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From manuscripts and modern art, to carpets and coins – Baku’s museums are packed with artefacts as diverse as they are engaging. Discover the best establishments to explore in the Azerbaijani capital.
The area around Baku has been continually inhabited since at least the Bronze Age, so the city’s museums have more than 4,000 years of local human history and culture to draw upon. The largest collections, such as those at the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan, have wide international appeal, but there are also plenty of quirky smaller museums catering to more niche interests – how about a visit to the National Carpet Museum or the Museum of Miniature Books?
The historic royal residence of Azerbaijan’s rulers is both a national monument and a museum. Built in the 15th century, it has been described by UNESCO as “one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture”, and has been awarded World Heritage Status. It’s the stunning, cream-stone architecture of this museum that will first grab your attention, the elegant minarets rising high above the caravanserai, bathhouse, mosque and gates. The mausoleum, capped with its hexahedral cupola, is a unique sight to behold.
Austrian architect Franz Janz’s building takes the shape of a rolled-up carpet, and it occupies a prominent position in the heart of the city, in Baku’s seafront park. The museum has the world’s largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets, explains the history and processes of carpet making, and has galleries dedicated to other crafts. Baku’s National Carpet Museum is a popular tourist attraction, but also a place of academic research. If you have a serious interest in carpets and carpet making, you can attend a lecture or conference on the topic, and browse the museum’s numerous exhibition catalogues and books.
Baku’s Museum of Miniature Books is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest private collection of miniature books. Miniature books might be seen as a somewhat eccentric thing to collect – given that they are often too small to read – but the subject is intriguing nonetheless. “In this museum you can see thousands of miniature books from all over the world,” explains Fabio Bolognese of travel company MyCaucasus. “The smallest book is less than 0.25cm (0.1in) in size. It’s hard to believe that it is possible to produce such small books.”
The Nizami Museum is one of the jewels of Baku, a mid-19th century wedding cake of a building decorated with majolica and the statues of six of the most important figures in Azeri literature. It’s worth visiting if only to see the beautiful facade. Set close to the entrance to the Old City, the museum holds more than 3,000 manuscripts, rare books, illustrations and artworks connected with Azerbaijan’s most renowned writers and poets. You don’t need to be able to read Azeri to appreciate the aesthetics of these treasures, and museum guides will in any case explain to you their literary and cultural significance.
The Qala archeological site is a 45-minute drive outside Baku, and it’s an open air museum encompassing everything from 5,000 year old petroglyphs to a medieval castle and reconstructions of a blacksmith’s forge and a potter’s studio. The site was excavated by archeologists in 2010-11, and it was then that its historical importance was recognised, with finds from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, as well as 14th and 15th centuries. There are three museums within the complex, and a combined ticket gives you access to them all. The first museum is dedicated to ethnography, the second to antiques, and the third is the castle (qala) which gives the museum its name.
The Nobel Prize is known and respected around the world, but founder Alfred Nobel’s brothers Ludvig and Robert were hugely successful businessmen in their own right. They made their money during Baku’s oil boom, and their home in the city, Villa Petrolea, is now a museum. Housed in a 19th-century mansion, the House Museum of the Nobel Brothers was the first Nobel museum outside of Sweden. The interiors have been painstakingly restored, with many of the family’s possessions on show.