Baku, Tuesday 15th May 2007
Firstly an update on last week’s closing item. It looks I might have bought myself a Niva but as the process is not yet complete I will refrain from describing a ‘done deal’ in rapturous detail for fear of jinxing the whole show. Suffice to say that should all conclude in a positive manner I am very much looking forward to new-found off-road mobility and potential for exploration as my appetite has been very much whetted.
Now that the weather is improving (it is still not reliably good yet but it is getting there) I have been getting involved in grand plans to travel the length and breadth of Azerbaijan during summer and see the beauty that is denied those who do not stray far beyond the capital. One must walk before one can run though, so two weekends ago I went on a little warm-up drive into the suburbs to seek out a couple of sights highlighted in “the book.”
“The book” is Mark Elliott’s guide to Azerbaijan. The ‘big’ players like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide et al appear to have overlooked this part of the world and amongst a pitifully small selection of alternative publications Mr. Elliott’s volume stands head and shoulders above the rest thanks to its comprehensive coverage and its appealing balance of fact and opinion. For some reason I did not buy a copy of this book on my way over here and I still do not own one (this fault will soon be rectified). Instead I listened to numerous expat friends telling me that trying to find anything interesting outside Baku would take at least a four hour drive and I would need to plan a long weekend or more to do it; and I believed them. More fool me. Now that I have proper two-day weekends to enjoy rather than just a fleeting Sunday I am finding I have time to both catch up on my sleep and think outside the city centre. A copy of Elliott’s 1999 first edition landed in my hands a wee while ago and it has proven to be a revelation: the brief foray into the ‘burbs was very satisfying start to what I hope will be a series of excursions.
Heading half an hour east-by-north-east out of the city the first destination was Surakhany. To the casual observer this little town has little of note in it save for its railway station but if you know where to look you can also find a unique Zoroastrian fire temple. I have mentioned in the past that Azerbaijan loosely translates as ‘land of fire’ and this temple (constructed in the sixth or the thirteenth century depending on who you believe) is living proof of how the territory earned that name: it is built on a site where natural gas was venting from the ground and set aflame (the pocket of gas has since run out and been replaced by a piped supply but after so many centuries who is complaining?). The outer perimeter of the stone-brick walls is probably around fifty metres square and as those walls are built to incorporate rooms the inner courtyard is around forty metres square. The centrepiece of this is another stone-brick edifice – about five metres square this time – housing the principal flame in a hearth with a ten metre high roof supported by corner pillars (there is what looks like a well just to one side where a second flame burns). The rooms were obviously used to house priests, pilgrims, their stores and their beasts of burden and now they contain model figures and furnishings to depict this in a vaguely museum style. Both the centrepiece and the surrounding courtyard walls bear numerous pieces of allegedly Sanskrit inscription. In addition the centrepiece bears a stone with an assortment of symbols including a swastika. My limited knowledge of religious history attributes the ‘original’ swastika to the Hindu faith (I believe the Nazis drew their version to ‘rotate’ in the opposite direction) and I came across a few in Nepal so perhaps I my recollection is correct. This might therefore date the carving I was looking at to the nineteenth century when – according to “the book” – some Hindi-speaking Parsees came to build a Zoroastrian monastery on the site of what was at that time a virtually collapsed temple. In turn in might follow that the ‘Sanskrit’ script is far more recent too. A fascinating place to visit.
Second stop was a couple of miles down the road: the town of Amirajan. In olden times the town is reputed to have produced some very fine carpets, some of which survive on display in the city’s Carpet Museum. Arguably more impressive is the mosque built there by Muxtarov – a wealthy resident during the first oil boom – and it was the mosque that drew my attention. Its exterior appears curiously bluff and flat; almost like it was built within the buildings that crowd around it rather than vice versa – but its interior is a marvellous labour of love: a huge domed room with ornate relief patterns stretching across virtually every stone. I noted with interest that the upper rose windows carried a six-pointed star-of-David design rather than the more traditionally Muslim eight-pointed star that adorned the lower windows. The man who as far as I could tell performed the equivalent role of verger opined that the upper windows might have been fitted by Jewish workmen during some restoration work. Curious humour if so; who knows…?
It was an illuminating afternoon’s exploring that most definitely put the lie to the claim that nothing interesting could be found close to Baku. The rough roads of Amirajan also came close to putting a dent in the underside of the Vectra I was driving so I am feeling increasingly like I am making the right choice in my efforts to obtain a Niva. With luck I will write again soon with good news about the vehicle and then with joyful tales of travels in the far-flung countryside.