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Introducing Qobustan

Behind depressing Qobustan town, barren rocky hill-crags rise from the semi-desert. But it was not always thus. Around 12, 000 years ago the Caspian Sea level was some 80m higher. The Caspian foreshores were lush with vegetation and Stone Age hunter-gatherers settled in caves that were then just a short walk from the waters. The remnants of these caves remain etched with around 6000 fascinating petroglyphs (simple stone engravings). Even if you have no particular interest in ancient doodles, Qobustan’s eerie landscape and the hilltop views of oil-workings in the turquoise- blue Caspian are still fascinating.

The Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve (5444208; admission/camera/tour AZN3/2/6; 10.30am-4.30pm) is run by helpful English-speaking staff and it’s well worth paying for a guided tour: deciphering or even spotting the petroglyphs can be pretty tough for the casual visitor. Common themes are livestock, wild animals and human figures, notably shamans. Especially notable is a spindly reed boat sailing towards the sunset. Comparing this with similar ancient etchings in Norway led controversial ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl to suggest that Scandinavians might have originated in what is now Azerbaijan.

Seek out the fascinating tambourine stone. This resonant rock was played like a primitive musical instrument accompanying a ritual chain-dance (yallı) that features in some petroglyphs and was performed to ensure a successful hunt.

The reserve’s simple museum section, slated for eventual reconstruction, offers some interesting conjecture on daily cave life, setting the scene with mannequins eating and hunting. Tools and weapons found on the site are also displayed.