From the sky, Baku seems to be burning. Giant torches from the city’s oil refineries are spitting fire into the night air, and village lights glow like embers below me. Later, when I step off the plane, onshore winds send the reek of crude oil – a cross between burnt rubber and school chemistry labs – straight into my face. This is how it feels to arrive in “the city of fire”, the capital of the country where oil-rich ground spontaneously bursts into flames that burn for months on end.
A tourist destination or a place to go prospecting for oil? Azerbaijan, in both respects, now seems to be waking up. For 50 years Baku was in suspended animation under Soviet rule. Now a new generation of oil barons is moving into the city’s crumbling mansions, hoping to pick up where the likes of Rothschild and Nobel left off. As for tourism: well, my guidebook, the only one currently published in the UK, points out that the Ajichai Valley, now in Iranian Azerbaijan, has been sited as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. I confess that Baku, from the airport road, does not looklike the original paradise – but then again first impressions can be misleading.From the ashes of the Baltic ghetto to where the earth breathes fire