Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, one of the former Soviet republics. It is located on a small peninsula that juts out into the Caspian Sea. Historically, the city was an important center for the religion of Zoroastrianism and the home of several Jewish communities from Europe and the Caucusas region. Baku has been highly-coveted for centuries by various empires, in large part because of its natural harbor and vast petroleum resources. Several empires ruled Baku long before it became the capital of an independent Azerbaijan. Today, the city is well-known for its oil economy. In fact, oil has been exploited in the vicinity of Baku for more than a millennium.

Geography and Demographics

There are a couple of theories as to the origins of the name “Baku”. One theory hypothesizes that the name comes from the old Persian term, Bagavan, which means “City of God”. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Persian term, Badkube, which translates as “city where the wind blows,” denoting the fact that Baku is frequented by blowing winds. The issue with this theory, however, is that the word Badkube was invented in the 6th century CE, while Baku was founded prior to the 5th century CE. In the Azeri language, Baku is pronounced Bakï.

Skyline of Baku
Panoramic view of Baku - the capital city of Azerbaijan that is located by the Caspian Sea shore. 

Baku is situated on the southern end of the Absheron Peninsula, on the wide Bay of Baku, which forms part of the Caspian Sea. To its south are several small islands that form the Baku Archipelago. The coastal area of the city lies as much as 28 meters below sea level. Surrounding the city are a number of mud volcanoes and salt lakes. Baku’s land area totals 260 sq. km. During Soviet times, the city was a popular vacation spot. Now, however, Baku, the Absheron Peninsula, and the Caspian Sea are classified as the most environmentally-devastated places on Earth. This environmental damage includes severe air, soil, and water pollution.

 Shirvanshahs Palace , Baku
View of the historical mosques and the walls of Shirvanshahs Palace in the Old town with the modern glass Flame Towers skyscrapers in dramatic sunset light. 

The city of Baku is divided into three parts: The Old Town, the boom town, and the Soviet-built town. The downtown area of the city is located in the Old Town, and includes the old walled city of Baku, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walled city consists of narrow alleys, cobblestone streets, and ancient buildings, such as the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the Maiden Tower, and the Juma Mosque. Since 1988, more than 225 street names have been changed to erase the city’s Soviet legacy.

Streets of Baku, Capital of Azerbaijan
Tourists walking on the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan. Editorial credit: Vastram / Shutterstock.com

Baku’s population is estimated to be about 2.37 million, making it the largest city in Azerbaijan, and home to approximately one in five Azerbaijanis. More than 90% of the city’s population is of ethnic Azeri origin. Prior to 1988, there were significant communities of Russians, Armenians, and Jews. Azeri, a Turkic language that is the official language of Azerbaijan, is the most spoken language in Baku, but many of the city’s residents also speak Russian as a second language. More than 94% of Baku’s population practice forms of Islam (mainly Shiite). Prior to the Soviet era, Baku was home to three different Jewish communities: The Ashkenazim (Jews of Central and Eastern European origin), the Mountain Jews, and the Georgian Jews. When Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets seized most of the Jewish property in the city, though following the USSR’s collapse, the Azerbaijani government gave the ownership of several synagogues and a Jewish college back to the city’s Jewish community.

Economy

Oil platform in Baku
Oil platform off the Caspian Sea coast near Baku, Azerbaijan. 

Petroleum is the mainstay of the Azerbaijani economy. Oil was expropriated naturally in Baku as far back as the 10th century CE. The first oil well in the city was drilled in the mid-19th century. Today, much of the Azerbaijan’s oil and gas infrastructure resides in Baku, including a pipeline that transports crude oil from a terminal close to the city all the way to the port city of Ceyhan, located on the southeastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Industries located in Baku produce equipment used by the petroleum sector. The city is also home to metalworking, shipbuilding and repair industries, electrical machinery manufacturing, the production of chemicals and construction materials, and food processing. The city’s stock exchange has been operating since February 2001. Hotels owned by Western companies have also been built in Baku since the fall of the USSR. In the future, Baku has the potential to be a leader in the development of green energy. Because of its windy climate, for example, the city makes an ideal site for the development of wind energy.

History

Ateshgah Fire Temple  near Baku, Capital of Azerbaijan
Ateshgah Fire Temple in Surakhani near Baku, Azerbaijan. 

What is now Baku has been inhabited since the Stone Age, about 100,000 years ago. There may also have been a settlement there during the Bronze Age. According to Christian tradition, it is said that the apostle Bartholomew was killed at the bottom of Baku’s Maiden Tower. A fifth century historian named Priscus of Panium, mentioned the presence of the famous Bakuvian fires, which indicates that the site was an important center for the Zoroastrian religion. During the Islamic period, Baku is mentioned as a place with vast petroleum resources and a natural harbor suitable for both fishing and shipping.

Icheri Sheher in Baku
The Old City Icheri Sheher in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

From about the 8th century CE, Baku was under the control of the Arab Caliphate. Later on, a dynasty known as the Shirvanshahs took over. The Shirvanshahs established an Azeri state in the historical region of Shirvan. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, Baku was a frequent target for the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people. Between the 10th century and the middle of the 12th century, the city was a target for the medieval Slavic state known as Kievan Rus. The Mongols invaded Baku in the 13th century. The early 16th century marked the beginning of approximately two centuries of almost uninterrupted Persian rule. Russia was the last imperial power to gain control of Baku, when it did so in the early 19th century. Oil exploitation on a wide commercial scale began in 1872, when the Russians sold parcels of oil-rich land around Baku to private investors. Shortly thereafter, investors from all over Europe and the United States came to invest in the region’s oil patch. These investors included the famous Rothschilds and Nobel brothers. An industrial oil belt, which was dubbed Black City, was built near Baku. By the 1890s, Baku provided 95% of the oil used by the Russian Empire, and about half all the oil in the entire world.

In 1917, in the midst of World War I and the collapse of the Russian Empire, Baku fell under the control of the so-called Baku Commune, led by a Bolshevik named Stepan Shaumyan. In the same year, the Bolsheviks, with the help of an Armenian militia, massacred thousands of Azeris and other Muslims in the city during what were called the March Days. A year later, members of the Azerbaijani faction in the Transcaucasian Sejm (parliament) declared Azerbaijan’s independence. Azerbaijani forces then captured Baku and massacred thousands of Armenians in revenge for the March Days. On April 28, 1920, the Russian Bolsheviks invaded Baku, which became the capital of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic shortly thereafter. Baku and the rest of Azerbaijan were part of the USSR until it collapsed in 1991. In the same year, the first independent mayor of Baku was appointed. In the early years of the 21st century, the oil economy in the city entered a period of resurgence. New oil infrastructure was developed, including the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli field and the Shah Deniz gas field.

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