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History of Absheron peninsula

The Absheron peninsula is officially classified as part of Baku city and its history is inexorably tied to that of Baku, for which it forms a scraggy approximation to an agricultural hinterland. Though Baku has always held a great strategic importance, until the 19th-century oil boom the city's population was fairly small while various Absheron villages such as Qala, Nardaran and Saray were relatively-bustling market centres.

The whole area was vulnerable to attack from the sea and consequently developed a formidable string of castles and fortifications, several of which have been renovated. Though there was a little trans-Caspian trade, neither the Absheron nor Baku was, a major part of the ancient Silk Routes. The region, however has maintained strong trade and cultural links with Iran for thousands of years. Absheron's spontaneously burning gas vents were probably the inspiration for Zarathustra and Zoroastrian fire worshippers.

In the 19th century, while Baku became increasingly cosmopolitan, the Absheron remained the bastion of traditional Tat and Azeri cultures and a centre of religiously conservative Islam. Nardaran and Mashtaga retain this image today, but Qala, Saray and several other ancient settlements withered away or were refounded on new sites. There were two reasons for these changes. Firstly, improved communications made the Absheron's short-hop caravanserais obsolete and undermined the area's ragged agricultural economy by making better, cheaper food available from the more fertile regions (Quba, Lankaran). There was also a deliberate Communist-era attempt to break the religious spirit of the strongly Islamic towns, and places which resisted the secularization were rendered virtual ghost towns.

As the Absheron's agricultural importance waned, its oil industry took off. 'When its oil fountains are playing 200 or 300 feet high, the Absheron might not unfitly be compared to a huge spermaccti whale' recorded a 17th-century traveller. For much of the 19th-century boom years the so-called 'Baku' oilfields actually had their epicentre in a small area around Balaxani.

Today almost the whole peninsula bears the scars of actual, or aborted, oil and gas workings. International statistics rate the peninsula amongst the world's most polluted places, with an estimated 40,000 hectares rendered uncultivatable by pollution or excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers. But this does not deter local holiday-makers who still see the region as a recreation area with its shady sanatoria and accessible beaches. Like the khans of yore who had a summer palace at Nardaran, today's elite from the president down, retain holiday homes on the peninsula.