Baku: Onyx, Olives and Oilfields

Whenever I walk down the hill from my home at Wellington Heights to Fountain square in the middle of town, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that Baku and Azerbaijan are going through at this time. It is a city in transition, moving from post-Soviet depression to post-modern glitz in one jump.

The 85 metre long entrance hall to the Baku TV tower restaurant lined with glowing onyx panels

From one window of my home on the eighth floor, I can see the new Hilton and Four Seasons hotels going up on the Bulvar, the swanky Altes Plaza from another and the 310 metre high TV tower from a third. Sandra and I had lunch at the revolving restaurant at the top on Sunday. 

The venue is reached by walking across the magnificent marble entrance hall, down an 85 metre long tunnel spectacularly lit by glowing onyx panels and then up 27 floors in the lift to the splendid isolation of the eatery. We were the sole guests, waited on by perhaps a dozen bored staff.

The service [as you might expect but so rarely find in Azerbaijan] was excellent and the food worthy of London, Paris or New York. Mixed olives and salad starters were followed by a creamy and rich salmon and mushroom entre. The wine selection was OK but with a bottle of Blue Nun at 42 Pounds a throw, we decided to order a couple of Mexican Corona beers instead.

The Baku TV tower from the Caspian

We were seated at a table that initially overlooked the botanical gardens but over the next hour or so the restaurant took us on a journey across the best and the worst of the city. We looked down on the city centre and the gentle curve of the Caspian, flowing North to the tip of the Absheron peninsula. From that height and angle, it could have been Nice in the South of France.

The centre of Baku from the direction of the TV tower

Then slowly as we ate out meal, the seating moved and we were looking out across the Caspian and finally down on the oil fields behind the ridge that holds Baku like a pair of cupped hands. Beyond the ridge lie the shack-like homes of the oil workers and those who can’t afford the swanky new apartments growing up like mushrooms in the middle of town. The houses come right up to the fences protecting the “forests”of nodding-donkeys that have been drawing oil out of this ground since the 1930’s. Indeed, Baku was one of the world’s first commercially exploited oil fields back in the 1860’s.

One of the many Baku oilfields. I took this shot near the fire temple at Suraxani

The juxtaposition of luxury and affluence with need and poverty tell of a story that is still being written by the people of Azerbaijan.

Back home, I looked out of our bedroom window on a more typical city view:

The view from my back bedroom

In the front, you can see simple single story family homes dating from the 1920’s or 30’s and behind the Soviet style blocks put up in the 1950’s. Many of the old family homes were built high up on the hillside immediately behind the expensive housing and public buildings dating from the time of the first oil-boom before the first-world war. This is now prime building land and these buildings are disappearing before our eyes and are being replaced by tower blocks like the one I live in. Who though, I wonder amongst the Azeri community can afford to live in them? Certainly not the people living  in the buildings they are replacing.  Many people here live lives on the margins and there are still urban shepherds roaming the streets of Baku…

Baku urban shepherd

Baku is a city that is constantly changing. If you ask anyone if life is better or worse now than it was twenty years ago, they will undoubtedly say it is better, so long as they are under fifty and have a good job. The old certainties are long gone and it will take some time for a new balance to bring society into equilibrium. In the meantime, I will try to enjoy the best of the new Baku and try to remember and record as much of the old city life of ordinary people that I can. Before too long the old life and much of the built environment of Baku will be swept away for good or ill to be replaced by towers of steel and caves of glass dedicated to western consumerism. 

About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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4 Responses to Baku: Onyx, Olives and Oilfields

  1. Julia Hawkes-Moore says:

    What an odd, odd place.
    The Onyx Hallway is a vision straight from SecondLife. com: How surreal the World is becoming.
    I liked the sheep: but wherever do they graze?
    Best Wishes,

  2. stevehollier says:

    Bakuvians seem to love glitz. The malls in the city would not look out of place in Dubai. As far as the sheep are concerned,there are areas of open land but I have seen our local shepherd feeding his small flock on watermelon amongst other things. They seemed to be enjoying them…

  3. NURLAN says:

    VERY INTERESTING article about my city, thank your opinion, but u know we need change, if you learn more information about Baku, dont hesitate to contact with me,

  4. sadie says:

    wonderful post, we arrived here in April from Cairo and are still exploring the city and also the country, we love it.

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