See, Baku was supposed to be just another historical city I would visit. A place to put down my backpack for a few days, discover ways to reach points of interest, find places to eat, visit a few historical sites and then move on to the next destination. Even though I did leave Baku after staying there for three days, Baku refuses to leave my imagination.
Azerbaijan does not make it easy for the tourists to visit her. Besides the exorbitant visa fees, the bureaucratic hurdles you need to overcome to get a tourist visa include confirming your hotel stay in Azerbaijan, with particular hotels the Azerbaijani bureaucracy likes. Facing these challenges, many tourists just give up the idea of travelling to the only Muslim country of Caucasus. Yet, how can your trip to Caucasus be complete without visiting Azerbaijan, the largest country of the region?
Our trip of Caucasus had started out in Turkey. After visiting Armenia we were in Tbilisi; we decided to apply for the Azerbaijani visas. When you visit that region and you are travelling overland you have to understand who is not getting along with whom.
Armenia has a long border with Turkey but the border is sealed — going from Turkey to Armenia, you have to first go to Georgia that gets along well with the other two neighbours. Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey is fresh in the minds of Armenians, but Turkey refuses to call Armenian mass killings in the Ottoman period genocide. Acrimonious relations exist between Azerbaijan and Armenia as well; once again Georgia (or Iran in south) is the neutral country to go through in order to travel between the other two.
To us visiting Caucasus was important in many ways: people associating themselves with that geographical region — calling themselves Caucasians — have defined the concept of races.
Caucasus is important for northern South Asia because our folklore has many references to Koh-e-Qaf, the legendary place of ‘beautiful’ women and tall men. Those stories came to South Asia, along with invaders from the north — story-tellers of Iran had made Caucasus such a mythological region.
After giving our passports to the Azerbaijan embassy in Tbilisi, we travelled to Kazbegi (also known as Stepantsminda), a town near the Georgia-Russia border. Kazbegi with its small population is trying to redefine itself from a small pastoral town to now a tourist attraction where foreigners come to climb mountains, and visit glaciers and waterfalls. Kazbegi is laid back, with regular shows of farmers herding their cows through the town — a gentle smell of cow manure permeates the air.
A visit to the museum in Kazbegi makes one realise how strongly people in the Old World associate themselves with the region they live in; even a small country modernly defined in the nation-state narrative can be teeming with ethnically diverse people.
Kazbegi Museum featured historical documents, and arts and crafts of the Kazbegi area, as the area existed fairly independent of its surroundings for hundreds of years.
By the time we came back to Tbilisi, our passports were ready with Azerbaijani visas. Hooray! We already had the Iranian visas. Now with the Azerbaijani visas in our passports we could take a circuitous route to Istanbul travelling south in Azerbaijan and then entering Iran.
Next day we left for Azerbaijan.
At the border our passports were checked to see which countries we had visited earlier and on spotting the Armenian stamp, the Azerbaijani immigration office said out loud with disappointment, “Ar-me-nia!!” as in, “Why the hell did you go to Armenia?” He then showed the Armenian stamps in our passports to his colleague who just happened to stop by his desk.
We did not say a word and kept forced smiles on our faces. We stood there with patience till we got our passports back with Azerbaijani entry stamps in them. On reaching Zaqatala, the van driver stopped in the city centre, pointed to the bus station and said “Sheki”— that’s where we needed to go to catch a bus to Sheki.
Our stay at the historical Karvansarayi Hotel in Sheki was a time to relax. The highlight of our visit was enjoying Sheki’s famous halva that very much lived up to its fame. Sheki halva is a scrumptious dessert made of flour, milk, nuts, eggs, and sugary syrup, with saffron lines on top.
Our travel guidebook said Azerbaijan cannot be firmly placed either in Europe or Asia. We did not see it that way. Azerbaijan was very much a Middle Eastern country to us. If you go by the faces you see on the streets in Azerbaijan, you may think you are in Jordan or Syria. Every prayer time, the atmosphere is filled with azans. And people eat roasted seeds like they do in all Middle Eastern countries.
Azerbaijani language was once written in Arabic letters. After Azerbaijan joined the Soviet Union, the script became Cyrillic. And now, after the collapse of the Union, Azerbaijani is written in the same letters used in modern Turkish.
A couple of days later we were in Baku. When in Tbilisi we had met a German woman who had been to Azerbaijan. She thought Azerbaijan was putting all its wealth in its capital — she was pointing to the phenomenon of uneven development in the country.
Travelling from Sheki to Baku, we found that assertion to be true. Baku not only had better infrastructure, it appeared more modern than other parts of the country we had visited. Uneven development in a country sets off internal migration from lesser developed areas to more privileged places. No wonder Baku is home to more than 20 per cent of the Azerbaijani population.
The continuing influx also means that Baku is an expensive city to visit. To find a place that would fit our budget we had to settle for a hotel some distance away from the Old City; we would take the metro to reach the tourist attractions.
It was another such day of exploration in the Azerbaijani capital. The hot afternoon in Baku was relenting to a mild evening. Soft lights from lampposts had started covering the cobblestoned streets and affluent tourists were taking seats in pimped-up outdoor restaurants. I was looking at the curious shape of the Maiden Tower when I came across a sign that pointed to the ‘Multani Caravanserai’.
Caravanserais — temporary abodes of ancient trade caravans — there were many in Azerbaijan, but why Multani? What did it have to do with our Multan? I followed the signs and after passing through a narrow passageway reached two stone buildings that had restored exteriors: one was Bukhara Caravanserai, the other one was Multani Caravanserai. I was told the Multani Caravanserai was built in the 15th century and was the resting place for traders coming from Multan. Presently, a restaurant by the name of ‘Karvansarayi’ occupies both buildings that face each other.
We were allowed to go down in the Multani Caravanserai to soak in the history of the place. Multani Caravanserai’s basement with its vaulted ceilings appeared to be the original construction.
This is where businessmen from Multan stayed during their stay in Baku. One of the basement walls was adorned with photos of eminent visitors of the historical building. A photo of Pervez Musharraf with his entourage was one of them. Also present in a glass display case were artifacts given as gift by the Pakistani Embassy in Baku.
A floodgate of thoughts opened up in my mind. The trade caravans in the ancient times must have had to travel around 2,000 miles going from Multan to Baku. With a maximum speed of 20 miles a day it would take 100 days to cover that distance. Did the trade caravans leaving Multan — with stopovers in between — reach Baku in six months? From Multan did they first travel north to Kabul, then East to Mashhad and finally reaching the southern point of Caspian; and from there they just went along the coast to Lankaran and then onwards to Baku?
Trade caravans were the main connections between towns of antiquity. That is how students reached the centres of learning they wanted to go to. All the holy men landing in Multan too must have come with those trade caravans. Ideas and technologies too must have travelled that way.
Maritime activity over long hauls being a dangerous proposition till around the 17th century, the ancient trade routes were mostly overland. South Asia was connected to Central Asia and Eurasia through these trade routes. The British came to our region through the sea; their domination of South Asia changed the trade patterns of this area. Even after the end of the colonial era, our region could not re-establish its vibrant historic trade connection with the landmass north of it.
I also nurtured thoughts about the power of ancient trade centres. Why was Multan so important? Its location by the Chenab River is vital, but did the Suraj Mandir with its awe-inspiring idols too elevate Multan’s status?
How were the ancient trade routes formed? Little trade connections must have merged together to form routes that were thousands of miles long. And who decided when would a trade caravan leave a place? Who were those caravan leaders and what were their skillsets? How large were the caravans? What merchandise would they carry with them? Were there armed men with each caravan? Coming out of the Multani Caravanserai I could see silk, spices, grains, and perfumes, all loaded up on mules present outside the caravanserai.
But my questions needed good, authentic answers.
I searched for books describing the ancient trade routes of our area. One that would take me on a trade caravan, going from Multan to Baku; another one that would describe in great detail things that were traded in those days; a third one about a Multani’s observations along the way and in Baku. But such books do not exist.
More than sixty years after coming out of the colonial rule, our historians still look at the West for researching topics that are and should be of great interest to us.