After just a few days, I know that Azerbaijan is a land of many contrasts. It has a long and varied history, has been part of the Persian empire and the Soviet Union with remnants of both still evident as well as many other invaders in between. The Azeri language is a Turkic language but Russian is widely understood.
The Russians and Soviets have left their mark on this tiny Caucasus country. They invaded and stole or destroyed precious works of art, destroyed culturally significant buildings, and pushed religion out of public life. But without this influence, Azerbaijan would not be what it is today and could easily have gone down the same path as Iran in the late 1970’s.
You can see the Persian influence in the architecture of the historical palaces and other monuments as well as in the people themselves. We visited the Sheki Khan Palace today and it is very similar to the palaces we saw in Iran. From the exterior craftsmanship to the interior decoration, they are very similar. We saw the same use of the lion as a representation of the king as we did in Iran.
We saw the bustling modern city of Baku which was host to an international car race, is crammed with new construction but has the old heart of the city where you can wander the cobbled streets and see the old walls that used to encompass the city and protect it from invaders.
The natural history of the area is very interesting too. The museum at Gobustan has a really instructive museum with displays about the evolution that has taken place over the millennia. The sea level has risen and fallen numerous times providing plenty of sandstone and limestone for modern construction and providing the mechanism to filter water naturally for the city of Baku. There are no other fresh water sources except the ground water that filters through the rock.
This has also left Azerbaijan with an oil resource that is now helping to modernize the country. The former president Haydar Ilyev is credited with signing the Contract of the Century with The big oil companies to really develop the oil industry.
In the 19th century there was an oil industry that was very unregulated leading to the rise in power of the oil barons. When the Bolsheviks came in the early 1900’s, they took everything from these oil barons including their businesses, their homes, everything. Our guide says many of them died – of a heart attack over losing everything. So the oil industry was nationalized but everything went to Moscow. When Azerbaijan became independent that maintained the nationalized oil industry but now the money is used to the benefit of Azerbaijan.
We have now entered Georgia, and my first impression is that the people are very much like the Lebanese in that they have endured so much through occupation and oppression, civil war, and revolution, yet they have an incredible zest for life. They have not let the conflicts and threats from inside or outside the country dampen their spirit. They also reside next to countries that sent like each other (Armenia and Azerbaijan), but they get along with both.
So more on Georgia tomorrow! I will also try to get some photos in here too.