Walking along the boardwalk at dusk and glancing back at the grey, gloomy city blanketed with fog and ringed with the skeletal outlines of oil rigs, it is difficult to see the booming, beguiling Baku of recent reputation. But the next day, when the fog has lifted, a starkly different image emerges. It is one of bright beige sandstone, scrubbed clean and shimmering in the morning sun, of stately Victorian structures lining wide avenues, of mosque minarets mingling in the skyline with modern, high-rise condominiums.
The layers of Baku’s history are plain to see from atop the 12th-century Maiden’s Tower. The Bronze Age remnants of the Old City form the lowest layer. The second layer is a gift of the first oil boom – grand architecture left behind by turn-of-the-century oil barons such as the Nobel and Rothschild brothers, who struck it rich here. And the third – of new office buildings and apartment blocks, and cranes erecting more – is a gift of the latest oil boom.
Baku, the capital city of the central Asian republic of Azerbaijan, has been blessed with many gifts: blessed by geography and blessed with resources. Oil, it is said, is the city’s holy gift. But there are more.
As my tour guide for the day explains, Baku has a special sort of soul – or rather, the amalgamation of centuries of souls, a gift of the city being situated along the old Silk Road, which led from the Far East to Europe. “The Chinese trader, the Norwegian fisherman, they each left a piece of their soul here,” says Elshan Kurbanov, a special adviser to the Azerbaijan Investment Promotion and Advisory Foundation.
This position at the crossroads of commerce and of cultures gives the city its captivating charm. Stroll down the main shopping streets and you could be anywhere in Europe. Turn down a narrow side street dotted with carpet shops and you could be in the Middle East. At the posh, private Buta Club, young professionals enjoy shisha pipes, homegrown wine and rounds of vodka while being entertained by western pop music, Turkish singing and dancing, and Arabic bellydancing – as they chat away in Russian.
But the Azeri government, fat and happy with petro-dollars, has until recently made little use of Baku’s romantic history in promoting tourism. Nor has the country really staked its plausible claim to be the birthplace of the Indo-European civilisation. While westerners use the racial term ‘Caucasian’ freely, few make any connection to the Caucasus itself, a connection that would lead them, if they followed it to its origin, to Azerbaijan.
A cave called Azykh, in the Fizuli area, is regarded as the world’s oldest human habitation; the jaw bones of a woman who lived nearly 400,000 years ago were found here. On a rocky hilltop outside of Baku, called Gobustan, there exists thousands of cave drawings dating back tens of thousands of years. Yet hardly anyone is looking.
The government reports that more than one million tourists visited Azerbaijan in 2004. But compare this with the 16 million that visited neighbouring Turkey in the same year, or the estimated one million people each year who visit just one UK attraction, Stonehenge, dated a youthful 3100 BC.
“Japanese people spend $7000-$8000 a week visiting Mongolia because it is their cultural motherland,” Mr Kurbanov says. “Can you imagine if Azerbaijan could explain to all Indo-European people that it is their motherland? We could have not just an oil boom but a tourist boom, and this is a boom that would be more efficient and sustainable in the long term.”
“Come,” he says. “Let me show you my dream.”
We speed down a motorway, heading south from the city centre, out across the flat, parched-looking earth. Across the road from rusting Soviet-era derricks, new housing developments are popping up, the subdivisions intersected by pipelines. We continue up a slight incline to the top of a limestone plateau.
Gobustan is only about 60km from the bustle of Baku, but it feels a world away. The only sounds are the gentle mooing of cows grazing along the foot of the mountain and a train chugging across the tracks that run along what was once the Silk Road. Ancient souls hover in the air; I could almost see them there in the caves.
Mr Kurbanov sees spirits, too – but these are ghosts of the future rather than the past. Gazing out across the empty landscape dotted with sporadic clumps of rock, he envisions what could be. He sees five-star hotels, a festival ground, a beach resort, even a Formula One racing track. On the naturally created bleacher seats – shelves carved into the side of the rock by erosion – he sees spectators for open-air concerts and shows. In his mind’s eye, throngs of tourists flock to the spot where Indo-European life first began.
But his dream is, to say the least, a distant one. That afternoon, a Saturday, we are the only visitors to Gobustan. The museum honouring the cave painters is unmarked, but for a barely discernible sign near the door, and looks like little more than a modest bungalow, perched unassumingly on the side of a hill.
“I don’t know,” Mr Kurbanov sighs. “I probably will never see it happen.”
And this, he believes, is a great pity, not just for Azerbaijan but for those would-be tourists missing out on the chance to connect with their roots because they do not actually know their roots are here, written on the walls of windswept Gobustan. “It’s your history, you know,” he says to this American-born writer. “Not just the Azeris, but yours, all Caucasians and Indo-Europeans. We should be telling people.”
The sun is setting and it is time to head back to Baku. As we drive away, the last few rays of the day’s sun break through a fine layer of clouds, touching down somewhere behind the hills, where, sadly, the secrets of Gobustan remain all too safe.