Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a collection of over 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. Our 65km drive from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, should have taken around an hour, but unfortunately, we hit congestion, although the slow moving traffic allowed us to see Baku’s industrial side with reclaimed land being used for oil, cement and gas works and the Baku Shipyard.
At the entrance were several teepees made from reeds complete with animal skulls above the doorway, as well as life-size statues of prehistoric men wielding clubs – all generating fun photo opportunities.
We began in the two storey modern museum. Unfortunately, the small rooms were dark, guides were shining laser pointers in all directions, and domed ceilings made voices echo. Bearing in mind this was a large, extensive site, we felt the design could have been better.
There was a lot of information, far too much for anyone to read, and so our guide, Ainura, pointed out the highlights. There was a good introduction to the types of carvings to be seen and the various animals including bulls, pigs, lions, goats, dogs, wolves and snakes.
We learned that women were always portrayed as headless and often pregnant and although men tended to be simple stick figures, they usually had fingers on their hands. There was also a spindly reed boat sailing towards the sunset and, comparing this with similar ancient designs in Norway, led ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl to speculate that Scandinavians could have originated in Azerbaijan.
Brain slightly scrambled we set off on the well-marked trail which was roped off and with yellow powder on the ground to deter snakes which were said to be prevalent. The path was a bit rough and whilst there was a steep section to negotiate, it was relatively straightforward. At each of the marked sites was an information board in Azeri, English and Russian and a pen and ink drawing of what to look for, which made identification really easy and better than expected.
The surrounding views were exceptional with flat, semi-desert, arid landscapes and a tented construction with what looked like a stage, said to be used by picnicking school groups.
Whilst there are toilets at the site, there did not appear to be a café or shop.
On our way back into the city, we stopped off at the roadside Bibi-Heybat Mosque.
Having been built in 1281 to honour Ukeyma Khanum, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, it was blown up in 1934 by the Soviets as part of their anti-religious campaign, although the reason given was ‘road widening’ purposes. Ironically, a few months later, the Soviet government decided architectural monuments of historical significance should be conserved and the man responsible for its destruction was sentenced to 20 years exile in Siberia.
After Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, the President ordered its exact reconstruction based on photographs taken before the explosion, and the inauguration took place in 1999.
As the visit wasn’t on our original itinerary, our shorts were covered with a pair of fetching baggy denims for my husband and a blue satin long skirt and scarf for me.
From the large rear terrace, we had great views of the Caspian Sea and the industrial oil-rig port.
Shoes removed, we went inside and immediately saw the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum, covered by a filigree metal box-like structure, which people were walking round three times, as this was said to answer their prayers.
The impressive interior had a dome decorated with green and turquoise mirrors, bordered with gilded inscriptions from Qur’an and elaborate coloured windows. Unfortunately as it was Friday prayers, we couldn’t see any further.