Baku has always been at the crossroads of something. Caught between the empire-building machinations of the Persians, the Russians, and the Turks, it languished under the control of one or another of those civilizations for centuries. Now the city and its country are experiencing a breakthrough, but one roiled by an authoritarian government, the vicissitudes of an oil economy, and the challenge of integrating Islamic customs with modern Western secularism.
The turbulence is playing out in what can only be called an epic setting. The Caspian Sea waterfront must compel grand architectural gestures because Baku's rulers always have been partial to them. From the domed 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs (named for the rulers of Shirvan, a onetime Azeri state) to the ornate fin de siècle mansions of the first oil boom, to the muscular office blocks built by the Soviet Union, those architectural gestures make rounding each corner a potential moment of discovery. Now the Aliyev family, which has presided over Azerbaijan since 1993, has applied a new level of ambition to the construction: Additions such as the swooping Heydar Aliyev Center and the triad of curved, glass-sheathed skyscrapers known as the Flame Towers are headed toward iconic status. Even as Baku's two million-plus residents struggle to define themselves, they live in a place that looks like nowhere else.