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Walking Baku: Stroll Through the World’s First Oil Capital

Walking Baku: Stroll Through the World’s First Oil Capital Tourism

Take a virtual tour of the city on the Caspian Sea with 500-year-old steam baths and the world’s largest KFC.

 

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

Cupped in an amphitheater of rumpled hills on the windy Caspian Sea coast, Baku has attracted human wanderers since the Stone Age. First it offered fish and shelter, then it flourished as a strategic medieval walled port made powerful through trade along the old Silk Road, and finally, in the mid-19th century, the city exploded as the world’s first petroleum capital.

By 1900 dynastic European fortunes were being made in Baku oil. (The Rothchilds and the Nobels, to name just two.) The nouveau riche, the local and the foreign-born, threw up gaudy opera houses and mansions in an eclectic mishmash of styles. (One instant Bakuvian oil millionaire modeled his estate on Venetian palaces.) The old caravanserai town morphed into the smudged fuel station of the industrial age. As one 1911 visitor famously reported: “Oil is in the air one breathes, in one’s nostrils, in one’s eyes, in the water of the morning bath (though not in the drinking water, for that is brought in bottles from distant mineral springs), in one’s starched linen—everywhere.”

Once the seat of local Muslim Shirvanshah rulers, Baku has changed hands many times among vying empires: Imperial Russia, Persia, Ottoman Turkey, and, briefly, Great Britain. “Baku is a blend of east and west, north and south,” says Fuad Akhundov, the unofficial historian of Azerbaijan’s seaside capital, one of the world’s most culturally tangled cities. “Baku accepts every idea that arrives here, then, somehow, it shapes it into something of its own.”

Today that influence game continues, if less violently, with Russia, the West, Iran, and Turkey—and multinational oil corporations—jockeying for access to Azerbaijan’s still rich oil and gas fields. When energy prices rocketed in the 2000s, Azerbaijan shrewdly juggled those interests. But with the oil market collapse, the country faces a reckoning: Its oil-dependent economy is stalled, and many investors are fleeing. To walk into Baku today—home to both the world’s largest Kentucky Fried Chicken and 500-year-old steam baths—was to walk into a shining city on edge.

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Walking Baku; Stroll Through the World’s First Oil Capital Walking Baku World’s First Oil Capital caspian sea fish map of caspian sea caspian sea lake caspian sea river caspian sea monster caspian sea oil caspian sea iran caspian sea countries caspian sea iran Caspian Sea fish Photo of the Caspian Sea Caspian Sea map Caspian Sea Caspian Sea depth Caspian Sea sturgeon of the Caspian Sea Khezer_Shahr Caspian Sea Caspian oil seport of Amirabad seport of Port Anzali Mazandaran Gilan, Golestan Babolsar Tourist North Country Dodangeh Chahardangeh the Khazars the people of the Khazars Caspian people Sea of Qazvin Khazarabad Caspian sea coast Caspian Sea legal norms Caspian environment pollution of the Caspian Sea Caspian oil gas of the Caspian Sea Caspian Sea issues the legal system of the Caspian Sea Iran's share in Caspian legal aspects of the Caspian Sea environment of the Caspian Sea the importance and status of the Caspian Sea Caspian to the Persian Gulf connection National Institute of Oceanography features of the Caspian Sea Caspian Shipping Company Caspian Sea level Iran Russia Kazakhstan Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan fishing in the Caspian Sea Caspian Sea weather transport in the Caspian Sea Caspian Sea News marine transportation in the Caspian Sea region the Iranian islands in the Caspian Sea the scaffolding factory and shipyard Caspian ecological Institute of Caspian Sea Caspian Sea Shells in nitrate and phosphate important rivers of Caspian Sea Caspian sea basin mammal of Caspian Sea Caspian oil Company Caspian Sea water transfer babol Amol northern tourist areas forests of the north spectacular Photos of Mazandaran Mazandaran forests gilan forests images of Mazandaran forests Falls river forest Institute for Caspian Sea Caspian Sea level fluctuations Black gold caviar stellate sturgeon Hotels tourism Tourist iran tourism Russia tourism Azerbaijan tourism Caspian sea people political event event lawyer export import goods export goods import environment war military political economic economy offshore