Azerbaijan has a long and complex history about which, I am embarassed to admit, I knew nothing until the night before last. I was treated to a commentary by our tour guide which, had it not gone on for 90 minutes, would have kept me on the edge of my seat. A maze of dynasties, intrigue and massacres, it made me realise how west centric my history knowledge has been till now.
(Neolithic Rock Carvings on the shore of the Caspian Sea)
From being neolithic hunters to providing the birthplace of Zoroastrianism (7th century BC), Azeris have been converted by Christian missionaries, overwhelmed by Roman and Arab invasions and by more recent Russian conquests. They have had their oil and gas deposits exploited by foreign capitalists, and escaped from Soviet control only in the last twenty years but continue their border skirmishes with neighbouring Armenia. The history of the Azeri people has been anything but dull.
(Zoroastrian Fire Temple near Baku)
Fire has been a constant icon for the country. Early Zoroastrians worshipped fire as an elemental life force. Natural gas seeps out of the ground and can be ignited. Oil rigs dot the land and sea around Baku and continue the fire theme into modern times. Azerbaijan has long been fought over by neighbouring countries. The “Land of Fire” is a label well earned.
The Mardakan Fortress sheltered locals from the armies of Genghis Khan. The many open pits carved into its stone floor and used for water and food storage are not so safe for modern tourists however. Nor is climbing onto its ramparts entirely free from risk. Safety rails and signs appear to be a luxury in these parts.
(A seven metre drop to the ground awaits anyone not watching their footing. The worn staircase to the ground ends at the doorway.)
Extensive petroleum and natural gas deposits have been extracted in Azerbaijan since the eighteenth century and have provided the cash for the impressive infrastructure projects everywhere you look.
Oil rigs dot the landscape, seascape, and are common in surburban backyards: The price of affluence.
The traffic in the capital city, Baku, is legendary. From the viewpoint of a casual observer it seems traffic lanes are suggestions rather than mandatory for drivers and using indicators when changing lanes or pulling out from the roadside is a tough concept for locals to master.
Azerbaijan is predominantly a muslim country (90%) but it is also relatively secular and looks to western powers for inspiration. Beer and wine are readily available. Western clothing is the norm, and very few women appear on the streets wearing a hijab, let alone fully covered from head to toe as in some other muslim countries. Other religions are tolerated, according to our guide, but we did not see any churches or synagogues. For that matter we saw only one Mosque, if that illustrates anything.
English is not widely spoken. You might have a better chance using Russian, although I gained the impression that Russia was not all that popular given events of the past few decades.
The country is on the move and its people seem proud of their affluence and western sophistication, even if wealth doesn't seem to be distributed all that widely away from the ruling elite. All is not glitter and glamour in Azerbaijan; just ask a street sweeper, or one of the many people sitting aimlessly on a box here and there in the shade, away from the city centre. Nevertheless the building boom of the past twenty years has been spectacular, and sonething all Azeris can be proud of.
I would say an organised tour is the best option for English speakers for a first visit to this country. It is not yet geared for tourists, although great steps have been made in recent years. Azerbaijan is a fascinating place to visit, as long as you do some homework first. Way more interesting and exciting (and challenging) than a guided tour to a western country.