If you’ve got a spare day at the weekend, make an arrangement with a taxi driver, and discover the open-air collection of Neolithic rock engravings with an individual tour of Gobustan, says George Callaghan.
One overcast Saturday my friend Roland, and I went on a day trip to Gobustan (Qobustan, Kobustan), 60km southwest of Baku, guided by English-speaking driver, Azer.
Azer had approached me in the Old City a few months before, a little, oldish man with a raffish moustache and booming voice. At the time he offered us a four hour trip for AZN 80. I took his phone number, and called him later to make arrangements.
Leaving Abu Arena
We got into the cab at Abu Arena and Azer drove us out of town, steep hillside to the right and the sea to the left. We left greenery behind to see tan-coloured soil sprinkled with round, smooth stones. It serves to remind one that before Baku struck oil, the city was like this too. There was a memorable vista across the bay with the James Bond oilfield, and Azer pointed out a mostly submerged island that had once been a prison.
There was a stately and handsome mosque beside the road and a wedding party was on its way in. The bride was decked out in a resplendent white wedding dress, the men in shiny suits and shirts unbuttoned in the heat.
Soon we were zooming along a dual carriageway. Corrugated iron roofs marked the poor district, and to the right we saw huge rusting oil platforms, before an enormously long metal pier leading to an oil rig. Azer said a whole town had been built on a metal platform out there.
After the better part of an hour’s drive we turned left, inland. The land sloped up a little and we passed a village along an unpaved road, puddles spread over its bumpy surface. Stray dogs scampered between low built houses. Some roofs of the rich were shaped into the form of peacocks and other such exotic animals, in contrast to those made of uncovered breeze blocks which added to the hue of the town, beige and grey.
Soon we were back on a metalled road. The clay land was scattered with noble boulders here and there. Except for the occasional blade of grass the land was bare. The road climbed fairly rapidly and from far away we could see a gleaming white complex – the Gobustan museum.
Artifacts from the Dark Ages
Azer parked the car and we all hopped out. The spanking new museum was state of the art. It was a far cry from the village through which we had just passed.
Inside, the lighting was low. The display cases were well illuminated and had explanatory texts in English. The museum showed countless artifacts from pre-history into the dark ages. Tableaux recreated scenes from the past with cavemen and people of the earliest civilization. It was all evocative and well presented.
We drove on a little further to the Roman rock. Here in about 90 AD some Roman legionnaires had stopped and one etched some Latin abbreviations onto the rock. This is the most easterly inscription in Latin. The Roman soldier indicated that his legion was from Germany– southern Germany being then a province of the Roman Empire.
Renowned cave site
We drove on a few more minutes as the road snaked up through the stony hills. Then were entered a fenced-off car park. Here we were at the renowned cave site of Gobustan. We saw many petroglyphs on the flinty cliffs, 4000 inscriptions that go back 12,000 years. In pre-historic times a group of 50-100 people is thought to have lived here. The cliffs provide some shelter, and the position was defensive in case another tribe attacked. There was a dramatic view of the desert for several miles down the Caspian. The cave art showed all sorts of beasts and a number of people. Basins had been carved into the soft rock, little wooden signs warned us that snakes may be about, and we saw some ancient Muslim tombs, lovingly inscribed with Arabic scriptures.
Finally, getting hungry, we drove back to the village at the join of the Absheron peninsula and the mainland. Here we had lunch in a down market local diner. Azer proudly introduced us to a local bigwig and I exchanged pleasantries in Russian with him. For AZN12 we had a meal consisting of a plate of thin lambs’ legs with bread, white cheese and salad, before making the trail back to where we started in Abu Arena.
If you are travelling from the capital, Baku you can reach Gobustan by taking the bus to Alat. The popular petroglyphs site lies after the jail, approximately 5km west of Gobustan. Gobustan Museum is open 10:30-16:30 and costs US$3.00 with guided tours available and additional costs for taking photographs. Plan for a day trip, as there are no overnight places to stay in Gobustan.