Editor’s note: like so many people, my only real knowledge of Azerbaijan comes from reading about their recent wars (skirmishes?) with Armenia. It is nice to see another side of the country, as told by Sam Spector, our traveling rabbi. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.

My last article that I posted was on Istanbul, Turkey. I love Turkey; it is easily one of my favorite countries and I have had two wonderful trips there. My last one was during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and while I knew little of this conflict, I saw Azerbaijani flags throughout Turkey, including a massive one down the side of Cappadocia’s Uchisar Castle. I came to find that the Turks and the Azerbaijanis see themselves as part of the same ethnic group of people, both Turkic, and have a strong alliance. With my interest piqued, I found that I had the opportunity to go to Azerbaijan last month as part of an interfaith and diplomatic delegation from Utah. Getting there was not easy. I had to fly Salt Lake City to Detroit to Frankfurt and finally then to the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, which took about 28 hours total. However, what I discovered was well worth the trip.

Baku is a fascinating city with a metropolitan area of 5 million people, half the population of the entire country. It is located right on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake, which you can enjoy by strolling along the city’s promenade. As a result of being on the water and also at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, the city has been literarily known as the Wind City. When I told people, including my parents, that I was traveling to Azerbaijan, they asked me, “Where exactly is that?” to which I answered, “Azerbaijan is the country separating Russia from Iran. Baku is 120 miles from Russia and 175 miles from Iran.” That did not inspire great confidence from my parents. However, despite its problematic neighborhood, Azerbaijan is a country that is pro-American, and also remarkably, it is one of the closest allies to Israel. This latter fact is particularly interesting because despite being ethnically Turkic, 85% of Azerbaijan’s population is Shiite Muslim, like Iran, and approximately 20 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran.

Azerbaijan, as a nation rich in oil and petroleum, is recreating Baku to become like the Dubai of the Caucasus. In Baku, I was put up at the very nice Fairmont Hotel, which is located inside the Flame Towers, which you can see from anywhere in the city. The Flame Towers are a set of three towers, each about 30 stories tall, that look like flames and have received much international recognition for their incredible engineering. Historically, Azerbaijan was known by Zoroastrians as the Land of Fire for its natural gas; there is even a hillside (called Yanar Dagh) near Baku that was accidentally lit aflame in the 1950s and has been continuously burning ever since. Though opened in 2013, the Flame Towers have become a symbol of Baku. Every two minutes, 10,000 LED lights change between three displays at night: flames shooting into the sky, the Azerbaijani flag, and a person walking around waving the flag. Aside from being a tourist attraction in itself, the Flame Towers are located across the street from the Azerbaijani parliament building, and about a twenty-minute walk from the Old City and Nizami Street.

The Flame Towers

Walking through Baku, you see the many layers of history that the city and nation have gone through. First, in the Old City, you see the Persian influence with walls and buildings that date back from the 11th to 15th centuries. In the mid-19th century, oil was discovered in Baku and influential Western Europeans like the Rothschilds and Nobels poured money into the city, giving certain parts a renaissance, Central European appearance. During this time period, Baku’s population grew at rates faster than London, Paris, and New York. In 1920, Azerbaijan was taken over by the Soviet Union and Soviet-era architecture and apartments can be seen throughout the city. In the past twenty years, with the expansion of the oil industry, Baku has developed new oil money, giving it the ability to build skyscrapers like the Flame Towers and posh shopping streets with stores like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Rolex, etc., looking more like Beverly Hills than a former Soviet republic.

In Baku, make sure to spend time in the Old City, called Icheriheher in Azerbaijan. This district, which is walled in with beautiful millennium-old stones, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The two most famous structures inside the Old City are the Maiden Tower, a 12th century tower that was a Fire Tower for Zoroastrians. The tower contains a museum talking about the history of Baku. Another must-see in the Old City is the Shirvanshah’s Palace, a 15th century palace with a private mosque and mausoleum for the shah of the time. In the Old City there are markets and numerous shops, as well as beautiful alleyways and doors, which are all the more fun to explore during nighttime. Much like Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan is famous for their handmade rugs, but you can purchase them here in the Old City for a more affordable price than anywhere I saw in Turkey. There are also numerous great restaurants in the Old City, with my favorite being Han, a restaurant that looks like it is inside a tent and has a tree in the middle of the restaurant. Here, there is not only great food, but also live Azerbaijani music, and food that comes out with phenomenal presentations of fire surrounding the entrée. While there are many great meat dishes in Azerbaijan, the country is also known for its varieties of tea and wonderful vegetarian dishes, ensuring that all travelers will find something delicious.

The city walls

Just outside the Old City is the Fountain Square and parks leading to Nizami Street, the main pedestrian area of downtown Baku. Nizami Street at night is lit up, and gives both a young and ritzy feel to it. Make sure to spend an evening on this street shopping among the stores and numerous souvenir shops, as well as dining in the fun restaurants and bars that line the way. Another place that I visited in Baku that is worth a stop is the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum. Holding 10,000 items and displaying different types of carpets and telling their history, this museum speaks to an important part of the region’s culture – and the building is designed to look like a folded-up rug.

National Carpet Museum

However, my favorite part of Baku, and of Azerbaijan as a whole, was its commitment to multiculturalism. As stated, the country is 85% Shiite, but still has a significant 6% Sunni population. While Sunnis and Shiites are known to be at a constant state of war with each other, this is not the case in Azerbaijan. At the Heydar Mosque, opened in December 2014 and named for the father of the modern nation, Heydar Aliyev, father of current president Ilham Aliyev, Shiites and Sunnis worship together. This beautiful mosque can hold up to 75,000 worshippers, and is overseen together by Shiite and Sunni imams, and is built in a style that makes the mosque appear very old in an Ottoman style, as an homage to the heritage of the nation, and yet also new, especially when it is lit up with white lights at night. Our delegation also visited a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church and the Mountain Jews’ synagogue in Baku. In Azerbaijan, there are three types of Judaism: European/Ashkenazi Judaism, Sephardic Judaism (often called Georgian Judaism), and then Mountain Judaism. The latter is unique to Azerbaijan; these are Jews who come from the mountain town of Quba (I got to visit there and will write about it in my next article). In Baku, the European and Georgian Jews’ synagogue was built in 2003, and the Mountain Jews’ was built in 1945 but completely renovated and rededicated in 2011. The beautiful sanctuary appears in a Sephardic style, with the bima, the raised platform where the rabbi stands, in the center of the room, and ornate hand carved wood throughout the sanctuary and making up the ark that holds the Torah scrolls. There are also beautiful stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. The community of the Mountain Jewish synagogue showed us tremendous hospitality and prepared a delicious lunch for us and also told us how they face no antisemitism in Azerbaijan.

Heydar Mosque

Baku’s most notable religious site is one that is no longer in use, the Atashgah Fire Temple, located on the Absheron Peninsula, half an hour from downtown Baku. This 17th century castle was used by Sikhs, Hindus, and Zoroastrians as a holy site, and was a place of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians as the mountains, Caspian Sea, and natural gas flame together represented the converging of the four holy elements of their faith: air, fire, water, and earth. There were constantly burning fire pillars in the complex, but they went out due to exploitation of the area’s natural gas in 1969. Today, there are three flaming altars fed by gas that is piped in, and the site has been turned into a museum that teaches about Zoroastrianism and the practices that were once done at the fire temple.

The beauty of a fire temple

The benefit to traveling on a work trip is that you get to see fascinating places and meet incredible people that perhaps you would not have otherwise had the chance to ever encounter (at no personal expense usually too!). However, the downside to work travel is that it is work and you do not get to see everything that you wish you could. I was able to make it to the city of Quba, which I will write about next time, but unfortunately not the historical gem of Sheki, located 7 hours from Baku, nor the Gobustan Park, located a mere 40 miles from Baku. In the latter, there are prehistoric carvings and Roman inscriptions, but it is mainly known for its mud volcanoes. Of the 700 mud volcanoes in the world, half are located in Azerbaijan, with about 300 inside Gobustan Park. Yet, not seeing everything gives me a reason to go back, which I certainly hope to do with the great city of Baku again one day.

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