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A Country Transformed

Heydar_Aliyev_Cultural_Centre_BakuVisiting Baku for Eurovision 2012, Venetia van Kuffeler finds an extraordinarily Western-facing Islamic Country, looking after the future and education of their youth

Back in May 2011, the Azerbaijani pop duo Ell & Nikki won the Eurovision Song Contest for their country. This gave Azerbaijan the opportunity to host the contest the following year in its capital, Baku. For the next 12 months the whole country was abuzz with excitement at the prospect of putting itself on the map in front of 125 million viewers.

 The size of Scotland, Azerbaijan has quietly been sitting in the shadows of Central Asia’s larger and wealthier countries. Criticised for its human rights record, it is run by the ruling President Ilham Aliyev; he and his glamorous family are  well-known figures to the Azeri population. As the world’s oldest known oil-producing nation, Azerbaijan is blessed with significant oil and gas reserves. In 1846, over a decade before the Americans made their famous discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, Azerbaijan drilled its first oil well in Bibi-Heybat. By the start of the twentieth century the country was producing more than half the world’s oil supply; after independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union, British Petroleum (BP) became involved there.

By 2007 Azerbaijan was listed as the fastest growing economy in the world and ranked by the World Economic Forum as the most competitive economy among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).  At the start of 2012 the assets of the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) stood at almost US$33 billion. Therefore, Eurovision represented an unprecedented opportunity to showcase Azerbaijan and its achievements to the world. I jumped at the chance to visit Baku for Eurovision 2012. But what did I find?

Walking along Baku Boulevard (the promenade park running parallel to the seafront), with people jogging along the tree-lined sea shore next to the sparkling Caspian Sea, one could think that they were in California. The only reminder is the enormous National Flag, held in perfect motion by the breeze. Measuring some 70 by 35 metres, and held aloft by a pole 162 metres high, the flag was declared the world’s tallest by Guinness World Records until being overtaken by the 165-metre Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan. Behind the beautiful sea front, the city is a sea of cranes and construction, with ambitious residential projects including the Khazar Islands, a US$100-billion city of artificial islands. Similar to the Palm Islands in Dubai, and the first of its kind in the region, the project will consist of over 40 man-made islands covering 2,000 hectares connected with suspension bridges. It is said that the floating metropolis will have room for over one million people upon its projected completion in 2022.

 Other excitements on the skyline include the tripartite Flame Towers. Inspired by Azerbaijan’s long history of fire worshipping, the towers were built as an eternal flame for a modern Baku. After sundown, the facades of the three buildings are turned into gigantic display screens with the use of over 10,000 high-power LED luminaires.  Also pivotal to the development of Baku is the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Aside from being spectacular to look at, on completion, this fluid structure will signify the regeneration of Baku, with a library, museum and cultural centre on offer to city residents.

Due to its geographical and strategic location, Baku has always been a historically important centre along the Great Silk Road. From the third century BC to the fifteenth century AD, its arteries were used for the transit of a variety of goods and knowledge passing from China and India through the Black Sea to Constantinople. Hence, Baku has long been a centre of culture, science and education, serving as a transit point for goods. Perhaps this explains its surprisingly Western outlook.

  Nowadays it is easy to see how the city’s history has contributed to its nature and appearance today. There are 16 theatres and 31 museums, including the beautiful Azerbaijan History Museum, housed in a building constructed by the famous oil magnate Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. A host of international hotels – a Hilton, Four Seasons, Kempinski and Hyatt Regency, among others – have opened up. Visitors have plenty to see, including Icheri Sheher (Old City), which in 2000 became the first location in Azerbaijan to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Maiden Tower is situated in the south-eastern part of Icheri Sheher. At a height of 29.5 metres, with walls up to five metres thick, it is a legendary symbol of Baku.

Outside Baku, the ravines and gullies of Gobustan are home to a spectacular open-air museum. It was here that, in 1938, Azerbaijan scientists discovered traces of a culture dating back to the Bronze Age. Over 4,000 rock paintings in caves depicting people, animals, hunting scenes and collective labour survive, leading Gobustan to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

People can also visit the Ateshgah (Fire) Temple, thought to have been constructed in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries by Sikhs or Hindus from India who, travelling along the Silk Route, found ‘ever-burning eternal fires’ and set up an altar sanctuary to worship them. (The fires were in fact Azerbaijan’s natural gas, flaring up from the ground.) This temple and these fires have long been associated with ancient fire worshippers, the Zoroastrians. Today,  Azerbaijan is known as the birthplace of Zoroastrianism.

The customs and traditions of Azerbaijan have been absorbed from many cultures and civilisations. Christianity was introduced during the early Middle Ages, while the Arab expansion in the seventh century bought Islam which eventually became the dominant religion in the country. This diversity contributes to the wide variety of endeavours in which Azerbaijan excels, from art and dance to classical music and the much-celebrated local cuisine. Baku was proclaimed the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2009 and in 2011 the city hosted the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue.

However, Azerbaijan’s endeavours have not been without complications. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is still unresolved and ongoing.  In the week running up to Eurovision, 2012 Iran’s Ambassador in Baku was recalled, as was Azerbaijan’s envoy in Tehran. It seemed that Iran considered Eurovision to be incompatible with its vision of Islam.

Baku certainly has the right cultural credentials to host Eurovision, but how was the event itself? The contest was held in the newly built Baku Crystal Hall. Built specifically for the event, it is the biggest sports and concert venue in the whole South Caucasus. (It is also among the list of venues for Baku’s bid to host the UEFA Euro 2020.) The show itself was spectacular, with opening fireworks to rival those on Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and with the stadium lighting up in the colours of each nation’s flag before performers took the stage. Over 1,000 London taxis, all emblazoned with the 2012 Eurovision logo, were on hand to ferry guests to and from the stadium.  People we came across declared the centre of Baku to be unrecognisable compared with 12 months before. Azerbaijan has been criticised over its rush to get things done in time for Eurovision, but the results are certainly breathtaking: Baku is now a fast-paced, modern and vibrant city.

The Eurovision Song Contest was created as a cultural instrument to reunite European people after the end of World War п. Since then it has served as an arena above politics, attracting millions of viewers from both sides of the former Iron Curtain. The hope was that this year’s Eurovision would help Azerbaijan to reconnect culturally with Europe after years of isolation and it certainly was a clear message of commitment to being a valuable member of the European family of nations.


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