Monday, November 22, 2010

Baku: A City Rejuvenated By Oil

Until the late 19th century, Baku was a small medieval wall town on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, famous only as a home of ancient Zoroastrianism.

Then it discovered oil.

It quickly attracted the attention of Europe's well-heeled rich, and many local farmers had the luck to dig underground, strike oil and become millionaires in months. By the beginning of the 20th century, it produced half the world's oil (by contrast, Kuwait, one of the world's richest petrostates today, produces a mere 5 per cent). By the start of the First World War, Baku (as part of the Russian Empire) had long overgrown the old medieval walled town and was full of mansions, parks and boulevards to rival Europe's richest and most famous cities.

This all ended with the Bolshevik revolution. Although briefly independent (as the Bolsheviks were at first too distracted by the civil war), by 1920 it was part of the Soviet Union, and Baku disappeared off the maps of the world. Baku's first "Oil Boom" was over.

During the Soviet era, Baku as a city stagnated, still well-off and cosmopolitan compared to the rest of the USSR, but its oil industry became inefficient and horribly polluting on the local environment, as the Soviets lacked the money to invest in more mordern, cleaner methods of extraction. Baku and the surrounding region became a toxic mess.

After independence in 1992, Western investment was not long in returning. After the "deal of the century" in the late '90s, BP and other oil multinationals brought a second "Oil Boom". Ten years on from that, Baku, looks to have restored its place on the world stage.

From a personal point of view, the changes in Baku over the past couple of years have been fairly astonishing. First arriving to Baku at the beginning of 2009, Baku looked like a city going places: buildings from the first "Oil Boom" were starting to be properly restored, and there were signs that also iconic ultra-modern structures were starting to be added to the cityscape.

There were still much room for improvement, of course, socially-speaking. The spread of the oil wealth clearly had not touched some people, but that was natural, considering the circumstances. Also, Baku being part of socially-conservative, Muslim Azerbaijan, led to some confusing misconceptions to the foreigner: although people dressed in a fairly Western style of clothing, a Western sense of liberal morality did not always accompany that. Social mores were still rather conservative and traditional.

Recently returning to Baku, after a break of several months, the extent of the changes, both physically and socially, have been remarkable. After many months of work, the city centre has been restored to match the grandiosity of the days of the first "Oil Boom", albeit with 21st refinements. The parks and boulevards of downtown Baku match those, in terms of style and elegance, of the most famous European cities. The city centre may, to architectural snobs, look like a confection of European styles, but this was all built by those Europeans a century ago.

The old city (called "Icherishehir" in Azeri) has been restored and polished up, to the effect that, once you pass through the old town walls, you feel as though you have stepped back a few centuries in time, if you ignore the souvenir hawkers. The old town is a labyrinth of alleyways and passages, and what's more, totally silent.

Socially, too, the changes have been sudden and seemingly irreversable. Young people as well as familes and pensioners, now take advantage of the newly-restored parks and public spaces, hanging out till late. The nightlife scene, at one time somewhat limited in its scope, is rapidly opening up and diversifying.

Baku looks to have regained its due sense of civic pride with gusto, and is a pleasure to spend time in, provided you have the money of course. In other words, Baku is well and truly open for business.

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