Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is the largest city in the Caucasus. With 1.7 million people, it was the fifth-largest city in the entire Soviet Union. On paper, it is the most prosperous of the Caucasian capitals, although most of the prosperity is a result of foreign investment. The actual Azerbaijani citizens do not see much of the money unless they happen to work in the service industries, such as running a restaurant that caters to foreigners. The origin of the city’s name is disputed. Some claim it comes from the Persian bad kube, which means ‘city of winds’. Others claim it is derived from an ancient word meaning ‘sun’ or ‘god’ because it was connected with Zoroastrian religious rituals. There is evidence that people lived in the area during prehistoric times, but the first mention of it as a true city appears in the ninth century A.D. It flourished as a port and trading center in the Middle Ages, in large part because it has one of the best natural harbors on the Caspian Sea.

Though known to very few Westerners until the recent oil boom, Baku was one of the five biggest cities in the USSR and before that the world’s most important petro-town. Baku was significant in the fortunes of such varied characters as Stalin, Zarathustra, Shell Oil, Gary Kasparov and the Nobel Prize. Lust for its oilfields was the main reason Hitler marched east and got bogged down in WWII.

Few cities in the world are changing as quickly and nowhere else in the Caucasus do East and West blend as seamlessly or as chaotically. Battered Ladas race shiny Mercedes past illuminated stone mansions, shiny glass towers and tatty old Soviet apartment blocks. History meets modernity on every corner of this metropolis. The Old City’s patchwork of sandy rooftops draped in rich, traditional tapestries contrasts with modern ‘new town’ buildings in the shape of crescent moons and flames. Back in the early 20th century, Azerbaijan went through its first oil boom, and architects from all over Western Europe were commissioned to design buildings for the expanding city. The result is a charming mix of architectural styles, genuinely beautiful buildings that line the city’s traffic-choked streets.

Pedestrianised tree-lined streets in the elegant centre chatter with teahouses and buzz with expat pubs. Unesco World Heritage status tries to slow the corporate gentrification of the fascinating Old City (Icheri Sheher) hemmed in by an exotically crenellated arc of medieval fortress wall. Romantic couples defy Islamic stereotypes by canoodling their way around wooded parks and handholding on the Caspian-front bulvar (promenade), whose greens and opal blues make a mockery of Baku’s desert-ringed location.

Despite hosting the popular Eurovision ‘music’ competition in 2012 and 1st European Olympic Games in 2015, Baku (and really all of Azerbaijan) remains as yet a pretty uncommon stop on the tourist trail. For the average traveler, Baku is really split into two main areas. The historic Old Town with the Caspian Corniche just outside, and the entire rest of modern Baku beyond that. The Old Town is a small but engrossing maze of old doors and old buildings and old men selling old trinkets, whereas the newer town even just outside is part post-Soviet construction and part modern development.

The Old City is very cool, with Maiden’s Tower and slightly overrated Shirvanshahs Palace. Up the hill is the sobering, but scenic Martyr’s lane. Not to mention seemingly countless theatres with a wide range of shows. And of course there are more bars and pubs than you can shake a stick at. Parks and the Boulevard make for nice walking. And there’s even a little ferry out into the Caspian.

Towering above the city is perhaps Baku’s most impressive sight, the Flame Towers. Inspired by Azerbaijan’s nickname, the “Land of Fires”, these three flame-shaped towers dominate the skyline, and have become something of a national symbol since they appeared in 2012. By night, huge LED displays give the appearance of flames licking the sides of the buildings.

HISTORY OF BAKU

The name Baku might derive from the Persian bad kube (city of winds), fitting given the gale-force xazri wind that comes howling in off the Caspian once or twice a month. Or perhaps it comes from the ancient Caucasian word bak (sun, or god), hinting at the area’s ancient role as a centre for fire worshippers millennia ago. Either way, Baku’s first burst of glory came when regional rulers, the Shirvanshahs, moved their capital here following an 1191 earthquake that destroyed their main city Shamaxi.

The Shirvanshah, Ahistan I, took the opportunity to move his capital as far as possible away from his then nominal imperial overlords, the Georgians. He graced Baku with several mosques, remodelled the mysterious Maiden’s Tower and built the first stage of the palace complex which still stands today. Unlike most towns in the region, the city fathers managed to talk the Mongols out of barbecuing the population in 1235, and the town remained reasonably intact.

The city’s next period of importance was the reign of Shirvanshah Ibrahim I (1382-1417), who rebuilt the city’s double walls of which the inner one still stands. Wrecked by Mongol attacks, then vassal to the Timurids, Baku only returned to brilliance under Shirvanshah Khalilullah I (1417-65), who completed his father’s construction of a major palace complex. However, the Shirvan dynasty was ousted in 1501 when Azeri Shah Ismail I (remembered as poet ‘Xatai’ in Azerbaijan) sacked Baku and then forcibly converted the previously Sunni city to Shia Islam.

Baku is a very ancient fortress and port town whose petroleum wealth has been exploited since prehistory Marco Polo, who never actually bothered to visit, described how people came from ‘vast distances’ to collect an oil which ‘is not good to use with food but is good to burn and is also used to anoint camels that have the mange’.

Despite the needs of lamps and mangy camels, however, the real value of this commodity was not to be fully appreciated until the late 19th century. In commercial terms the city’s medieval importance was rarely equal to the great metropolises of the era – Shamakha, Ganja or Derbend. Baku specialized in north-south shipments and acted more as a port than as a trading centre, the much-celebrated transcontinental ‘Silk Route’ usually took a more southerly course.

Thereafter, Baku’s importance dwindled as various attackers took occasional swipes at it, while the Shirvan rulers returned to Shamakha. The great ‘Azeri empire’ was ruled from Tabriz, not Baku and the town retained its fundamentally 14th-century layout right up until the start of the 19th century.

Although its population grew thereafter, the continued threat of attack meant that few people were prepared to risk life beyond the protective shelter of the old walls. With space so limited growing families simply enlarged existing homes. The result was an ever-tighter maze of alleyways that one still observes in parts of the Old City, today.

When Peter the Great captured the city in 1723, its population was less than 10,000, its growth hamstrung by a lack of trade and drinking water. For the next century Baku changed hands several times between Persia and Russia, before being definitively ceded to the Russians with agreements in 1806, 1813 and 1828.

Oil had been scooped from surface diggings around Baku since at least the 10th century. However, when commercial extraction was deregulated in 1872 the city rapidly became a boomtown. Suddenly the privatization of the oil industry allowed investors to develop the oilfields, these were so bountiful that one could become a millionaire just by digging up one’s backyard. Many people did just that. Those landowners who struck ‘gushers’ became the ‘oil barons’ if they managed to trap enough of the oil which poured out, sometimes all too rapidly. Black-gold rush fevei and booming support industries attracted tens of thousands of workers, investors and adventurers to the rapidly expanding city At one point the population doubled in three years.Workers and entrepreneurs arrived from all over the Russian Empire, swelling the population by 1200% in under 30 years.

Baku’s thirst was slaked by an ambitious new water-canal bringing potable mountain water all the way from the Russian border, and the city’s desert image was softened by parks nurtured using specially imported soil. By 1905 Baku was producing around 50% of the world’s petroleum and immensely rich ‘oil barons’ built luxurious mansions outside the walls of the increasingly irrelevant Old City.

Oil profits funded grand public buildings, mosques, churches, the dozens of grand mansions that still grace central Baku and, indirectly, the Nobel Prize. The prize’s founder Alfred Nobel was a key investor in the company of his brothers – oil-boom pioneers who came to buy rifle butts and instead bought a refinery and built an empire.

Meanwhile, most oil workers lived in appalling conditions, making Baku a hotbed of labour unrest and revolutionary talk. Following a general strike in 1904, the Baku oil workers negotiated Russia’s first-ever worker-management contract. But tensions continued to grow. Terrible conditions for oil workers resulted in communist agitation and strikes, while the rapid influx of ‘outsiders’ made Baku an easy place to stir up ethnic unrest. The first terrible massacres between formerly neighbourly Armenian and Azeri communities in 1905 led British commentator JD Henry to call it the ‘greatest blood spot on the mysterious, rebellious and blood stained Caucasus’.

When the three south Caucasus nations declared their independence in 1918, Bolshevik-led Baku refused to join Azerbaijan’s Democratic Republic. In response Turkish and Azeri troops marched (very slowly) towards Baku. Before they arrived, Baku’s leadership was toppled by pro-Russian (but anti-Bolshevik) Mensheviks and a secret British force sailed in from Iran to help them ‘defend’ the city (well, OK, the oilfields) against the Turks (Britain’s WWI enemies).

On 20 September 1918, 26 of the former Bolshevik leaders (the ‘26 Commissars’) were rounded up in Baku and shipped across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, where they were taken into the desert and shot. Russia held the British responsible for their deaths and later communist propaganda portrayed the Commissars as great Soviet martyrs, their monuments appearing all across the USSR (the one in Baku’s Sahil Gardens was destroyed in mid 2007). Whatever the reality, Baku’s Anglo-Menshevik defence crumbled and the British withdrew ignominiously, their ships slipping away in darkness. However, in the end-game of WWI, the Turks were forced to evacuate too.

Less than two years later, on 28 April 1920, the Red Army marched into Baku. In 1935 the search for oil moved into the shallow coastal waters of the Caspian. A forest of offshore platforms and derricks joined the tangle of wells and pipelines on land.

Investment dwindled after WWII and only really resumed in earnest after independence in 1991. Since 1994, however, foreign oil consortia have spent billions exploring these resources and for reasons as much political as economic the world’s second-longest oil pipeline, BTC, was built to Ceyhan in Turkey, ensuring that Azeri oil could be exported safely and quickly to the West without transiting Russia or Iran. Especially since BTC went online in 2005, Baku has been booming. As property prices head for London-style highs, the skyline has been transformed by hundreds of new multistorey towers. But get-rich-quick attitudes have meant a shabby disregard for planning standards.

Engineers warned that poor construction techniques, corrupt practices and cost-cutting would make many new buildings unsafe, especially given Baku’s seismic activity. These fears came horrifyingly true in summer 2007, when a half-finished 16-storey tower collapsed, trapping and killing dozens of people. More positively, boom money has also paid for the cleaning and attractive lighting of many grand old buildings in the city centre along with the construction of a series of seasonal musical fountains.