Rock carvings; we’ve spoken about that frequently here on Sophie’s World – in the Caribbean, and around in Scandinavia: in the Arctic, in the very south of Norway, and just across the border in Sweden. In fact, there are rock carvings in my home town; the nearest one is a moose, next to a playground, barely shielded by a low fence.
Some petroglyphs are protected by UNESCO, some are not. I can’t be sure why that is – it seems it doesn’t have to do with the quantity or quality of the carvings. It’s probably about the process: local authorities have to put together the necessary documentation, the dossier, to present to the world heritage committee. Prove the site meets the criteria. Do the work.
Azerbaijani authorities did, and their efforts were crowned with success in 2007.
We drive for about an hour from the Azeri capital Baku along the cerulean Caspian Sea, shimmering in the hot July sun. At the site we’re welcomed by this inscription from 1950.
These rock carvings encompass an extensive area; 537 hectares (about 537 sports fields). The name Gobustan (sometimes spelled Qobustan), means ‘land of dry riverbeds’. This extraordinary landscape with rocks rising up, is located between the banks of the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains, across three limestone covered hills: Boyukdash, Kichikdash and Jinghirdagh.
It’s difficult to say just how old the petroglyphs are, or at least, theories vary. Some are said to be 40 000 years old! At the onsite Gobustan Museum, we begin about 17 000 years ago. It’s an interesting museum: in the hall, we’re met with petroglyph drawings on the ceiling and the walls. Further along, we’re encouraged to time-travel. We’re invited to use our imagination: how did this area look in prehistoric times? Green, verdant forests, an array of animals no longer here. A very different climate and environment from the arid landscape today. Must have felt very different as well. Which has a great impact on culture and on people; their well-being and creativity.
In addition to the petroglyphs, you’ll find what remains of caves and entire settlements. From the end of the Upper Palaeolithic Era (late Stone Age) through the Middle Ages, this is the world’s longest continuous custom of creating rock art.
The petroglyphs I’ve seen around Scandinavia reflect our wildlife (moose, reindeer). As expected, the animals depicted here look different: we see camel caravans, horses and lions. There are humans, animals, warriors, dancers, pregnant women – in short, life. And also the heavens above, the sun and the stars.
Are we dancing? I think we’re dancing. I hope we’re dancing. You should be dancing. Yeah…
Thor Heyerdahl and Gobustan
Is this site in the Caucasus similar to the ones in Scandinavia? My fellow Norwegian, ethnographer (and adventurer) Thor Heyerdahl, had a lot to say about that. Always challenging the Euro-centric view of the world, he suggested that us Scandis just might be descendants of the Stone Age Azeris that did the graffiti work here at Gobustan.
My growing suspicion is that what today is left as the little Republic of Azerbaijan around the capital Baku is only vestiges of what was once a large and dynamic nation bordering on an inland sea but transmitting merchandise and even colonists to remote outposts in both Asia and Europe.
Thor visited Gobustan several times, looking specifically for boat petroglyphs. Why, did he ask, do we find carvings of boats all over the place, even in dry desert landscapes far from any body of water? And why are the boat carvings in Gobustan so similar to the ones in Scandinavia?
Boat petroglyph at Pennefeltet, Lista in Southern Norway
…and in Gobustan
Did Caucasians originate in the Caucasus?
Thor was dismayed how little we know about human history. Take the Vikings, for example… thanks to saga scribe Snorri Sturluson, as well as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Irish Annals, we know a bit about where they went and what they were up to. (Of course, neither of these three were written by neutral observers, exactly – but it’s what we’ve got).
…the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter…
But where did my ancestors come from? Chances are they didn’t just pop up from underneath the glaciers when the ice melted. In Old Norse, the gods (Odin & co) are referred to as æser or aser. Back in the 1200s, Snorri pinpointed the location of the legendary Aser people to be east of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Could it be Azerbaijan?
Thor thought so. Caucasians, then, contrary to the general consensus, might not have originated in Scandinavia, but rather in Azerbaijan. This is somewhat supported by the strong, tall, blond Stone Age hunters we see in the museum in Gobustan.
Thor Heyerdahl’s theory is certainly disputed. All his theories are. During his lifetime, he was frequently accused of not using scientific methodology, of being pseudo-scientific. On the other hand, he was awarded 11 honorary doctorates from various universities (including the University of Oslo, where some of his harshest critics were), and heaps of academic honours. The film documenting his journey in a balsa raft across the Pacific in 1947 won an Oscar.
Whatever one might believe about the validity of his theories, they are certainly compelling (and perhaps worth looking into using the required scientific methodology. Just a thought!)
There’s more to Gobustan than ancient rock art. In this petroleum producing country, you’d expect oil to seep up from the ground. Not here. Instead, mud! Dense, viscous mud.
Azerbaijan is home to more than half of the world’s mud volcanoes and quite a few of them dot the landscape here in Gobustan. Locals call them pil-pil. Back in the old days, they used to erupt now and again. Nowadays, they’re not volcanoes in a dangerous sense. No Vesuvius to be concerned about here. No lava. Just mud. It’s perfectly safe to get up close to the bubbles!
The landscape is stark, grey and a bit foreboding, though. Alien. I’m wondering if this is how Earth will look after the end of its cycle, Ragnarok (the Norse version of Armageddon).
The easiest way to visit Gobustan is to take a tour from Baku. There are several options; we used Bag Baku. Most tours take in both the petroglyphs and the mud volcanoes, and if you’re lucky, you’re driven the short distance between the two along a delightfully bumpy road in an old Lada. If you’re even luckier, (and ask nicely,) you may even be allowed to do a spin behind the Lada wheel yourself. Be warned, not exactly automatic transmission here, folks.
Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.
Disclosure: In Azerbaijan, I was a guest of Four Seasons Hotel Baku. As always, we’re free to write whatever we choose here on Sophie’s World. Wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.