Gobustan Rock Art
Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape has an outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings.
They can be found on three flat-topped hills within a volcanic landscape. The oldest engravings were made during a warmer and wetter period. Dating from Prehistory to the Middle Ages, they depict primitive men, animals, battle pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, and pictures of sun and stars.
Community Perspective: All international visitors seem to be steered towards the Boyukdash location. A visit here should also include the modern Gobustan Museum. Gobustan had a rocky path to inscription, adequately described by Solivagant.
Map of Gobustan Rock ArtLoad map
I visited this WHS in 2023. After a quick visit of the few original remains at the small visitor centre a few metres away, geared mainly to entertain the the many school groups visiting this site, I made an extra effort to also "see" the Roman inscription at the very edge before the restricted area. The Latin inscription needs cleaning as it is almost impossible to see now due to lichens and weathering. At least I got to see plenty of pygmy owls and the marble UNESCO WHS plaque in the area so it wasn't a complete waste of time. Next, I headed towards Boyukdash, the main component open to the general public in a sort of loop trail.
I must confess I had low expectations, as with many rock art sites, you never know what to expect until you get there. The rock art here covers a huge historical period from the Mesolithic to the Late Middle Ages. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised, mostly due to the quantity, quality and variety of the rock art. The rock art here truly sheds light on the lifestyle, occupation, religious beliefs and early art of the people who settled the area thousands of years ago. In an area of 3,096 hectares, archaeologists discovered more than 6,000 rock drawings, settlements, burial mounds, formerly inhabited caves, megalithic structures, traces of settlements and tombs.
Humans who settled in Gobustan more than 20,000 years ago are believed to have lived in a communal clan system, which was based on kinship ties on the maternal side, tribal ownership of the means of production, and collective production and consumption. The leading role in the life of the tribe was played by women: homemakers, caregivers of children and the main suppliers of food, since only gathering guaranteed daily food at the time. The period of matriarchy depicted on the rock art of Gobustan lasted several millenia, but gradually, under the influence of new tools, especially the bow and arrow, and such activities as cattle breeding and agriculture, the baton was handed over to men as primary breadwinners. During the Mesolithic, man not only found food by hunting, fishing and gathering, but also produced food and learned how to create food reserves, as evidenced by the single-type holes carved into the rocks.
Following the emergence of occupations that guaranteed food for humans, and therefore lifting the problem of survival, they finally had free time. Norms and rules of conduct formed and prohibitions and requirement were established, which gradually became part of the tradition and first primitive religions. At the same time, knowledge about the surrounding world was accumulated and handed down from generation to generation. Historians attribute the emergence of such skills as the treatment of wounds and injuries and even the first surgeries, evidence of which was found in Gobustan, to this period. Arts appeared precisely in the Mesolithic. Its forms were not so diverse yet, but there was music and dancing already, most of which had a ritual character. Several large stones known as "gavaldashes", which served as drums, were found in Gobustan. If you wait for one of the several tour guides around, you'll be impressed by the echoing sound these stones make simply by striking another stone at them. Their sounds could be heard for several kilometres in the wide valley.
During this period, the Gobustan petroglyphs are mostly multifigured and depict people and tribesmen at hunting scenes, fights, fishing and dancing. They convey not only the event, but also the main feeling of the time, that man is no longer an easy prey of wild animals but already claims to be the master of the world. In the later rock art of Gobustan, riders have been carved too. Some researchers note similarities between the rock art of Gobustan and the petroglyphs found in East Africa. During my visit, I remember the larger "panels" full of animal figures reminded me of the rock art of the Bhimbetka Shelters in India, while the etched rock art of mostly extinct animals in movement are comparable also to the prehistoric rock art in France and Spain. There are also many hypotheses regarding human settlements in Gobustan and the author of one of them is the Norwegian traveller Thor Heyerdahl. On seeing the famous petroglyph of a multi-seat boat of the 6th millenium BC, he became firmly convinced that most likely it was a reed vessel related to the Sumerian ones, and therefore the people of Gobustan could have contacts with the world's oldest civilisations.
On a sunny day, if you bring along binoculars, you'll surely be able to appreciate a lot of other rock art "panels", easily spotted by the Soviet-era engraved numbers given to most. If you opt to visit alone, without a guide, you'll be able to time your visit to the most busy panels (especially the cul-de-sac ones!) or simply revisit when there are no crowds. At places, even 5-10 people can be too much, to fully appreciate the rock art at knee level. Moreover, there are lots of information boards to help you not miss the main rock art highlights and if you spend more than an hour there, you'll notice that most guides repeat the same information over and over, so you won't miss much. Without the danger of venomous snakes, I think it would be great to be able to visit the area with a guide and a torch at night (an experience offered in Scandinavia). That way, the fainter rock art would be easier to appreciate. However, judging simply from what I saw in a very small part of one component, I really was impressed overall and it truly possesses OUV (easily visible with the naked eye, not mostly with an app!).
Despite most of the people that took a tour to the site, I did it the local way by public bus from Baku. It's really recommended to go to the museum first to have a better understanding of the site archaeological findings and visualize what it was in the past.
It's a bit of walking uphill if you don't have a transportation, but the view along the way is rewarding. Especially you can see the village and the Caspian Sea on a sunny day.
There are a lot of carvings along the path, some of them occurring a big area while some you might just missed if you don't look clearly. They are all sided by numbers so you can basically follow so you won't miss it. The carvings are in good condition with most of the symbols of human and animals.
Some of the carvings are high up on the walls, sometimes wondering how they managed to get up at that level with limited tools available at that time. Some of the carvings are interesting too. Let your imagination flies and try to think in the Paleolithic mindset what the carvings are meant for.
The rock art can be combined with the mud volcano trip which is not far away. These two are considered extraordinary visit sites in the region. Definitely worth the visit.
What would an international trip be without a visit to a fine example of rock art? Azerbaijan is represented among the at least 60 rock art-related WHS with the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape. Gobustan is the name of a region near the Caspian Sea, where in the 1930s the first discovery was made by local miners looking for gravel. The petroglyphs were carved into blocks of stone that had fallen from the cliffs above, blocks that provided a natural shelter for those living in the area.
The site now lies a couple of kilometers inland, but when the rock art was made the water level was much higher and these rocks were near the seashore. It’s a quite barren area nowadays, from which you can see the offshore oilfields that keep Azerbaijan’s economy afloat. Next to the entrance of the sizeable archaeological area lies the modern Gobustan Museum. Other reviewers already have sung praise about this museum which is a 2011 addition to the ‘visitor experience’. I can only second that: it has a comprehensive exhibition that relies heavily on audio-visuals and computer animations. Our enthusiastic Azeri guide loved showing the developmental history of the site by swiping forwards and backward in time.
The WHS officially comprises 3 areas with rock art, surrounding 3 table mountains that can be seen from the entrance. We only went to see one of these, Boyukdash. It seems that all tourists are immediately directed there, I even doubt that the other two locations are visitable by non-scientists. There’s a short trail here that leads along some 20 rocks with engravings. The rocks are all numbered (another relic from Soviet times), but no explanation is given about where to look and what to look for.
We visited in the early afternoon, and the petroglyphs were easy to see. The stone is quite soft, and most of the time the chiselling technique that leads to broader and deeper carvings seems to have been used. One of the highlights lies immediately at the start of the trail: ‘the dancing people’. A fragment of this is also displayed on the Azeri 5 Manat banknote (in the top left corner, you have to look closely).
It is tempting to compare this site to the Coa Valley Rock Art WHS, which I visited just a few weeks ago in Portugal. Both are petroglyphs (i.e.: not paintings or drawings), and date from about the same period: the Upper Palaeolithic. There are various ideas about the exact age of Gobustan, but the displays in the museum start at about 15.000 BC. This was seconded by our guide, who had been a deputy director of the Gobustan archaeological site in the 1990s (in his lifetime he also had grown up on a kolkhoz and served in the Soviet army, and now makes a decent living in tourism).
The visiting experience between the two sites however is completely different: due to the secluded location of the Coa Valley the visit there felt more exclusive, and the carvings were explained in more detail by the specialized guide. Here in Azerbaijan, only a short overview for general tourists is provided (there were also many schoolchildren around). Gobustan’s engravings span a longer period though, so it has greater variety in depicted objects than Coa. Best known among these are the boat petroglyphs, made famous by Thor Heyerdahl).
During the bus ride back to Baku with my tour group I was asked to explain a bit about World Heritage and why Gobustan has become a WHS. It is a rocky story, where Azerbaijan proposed inclusion on 3 criteria but only one was awarded (hesitantly). The claims for 'place of worship' and 'interchange of ideas' weren’t substantiated enough. The UNESCO website now shows a meagre explanation of Gobustan’s OUV, calling it “a testimony to a way of life that has disappeared”.
Read more from Els Slots here.
Just back from our trip to Azerbeidzjan and Georgia (end of sept.2012).The Rock Art in Gobustan National Park is widely spread over a huge area. Valcamonica and Tanum are more impressive, but the new museum is fantastic.
An early start and a roadside breakfast together with some locals Azeri’s who’ve probably never met a Scandinavian traveler before, was the start of my visit to Gobustan. After some 2-3 hours drive, south of Baku the first stop was at the burping and oozing mud volcanoes. The volcanoes are found on a small hill not far from the Gobustan petroglyphs and are an absolute must if you can find your way on the bumpy roads without non-what-so-ever signs to direct you to the right place. A local guide is therefore an absolute must.
On the road leading to the Gobustan visitor’s center and the rock carving site, there is another point of interest to be found – the “Roman graffiti”. A group of Roman soldiers, probably on a recognizance tour carved out a message stating the most Eastern point any Roman patrol ever ventured to.
Over 6000 rock carvings have been found in Gobustan and bears witness of a 12000 year old civilization that once lived by the Caspian Sea shore. Today the sea is found some 7-8 km in the eastern direction but it is still a fascinating landscape with large rocks that once functioned as roofs to the early settlements. The carvings usually depict humans, domestic and wild animals, boats and battle scenes.
During my World Heritage travels I’ve now seen rock carvings in Sweden, Norway, India and Azerbaijan and it’s interesting to find that there are similarities between them all. But to go as far as the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and suggest that the Scandinavians once originated from ancient Azerbaijan is probably a little too far fetched…
Gobustan was 1 of 3 “Rock Art” sites among the 22 added in 2007 (with Twyfelfontein and Lopé). There are already many such sites on the list (see my reviews of Valcamonica, Tanum, Alta and the Matabo Hills for just some of them!). Whether Gobustan adds a great deal is open to some debate. In 2004 ICOMOS had decided that the nomination should be deferred to allow development of a research program. The revised 2007 evaluation concluded that the site met but 1 of the proposed criteria (but that a case had not been adequately made on 2 others) and recommended further referral for reasons of management plan and boundary “inadequacies” - yet UNESCO accepted the site on all 3 criteria! If you are in Baku you should certainly take the c65 kms trip south to see it but we personally, as non-experts, wouldn’t rate the visit that highly in comparison with the other rupestrian sites we have seen, either for what is on show or for the conditions under which you are shown it.
One problem with visiting sights which are then inscribed some years later is that one hasn’t always taken a photo as confirmation of the visit! And, when we visited in August 2000, we certainly hadn’t regarded this site as future “World Heritage” material “requiring” such a snap (There was no easily available “T List” information then). But that isn’t the main reason why the only “confirmation photo” I can provide is of the ticket for visiting “Qobustan”. Perhaps reflecting the fact that one of our expensive (foreigners?) tickets is numbered “00002” (I have lost the other which may indeed have been “00001”) and that there were no other visitors that morning, we were treated to the full weight of officialdom on our arrival with lectures on all the things one couldn’t do and close supervision throughout (the 2003 evaluation talks of 1000-2000 visitors pa – though it doesn’t seem credible that this could include Azeris). Yet both the 2004 and 2007 evaluations (rightly) criticise such practices as filling the engravings with toothpaste to assist photography – who was doing it and how! I feel that we, as foreigners, were receiving “special treatment”! I cannot remember whether the reason I took no photos was because we were told that it was forbidden or because it required some outrageous “foreigners” price ticket. Oh for the relaxed and friendly Scandinavian approach towards visitors at Tanum and Alta!
We only visited the main area described in the inscription documentation as “Boyukdash” situated on a cliff overlooking the Caspian with oil derricks as and connecting bridges as far as the eye could see. But, having seen the photos of the Gobustan inscriptions on the Web, I don’t believe that our officious guide took us to see a full range of the Palaeolithic and Bronze Age inscriptions. Indeed, my main memory of the visit was of the “singing stones” rather than of the rock art itself, recollection of which has largely been erased by the passage if time. These stones permit a range of musical notes to be “played” on them and were certainly used for this purpose in prehistoric times. The site has a little museum which I also remember more than the in-situ drawings.
Those interested in “travel trivia” might be interested to know of a fenced-in rock near to Gobustan (you can pass it on the way to/from from the main road to Baku) with what is the eastern-most Roman inscription ever found (it commemorates the 12th Legion which reached there in around 75AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian) – it is NOT part of the inscribed site (but I DO have a photo of it!).
- Michael anak Kenyalang Walter :
- Milan Jirasek Tarquinio_Superbo Christoph :
- Alexandrcfif Sutul Stanislaw Warwas Adrian Turtschi :
- Peter Lööv Thomas van der Walt Voyager :
- Fmaiolo@yahoo.com Hanming Juha Sjoeblom JLuth MH George Gdanski Dorejd Gilles Alexander Barabanov Clyde Martina Rúčková Els Slots Kurt Lauer Philipp Leu Szucs Tamas :
- Alexander Lehmann Jungliemonkey Ivan Rucek Eric Lurio Ammon Watkins :
- Paolosan82 Solivagant Tingmelvin Nomad99 :
- Merveil Zoë Sheng Wojciech Fedoruk Jarek Pokrzywnicki :
- BH CugelVance Luke LOU :
2007 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised referral (Action Plan, reviewing boundaries core and buffer zone)
To undertake a research and analysis programme for the site, in order to quantify its significance in the wider world context
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