A year of solitude

A yearend message from WordPress, summarizing my year in blogging revealed a depressing fact by stating “In 2012, there were 0 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 25 posts”. Even the wording of this automated message attests how unimaginably lazy writer I am.

My Hungarian friend said to me once “you – Turks are very good in sitting and telling beautiful long stories that fade away as a smoke of hookah”, while we were visiting him in Budapest back in March 2012. Indeed, I have so many stories to tell: conclusion of the story about my search for the fate of my grand-uncle killed in the World War Two, accompanied by his letters from the front that were stored in my father’s archive; an amazing story of soldier letters that were sent in 1941 but never did it to home; and a story of one of those followed through the nightmares of Nazi concentration camp with rare photos of prisoner life; a story of forgotten letters in stone abandoned in our old village cemetery; a story of one song, which spans over thousands of kilometres and five nations, even without them knowing about it; a story of Persia, which is not Persian and many more…

Used old book seller on Islam Safarli Street. Used old book seller Google Maps pin on Islam Safarli (1923-1974) Street named after an Azerbaijani soviet poet. Called Mashadi Azizbekov (1876-1918) Street after one of the 26 Baku Commissars of the short-living Baku Soviet Commune till 1991, it was named Vorontsov after the Russian viceroy of Caucasus Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (1782-1856) till 1922-23, and Fonarnaya (“lantern” in Russian) Street till 1852. Baku, October 2011

All these stories wait for their turn in folders, full of hundreds of photos, maps and reference materials in the memory of my good old laptop, which greets me with an alarming message “1720 – SMART Hard Drive detects imminent failure (Failing Attr: 05); Please backup the contents of the hard drive and run HDD SelfTest in F10 Setup.” every time I start it up.

A curious post at Poemas del río Wang reminds about an important historical aspect of writing in the face of imminent end. And its title To write, to live suggests a rephrasing for the famous “Cogito ergo sum” by René Descartes (1596-1650) as “Scribo ergo sum” i.e. “I write, therefore I am”. So, here is my next post after a year of solitude and non-existence.

Instead of a prologue

If I give it a thought, what is lacking for writing down my stories can be expressed by one word in my mother tongue – qeyrət. Used often next to another word – namus i.e. honour, its meaning is somehow blurred.

Namus and qeyrət in Polyglot electronic dictionary.
Namus and qeyrət in Polyglot electronic dictionary.
In fact, it comes from Arabic غيرة – gheyrat, which has two meanings: one is jealousy, suspecting rivalry in love; another is passion, eagerness, fervour or zeal. Interestingly, jealousy and zeal also have same roots, and it is valid for Russian, too, with ревность and рвение.

Symbolically, Qeyrət was the name chosen by founders for the printing house in Tbilisi that started publishing the satirical Molla Nasreddin magazine in 1906. Against all odds, their passion stemmed probably from recognizing the historical responsibility to write and we already wrote about how they contributed to keeping up the torch of enlightenment for many nations in the region. And thinking about what my Hungarian friend said to me, I would agree that verses written some century ago by the prominent Azerbaijani satirical poet Mirza Alakbar Sabir (1862-1911), who was an active contributor to Molla Nasreddin, are still valid today:

Biz qoca qafqazlı igid ərlərik,
Cümlə hünərməndlərik, nərlərik,
İş görəcək yerdə söz əzbərlərik,
Aşiqik ancaq quru, boş söhbətə,
Kim nə deyər bizdə olan qeyrətə?!
We are gallant men from Caucasus great old,
Each is a valiant, courageous dawg,
Where is a need for action we learn by heart words,
We are in love only with vain, meaningless talks,
Who has to say something against our honour?!

Bulldozing our past

A short post at Poemas del río Wang by Kinga this autumn has touched my heart. I believe, many would be amazed how precisely the author of To know a city described their own feelings:

I left my native city Budapest two years ago, and according to the state of things, forever. If I close my eyes, the images I preserve about her are just as fresh and vivid as if I were still living there… I had to realize that, despite my intentions, each new city can be some kind only in comparison to Budapest… This is not for homesickness or any similar feeling. In the course of thirty-five years, while I lived there, the city with all her beloved and hated details has become a part of me, just like my skeleton…

Yet one can experience the same feeling without moving anywhere, since comparisons can be made not only over the distances i.e. in space, it can be made also over the years i.e. in time. So thinking about my home city, I can say that Baku of my childhood, Baku of historical side-streets with green balconies buried in vine is fading away.

A beautiful mansion on Islam Safali Street. A beautiful mansion Google Maps pin on Islam Safali Street – it has the city emblem with three flames, approved back in 1883. March 2013

The street I grew up is in the belt of historical buildings dating back to XIX century, surrounding the old inner city. During the decades of soviet rule most of the old houses on the narrow back streets were left to dilapidate slowly, the beauty of their facades were obscured by a net of electrical wires and massive pipes. Most of the original owners probably fell victim to Bolshevik repressions. Inhabitants and new owners also did not seem to appreciate the historical value or architectural beauty of their houses much, building up awkward extensions, especially on balconies, drilling century-old walls to install their air conditioning units and satellite dishes. Yet from underneath the dust of time and neglect quite a few jewels are still shining.

We already touched upon “culpable historico-architectural negligence” accompanying massive construction work in central Baku. Back then demolitions were ongoing since 2009 to open up space for so-called Winter Park/Boulevard. Even before here or there historical buildings were falling victim to the construction boom in the centre, but this massive demolition was unprecedented by its magnitude.

The project was initially designed back in soviet 1980s, but envisaged covering a larger area and preservation of some 20 historical buildings. Decades after things went quite differently as few new skyscrapers were already built in the same area. While the central Baku is infamous for its astronomical property prices, the owners disagreeing with proposed compensations were simply thrown out of their homes, and journalistic investigations suggest massive misappropriation.

The Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Baku in May 2012, put the forced evictions under the spotlight. The story made its way even to the UN in Action program #1320 back in November 2011 and was highlighted by Human Rights Watch in February 2012. While most of the reports highlight the violation of property rights of the citizens, the damage to historical heritage is in fact more dramatic and irrecoverable. The irony of the situation is that while historical houses were torn down, soviet buildings in the surrounding area were face-lifted to have “historical” facades. Baku is indeed “a city of contrasts”.

Demolition area in central Baku as seen in Google Maps. Demolition area in central Baku as seen in an 1898 map of Baku. Demolition area Google Maps pin in central Baku as seen in Google Maps and
the same area in an 1898 map of Baku

Looking at the 1898-1890 plan of “existing and projected disposition of governorate city of Baku”, you can see the old names in Russian of the streets affected by demolitions:

БалаханскаяBalakhany Street was renamed as Basin after one of the 26 Baku Commissars during the soviet times and currently is called Fuzuli Street after the medieval Azerbaijani Turk poet Muhammad Fuzuli (1483-1556). This street was connecting the Quba bazaar square to highway leading to the Balakhany suburb of Baku, where the majority of oil fields were concentrated.

БондарнаяCoopers’ Street during soviet times was renamed Dimitrov after the Bulgarian communist activist and political leader. With the regaining of independence it was renamed after Shamsi Badalbeyli (1911-1986) – a famous Azerbaijani theatre director and actor. This street owed its old name to the first oil boom in Baku – the street was occupied by cooperage workshops riveting barrels for transporting the oil. This was also historical quarter of Mountain Jews in Baku.

ЧадроваяChadra Street took its name from Muslim women’s traditional full-body-length cloak. It is not clear whether the reason for it was existence of many chadra shops there. In 1920s, quite symbolically its name was changed to Emancipated Azerbaijani Woman Street. Later it was renamed after Mirza Agha Aliyev (1883-1954) – a prominent Azerbaijani actor.

Novruz bonfire in the demolition area.
Novruz bonfire in the demolition area. Photo by Tamás Sajó

Although there were neglectful voices claiming that the area was just one anti-sanitary dilapidating lumber, reactions to Winter Park demolitions in Azerbaijani internet were generally bitter – from open condemnation by veteran blogger Ali Novruzov to expressions of sadness by prominent member of Russian-speaking net Vyacehslav Sapunov. Despite all civil grumbles by spring of 2011, when the photo above was taken, the large part of the demolition was already completed.

Photo by Mubariz Mustafazade
Photo by Mubariz Mustafazade

I wonder who remembers now the lonely voice of artist Mir Teymur, a decade ago fighting a hopeless fight for Icheri Sheher – ancient Inner City of Baku. In 2009 the “Walled City of Baku, including the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower” was removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger, where it was put in 2003. Yet native of the fortress Mir Teymur testifies that its peculiar historical atmosphere along with many archaeological sites was destroyed by illegal construction even before December 2000, when it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. I should admit that I did not feel the magnitude of the loss until two years ago spent half a day walking through the back streets of Icheri Sheher away from the usual tourist routes.

Stopping the time in Baku

Collage of architectural elements showing construction dates. Photos by Anar Gasimov

There is a saying that people tend to value things only after loosing them. Recently I find myself taking photos of the old buildings while walking along the historical streets of Baku. You often see beautiful details you never noticed before just passing by for years. And it seems that I am not alone: several blog posts by our compatriot Anar Gasimov, who currently lives in Russia, contain lots of amateur photos of buildings and architectural elements.

Photos by Dena Barmas
Photos by Dena Barmas

Photography is a great invention letting us stop the time and preserve images caught in a blink of shutter. Our friend as well has captured sweet moments of our small city tour before the wedding party back in June 2009. The old city walls of Baku are visible in the background and you can see a small gate on the right photo. If you get closer you would notice an inscription in Arabic characters and a stone clock right above this gate. Hour and minute hand carved in stone look like a nice metaphor for stopping the time.

It is 4:00 on the stone clock at the Inner City gate.Google Maps pinIt is 4:00 on the stone clock at the Inner City gate.

I wonder how many people passing under this inscription notice it, let alone know what it says. Years ago I came across a group of tourists when their quite reputable guide was claiming that “this memorial indicates exact time and place where general Tsitsianov was killed”. But I already knew that it is not so.

The Russian commander of Georgian origin Pavel Tsitsianov (1754-1806) was raised to the rank of infantry general for capturing the fortress of Ganja city in 1804. The Governor of Ganja, Javad khan Ziyadoghlu Qajar (1748-1804) was killed in the bloody battle, the city was renamed as Elizavetpol in honour of Emperor Alexander I’s wife and Ganja khanate was abolished. Some other khans were more tractable, as in 1805 two of them signed treaties making khanates of Garabagh and Shirvan protectorates of Russian Empire.

Reproduction of the illustration by M.Andreev “Assassination of count P.D.Tsitsianov in Baku” in the book “Conquered Caucasus” published in 1904 in St. Petersburg.
Reproduction of the illustration by M.Andreev “Assassination of count P.D.Tsitsianov in Baku” in the book “Conquered Caucasus” published in 1904 in St. Petersburg. Source: Online Library Tsarskoe Selo.

Similarly, in February 1806 Huseynqulu khan of Baku met Tsitsianov with his small delegation outside the second city walls (that were destroyed later in 1886) near Shamakhy gate to hand over the keys of the fortress. Suddenly one of the khan’s people shot the general dead from his pistol. Caught unawares in a subsequent skirmish Russian detachment retreated, yet it postponed capture of Baku only for seven months.

So, in fact general Tsitsianov was killed in a quite opposite side of the old cityGoogle Maps pin, where in 1846 a memorial pyramidal column was erected by order of the Russian viceroy of Caucasus Vorontsov, currently near the statue of a great poet Nizami of Ganja (1141-1209).

“Plan de la forteresse de Bakou en Perse, avec lattaque des Russiens - Scheme of the Baku fortress in Persia, with attack of Russians”. Second city wall of Baku is visible on this XVIII century map, describing bombardment of the city preceding capture of Baku in July 1723.
Plan de la forteresse de Bakou en Perse, avec l’attaque des Russiens – Scheme of the Baku fortress in Persia, with attack of Russians”. The second city wall of Baku is visible on this 18th-century map, presenting the bombardment of the city, which preceded the capture of Baku in July 1723. Source: National Library of France.

Coming back to the inscription under the stone clock, my father showed it to me when I was a child. Although I knew the symbols, the only thing I could clearly understand there was the date, since the inscription was seemingly in Persian. When after years my father bought the Volume I of the Corps of Epigraphic Monuments of Azerbaijan by venerable archaeologist and epigraph Meshedi-khanym Nemat (1924), the first thing I looked up in the book was that very inscription. This volume published in 1991 in Russian contains more than 400 specimens read by the author during her field work over the previous 40 years, as well as collected from different archives and museum collections. This one is at page 109 under number 346:

به اشاره علیه جناب امپراطور اعظم و قیصر افخم

آلکساندر سیم و بسعی جناب مجدت همراه کلانتر شهر باکو ستانسلاو

ایوانج دمیون یویج و بدستیاری همت … سمیونیج کاندیناوف

آقا تعمیر داروازه قدیم بعمل آمد ۱۴ ذیقعدة ۱۳۰۷
By the highest order of the greatest emperor and most glorious Caesar
Alexander the Third and with efforts of glorious mayor of the city of Baku Stanislav
Ivanovich Demyunovich and with help of generosity of mister … Semyonich Kandinov
the repair of the old gate was finished on 14 Zu-l-qa’da 1307 (= 2 July 1890).
It seems that this memorial inscription passed unnoticed through the decades of soviet rule when many imperial monuments, including the Tsitsianov column, were destroyed. Interestingly, it was not completely and correctly read. Not knowing Persian I hardly can do any corrections, yet in the unread part you can see the word “معمار” i.e. “architect”. The date also can be read as “ذ”۴ ذ.القعدة ۱۳۰۷, and then it is 4 Zu-l-qa’da 1307, which is 22 June 1890. Finally, by knowing the exact names of both mayor and architect now we can correct it:

By the highest order of the greatest emperor and most glorious Caesar Alexandr the Third and with efforts of glorious mayor of the city of Baku Stanislav Ivan[ov]ich Despot-Zenovich and with help of generosity of …architect… Anton Semyon[ov]ich Kandinov the repair of the old gate was finished on 14 Zu-l-qa’da 1307 (2 July 1890).

“Muslim cemetery in Baku” – a cartoon in Molla Nasreddin magazine. Alexander Newsky Cathedral is visible in the background.
“Muslim cemetery in Baku” – a cartoon in Molla Nasreddin magazine. Alexander Newsky Cathedral is visible in the background. Source: flickr page by Mohamad Tavakoli.
So, this clock and short dedication carved in stone is probably the only memorial honouring these two gentlemen. During his Baku visit in October 1888 the Russian Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894) stayed with his family, including the last Tsar, then crown prince Nikolay II, in the Governor’s House very close to the restored old gate. It was the first and last visit of Russian monarchs to Baku. Among many other official ceremonies the imperial family laid the foundation of the Alexander Newsky Cathedral in the area of old Muslim cemetery. The city community was against this plan, but their petitions and proposals of alternative areas were in vain. Called “qyzylly kilsa” i.e. “gilt church” by common people, it became a dominant building in the cityscape of Baku, once completed a decade later in 1898.

Two decades later the House of Romanov perished in the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution. The cathedral was blown up in 1936, and even the house they stayed in was demolished recently in 2006 to give a space for a new multi-store hotel. Yet the stone clock is still there showing the same time from centuries ago.

The stone clock on Kichik Qala Street shows 9 hours sharp.
Google Maps pinThe stone clock on Kichik Qala Street shows 9 hours sharp.

There are other stone clocks in Baku many probably pass by without noticing. One is just two turns away at Kichik Qala (Small Fortress) Street. The facade also has a beautiful inscription, but I could not find it in the book by Meshedi-khanym Nemat. It is easy to read the bottom line that contains shahada i.e. Muslim declaration of belief “بحقّ اشهد انلا اله الا لله” “Rightly, I testify that there is no god but the God”, yet I was unable to decipher the rest of the text.

It is 1:47 on the stone clock at Torgovaya.
Google Maps pinIt is 1:47 on the stone clock at Torgovaya.

This stone clock overlooks the most popular promenade of Baku at Nizami Street, still often called by its old Russian name – Torgovaya i.e. Trade Street. The same building has another stone clock on the opposite facade on Tolstoy Street, called Gimnazicheskaya i.e. Gymnasium Street in the old map. There is also a small plate with the year 1890 and the name “Гаджи Раджабъ-Али Гаджиевъ” of the owner – a merchant from Shamakhy Haji Rajabali Hajiyev. Unfortunately, I could not take a good photo of that side of the building, since every time it was in the dark of the shadow of the new skyscrapers raised nearby.

Another stone clock on Haji Rajabali’s house   shows 2:57 hours.
Google Maps pinAnother stone clock on Haji Rajabali’s house shows 2:57 hours.

At the crossing of Tolstoy Street with Zargarpalan i.e. Jewellers Street you can see another building with a stone clock. This unofficial name of the street was restored in 1993, but officially in Russian it was called Spasskaya till 1929, when it was renamed after an Azerbaijani Bolshevik Qasım İsmayilov. A small inscription over the main door indicates the year both in Muslim and Christian chronology – 1305 (١٣٠٥) and 1887.

It is 12 hours, 20 minutes and 30 seconds on the stone clock at Zargarpalan.
Google Maps pinIt is 12 hours, 20 minutes and 30 seconds on the stone clock at Zargarpalan.

While I was taking the photo a young gentleman, apparently living in the house, came to the doors. To my question about the history of the building he answered that the elders say that this is Naghiyev’s first private mansion. This name is familiar to Baku citizens along with the name of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1823-1924) – another oil baron, we shortly wrote about, who is remembered for his philanthropic work. Indeed, Musa Naghiyev (1849-1919) funded the building of the city’s largest hospital and donated the beautiful Ismailiyya Palace to the Muslim Charitable Society. Yet his name survived decades of soviet rule, living in the city legends, portrayed as a tight-fisted, stingy millionaire, often appearing as Taghiyev’s antipode.

Our short conversation ended around the demolition of old quarters in Baku, not surprisingly, since there are rumours that these streets also fall under the general reconstruction plan. The answer to my “Is it possible that they demolish this building, too?” reflected a bitter reality “Why not, it they already destroyed even more beautiful historical buildings”.

A small stone clock on Zargarpalan Street shows 12:20 hours.A small stone clock on Zargarpalan Street shows 12:20 hours.

My interlocutor was not able to give any explanation about the time on the clock. So the secret of stone clocks of Baku remain uncovered for me. Are they showing the time when the foundation was laid, is it some other memorable moment such as birth of the first child or maybe some date is encoded on the clock dial? Or perhaps these stone clocks are symbols of belief in the foretold arrival of Mahdi the redeemer from the last prophet Muhammad’s lineage, perhaps they are signs of allegiance to Imam az-Zaman i.e. Leader of the Time as Shia Muslims call him in their prayers for start of his reign, which would end tyranny in the world, would bring piece and justice to the humankind?

Instead of an epilogue

This April the citizens of Baku witnessed a unique action, as a three-store historical building next to the Winter Park construction area, known as Hajinskys’ house, was “slid” for some 10 metres “instead of being demolished”. In Baku, it was the first structure relocation implemented, a process known to the history since 1455 relocation of St.Mark belfry in Bologna, Italy by Aristotle Fioravanti (1415-1486).

The city administration announced this as early as in December 2012, and many regretted that some other “unlucky” buildings in the same area had a different, tragic fate. Unlike those buildings, this “lucky” one was under spotlight of all the local televisions.

I visited the area in March, before starting to write this post. It turned out that a new wave of demolitions is to be started on Dilara Aliyeva (1929-1991) Street, named after Azerbaijani philologist and human rights activist (former First of May and Surakhany Street). There is allegedly another Naghiyev mansion among the houses destroyed.

Winter Park construction area. 22 March 2013
Winter Park construction area. 22 March 2013

There were a few beautiful houses, seemingly inhabited, standing among the ruins. I took a picture of one with a tricolour national flag hung between balconies. One week later the residents of the same house were in trouble, as their gas supply pipeline was damaged, and they were said that there was an order to not repair it, since the building is to be demolished, although they did not receive any official notification yet.

Many buildings are already demolished on Dilara Aliyeva Street. 22 March 2013.
Many buildings are already demolished on Dilara Aliyeva Street. 22 March 2013.

It was not immediately apparent to me that the construction of Winter Park is going with redoubled efforts just to get it ready by 10 May, so-called Gül bayramı – unofficial Flower Festival, which since the year of 2000 marks the birthday of the late president Haydar Aliyev (1923-2003), father of the current president. Father Aliyev is called no less than ulu öndər and ümummilli lider i.e. Great Chief and Whole Nation’s Leader by the official propaganda, and he is indeed the Saviour of the Nation, as the day when he came to power back in 1993 is the National Salvation Day – a public holiday in Azerbaijan.

It is not exactly known how much the Flower Festival costs the nation’s budget, as the eccentric mayor of Baku, claiming that “he will turn all devils into angels in the hearts” of those, who criticize the demolitions, just stated that “I don’t even think about finances, but this year we will have 2.5 times more flowers than in the last year”. Considering that the costs of the last year celebrations were estimated around $60-80 millions you get an impressive amount.

The cost of the marvellous “sliding” of the historical Hajinsky’s house also was not disclosed to public. The implementing company Bresser Eurasia BV that brought the Dutch Bresser to do the job has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Azerbaijan Architects’ Union, which probably means more similar jobs in Baku. Mr Leon Sweegers, the chairman of Institutional Business Development BVBA, the company which owns Bresser Eurasia BV, unlike his Azerbaijani partner, readily gives interviews in Baku, claiming a world record with the 18,000-tonne building relocated. At least, in this case money is spent to champion something, which preserves the historical heritage.

Meanwhile, with the public not being clearly informed about reconstruction plans for central Baku, concerns grow about the fate of other beautiful buildings in historical quarters of the city.


Most of the historical materials about Baku were taken from Our Baku virtual encyclopaedia on the history of the city http://www.ourbaku.com.

3 comentarios:

walter dijo...

Thank you Araz for a fine post; maybe good stories should be left to fade away as smoke of the hookah rather than being entombed in a noisy air-conditioned data centre. Sadly the destruction of which you write is not confined to Baku. The methods are universal. Perhaps we can take some wabi-sabi consolation: 'nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect'.

Catherine dijo...

A beautiful post, Araz, weaving the strangest threads of time — dreamed past, sad present and foretold redeeming future — in a fine fabric.

Araz dijo...

Thank you, Walter. Merci, Catherine. I am glad you have seen "threads of time" between the lines. In the face of sad present wabi-sabi consolation sounds comforting.

By the way, for me the mystery of stone clocks still remains unsolved. You probably did see similar clocks somewhere else, maybe their context would shed light on this question.