Re-thinking the Baku Metro Map
The Icheri Sheher (Old City) Metro station in Baku reflects the rest of the city’s mix of old and new - its shining metal and glass contrasting against the ancient walls of the old city. Image: Denis Sv/Shutterstock
As we approach the first anniversary of the Second Karabakh War’s end, Azerbaijan anticipates a flurry of commemoration. The most significant focus for events is likely to be November 8 – the day that Shusha was retaken –now a national holiday. Ahead of the event, Baku’s newest metro station opened under the name 8 Noyabr Stansiyası (8th November Station) in May 2021. It’s another extension to the system requiring another change to the Baku Metro Map, whose checkered history travel writer Mark Elliott recalls.
When I wrote my first travel guide to Azerbaijan back in 1998-9, I wanted to include a route map for the Baku Metro. However, the one thing I was certainly not prepared to do was to copy the one that appeared on the system itself. Not just because I wanted to transliterate the station names, but more importantly because the map itself, though relatively simple, just didn’t make sense. Well, not to me anyway – most users of the system were locals who knew their way without maps so they didn’t really care.
The Baku metro map (almost) as it looked in the 1990s. This example, with added English transliterations, is actually circa 2005, showing the late 2002 extension to Hazi Aslanov.
One problem was the ‘green line’ which appeared to run between Khatai and Memar Ajami when in fact, the only trains from Khatai (Xətai) made a single-stop shuttle to Jafar Jabbarli (Cafar Cabbarlı). What was more likely to catch out an unwary visitor, however, was that getting on a westbound train at, say, Ahmadly (Əhmədli), Azizbeyov (Khoroghlu/Koroğlu since 2011) or Narimanov would not necessarily mean that you would arrive at the Old City by simply waiting until the Baki Soveti terminus (renamed Icheri Shahar/İçәrişәhәr in 2007). Indeed many trains would leave the baffled visitor discovering that the stop after 28 May (the main railway terminal) was, in fact, Nizami.
It made no sense at all from the map. Although admiring a beautiful festival of subterranean mosaics made a pleasant consolation prize for alighting at Nizami, the apparent burrowing feat onto an entirely different line (as the map suggested) felt as though one had somehow fallen asleep and awoken in an alternative reality.
Baku Metro as it appeared in my 1999 Azerbaijan guidebook. Hand drawn and hardly a great work of graphic design, at least it correctly showed the 28th May fork. Image: Mark Elliott
Of course, the reality was far more prosaic. All stations apart from Khatai were on the same branching line. Yet, nearly a decade after my first edition went to print, the old red and green line logic was still used despite many a name change and a few line extensions. Had nobody noticed? Or was it just a case that nobody in authority actually ever had to use the map while those outside the system would have no way to communicate a suggestion? The USSR might have been long gone, but, it seemed, a legacy of Soviet thinking still reigned.
This metro map must date from 2011 or later since it includes the extension to Darnagul (Dərnəgül) and has the busy Azizbekov station renamed Koroğlu.
Eventually, the man who came to the rescue of bewildered metro travellers was Ramin Hasanalizade, one of Azerbaijan’s new generation of upwardly mobile young professionals that form the city’s growing army of tech-savvy entrepreneurs and skilled globally-minded problem solvers. Having recently been hired at Baku Metro, he noticed that many foreigners were struggling to make sense of the metro system during his daily commute. And, as a graphic designer, he could see that the obvious mapping flaw was to blame.
Unlike most Bakuvians who simply shrugged at the crazy cartography, Ramin set out to fix the problem. On his Behance page, a recent post recounts how he designed a questionnaire to show where the misunderstandings lay.
Hasanalizade’s map’s new look circa 2015 solved comprehension problems at a stroke.
He redrew his own version of the correctly branching map and repeated the comprehension test on a group of non-Bakuvian Facebook friends. The result was simply the end of confusion. Ramin’s map has become the basis for all official Baku Metro schematics. Perhaps the next new station should be named Hasanalizade?
An optimist’s map of what the Baku Metro might look like in 2030. Station B3 on the short Purple Line of this map is what has now been named 8 Noyabr (8th November). As yet, the Blue and Yellow lines do not exist at all.
 Jafar Jabbarli, it turns out, is essentially just a different set of platforms in the same station complex as 28 May. That dual naming follows a logic that’s common for Soviet metro systems but not in most other cities where one would expect a transfer station to have the same name on both lines.