Baku – A Tapestry Woven in Time
Shane Guffogg is a world- renowned artist who grew up in the Lindsay/Strathmore area. Shane’s art has taken him around the world, most recently to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. While Shane currently resides in LA, he frequently visits his art studio in Lindsay and has hosted multiple local exhibits in recent years.
The Persian meaning of Baku is Wind Pounded, but the Arabic meaning is God’s Town. I can start off by saying this capital city is a tapestry of time and cultures that are woven together in a profoundly beautiful way. The ancient is nestled with the old–eastern designs and patterns framed by European elegance, all while being watched over by the recently built towering flames made of glass and steel.
In the heart of this great cosmopolitan center is the Old City with parts of the stone structures dating back 2,800 years. The ancient streets are made of cobblestone and the area is surrounded by a castle wall. At one of the main entrances is the Maiden Tower, which I was told by people from the Ministry of Culture, dates back to 800 BC. The Tower got its name because of a king who had arranged for his daughter to marry into an equally powerful family, but she was in love with someone else. Instead of granting her father his wish, she climbed to the top of the tower and jumped to her death.
This tower leads up a hill to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, built in the 15th century when the capital of Azerbaijan was moved to Baku. The stone carvings on this great masterpiece are breathtaking and I found myself quietly saying “wow” a lot as I walked around the palace.
Throughout the Old City there are a number of boutique hotels, one of which I stayed in (the Sultan Inn Hotel) and loved it. Most of these buildings are two to three stories, so be prepared to climb stairs because there are no elevators. Throughout the city there are little shops that line the narrow cobblestone streets, selling Azerbaijani carpets and souvenirs, usually by men from a bygone era, patiently waiting for tourists to stop and take a look. And there are amazing restaurants serving the Azerbaijani cuisine, which is part Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Georgian with a little Russian sprinkled in. It all adds up to traditional Azerbaijani cuisine.
Outside of the Old City Castle walls is another part of the tapestry – streets that are straight out of Paris, with the grand stone buildings and rounded metal rooftops. These were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a result of the money that began pouring in from the oil discovered in Baku. In fact, the very rst oil well in the world was drilled in Baku in 1847, which has made it a much-contested area throughout the 20th century.
The Parisian area is where most of the high-end stores are, like Gucci, Dior, Armani, and the likes, and it is where you will see a lot of Range Rover and Mercedes Benz vehicles. But the shiny car image is in sharp contrast to the somewhat popular old Soviet cars that look like an early, boxy Datsun from the 1970s. I was in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015 and that city has managed to completely white-wash the old Soviet ways of life away. Certain areas and people in Baku, however, look like old photographs of the hard working Soviet people of the 1920s and ’30s. That image is in sharp contrast with a young, very hip and affluent group that look like they just got back from a shopping spree on rodeo drive in Beverly Hills.
Baku is a city of visual contrast, but it all works and is reflected in the people.
The last part of the thread that makes up this visual tapestry is their investment in the future. Azerbaijan took back its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 after the communist economy and government collapsed. Since then, the President, his son, and the First lady are in the driver’s seat, and are investing in beautiful contemporary architecture that is being designed by the best architects from around the world. They are also investing in the arts and culture. For example, two years ago they built a museum dedicated to the history of Azerbaijani Carpets while also building a museum for contemporary art; again, a beautiful blend of the old with the new.
The reason for my trip to Baku was actually for a museum exhibit of my artwork, which traveled there from a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I spent ve weeks in the summer and fall of 2015. I have always loved to travel, see new places, and meet new people. The more I travel, the more I realize how similar we all are.
Because of my museum exhibition, I got little perks, like always having a driver to pick me up at the airport and having a translator by my side if I needed one. I didn’t visit Baku on a tourist Visa, but a cultural Visa. Azerbaijan is one of those countries, like Russia or China, where you need to get a Visa along with your passport, which requires applying as a tourist. For most countries that require a Visa to enter, you also have to have your travel dates, plane tickets, and hotel reservations made to show the country’s embassy you have a plan and won’t be wandering around lost in translation. But they are easy to get and there are companies that handle that sort of thing for a small fee.
To give a quick background of Baku, it has a long history of being invaded, starting with Alexander the Great in the ancient Greek times. Then, off and on by Azerbaijan’s neighbors – Turkey, Armenia, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia. Keep in mind, every time Azerbaijan was invaded, their way of life was erased and they were forced to speak a different language and often take up a new religion.
The Russian Empire invaded in the late 19th century until 1918 when Azerbaijan won back the independence of the Azerbaijani republic, which was signi cant but brief. On April 28, 1920, the 11th Red Army invaded Baku and reinstalled the Bolsheviks, making Baku the capital of Azerbaijan. The USSR took control of the oil and access to the Caspian Sea to get the oil out. From 1920 to 1992, the Azerbaijani people were forced to learn Russian in school and follow the communist ideology. When you look at the people in Baku, the different facial features, mannerisms, and dress that are associated with their ethnicity, is very apparent. But they all live in harmony and their three major religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – are practiced freely. They are a people who have great respect for the past, and equal respect for each other now. I think that may be one of the reasons I didn’t see one piece of trash or any graffiti scrawling anywhere, which only helped to enhance the beauty of Baku. Since 1992, learning English has replaced Russian in school, which means that within just one generation, people speaking Russian will be a thing of the past.
The Three Flame Towers (completed in 2012) are not only a work of art, but they consist of apartments, hotels, and offices, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. By day,
they shimmer, reflecting the light and atmosphere. But by night, the 10,000 LED luminaries that cover the surfaces put on the most amazing light show, becoming giant symbols of re and wind. The city of Baku is one of the oldest cities in the world with cave art nearby dating back some 40,000 years. And it is a city that lies on what was once the ancient Silk Road. It is a tapestry woven by time itself, making for a beautiful image of what was and what will be.