Johanna Pruessing explores the past, present and future of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, a city of contrasts and contradictions.
Baku – also known as the ‘windy city in the land of fire’ – is the capital of Azerbaijan, located between the Caspian and Black sea, Russia and Iran, Central Asia and Europe. Having experienced imperial rule, independence, occupation, communism and autocracy, the complex history of the country matches the cityscape of the capital. Baku has it all: Old and brand new, profound and superficial, shiny and dark, rich and poor, it is the materialisation of contrast and contradiction.
Walking through the centre of Baku is an architectural journey through time. With its narrow streets and surrounded by a city wall, the Persian-style traditional khan city resembles scenes from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. The area between the old towers reminds of Kurban Said’s famous novel ‘Ali & Nino’, describing a tragic love story between the Shahs son Ali and the Christian Georgian girl Nino. The Caucasus has always been a place of cultural encounters, where ideas meet and mingle to be transformed into something new. Just recently, the BBC published an article about a satire magazine in which the Azerbaijani intelligentsia mocks ‘out-dated’ religious behaviour around 1900. This was the time when democratically spirited Pan-Turkish and pan-Islamic movements competed to liberate the motherland from the Russian emperor. Two years before the Soviet invasion in 1920, a modern democratic republic with an elected parliament (and women suffrage!) was established. All these developments and narratives are inscribed in Baku’s cityscape and visible for the conscious traveller.
Stepping outside the old city gate, the journey through history continues. The national literature museum is Persian in style, while the central streets are lined with neoclassical buildings from the age of the first oil boom (1885-1920). Modern hotels, the old presidential palace and small parks decorate the area between the sea promenade and the shiny fountain square.
The contemporary centre is dominated by the gigantic ‘flame towers’ built between 2008 and 2011 as a symbol of modern Baku. At night, the towers’ façade displays images of flames as well as the national flag. Beautiful and yet kitschy, the spectacle feigns peace and freedom in a country where protesters are quickly ‘removed’ by armed policemen, driving them out of the city and abandoning them in the middle of nowhere with neither mobile phones nor documents.
The majority of Baku’s residents do not live in either the ‘old’ or the ‘new’ city. To reach their homes, they can choose between the metro and ‘marshrutkas’ (mini buses). Riding a metro train previously used in St. Petersburg, it takes at least 30 minutes to arrive in the industrial suburbs. Metro stations are often subterranean markets, with merchants selling fake Chanel bags and seasonal fruits. Streets are dusty and overcrowded. Depending on the wind, the air is permeated with a smell of oil and natural gas.
Six-story blocks from different periods of the Soviet and post-Soviet era dominate the area. Balconies are bricked up to extend living space. Passing by some shops, one encounters construction workers waiting to get hired for the construction of one of the prestigious new buildings in the centre. It seems like a different planet, many thousand miles away from Baku’s centre. Here, people return to their homes at sunset, leaving the streets empty and dark at night. Street lighting is rare in the suburbs of Baku.
My home is on the fifth floor of a typical ‘Gorbachev’ block. The streets are earthy, lined with poplar trees and cows and turkeys straying around. Colourful clotheslines contrast the greyness of the buildings blocks. It is always windy in this part of the city, with shaking trees, whirling plastic rubbish and the subtle smell of the gas fields in the air. Every time I enter the house, I hope that the elevator is not broken. The staircase is grey concrete, covered with dirt and glassless windows. Residents often spit on the floor – not less so in the elevator, which has at least enough light to identify those spots that are left clean.
As soon as you enter the flat any greyness is gone. Instead, there are chandeliers, Persian carpets and beautiful hangings. Windows are covered with heavy curtains shielding the beautiful inside from the external world. Almost no light shines through and artificial light remains switched on during the whole day. The flat was nothing but plain concrete when the family received it. They built everything on their own.“It was everywhere like this during the Soviet Union”, the mother tells me. “It was a good time; we had a save place to live, food and gas. Now you never know whether there will be gas or water today. We only have food because my grandmother sends it from the village. We used to help each other here in the neighbourhood. Now, nobody cares! Either you are rich or nothing. Luckily our block is far away from the centre, so nobody will try to take our home away from us like”. Life became anonymous and unpredictable in the neighbourhood.
The further away from the centre, the closer you are to the desert. Here, seedy panel blocks, oil pumps, wooden huts and Soviet industrial complexes converge. Only the laundry reveals that there is life in this no man’s land. How do the children go to school from here? Where does their breakfast and dinner come from? Where is the bus stop, where the doctor? Roads are lined with gas tubes connecting Azerbaijan’s gas resources to the pipelines of the South Corridor. It seems to be a freeing corridor, securing that the country’s independence from its powerful Northern neighbour Russia. But who was freed and who is independent?