A EUROPEAN CITY THAT SPEAKS TURKISH: BAKU, Meltem Bozkurt Kaya | 20.06.2016

As the April 23 break fell on a weekend, I had the urge to go visit some place. I closed my eyes and put my finger on the map and it happened to land on Baku. Joking aside, I had wanted to see Baku, the capital of the friendly country of Azerbaijan, for a long time. As I had 3 days of vacation time I decided to realize this wish of mine.

There are lots of round-trip flights between Baku and Istanbul every day. The flight takes around 3 hours. I took my seat on the Baku flight on Friday night and reached Baku in the morning due to the 2-hour time difference.

Every person I met from the first moment onward was very helpful and good-hearted. Everyone becomes even more helpful once you tell them that you are Turkish. The Azerbaijani people have a liking of Turkey and Turkish people. They all quote Aliyev’s saying: “Two countries, one people.” They emphasize words differently than me, but speak a kind of Turkish that I can understand; in other words they speak Azerbaijani Turkish.

The 3-star Noah’s Ark Hotel that I chose to stay in is located within the Inner City, the historical district surrounded by the city walls. The Inner City is a delightful place that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs are the most notable historical structures in this district.

After I had gotten settled in my room at the hotel I went to a small tea garden and ordered some tea. The varieties of tea in Baku are infinite. Because I didn’t specifically ask for a “normal tea,” they brought me a tea with a floral aroma. I had to drink some mineral water too as I found the tea odd. The temperature was 20°C and just right to walk around in. Just then I heard the familiar sounds of Kars. Apparently, there was a TV show being shot nearby and there was an Azerbaijani folklore performance. I watched them with great pleasure.

I noticed that the vendors at the stores that I went into were very honest.  As this was the case, I didn’t want to haggle at all; I just bought every souvenir at the price they first quoted me. The carpets and kalpaks attract my attention the most. I tried on a kalpak but decided not to get it as it looked very silly on me.

I noticed many luxury cars driving around. They can afford to spend more on their cars as their oil prices are low, I presume.

Did you know that Azerbaijan was the first democratic secular Muslim country? It was founded in 1918; however, they joined the Soviet Union 2 years later. They remained a part of the USSR until 1991. The people never forget the Karabakh Khojaly Massacre of 1992. They complain that Turks don’t know much about this event and that they aren’t interested in it.

You notice the effects of the 70-year communist rule on the people and architecture. Baku has a more European feel to it compared to many other cities that I have visited. The roads and boulevards are very wide and spacious. The classy and chique style of the people attracted my interest. There is very little that disrupts the local scenery. I took it all in without missing a detail.

For lunch I had the most delicious mushroom soup I have tasted in my life. Mushroom, or “göbelek,” is used quite often here in dishes. Then came the crispy cooked jumbo shrimp which I devoured accompanied by the sauces they bring together with it. For dinner I went to a famous restaurant called Firuze which offers great local cuisine. The stuffed vine leaves and stuffed vegetables are like ours; however, the meat cooked in a pot with pomegranate and chestnut is quite different. I tried everything, little by little. When I went to the restroom I couldn’t tell which was which. One door had a letter K on it and the other a letter Q. When I asked a waiter for help, he told me the one marked with a K “… is for persons (‘Kişiler’ in Turkish); you should go in the one for women (‘Qadinlar’ in Azerbaijani Turkish).” Apparently, they call men “persons!”

The city is quite safe; you don’t see any police around the place because they all apparently patrol as civilians and rush to the scene the second anything happens to levy hefty fines. There isn’t much noise of any kind, let alone anyone shouting in Baku. All you can hear are pianos playing jazz music. They say that almost every house in Baku has a piano in it. There are also many nice jazz music venues in the city. Due to my exhaustion I barely got myself back to my hotel that first evening.

The next day on the insistence of a friend, I went ahead and called his friend who lives there. I met Murat immediately and we began touring the city together. The first place we visited was the Bibi Heybet Mosque at the town of Şıh, a short way outside of Baku.

This holy place and beautiful architectural complex was destroyed in 1936 by the Soviet regime and rebuilt after Azerbaijan won its independence thanks to the efforts of Haydar Aliyev. Inside lies the mausoleum of Fatima, who is one of the daughters of Musa Ibni Cafer. I saw people circling this mausoleum and asked the reason why. According to beliefs, prayers only come true after you circle the mausoleum 7 times. This place has been an important center for the “Ahlul Bayt” members for centuries.  I pray and circle the mausoleum 7 times myself.

We enter a facility right on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Apparently, Murat knew this place well, and they had prepared a delicious breakfast for me. Their cheese is similar to our brynza and is amazing, in a word. The tomatoes and cucumbers which they call “hiyar” were crispy. Tarragon, a herb that tastes similar to aniseed, and also the famous cilantro are washed before being served. The fragrant tea is served in a teapot. I grabbed a bite even though I am already full. There was some clotted cream and white cherry jam, which I normally don’t really like but everything was so good. I had my breakfast while enjoying the view of the largest lake in the world. Murat tells me that there is a belief that if you dip your finger into the sea and put it to your mouth you will move here one day; but I am one of those who prefer to come just for a vacation.

Murat also tells me that we are on the historic Silk Road. There are drawings of camels and caravansaries on the roads.  Our next stop was quite interesting. We went to Qobustan, which is 60 km away from Baku. 

This was also Murat’s first visit to this place. We saw the rock engravings, the oldest of which dates back 25,000 years, at the Gobustan Cliffs, which are made up of 6,000 rocks located right beyond the starting terminal of the Bakuceyhan pipeline by the shores of the Caspian Sea. The newest engraving is a thousand years old. The fact that there were people living in the area back then and to be able to see the work of the first artists was quite exciting for me. The fact that even the oldest of the hundreds of engravings that we saw within the caves were quite realistic, meaningful, and in proportion provides some clues on the esthetical skills of the people of the Stone Age.  Men, women, bears, various types of goats, gazelles, deer, boars, lions, dogs, wolves, and other animals are portrayed in the engravings. There are also images from their daily lives. Depictions of hunting, dancing, harvests, sacrificial ceremonies, lions’ attack on other animals, fights between goats, horses, and sea voyages are all portrayed. I learned about all of these by eavesdropping on the guide of a tourist group. 

This place was put under state protection in 1966. There is also a museum displaying other artifacts. It is one of the nicest that I have ever been to. It is a very modern museum with 3-dimensional figures supported by lights, sounds, and computer technology. There was no end to my astonishment. This may be one of the most interesting places in the world, let alone Azerbaijan.

It was then time to taste beluga, the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon fish famous for its caviar.  I am told I’m lucky to get to eat this fish, as it is currently endangered. The place we went to eat was very nice. The table was once again full of food. There was plenty of everything and it was all very fresh. Again we saw tarragon, cilantro, dill, tomato, cucumber, and scallions washed and served on the table. You could easily fill yourself up just eating these accompaniments. I drank something made with cranberries, which tasted amazing. Most of the people around us were drinking Arak; a habit adopted from the Russians is to have vodka with food. The orders arrived immediately, and to tell you the truth, I filled myself quite nicely. The check was quite large, but it was worth it for the pleasure.

After the meal Murat took me to the entrance of the Inner City. I left after thanking him for being my guide. It would have been very difficult to get to Gobustan without him so I was extremely grateful to him for taking me. I threw myself onto the avenue with all the malls. The night lighting of the city is dazzling. It’s a lively place worth living in. I spotted some youngsters watching the Galatasaray–Fenerbahce derby match at a café-bar and delved in amongst them. Apparently, there are many Turkish university students there. A girl in a Fenerbahce jersey was jumping non-stop. I got into the Galatasaray fans’ group but unfortunately we lost. The female Fenerbahce fan came over to hug me and everyone congratulated each other. It was so nice that there was no cursing or fighting. The huge screen raised up and a live orchestra playing current songs entertained everyone.

On my last day I arranged a tour with a driver with the help of my hotel. I told him the places I wished to go to before finally going to the airport and agreed a price with him. I took my suitcase and left the hotel.

First, we visited the Martyrs’ cemetery. This is a hilltop from which you can see the entirety of Baku. As I climbed the yellow marble stairs, a substance which covers most of the mountains of Azerbaijan, past the ever-lit torch of Martyrs’ Lane (Martyrs’ Cemetery), I saw a quite astonishing monument in front of me. On the pristine and well-kept road there are black marble graves with red carnations on each, and black granite plaques with a photo and personal history on them. Almost all of the dates of the deaths are 1990 and 1992. These graves are the result of the 1990 Red Army raid and the 1992 Armenian Karabakh occupation. The names also include a number Turkish martyrs. Right across from this is the Azerbaijan National Assembly Building and the Fire Towers.

My driver İlgün tells me that there are only 4-5 mosques in Baku, a city with a population of 4 million, and that Azerbaijan was the most affected country of the anti-religious policies of the Soviets and that they also stay away from religion as a protest to the Iranian regime. They seemed to me like a people stuck in the middle. I kept learning surprising things about them.

We reached my second important stop, the Ateshgah, after a 10-15 km drive. There are many small rooms around the naturally lit fire at the Ateshgah. The doors of these 26 rooms are quite low, to make people bow in respect. In their time Zoroastrians came and stayed in these rooms, looking on the fire from the windows, and gave worship by torturing themselves in various ways. They believed that they rid themselves of their sins this way. They called these rooms “suffering rooms.” The place is now a museum with various objects, models, and figurines within it. Once you enter Ateshgah, which looks worn down and plain from the outside, you see that it is quite a nice museum on the inside. The assistant gave me some brochures as she was pleased by my interest.

I tell her that I heard that there was a volcano and that I would like to see it. I guessed that there really was a volcano there. Apparently, there is a place similar to Yanartaş of Antalya, Çıralı in the area. It is a hill that is always on fire. Even though it was quite far, I got to see this place. 

At this point I started to get hungry. I asked İlgün to take me somewhere he would recommend for food, and he took me to a place called Zeytinalti. I had some delicious kebab with a lot of herbs and salad of course. This perfect meal was also relatively cheap.

I spotted oil wells alongside the road as we drove. Every turning of the machine costs 150 USD. This is a lucky country which has naphtha coming out of the middle of the sea; however, this wealth isn’t reflected much on its people. İlgün tells me that “One day we will rise in protest as well.”

My Baku adventure ended as İlgün dropped me off at the airport. I was pleased to have seen this beautiful city. İlgün invited me very genuinely to the wedding of his brother. He tells me “Bring whoever you like: your family and your friends are all my guests.” I would truly love to be able to come to see an Azerbaijani wedding. I said me farewells to İlgün by saying “Kismet” and took my seat on my plane. I strongly advise you to visit this city, which is a lot more European than our cities, and is famous for its carpets and oil. I got back home thinking that we should appreciate more the people of this brother country that love the Turkish people so much.

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Büşra Nur Tarhan


Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal