Imagining Life When This Art Was Modern
They say beauty is only skin deep. But we sometimes find that it’s what is beneath the surface, both literally and in the historical sense, that brings a unique kind of joy. And that’s the way it is with this story today.
Midway through my years in Baku, I had the opportunity to go to an Embassy function welcoming a team of temporary duty staff, providing a few weeks of much-needed R&R for Embassy permanent staff.
The team had no time to go see the city before they started, and had only what the Embassy briefing told them- mostly dry factoids, nothing they couldn’t surmise on the way in from the airport. I casually commented that if anyone wanted to go see the city after work, I would be happy to meet them at a convenient place and take them on a walkabout tour of the Fountain Plaza or some other area if they preferred. I hoped they could look beneath the surface, to see the unique blend of history and cultures in this historic cross-roads on the Caspian.
The team leader took me up on the offer and we decided to meet at the Sunset Cafe, Table 11 on Elvis Presley Blvd (my favorite spot, as I mentioned in last week’s post Looking For A Lighter?) We had a cup of coffee and talked about what he wanted to see most. Of course we would highlight the general landmarks, but he also wanted to know what wasn’t in the guidebooks. What could he take away that most people would never think to look for? I had just the ticket, as you’ll soon see!
We began our walkabout on one of the oldest city streets. One of the interesting things about Baku is that it is like a tree in that you can trace its history by counting its architectural rings.
In the center, at its heart, Baku is a desert city with a twisty Old City, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, with all the narrow cart-wide streets and alley ways that were designed to keep out marauding forces.
This fortified center has withstood the Mongol invasion by forces of Ghengis Khan, Hitler’s desire for its oil reserves, and the conversion of many of its old oil baron homes to new boom office spaces.
Walking out toward the Fountain Square, we passed this incredibly detailed metal sculpted wall mural. The size of this is probably 4 meters x 8 meters (approx. 12′x24′). It covers the entire wall of what was being used as a police sub-station inside the Old City’s main double gates. This artwork is significant in that it is highly symbolic and speaks to the heart of the Azeri population by combining the symbols of fire (Azerbaijan is the ancient Zoroastrian Land of Fire), water for the Caspian Sea which brings life, and oil which brings light (kerosene for light is said to have first been distilled from oil in Baku). It is interesting to me to note that the most prominent central figure at the heart of this symbolic art piece is female, with mosques and other Muslim symbols around her.
Just outside the double gates is a park dedicated to the writer Sabir, the pen name of Alakbar Tahirzadeh (1862-1911), a distinguished Azerbaijani poet, satirist, public figure and professor. Sabir, began writing at the age of eight and is considered to have developed Azerbaijani satire. When I first arrived in Baku, in the summer, I used to take walks by this park each day and it was quite often that I would see little children, in just their underwear, playing in the fountain next to the seated bronze statue of Sabir, quietly keeping watch over the kids at play. Each time I would see them they always called out to me, “Have are you?” trying to say the only thing they knew in English- How are you. Everyday the same routine until the weather changed and they no could longer play in the fountain.
The Sabir park and monument is located next to Ismailiyye Palace, which today is used as the Azerbaijan Academy of Science.
This area, along Istiglaliyaat (meaning Freedom, formerly Communistichiskaya Avenue) represents the next most visible architectural change, the shift from Turkic influenced desert fortress to the Stalin era Palace-like buildings, many said to have been completed with the labor of German prisoners of war. Aside from that sad history, these were my favorite buildings, with their fine sandstone carvings and interesting shapes. I loved to walk along this wide boulevard with its shade trees in summer.
A 1995 interview with H.E. Michael Schmunk, (then) Chargés d’Affaires, German Embassy, Baku:
Few people realize that Baku at one time even had a German mayor, Nikolaus von der Nonne. Back at the turn of the century in the section of Baku known as “Black City” (because of its proximity to the oil fields), there used to be a German Consulate headed by Otto Tiedemann. And over on the “28th of May Street”, the German “Kirche” (church) still stands with its easily recognizable German-style architecture. Of course, prisoners of war have left their mark on this city as they were forced to build what has turned out to be many of the finest buildings of that period. For example, the Government Building which houses most of the Ministries was built between 1945-49 by German prisoners. Today, we are interested in reviving the memory of everything that is connected with our German ancestry here.
Academy of Science Building Full View- Front (Ismailiyye Palace)
A little further up the street, I took my friend on a trip that few foreigners take. We went to the BakSoviet Metro Station- the name has been updated now, but back then it was still a reminder of the era.We got on and rode a few stops to the Nizami Metro Station, one of the prettiest in my estimation at the time.
The reason I liked this station, and the reason I wanted my new friend to see it, is that each of the murals and mosaics depicts a different story of the master storyteller, the Poet Nizami Ghandjavi.
Now to call him a poet is like calling Arlo Guthrie a “just” a singer. Nizami is the soul of Persian oral history and folklore. Nizami was considered wise beyond all others. His Seven Beauties is a parable of peace. By taking a wife from each of the 7 continents, he would ensure peace throughout the world. We could use a little more of that these days!
I shared another story with a moral on a mural, the story of Fitnam and her Ox. The story says that when Fitnam was a little girl, her father gave her a baby ox. But this baby had a lame foot so she had to carry the baby with her wherever she went. As she grew so did the Ox. But she loved the Ox so she continued to carry him wherever she went. One day a man asked her how she could carry such an enormous weight on her shoulders, for now the Ox was fully grown. She replied that he was not heavy as she had grown accustomed to the burden of his care from an early age. Caring for him had made her strong… just as her father had hoped all along.
When I came to Baku, I was amazed at how different life and culture were from the stereotypes. With the help of my friends, I learned the stories beneath the surface, both literally and historically speaking. When my turn came to share this knowledge with others, I really felt proud to be able to show them what wouldn’t readily be found on the tour maps. I soaked up this history to be able to pour it out when others needed a drink of something a little unusual.
I hope you have enjoyed seeing a little of the stories beneath the surface!