Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Caucasus: Black Gold Glittering

During the Middle Ages, Muslim geographers described the area around Baku as a place where countless flames burned continually of their own accord. The reason for this was the natural gas just below the surface, which drifted up through vents and when lit continued to burn until the flames went out. (At least one Yanar Dagh, is still going, and I plan to visit it tomorrow.) It is these natural resources which made the city famous, and today have earned Azerbaijan a place in the national spotlight.

Among the oldest ruins on the Absheron Peninsula on which Baku is located is an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple called Ateshgah. The enclosure is built around a small shrine in the center, where today a small flame burns powered by a gas line since the original natural supply ran out during the 20th century. In early times, fire also blazed from four chimneys, as well as a small pit off to one side. A museum features displays of life at the temple, to which people from as far away as India would come to perform ascetic feats involving hot coals, heated stones, or chains. (The professor part of me was happy to get pictures of all this to use in future discussions of Zoroastrianism in classes.)

During the medieval period, the natural harbor of Baku Bay was more important than the energy resources, though even then oil was scraped off the surface and exported. The real wealth of Baku and its succession of rulers, however, was as the main trading entrepot connecting Russia with the worlds of Islam and the Indian ocean. During this period, the walled city known as the Icheri Sheher, recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built, and during the 15th century became the home of the Shirvan Shahs, whose small palace is one of the main tourist attractions.

The city's biggest growth, however, came during the Industrial Revolution, when increased energy needs made its resources even more valuable. Much of central Baku is dominated by mansions from that period, usually built by Russians of whose empire Azerbaijan was by then a part. The city came to dominate the early oil trade, producing 50% of the world's supply in 1900. The oil business also led to important social and intellectual developments in the country. It was here that the first formulations of Turkish nationalism were made, creating an ideology of Turkism that would later spread to the Ottoman Empire and help give rise to modern Turkey. It was also here that oil workers formed the first recognized union in the Russian Empire over a decade before the Russian Revolution.

Here I must step back for a bit and describe my own arrival in the city. It was actually more exciting than I had anticipated, as I was called out of the passport control line by Azeri airport security, whose officials, dressed in an alarming ensemble of ocean blue suitcoats, yellow shirts, and bright pink ties, had apparently received a FAX from Istanbul, where I made my connection, indicating that I might represent a security threat. They quickly dismissed the idea and concluded that "they must have sent us the wrong Ulrich," but made a copy of my passport and ticket to show their superiors.

The place I wound up staying my first night was a legacy from the power which ruled Azerbaijan in the 20th century, the Soviet Union. If you ever want to see what the crumbling superpower was like, stay in one of its old hotels, most of which seem to have crumbling wallpaper, dysfunctional bathrooms, and staff that can't seem to handle much of anything. Given all this, the Hotel Azerbaijan was surprisingly busy, albeit mostly with a crowd that looked straight out of the Brezhnev era, walking around stiffly wearing tieless suits and often conversing in Russian. There was also an odd incident when the first morning I was told by the floor manager, a superfluous position I assume dates to the U.S.S.R., that I had a message at the front desk. That seemed unlikely, and when I checked they told me someone else had taken care of it. Umm, okay then.

Alas, the legacy of the Soviets was not only in bad if cheap hotels and the surprisingly interestingly built Dom Soviet, the seat of the ASSR government along the waterfront. The Soviets, too, took advantage of the land's oil and natural gas wealth, and the country continues to pay the price. Much of the landscape near the Caspian Sea is a complete wasteland of rusted oil wells, battered pipelines, and other huge, rusty pieces of equipment which when in use spewed pollution all over the peninsula and much of the coastline. The sheer scale of ecological devastation is staggering, and even includes splotches of oil spill that were never cleaned up. On the road north, you pass through a region called Arit which is still poverty-stricken largely due to the way the land was abused during the 20th century. In addition, the Soviets made the city of Sumqayit on the other side of the peninsula north of Baku their main chemical processing center, and as a result many of the beaches along the Caspian are unsafe due to pollution. (There's also apparently a cemetery with monuments to infants born deformed due to the chemical pollution, but I didn't go there to see it.)

Today, however, Azerbaijan is making a comeback, thanks again to its oil wealth. Eventually the Soviets abandoned the region and began to explore Siberia instead. This meant that, after the end of the Karabakh War in 1994 in which Armenia and allied fedayeen took control of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, British Petroleum with its superior technology came in and with its superior technology was able to begin milking oil out of the Caspian Sea itself. This oil, like that of Central Asia, has given rise to the new "Great Game" for influence in the region, as well as constant wrangling over how best to get it out.

Azerbaijan's good fortune in all this is to not be Iran, since the United States goes to great lengths to prevent pipeline routes from crossing that country, and to not have the instability problems of the Russian Caucasus. In terms of a western route, this left the Western powers with Azerbaijan as their main alley. The result was the BTC pipeline, which opened for business in 2005. In addition to allowing for more crude oil to leave the region, this route is also important because it doesn't pass through Russia, freeing Azerbaijan from Moscow's dominance of its oil exports and weakening its influence over the global oil supply, and by cutting through the Caucasus to the port of Ceyhan in southern Turkey avoids the Black Sea and Istanbul, where people have long feared an oil spill could ruin the environment or a terrorist attack could easily close the straits leading to the Mediterranean.

Everyone I've talked to in Azerbaijan loves the pipeline, which is managed by a consortium still led by BP whose expat employees are a visible part of Baku's current population. It's seen as a vehicle for even greater prosperity by everyone from restaurant owners up north far from oil country to miscellaneous businessmen in Baku. Even a scientist I talked to on the bus who was very aware of environmental issues in the country saw it was clearly a good thing.

Baku today is booming, though it doesn't quite have an identity. Downtown you see everything from neon signs al a Las Vegas to casinos and clubs clearly marked "private" and "exclusive" often managed by Russian expats I find myself stereotyping as mafiosos. The shoreline boasts lots of glittering rides and a huge red-lit clock tower that I think is probably actually a Soviet remnant but still fits the current zeitgeist. The bad news for me in all this is that the city is largely geared toward the wealthy, and the cheapest level of hotel prices has gone up 3 or 4 times since my trusty Lonely Planet guide was published in 2003. (Fortunately the rooms have also been renovated, except for ye olde Hotel Azerbaijan.)

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