Azerbaijan – Sumgait: A Stroll Through The Debris

Rocketthumb.jpgWhen Claudius Bombarnac, Jules Verne´s imaginary hero in The Adventures of a Special Correspondent, arrives at the Apsheron peninsula on the shores of the Caspian he is appalled by the pollution, but thrilled at the same time by the naphtha that seeped out of the ground.


“A marvellous phenomenon indeed! Do you want a light or a fire? Nothing can be simpler; make a hole in the ground, the gas escapes, and you apply a match. That is a natural gasometer within reach of all purses”

azerbaijan map.jpg
Map courtesy of

Despite Verne’s concern, nobody has ever paid much attention to ecology in this part of the world. Sumgayit, Baku’s neighbouring town 40kms north of the Apsheron peninsula bears brutal witness to this. Sophisticated Bakunians occasionally laugh at Sumgayit locals; “they dry wool in the middle of the street!” some say. But textile handicraft is doubtless the least to worry about in the city once designed to be one of the biggest petrochemical complexes in the whole Soviet Union. Housing was easy to get here, so this village of 4000 souls in 1940 turned into today’s concrete-tower city of 270.000 people.


The main goal of “Azerbaijan’s pride” was to maximize low-cost production, so the nomenklatura cared very little about the wastes being dumped into the air, into the sea and onto garbage heaps. Despite the region’s “generous” government providing milk, cheese and meat to those workers in factories where toxicity was extreme, the environmental disaster had direct consequences in cancer mortality rates and premature-born babies, many of them with genetic defects as well. It’s not by chance that the city that once held the world record for infant mortality has got a separate section of its cemetery for children, many of them with severe malformations, according to the portraits engraved on their tombstones.


Travellers still eager to pay the visit will find marsrutkas aplenty leaving for Sumgayit outside Baku´s 20th January metro station. It’s just an hour’s drive northwards across the Apsheron peninsula during which the collective taxi stops whenever and wherever the passengers wish.

The greens provided by Baku city centre’s trees are substituted by the greyish thicket once in the outskirts. Verne had already pointed out that only the wormwood, the plant from which absinthe is made, survived in this barren land beaten by the winds, so Bakunians had to wait until the Nobel brothers started pumping oil here to get to enjoy the trees and the parks that cool down the city still nowadays. The story tells how the first Swedish oil tankers were filled with tons of fertile soil on their way back to Baku after cruising the Volga; a remarkable example of sustainable development, which unfortunately Exxon, BP and the rest of their heirs are not willing to follow in any way.


The feeling of movement comes from the continuous interchange of people in and out the mini-bus, as Baku´s outskirts couldn’t be more monotonous under the grey concrete towers called “Stalinska”, “Kruschevska” or “Breznevska”, named after the man ruling the Empire at the time. Actually, post-Soviet cities’ outskirts look exactly the same, from the Caspian shores to those of the Pacific coast.

The view from the hill before Sumgayit couldn’t be more appalling: The familiar mass of concrete, but this time surrounded by rusty pipes, rusty chimneys and rusty oil derricks here and there, many of them standing alone in the middle of a black puddle. Anyhow, Sumgayitans probably get used to it from an early age as rust also covers the swings for the children downtown.


But the city has some pleasant areas too, like the open air-market at the city centre, whose colourful display of fruits and vegetables helps to break the monochromy of the place. From there, the waterfront can easily be reached through the Sulh (peace) Avenue, which leads to Sumgayit’s two sole pieces of art just before the beach: the “Dove” sculpture, and the Nagorno Karabagh martyrs´ monument. Both made of concrete, the first still has a certain modernist charm, but the latter looks more like a rocket launched by resentful Armenians from the very heart of Nagorno Karabagh, willing to avenge the pogroms the local Armenians suffered here back in 1988. Armenians would also stick to the ethnic cleansing of Azeris and Kurds during the Karabagh conflict, hence the thousands of refugees from the war-torn region spread out all over the country, including Sumgayit.


Two rows of stairs help us leave the war memorials behind and make our way to the beach, beaten by the Jazri, the onshore wind. Looking towards the sea, one cannot help think of the strategic place this country has on the world map: Turkmenistan and Central Asia to the east, Russia to the north and Iran to the south. Some may say it is part of Europe; some others consider it the gate to Central Asia. President Ilham Aliyev, the last of the Aliyev dynasty, in power since time immemorial, goes even further and promises his people a “New Kuwait” for the near future. But plain Azeris hardly get to see any benefits of their “black gold”, most of which runs across British Petroleum’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipe – almost 2000 Kms long, running across the Caucasus and Eastern Turkey to reach the Mediterranean.

The long beach also gets its dose of rust, present on football goals and kiddies’ swings; on a big wheel that could be a replica of that one in the ghost town of Pripiat, near Chernobyl; and also in a wrecked ship that marks the end of the stroll.


Even if ecology has dramatically improved after the breakdown of the most poisonous factories during the economical discord of the early nineties, the majority of sewage here is still dumped into the sea unprocessed, turning the Caspian shoreline into a biological “dead zone”. Oblivious of this fact (or maybe not) Azeri tourists, longing for the sea, flock to the Caspian beach resorts during the summer season; something that the famous visionary French writer would never have been able to predict.

Author – Karlos Zurutuza

  9 comments for “Azerbaijan – Sumgait: A Stroll Through The Debris

  1. Gerald Thorpe
    June 20, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Fantastic article, I really enjoyed it. I also liked your photos in the article on Armenian Yezidis in Hidden Europe magazine. Good work!

  2. Zuru
    June 21, 2006 at 9:09 am

    Thanks Gerald!!

    Hidden Europe, a crack they are!

  3. August
    May 31, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Remember the armenian victims in Sumgait ??

  4. Zuru
    June 8, 2007 at 6:20 am

    Yes, look:

    “…the pogroms the local Armenians suffered here back in 1988”

  5. Anar
    October 20, 2007 at 2:50 am

    yes, I remember how armenians ( pretending as being Azeris)were killing armenians. by doing this they were trying to put the world against Azerbaijan and mislead those who dont know real Armenian ‘FACE’. to put shadow to their barbarian dids.If Azeris were killing Armenians why in Azerbaijan now still 30 000 armenians reside. but in Armenia no one from Azeris left who has been forced to leave their native turkic lands.

  6. Christopher
    February 15, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Can I get your permission to use the photo for an entry as a daily image at

  7. Debris
    March 1, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    You can, but credit it to Karlos Zurutuza

  8. June 3, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Karlos, I’d like to use the photo “Derricks.jpg” in an article that I am writing about Peak Oil. I need something that depicts the declining production of the world’s oil wells, and this picture does it perfectly.
    I’ll credit you and send you a link to the story when it appears online later this month in the IndUS Business Journal, as well as a few copies of the actual newspaper. FYI, the IndUS Business Journal is a national newspaper that covers the South Asian business community in North America, including trade among the North American and South Asian nations.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

  9. azerin_karabagh
    August 7, 2008 at 7:15 am

    I’m agree with u that the ecology in Sumgait is not good.But now everything is becoming better.Thanks 4 article.I’d like u touch upon Karabagh problem once again and visit our country Azerbaijan.

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