This month’s photography spotlight takes us far into the ancient mountains of Gobustan, an area full of history – revealing tectonic upheavals as well as rare rock carvings going back some 40,000 years
From the perspective of this cosy hollow, sheltered deep within one of Azerbaijan’s most ancient cave complexes, a distant mass of mountains is set against a cloudy blue sky, appearing to cut the outside world in two. Indeed, much like the famous proverbial glass, the geohistory of this grotto (situated in the Gobustan district of Baku) may be interpreted with both positive and negative connotations.
This cave system is discreet, but surprisingly well-lit, thanks to the natural ‘windows’ lining its three spacious rooms. Caves such as this one can be found dotted around Gobustan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and were created over millennia as seismic activity and other effects of weathering caused blocks of stone to break away from the edges of larger limestone layers.
Gobustan is also home to some 6,000 rock engravings and petroglyphs, with some going as far back as 40,000 years. This ancient art is diverse – battle boats at war, people dancing, and astrological scenes can all be found etched into cave walls. So distinctive are they, that Azerbaijani readers may recognise them immediately: they appear on the five manat banknote, after all.
Alena Kutyrkina, who took this curious snapshot, recalls how she descended from the local village, through pouring rain, over a canal carved into the rock before hiking a short way into the cave structure. “I like a non-standard approach to photography”, she says. “From the inside, the crack looked like a water droplet – I really liked it.”
There is, however, a more eerie side to Gobustan, whose explosive landscape is home to a staggering 400 or so mud volcanoes. Alena’s guide was quick to inform her about a local eruption which had happened just a month earlier, after which the earth was “turned into a flat desert for hundreds of meters, where magma and frozen mud intermixed,” she recalls. This was far from region’s most powerful discharge, however. In 2001, Azerbaijan’s mightiest volcano, Boyuk Khanizadagh erupted, shooting flames which reached a record 300 metres above the lid, before spewing out several tons of mud.
From the relative tranquillity of this mountain cavern, this all feels a world away. “I felt like an explorer”, declares Alena – “I stood there and wondered how the landscape looked a thousand years ago.”
Photography: Alena Kutyrkina
Words by Henry Ludlam-Steinke