Fire plays a vital role in Azerbaijan culture and has done so for thousands of years – from the early Zoroastrian fire-based religion to the Flame Towers dominating Baku’s skyline. And Ateshgah, a Fire Temple near Baku once involved in worship, is a tourist hotspot today.
Have you ever seen a stretch of rock on fire with flames that never extinguish? Underground gas seeps out and burns continuously at Yanar Dag near Baku. According to local legend, the gas ignited from a discarded cigarette in the 1950s.
Naftalan, a small Central Azerbaijan town near Ganja, offers the world’s strangest spa treatment: bathing in crude oil. Popularised under the Soviet Union, many claim it treats various illnesses and ailments. Brave tourists can experience this bizarre therapy. And don’t worry, the oil is different to the kind used for cars!
Yes, you read that correctly. The oxymoronic phenomenon is another weird and wonderful natural site in Azerbaijan. Yanar Bulag to the south of Astara near the border with Iran releases methane-infused water from an underground spring. When ignited, the water burns. Locals believe it has healing properties and inspired early Zoroastrianism.
A mud volcano expels freezing mud rather than scorching lava. Pressure from subterranean gas forces the mud to the surface, which sometimes shoot high into the air. More than one-third of the world’s mud volcanoes, including the 400-metre (1,312 feet) Turaghay and 397-metre (1,302 feet) Kinezadagh, are near Baku.
In Gobustan (Qobustan) southwest of Baku, tourists can experience ancient human settlements dating back 40,000 years. Inside the national park, carvings cover the rocks and cave walls once believed to provide shelter for humans after the ice age.
Gaval Dash inside Gobustan National Park produces a sound similar to a tambourine when struck. The ancients probably used the rock in rituals. Modern musicians ‘play’ the rock, which featured in an interval during Baku’s 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.
Tea culture and traditions in Azerbaijan date back centuries. Guests are always served tea, often with jam.
Quba, a town near the border with Dagestan in the north, forms an important historical and cultural hub in Azerbaijan. Nearby mountain villages date back millennia, including a former Caucasus Albanian community called Khinaliq. Khinaliq may have been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years. Others have their own cultures, traditions and languages.
Nodding donkeys, the rocking oil pumps, dominate Azerbaijan’s countryside. The primitive pumps extract oil in the same way that drove Baku’s first oil boom in the 19th century.
Qirmizi Qasaba, a settlement on the northern side of the River Gudiyalchay with Quba to the south, has an all-Jewish population. The 18th-century town prompts a strange quirk: an Orthodox Jewish settlement in Islamic Azerbaijan.
Plov, one of Azerbaijan’s national dishes, makes for a delicious meal. The saffron-flavoured rice gets fried with herbs, spices, meat and vegetables. Most traditional restaurants serve this inexpensive treat.
Azerbaijanis are some of the most hospitable people on the planet. Locals go to great lengths to help tourists, which in turn inspires generosity in travellers.
Baku’s old town, Icheri Sheher, has a large cylindrical building called Maiden Tower. The structure looks unusual and out of place. But it has a mysterious side. No one knows its age or purpose. The best guess puts Maiden Tower at more than 1,000 years and suggests it acted as a Zoroastrian temple before becoming a watchtower.
The three Flame Towers curve to resemble, you guessed it, flames. The exteriors light up and give the appearance of flickering fire. Join one of the night tours to get the full experience.
Three of the world’s smallest books, measuring just two millimetres, are inside Baku’s Miniature Book Museum. Look at the books through a magnifying glass and don’t try to read them!
Baku’s Carpet Museum is more interesting than it sounds. Look from the outside and it resembles a rolled up carpet with various patterns and motifs. On the inside, learn about weaving, the intricate patterns and designs, and how carpets intertwine with Azeri culture.
The Soviet Union collectivised farms where everyone works, harvests and shares the yield. When the Soviets dissolved, so did most collective farms, apart from the one in Ivanovka, which is a small town in Central Azerbaijan. The last ethnic Russian community live in Ivanovka too. A few phrases of Azerbaijani or Russian will go a long way here.
For a relatively small nation, the diversity in Azerbaijan is unmatched, including nine of the 11 climatic zones from humid subtropical to deserts and alpine ski resorts, to name a few. Different parts of the country have varied landscapes and environments.
Arrive in Baku, and it’s hard to believe the richness of Azerbaijan fauna. Head to the national parks and see bird populations, gazelles, wolves, jackals, wild cats, and leopards, among many others.
Pomegranates are a symbol of Azerbaijan with Goychay in Central Azerbaijan growing more than 70 varieties. Every autumn, the town hosts the Goychay Pomegranate Festival to celebrate the fruit hosting various competitions.