Notes from my travel from Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Perhaps a tale most befitting of Azerbaijan’s oil reserves is one extracted out of a European traveller’s diary when he witnessed eight horses burnt alive when the earth below them accidentally caught fire. Villagers in a nearby district, he also wrote, prepared heated meals using the fumes that escaped through the surface of the earth.

Although the fad for oil is a more recent trend, diaries of other travelers from ancient times resonated towards this theme: Azerbaijan’s tremendous store of hydrocarbons. Marco Polo, incidentally, when crossing through this landscape, wrote of a gusher that produced as much oil in an hour to load over a hundred ships.

I find myself in a mini-bus driving through this landscape with the blue waters of the Caspian Sea, on the other side, reflecting the gaze of the hot afternoon sun. I am heading towards Gobustan, a province on the banks of the Caspian to the south of Baku, known for its mud volcanoes and petroglyphs dating back to prehistoric man.

The rock carvings of Gobustan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. I overhear a tour guide explaining to his audience a set of rock carvings that depicted how prehistoric men were not meat eaters, but also consumed vegetables and nuts.

A museum at the vicinity quotes that migration through this region occurred in large volumes around 40 000 years ago. The carvings, it goes on to explain, represent hunting techniques, rituals, women without heads and hands – perhaps a reflection, strangely, on their beliefs around women being perceived as spirits on earth. I notice that a lot of the carvings have fallen prey to erosion given how the region is subject to heavy winds. A late afternoon gust demonstrates that.

Further south is a region home to over 400 of the world’s thousand active mud volcanoes. Unlike its lava-spewing cousins found in abundance around the world, the liquid mud oozing out of these, creating a soft gurgling sound, are cold, a counterbalance to the desert heat you would think.  At the vicinity, a sleepy oil township fades in prominence.

I hear the waters of the Caspian sighing at a distance.

The smell of sand and petrol suggests an afterthought to a land almost entirely forgotten since the days of discovery of black gold. It is said that the first oilmen of Baku used their bare hands to dig – the oil was so close to the surface.

What isn’t forgotten, amidst all the grandeur, is the Old Town of Iccheri Sheher: fortified by a wall that once guarded an ancient town, but now – by and large – caravanserais, cafes and antique shops, it is a tourist trap representative of the volatile cocktail that is Baku. But it does serve as a reminder of Baku’s strategic location along the Silk Route, with the Maidan Tower overlooking the Caspian.

The landscape around Baku hardens into miles of strewn oil fields, now owned and leased by multinational corporations. Before the creation of the Azerbaijan state, much of these fields were subject to rusted Russian pumps with ineffective extraction techniques. Since the days of the Rockefeller-led advances during the mid-nineteenth century, businessmen have flocked to Baku in hope for successfully bidding for control over its oilfields.


The practice seems to have been in existence a few centuries earlier as I am informed by a local on recovered documents that invoke references from the Islamic laws on sale and leasing rights. Oil has remained, by a distance, the source for why Baku’s wealth has turned it today into what Lonely Planet eloquently describes as “an architectural lovechild between Dubai and Paris”.

The city, as such, floats on an overdose of the Heydar Aliyev steriod. The founding father of Azerbaijan, after the breakdown of the Soviet, finds his name and image imprinted in currency, government buildings, parks (I even came across a Heydar Aliyev Park in Tbilisi, Georgia and Moscow, Russia during my travels), and museums.


I enjoyed my days in Baku walking along the promenade along the Caspian, with views of the impressive skyline (especially the three towers shaped like flames, depicting fire) a reflection on how oil has transformed the region, just as it did to some of the Gulf nations. The Khazar Islands project, at the backdrop along the Caspian, was initiated to rival the island project of Dubai but cut-short due to drop in oil prices and the devaluation of the Azeri currency.

The recently concluded Formula One race in Baku, a street circuit, still had its signs, advertising boards and corners marked: the walk around the ‘circuit’ is an advertisement to the beneficiaries of the oil boom who own villas and upmarket offices around this neighborhood.

What isn’t forgotten, amidst all the grandeur, is the Old Town of Iccheri Sheher: fortified by a wall that once guarded an ancient town, but now – by and large – caravanserais, cafes and antique shops, it is a tourist trap representative of the volatile cocktail that is Baku. But it does serve as a reminder of Baku’s strategic location along the Silk Route, with the Maidan Tower overlooking the Caspian.

It is hard to miss Azerbijan’s catchy tourist phrase: The Land of Fire. What the ancient travelers wrote of this land can be captured in two places outskirts of Baku: Yanar Dag and the Ateshgah.

Yanar Dag is one of the many natural fires that burn perpetually in Azerbaijan, fueled by an underground pocket of natural gas. The famous French writer Alexandre Dumas wrote of Yanar Dag during his visit here: the locals consider the hill to be sacred with the fumes believing to have medicinal properties.

The Ateshgah, on the other hand, is another site with an eternal flame of religious importance to Zoroastrians and Hindus alike. Both the religions have sects of fire-worshippers. I find the Ateshgah fascinating for its accurate wall inscriptions in Sanskrit (I cannot read Persian, therefore cannot comment on those).

The Persians, perhaps during the prosecution of the Zoroastrians (Parsis as they are known in India) by the Qajjar Dynasty, fled both to the east and west of Iran, just 300 kilometers south-west of Baku.

The Sanskrit inscriptions, on the other hand, could have been because of the migration of the Husseini sect of the Moyal brahmins of Punjab who fought alongside the Shia muslims of Baghdad against Sunni invasions. They may have travelled north and settled near the present-day Baku area. Notes as late as the 1850s relate to the Tsar of Russia witnessing a Hindu ritual at the Ateshgah.

They may have faded from prominence since, but the fires continues to burn.