Azerbaijan: Dancing for a millennium

The extraordinary petroglyphs of Gobustan National Park could hardly provide a starker contrast to the bling of neighbouring Baku.

By Nigel Richardson
Published 26 Jul 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:12 BST


Photograph by Getty Images

The only other visitor is a German tourist, who enthuses about the price of 'pom grenades'. It takes me a second to realise she means pomegranates, by which time she's walked on, thinking me rude.

Around us, carved on boulders and the walls of caves, are some 6,000 petroglyphs, spanning 40,000 years of human settlement: of dancing men and pregnant women, of dolphins and shamans in zany hats, of long-tailed lions and the extinct auroch.

This is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gobustan National Park, which lies about 40 miles south west of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, along the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Off shore are the oil rigs that bring in the vast wealth that accounts for Baku's blingy skyline (three towers shaped like flames take the biscuit). On shore are the gated beach resorts and villas with windows of reflective glass where the beneficiaries of the oil boom take their leisure. Petrol stations advertise a litre of unleaded at the equivalent of 40 pence.

Oil, and the means of extracting it, are everywhere. Nearer to Gobustan we pass the Sangachal Terminal, a plain of derricks, pylons and flares of orange flame that ranks among the world's biggest oil and gas terminals. Such landscapes are surreal — a similar oil field nearer to Baku was a backdrop in the 1999 Bond film The World Is Not Enough.

But my eye is caught by a building you could easily miss, set back from the highway: a caravanserai (roadside inn) of mustard-coloured limestone dating from the Middle Ages. It's a reminder of Baku's key location on the Silk Road. There are several more caravanserais in Baku's old walled city, a UNESCO-protected site complete with restored historic buildings (notably the mysterious, medieval Maiden Tower — an observatory? A place of fire worship?).

Nowadays, the caravanserais of the old city serve as cafes and antiques shops, selling samovars (metal containers for heating water), water pitchers, carpets and ship's anchors. But our caravanserai, by the highway, is unnoticed and unloved, swept aside by the rush for oil and money.

To be fair, the merchants who once used it must have been in a hurry too, as none of them seem to have noticed the extraordinary petroglyphs carved into the range of flat-topped mountains, lying immediately inland — or if they did they didn't shout about it, for the carvings weren't recorded until the 1930s.

And so to the future — or one vision of it, at least — playing in an endless loop on a giant video screen alongside the highway and the ocean. 'Welcome to a new city,' says the video. Behind the screen, hundred of yards out to sea, cranes and half-built towers are visible.

This is the Khazar Islands project, a putative metropolis of futuristic skyscrapers, inspired, apparently, by the man-made islands of Dubai and set to boast the world's tallest tower. But the cranes haven't been working since last year's crash in oil prices and the devaluation of the Azeri currency.

The video screen displays a computerised simulation of how it will probably never look. While on the rocks of Gobustan, stick men dance, as they have for millennia.


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