Inside the rejuvenated Azerbaijani village of Balakhani

After years of neglect, the source of the world's first modern oil well has been completely revamped and it's ready to welcome visitors

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From the moment I arrive in Balakhani, a scenic region located 30 minutes by road from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, I’m bewitched.

What has drawn me here is the area’s rich history — it is where the world’s first modern oil well was dug in 1873. Millions of dollars worth of “black gold” was extracted from here during the oil boom of the late 19th century, setting in motion a chain of events that would not only drive automotive history, but also power Azerbaijan’s economy.

Centuries of oil over-extraction and overall neglect also damaged Balakhani under Soviet rule. Crumbling houses, polluted environs, a lack of civic amenities and poorly maintained architectural heritage marred its beauty. However, after a three-year extensive makeover, the village is now ready to welcome visitors.

The city has been given a colourful makeover. Photo: Neeta Lal

Everywhere I look, there’s beauty to behold — stunning public art, landscaped gardens, residential homes embellished with colourful frescoes, atmospheric restaurants and charming residents. “You’re the first international journalist to visit Balakhani after its revamp,” local guide Aytan Azimzadeh informs me while showing me around. As we navigate narrow streets, walking on shiny cobblestone pavements, I discover freshly renovated heritage structures.

The first is a 17th-century caravanserai once frequented by camel-riding traders who passed along the Silk Route that cut through here. At a 15th-century gum hammam (sand bath), I feel I have been transported to a sepia-tinted era. The architectural marvel consists of three interconnected parts: the main entry, with a corridor leading to the dressing and storage rooms; a large swimming hall equipped with hot and cold water pools and smaller interconnected rooms.

“Balakhani was famous for its bath culture and we used to have 18 hammams during Medieval times, which gradually fell into disrepair. Almost every neighbourhood had a hammam, all distinct from each other, with unique designs and architectural styles,” Azimzadeh explains.

Some of the settlement’s historic architecture dates back to the 1880s when local landowners who made millions from the oil wells reinvested in beautifying Balakhani. Some of these landowners’ homes still remain intact, reminiscent of times when they splurged to transform their homes into a status symbol.

One of the city's old hammams. Photo: Neeta Lal

Among Balakhani’s fascinating architecture is a mausoleum built in 1428 and a rejuvenated water storage unit unique to the Absheron Peninsula. “A lot of work has gone into the restoration of historical monuments and to improve the region’s ecology,” I’m informed. Pavements and roads, buildings and houses have all been given a makeover and more than a hundred small enterprises have been set up to promote the region’s handicrafts industry.

Local artists and residents have worked in synergy to transform Balakhani into an open-air gallery. I notice artistic flourishes everywhere — a row of colourful birdhouses here, an eye-catching bronze sculpture of a local hero there, and attractive wall paintings everywhere.

Open areas are peppered with lush fruit and herb trees. Photo: Neeta Lal

We move on to an open area peppered with lush fruit and herb trees. More than 100,000 trees and plants (including pomegranate, olive, Eldar pine and grapes) have been planted here to turn Balakhani into a self-sustaining settlement, allowing locals to enjoy local produce while whittling down food miles. I’m next drawn to a thriving plantation brimming with over 120,000 lavender and rosemary plants and 15,000 rose bushes. They were planted to generate employment for farmers and gardeners who continue to nurture and maintain them devotedly.

As my tour comes to an end, I’m invited to sample the local produce at Qovurma restaurant, a bustling eatery run by local women that serves meals buffet-style. An array of dishes behind glass counters greets us as we enter. The food is an olfactory delight and I volley between the various counters, wanting to wolf everything down. However, better sense prevails and after choosing my lunch, I proceed to an alfresco area. Here, we sit and chat while watching life go by in the laidback settlement.

Soon the food arrives. There’s lula kebab, a succulent medley of minced mutton, herbs and spices squeezed around a skewer and barbecued; translucent lavash bread; and a fragrant lamb pulao with melting meat and caramelised onions, its umami offset with raisins and apricots. All is washed down with a Cornelian cherry compote, the ambrosial sweet beverage integral to Azerbaijan’s cuisine.

“Everyone from the villagers to the mayor’s office put in enormous efforts to restore the village’s former beauty and its place in history,” says my guide, as I muse on how magic can happen if local residents are treated as stakeholders in government planning initiatives.

Updated: November 10, 2022, 5:51 AM