Baku is the deepest capital city in the world. It’s sits at 28 metres below sea level (that’s the elevation of the Caspian Sea, upon whose shores Baku resides).
Not only is it the deepest capital city in the world, it’s also the largest city in the world to be located below sea level.
That alone is enough to make Baku exceptional, but there is much more to the Azerbaijani capital than just its sub-sea-level elevation.
Baku, by the way, is Persian for wind-pounded city. It has a similar moniker in English, that being: the Windy City.
The founding of Baku
Human occupation of the western shore of the Caspian Sea dates back to the Stone Age – as evidenced by the petroglyphs and stone carvings in nearby Gobustan – and the region has continued to be inhabited over the millennia.
The Romans visited more recently; they left a marker – also at Gobustan – just to let us know they’d been.
The Shirvanshah dynasty began to rule Azerbaijan from the 8th Century CE. Their capital was situated in earthquake prone Shamakhi – about 120 kilometres inland from Baku.
In the early 15th Century, following one city-destroying earthquake too many, the capital was moved to Baku.
Over the next few centuries Azerbaijan would be invaded and annexed by the Persian, the Ottoman, and the Russian Empires.
In the mid 1800s oil would be discovered in Azerbaijan (actually its existence had been known since at least the 8th Century CE, but no one thought to do anything about it till the 1800s).
In 1872 major oil extraction began. Big name oil tycoons, like the Nobel Brothers, and the Rothschilds, invested in industry and infrastructure in the city. One of the world’s first oil pipelines ran between Baku and Batumi, Georgia on the coast of the Black Sea.
By the early 1900s Azerbaijan was the biggest exporter of oil in the world, supplying up to half of the world’s oil. Oil continues to be the major revenue stream for Azerbaijan.
But the oil will one day run out, and Azerbaijan, and Baku city in particular, are looking for new sources of revenue; namely tourism. And in that vein, Baku has a lot to offer.
Maiden Tower, Baku
The earliest extant fortifications in Baku are those of Maiden Tower. One of the icons of the city, this odd, squat tower (29 metres tall, with a great view of the city from the uppermost floor) dates to the 12th Century CE, and possibly earlier.
There are some archaeologists that insist that the foundations of the tower date back to the 8th Century, or possibly the 6th Century, or even earlier; though who built this early structure, and why, they can’t say.
Palace of Shirvanshahs
Construction of the Palace of Shirvanshahs began in the early 15th Century CE, following the transferral of the capital from Shamakhi to Baku.
The palace is relatively modest as palaces go. Inside the complex you’ll find a mosque, baths, several mausoleums, and a museum exhibition on the Shirvanshah dynasty.
Flame Towers, Baku
The most recognisable feature of Baku is undoubtedly the Flame Towers. Completed in 2012, this trio of skyscrapers were designed to represent a flame, in reference to the fire-worshipping, Zoroastrian heritage of Azerbaijan.
Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in Azerbaijan prior to the country being converted to Christianity in the 4th Century CE, and subsequently to Islam in the 7th Century CE.
Azerbaijan means protector of the flame in Persian.
You can see the Flame Towers from almost anywhere in the city. At night 10,000+ LED lights illuminate the buildings, creating imagery of flickering flames, drops of water, and advertisement for city events, such as golf championships.
Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku
Designed by Iraqi-British starchitect Zaha Hadid, the Heydar Aliyev Centre is named after the first president of independent Azerbaijan, and houses conference facilities, exhibition space, and a museum.
The project has seen its share of controversy. The enormous footprint the building required – not to mention its generous curtilage – resulted in the forced eviction of 250 dwellings. The residents of these forced evictions allege that they did not receive due compensation.
3rd tallest flagpole in the world
The flagpole at Baku’s National Flag Square, at 162 metres in height, was, for a brief time, the tallest flagpole in the world.
The year after it was built (2010), a slightly taller flagpole was erected in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (165 metres). And then in 2014 an even taller flagpole (170 metres) was erected in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
But who cares about having the world’s tallest flagpole when you’re the world’s deepest capital? 😀
Practical information and how to reach Baku:
As of January 2017 the process to enter Azerbaijan has been simplified; residents of most countries are now able to apply for an electronic visa online. There are frequent flights to Baku from Riga, Istanbul, Dubai, Tehran, and Moscow. You can catch an overnight train from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia. More info here.
Read more on the Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.