The capital Baku stands on a bay of the Caspian Sea. It is home to one-seventh of the country’s inhabitants. The core of the city is the old town or fortress—a maze of narrow alleys and ancient buildings. Dating to the 11th century are the palace of the Shirvan-Shahs (rulers of the old principality of Shirvan), now a museum, and the Synyk-Kala Minaret and Mosque. The 90-foot Maiden’s Tower was erected in the 12th century.
Beyond the fortress walls, most of which still stand, the straight streets of modern 19th and 20th century Baku rise, in a regular criss-cross pattern, up the slopes of the hills surrounding the bay. Along the waterfront stretches a park.
The Maiden Tower, built sometime between A. D. 800 and 1200, is the most recognized structure in the Old City of Baku. (CIAFactbook)
Most industrial plants are located at the eastern and southwestern ends of the city. Between the city and the surrounding countryside lies a wasteland of long-abandoned oil derricks. Almost all of the oil wells currently in use are offshore. There is even a township of Greater Baku built on stilts 60miles out in the sea.
A few miles outside the capital are other impressive historical sites. TheAteshgyakh Fire-Worshippers’ Temple was built by Indian traders in the late 17th century. At Gobustan, on the slope of a stony mountain, over 4,000 Neolithic rock drawings have been discovered. They vividly depict hunting, dancing, and other scenes from daily life in the Stone Age. Near Mount Beyukshad there is a large ring of stones set around an altar.
The terrain in Azerbaijan rises from the lowlands along the coast and in the valleys of the Kura and Aras Rivers to high mountains in the north and west. In the lowlands the climate is mild and fairly dry. In the mountains it is cold and wet. There are a few small lakes. About a quarter of the land area is suitable for growing crops, and about another quarter is pastureland.
Continuing sensitivity over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Azeri writer Akram Aylisli's novella "Stone Dreams," published in Russia in 2013, produced a sharp governmental and public backlash in Azerbaijan for its expressed sympathy toward Armenians and recounting of Azeri atrocities during the Karabakh war in the 1990s. President Aliyev stripped Aylisli of his title of "People's Writer" (and its accompanying pension), Aylisli's son was fired from his job, and the head of the pro-government Modern Musavat party called for him to be punished.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks and OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic expressed serious concern over President Aliev's promulgation of amendments extending the application of criminal defamation to online expression in June2013.
Some of the holidays celebrated in Azerbaijan, like Kurban Bayram (the Feast of the Sacrifice), are Muslim in origin. Others predate Islam. Inrural areas, many holidays are of agricultural origin and are devoted to various crops. The most popular holiday, Novruz (meaning New Day), occurs at the spring equinox (March 20-21) and celebrates the renewal of nature.
Ritual foods are eaten, such as eggs and malt. On the last Wednesday before Novruz, people purify themselves by jumping over streams and sprinkling one another with water. Another Novruz rite is to place 7things—7 being a magic number—on a copper tray and leave it on the holiday table for 12 days as a gift to the sun. When Novruz eve arrives, relatives gather round the holiday table, and family graves are visited and tended. On this day people pay no visits and receive no guests. The holiday continues for several days, and ends with festive public dancing, music, and sports contests.
Azerbaijani cuisine resembles that of Georgia and Armenia while at the same time reflecting Central Asian influence. Popular dishes include kebab, rice pilaf with almonds and sesame seeds, plov (steamed rice with onions, prunes, spices, and lamb chunks fried in butter), dovga (yogurt boiled with rice, peas, onion, cress, fennel, and spinach), and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with minced lamb, rice, onion, and chopped greens). Tea is served with cardamom, ginger, and other spices. There are also various special pastries and candies. At Nauruz it is customary to fry wheat with nuts and raisins.