Temple, a
shrine of fire worship built atop a natural flame,
and Gobustan National Park, home to more
than 6,000 rock engravings and almost 700 mud
volcanoes. Neither is shown on the map, but
both are about half an hour’s drive outside Baku.
... TO THE NEW
Having thrown off the dour architectural yoke
of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baku has embraced
a mushrooming skyline of elaborate, cloud-bothering skyscrapers. In a city of spectacular
design, the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev
Center (northeast of the city, not pictured on
map; heydaraliyevcenter.az) is the highlight.
Bakuvians will tell you this cultural center was
built in the shape of the president’s signature,
and somebody certainly signed enough checks
to bring it to life. The space gleams with
opulence, from its curving white stone walls
to the light pouring in from massive windows.
The contents can’t quite match the spectacular
setting but are still worth the 12 manat (US$7)
entrance fee, particularly the center’s fantastic
collection of traditional musical instruments.
If the Heydar Aliyev Center is the sublime
side of Baku’s contemporary architecture scene,
then the Flame Towers represent the gloriously
ridiculous. This trio of skyscrapers is covered in
LED screens that change from flickering fire
to “Mary Poppins”-esqe umbrellas on the rare
occasion that it rains. Each building has a different
function; at the northern tower, visitors can enjoy