IMG_4239.JPGMy last trip abroad as a member of Parliament was to Azerbaijan. After my visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I realized how utterly fantastic the Islamic civilizations of Central Asia were. Azerbaijan was not of course in Central Asia, being on the other side of the Caspian Sea from Kazakshstan, but obviously it had shared in the splendours of a period the world knew little about.

Kithsiri came along again, resigned now to the fact that it was only to the more difficult places in the world that he would accompany me. But, apart from being enthusiastic about wild life, having been trained in the Ena de Silva school as it were of jungle exploration, he was appreciative enough of the magnificient civilizations we had seen. His first trip abroad had been to Iran, and then we saw Syria, Aleppo and Palmyra and the Crac des Chevaliers, before the wicked Americans embarked on destroying the place in their relentless pursuit of world domination. He had also enjoyed the Lebanon and Tunisia and Ethiopia and even, despite the flies, the pyramids of the Sudan.  And then Central Asia had been an eye opener, so that he was more than happy to come along to Azerbaijan too.

I had no idea what to expect, but the Lonely Planet guide indicated a range of interesting sights, beginning with the varied attractions of Baku. I had not realized before going there that this had been the oil capital of the world in the early days of the combustion engine, and that those who had made their millions in that early boom had built the most extraordinary creations, grafting Asiatic flourishes onto European lines of architecture.But there was of course much more to Baku, set snugly within the walls of the old fortress. The bizarrely shaped Maiden’s Tower was the highlight, supposedly first constructed a millennium and a half back, though the current structure dates only from the 12th century. Then there was also the 15th century Shivanshah Palace, the best known monument of a dynasty that lasted for nearly seven centuries in its little stronghold by the Caspian, subordinate to more powerful rulers for the most part but steadily outlasting them. And of course there were caravanserai and mosques and the remains of a very early church, built in the name of the Apostle Bartholomew who was supposed to have preached here in the heart of fire worshipping country soon after Christ’s death.

We explored Baku on the second day, having gone on the first morning to see the mud volcanoes, an idea that had enthralled me when I saw the phenomenon described in the guide book. A delightful old taxi driver had taken us to the hotel I had booked when we got into the city on the airport bus just after dawn and, with some help in translation from the enthusiastic youth who virtually ran the hotel, he agreed to take us exploring. It seemed he had not been to the site of the volcanoes before, and he appreciated seeing them as much as we did. I had no idea what to expect but, as the name suggests, these are pools of mud bubbling up from where presumably water heats up underground and mixes with earth to produce an erupting sludge.

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We went also that morning to a petroglyph museum, built near the actual carvings, some of which date back 12,000 years. Fascinatingly for me, there was also an inscription dating from the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, recording what seems to have been the furthest East Roman soldiery went. I was much gratified by the fact that, less than a fortnight earlier, I had seen in Trencin in Slovakia what was supposed to be the furthest east rock inscription by Roman soldiers in Europe. That dated from the 2nd century AD, whereas Diocletian was a hundred years later.

After two nights in Baku, we set off to explore the rest of the country. Our first stop was in the second city of Ganja, which was not very exciting, but had a magnificient square, overlooked by the imposing but not especially grand Grand Hotel where we stayed. But it had a lovely mosque, and an imposing Russian cathedral, and also what was termed the Bottle House, a house built of bottles which presented a most peculiar and strangely attractive façade.

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Our next stop was much more interesting, Sheki in the north which involved a long bus ride. We managed to get rooms in its wonderful Caravanserai Hotel, which allowed for lovely photographs of its central courtyard with square cut rooms on all sides. There too we found a helpful taxi driver, who took us to all the sights in the countryside, amongst them the supposedly 1st century church at Kish, a 17th century mosque with nearby one of those elegant bridges Muslim architects specialized in, and also Perigala, the Fairy’s Tower, a cave high up on a hill, which might have been a guard point or even, as one legend has it, a hideaway for his daughter built by the local king who wanted to save her from the attentions of Genghis Khan.

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The driver insisted on finding the place even when I thought we had worried him enough. Even so I did not feel like climbing up to the enticing cave entrance, but the long grind to the site was worth it when the villagers fed us cherries and strawberries which they cultivated in the fields below the sheer rock.

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We found a beautifully sited restaurant for dinner in Sheki, looking out over the foothills of the Caucasus, and breakfast next morning was in an equally attractive venue, the garden attached to the caravanserai. And Sheki itself had more delights in the form of the Summer Palace of Shaki Khan, built in the 17th century, with no nails as the tourist literature proudly boasts. As attractive for me was the Winter Palace, which was more difficult to find, but proved immensely charming.

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After that we headed back to Baku, but on impulse I decided to go to the airport and see if I could get a plane to Nakchivan, the part of Azerbaijan to which there is no road access. In between that and the main area is the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh which is disputed with Armenia.

We were fortunate enough to get a ticket, which got us well past midnight to the main city where a helpful taxi driver took us to a decent hotel, the one I had selected from the guidebook proving ridiculously expensive. He also agreed to take us touring the day after the next. On the next morning we explored the town on our own, ending up after a strenuous walk in a small street in the heart of the city, where we were invited into a lovely courtyard where the inhabitants fed us chocolates as well as home grown cherries, and introduced us to several generations of the family.

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Early in the morning we had begun at the Citadel, which was excessively restored, but also boasted next door what is supposed to be the tomb of Noah. In Nakchivan, and I believe in Nakchivan alone, it is claimed that this is where Noah landed from his ark, and the name is supposed to mean the land of Noah. Much more elegant though than what was clearly a very modern construction were a range of beautiful mausoluems, including the most unusual and incredibly attractive 10 sided Momine Khatun Mausoleum, built in the 12th century but lovingly preserved. The Khan’s palace was also fascinating, with a host of photographs depicting the transition from Russian and Islamic aristocratic rule to the Bolshevik period.

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Our hotel provided the most wicked breakfasts, with much cream and both meat and fruit in abundance. But they preferred to do dinners in an outside courtyard, where the waiters, entranced by people from a country they knew little about, looked after us splendidly while the sun set. Beer was readily available, Azerbaijan like the rest of Asia having a much less rigid approach to religion than the current dominant Wahabi dispensation has imposed on what used to be a remarkably civilized and tolerant perspective. For many centuries our part of the world lived on Asian terms, rather than the restrictive norms imposed by what used to be described as the Judaeo-Christian tradition, taken now to even greater extremes by the Saudi version of Islam.

The following day the father of our first taxi driver turned up to take us touring, and proved as amenable as the other helpful elderly gentlemen who had showed us so much in Baku and Sheki. We saw what was described as a Salt Resort, an underground complex that supposedly provided rest cures for various diseases; we walked up a high hill with the remains of ancient temples en route, where we were photographed by Iranian visitors who find much that is familiar, the old fire worshipping culture still respected though Islam dominates; we got to Ordubad with its charming mosque and a history museum housed in an elaborate domed 18th century building; and then we drove high up into the countryside to the beautiful Ganti Gol Lake, having a picnic on the way back en route to the airport.

Back in Baku, at our old hotel, we called up our taxi driver who took us next day to the sights on the other side of Baku, beginning with the fire temple which is perhaps the last active site of Zoroastrianism in the region where it once flourished. The Gala historical reserve was not so exciting, but quite beautiful was the 14th century Ramana castle, which seemed rarely visited, so that we had to collect the key from a house down below in the village. And then there was Yanar Dag where a fire has been burning for over half a century because of gas emerging from a hillside.

That evening we managed finally, having missed it on the first two days in Baku, to take a trip on the boat that takes you out onto the Caspian for a sunset view of Baku. The skyline was remarkable, including the flame towers, a recent construction that has three buildings that seem to blaze as day fades. And after that, for twilight is extended, we walked again round the city walls, for a last look at the extraordinary facades that oil wealth had created over a century back.

Ceylon Today 1 Jan 2017 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=16173

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