A Salute To Steve Hollier

It is with great regret that we must announce our loss of Steve Hollier, a dear gentleman international travel photojournalist who touched a lot of lives and wrote and photographed with beautiful and very cultured insight.

Steve’s very extensive travels ranged from Southern Africa, through Europe and the Middle east and he was residing in Baku, Azerbaijan with his beloved wife Sandra when he died.

His writing and editing for the journal AZ magazine was exemplary http://www.az-magazine.com/ and his excellent blog entitled Azerbaijan Days – Living in the land of fire is one of true quality, quite brilliant.  We have greatly enjoyed his writing and would like to direct you to some of his articles that we particularly enjoyed:

There are many more treasures to be found on his blog.

There’s a refined selection of his images to view on Flickr. Perusal of his Picasa Web albums, will take your breath away too, and because there are one hundred and twenty-five of them up-loaded, and because anoxia is bad for the brain – it’s best to take them in stages. His shots are pin sharp and picture postcard perfect and his choice of subject and his perspectives testify to his powerfully cultured intelligence.

Steve said “When you look at a photograph, it tells you more about the photographer than the subject. That means that when people look at your images, it is a way of communicating something about yourself and your world view. All art is a means of communication and for me, the most enjoyable thing about photography is being able to speak through pictures.”

Steve’s many and varied images show his love of the world and its people, and the smiles on his subjects’ faces show that  it was a love reciprocated.

 His work lives on  and will give pleasure and interest beyond our ability to measure. He helped a lot of people through  the British Council , was a gift to the world and opened a delightfully sensitive view of Azerbaijan.

Sandra Williams, Hugh & Charles Paxton

 

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Absheron National Park

The Absheron National Park with Baku in the distance

“So, you want to go and look at dead seals?” said my friend Greg, when I mentioned that I was thinking of visiting the Absheron National Park, the beak of land that juts out into the Caspian at the far end of the peninsular on which Baku is situated. “Actually, no. I thought it might make a nice day trip”. I checked out Mark Elliot’s guide book to Azerbaijan and found the park damned with faint praise.

In addition to the seabirds, songbirds abound

“The site is a narrow strip of coastal sand dunes that might appeal to ornithologists but whose visual impact is very limited and not much different to similar dunes you’ll see en route to the entrance gate” (p146). The reference to the nearby village of Zira that once was home to a snake farm, until they all escaped into the surrounding area did not increase its appeal either. Anyway, my partner Sandra and I were not to be put off by such niceties and headed off one sunny Saturday afternoon with hope in our hearts and as we are optimists as far as snakes are concerned, sandals on our feet.

The predecessor to the Absheron National Park was called the Absheron State Nature Preserve and was founded in 1969 during to Soviet era, in order to protect the herds of gazelle that grazed the salty pasture, the increasingly rare Caspian seals and a plethora of wildlife including, waders and birds of prey.

Reopening under new management as it were on 8th February 2005, it covers on a area of 783 hectares (7.83 km2) in the administrative territory of the Azizbeyov district of Baku.

At the entrance to the park "big problem", if you are "diplomatic". I recommend that all visitors describe themselves as tourists!

There are no signs or direction posts until you get within a few kilometers of the park, so you have to follow your nose to some extent. When we eventually did arrive at the entrance, the gatekeeper was very surprised to see us, and our driver Murad reported to us that there was a “big problem”. If we were “diplomatic”, we would be refused entry for some strange reason. Odd, very odd we thought. “No, no” we explained. “Tourist, tourist!” All was well and having parted with 4AZN each (plus 2AZN for the driver and another 4AZN for the vehicle), we were allowed access along a crumbling road that soon turned into a gravel track and ended at a building site. When I later asked Murad who had been chatting with a group of builders what this single story construction building was going to be, it transpired that it will become an interpretation center for the park. A good thing in my opinion as currently if you want a guide, you have have to book in advance through the ministry of ecology and the only interpretive material available is a board at the entrance with a list of species you might run across.

Actually, the board is really impressive, if it is to be believed. Here it suggests, you might come across jackals, foxes, native tortoises and hares however of the Caspian antelope, there is no mention… If it is those you seek, I suggest you visit the Shirvan National Park some two-hours South of Baku. We abandoned the car at the interpretation center and set off on foot.

Egrets and herons mingle against a blue sky

Stretched out in front of us was a vista of low dunes covered in attractive reeds and grasses that swayed gently in the cooling breeze. You will be amazed how clean the water is and how pristine the environment, this is once you get beyond the the building site and the remains of a Soviet era electricity sub-station where rusting steel foundations remain anchored to concrete blocks, surrounded by piles of rotting batteries. Don’t be dismayed however, the site is beautiful and alive with wildlife!

A plethora of bird life

Hawks and eagles hover overhead looking for mice and shrews that burrow into the sand, snowy egrets fly by in small groups and numerous herons lazily take to the skies as you approach. Large groups of waders watch you warily from sandbanks just offshore and take off in a flurry of wings as you approach.

A water snake catching his dinner

At the beginning of our walk we looked into the still waters just beside the interpretation centre and were rewarded with the sight of a massive water snake writhing in a mass of coils close to the shore. It looked like it had caught a fish and was busily subduing it. Take a look at the accompanying image if you don’t believe me!

Walking up the pristine beach on this sunny Saturday afternoon, we were completely alone. There were no seals to be seen at that time of year – mid September. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspian_Seal , in winter and cooler parts of the spring and autumn season, the seals are to be found in the Northern Caspian. As the ice melts in the warmer season, they move southwards to the mouths of the Volga and Urasl Rivers, and down to Azerbaijan and the Absheron National Park where cooler waters can be found due to greater depth.

Jackal track on the beach

As we walked along the sand, we noticed some dog-like tracks. They could of course been dog prints, but there were no human footprints beside them and my feeling was that these were jackal tracks. Certainly the claws were long and sharp, something you don’t tend to find with domestic dogs whose claws get blunted by exercise on the hard surfaces you find in towns.

The fact that there was not a single plastic bottle on the beach was due I am certain to the effects of longshore-drift, a natural process whereby sand and other materials are washed in a single direction down a coastline. As we were at the very top of the the Absheron peninsula well above Baku, all the plastic bottles that are so familiar tocoastal environments further South were nowhere to be found.

After a long walk beside the sea, we turned and saw the rippling silhouette of Baku, on the horizon some 30 kilometers distant.

Pristine beach and clean water at the Absheron National Park

If you are looking for some relief from the urban environment of Baku, for a walk on a pristine beach, surrounded by the lapping of crystal clear water to the sound of seabirds calling and wheeling above you, I recommend a day trip to the Absheron National Park.

To find the park, drive beyond the international airport, turn right and go to Qala. Head onward through the town and several kilometers beyond, turn right again and proceed through through the village of Zira. When you hit the coast road, bear left for a few more kilometers and you will find the park entrance.

Here is a link to the Ministry of Ecology webpage on the site:   http://www.eco.gov.az/en/milliparklar-absheron.php

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Baku State of Mind – Eurovision 2012 Azerbaijan

My friend Tim released the attached youtube video, that went viral a few hours after release on youtube. What do you think?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4-U6TGX1T4

 

 

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Azerbaijan Days: A deserted village, a forgotten holy man and a soldier redeeming a promise to God

Gusar with Baba Dag in the distance

For most of us ex-pats living in the country, Mark Elliot’s book Azerbaijan   http://www.amazon.com/Azerbaijan-4th-excursions-Georgia-Excursions/dp/190586423X is a virtual Bible. It is the most comprehensive introduction to the country currently available however, even Mark cannot include all the information on every highway, byway and small community he passes. There is so much to see in Azerbaijan and so little information out there that if you go even a small step out of your way, you will come across something new and strange. That happened to me on a walk I recently took with my partner Sandra and Peace Corps friend Micah outside the town of Gusar (Qusar).

The DIY bridge across the Quasarcay River. The handrail is actually the pipe that takes the gas supply to Qayakend!

Walking out of the Leski “capital” on a fine late August day, we crossed the Qusarcay River via the strange DIY footbridge that was made of rusting, pierced metal plates, recycled from army tracking designed to stop vehicles sinking into the mud and up into the hills behind the village of Qakaend. On the steep, rough, unmade track above the village, we were overtaken by a young family of four on a motorcycle and sidecar, dressed in their best clothes. As it was Eid, the festival at the end of Ramadan, they were certainly on their way to visit relations.

Ex government officer, now a shepherd. A good swap, if you ask me...

At the top of the hill, we got into conversation with Zerbeli a former government official, who was made unemployed recently, thanks to reorganisation, he has now reverted to the traditional occupation of shepherd. He seemed quite happy, looking after his small flock of sheep on the open hillside that reminded me strangely of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

At the top of the track we found ourselves followed a broad ridge that overlooked Gusar where Micah pointed out that much of the ancient pasture was being ploughed up for crops. Beyond them, rise the snow-capped peak of Baba Dag or Father Mountain, named in honour of last President Heydar Aliyev. Slightly to our right, he pointed out a steep, tree-covered hill that he said contained a Bir, or holy place. He had never been there himself, so after a stroll and a scramble collecting sloes for my favourite winter-warmer, we made our way up the steep slope to the shrine of the holy man.

Actually, though Mark Elliot does not provide a description of the site, he does indicate the place on one of his wonderful Wainwright-inspired maps (page 187) that it is the ruins of the old village of Qarabulaq.

A family praying at the grave of the forgotten holy man

As we breasted the top of the hill, it was clear we were not alone. Several families (mostly women and children) had been camping out and were either dozing on mats, preparing food or praying in front of the holy man’s grave. Like many such sites, who the holy man was or what he did during his life has been forgotten but that doesn’t matter. It is enough that he was holy.

During Eid, many families and individuals make pilgrimages to such holy sites to ask for something or to give thanks. Seeing so many people here, at the top of a steep hill with no path leading to it was evidence that the tradition is still strong.

Micah (left) with the Azeri soldier who fulfilled his promise to return to the Bir or shrine

That he is still important to his community was clear when Micah got into conversation with Radik, a young man who had just completed his military service. He had visited the shrine just before joining the army when he prayed for protection. Coming back to give thanks for his safe return, was a promise he gave to himself and to Allah. This was a young, hard looking man but he was still prepared to acknowledged the power of Allah, working through an obscure holy man.

Surrounded by by a rusting, iron fence, the broken tombstone had an inscription in Arabic. Behind it stood a great oak tree, covered in pieces of material, many of them red in colour, that represented the prayers of the faithful. As we watched, a family stood by and made their salat. Not wishing to intrude, we moved away past a crude shed where bedding was stored and a simple kitchen built of wooden poles. One lady told us that just beyond the grave site was a cemetery among the tall trees, that provided a canopy over the site.

Graves known only to God

These were clearly ancient stone markers. Some nearly buried in woodland litter and others toppled forward into the sward. They were simply big stones, unadorned by inscriptions. After all I was once told, why should a stone need an inscription? God knows who is buried there.

As Mark Elliot had indicated and Micah said, he had been told that in former times there had been a village here but of that we could see no evidence. On the lower slopes of the hill, we had come across a large area of brambles, evidence archaeologist friends have previously told me that the soil in such circumstances had been tilled in the past.

Judging from its position at the top of a steep hill, I would have said that we had walked through the remains of an ancient settlement. At least, if I had been in lowland England that is where I would have placed it. A good defensive position, just off a ridgeway path. It is quite possible that the site itself has been considered holy since pre-Islamic times for Azerbaijan is littered with holy rocks, holy mountains and other sites that would have been significant for as long as people have lives in these mountains.

After we had seen out fill, the young soldier acted as our guide and showed us the way down the steep slope to Qayakend village and the river crossing…

Another small adventure in the Land of Fire.

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Xinalaq (or Khinaluq): Haji Balar and the Roman short sword

The obliging museum curator at Xinalaq

The curator was delighted I expressed so much interest in the exhibits inside the old house in Xinalaq, that had been converted into a makeshift museum. He said though, I must visit the home of Haji Balar who lived only a few minutes walk away. He had many objects that I would find most interesting…

At an elevation of 2,300 meters, Xinalaq or Khinalug is one of the highest communities and formally one of the most isolated in Azerbaijan. With a population of only 250, the local Avar people speak their own language that according to Wikipedia belongs to the “Avar-Andi-Tsez subgroup of the Alarodian Northeast Caucasian (or Nakh–Dagestanian) language family”. They certainly look different from Azeris, often being taller and slimmer with many of them having stunning blue eyes, deep set in deeply tanned faces.

Haji Balah's dining room and cabinet of curiosities

It was the ancient ancestors of these people that Thor Heyerdahl thought might have fled the area that is now Azerbaijan in the face of Roman invaders and made their way via European waterways to Scandinavia some 2,000 years ago.  Certainly, a Roman legionnaire left an inscription on a rock near Gobustan, South of Baku and the area was at the edge of their influence during the first couple of centuries of the common era.

My guide and friend Elkhan from the village of Laza, showed me the way to Haji Balar’s home. When we arrived at the modest, traditional house with a glazed entrance hall and steep steps up to the living area, we were confronted by the women of the family who had been sharing a meal with a pair of linguistics researchers I happened to have met the week previously in Guba. They had been invited to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan with the family. I tried to withdraw as I didn’t want to disturb them but by this time, the family were getting up from the table. “No, no”, one of the women researchers said quietly to me “I am so glad you came. We have been eating with the family since 11am!” By this time it was four in the afternoon.

Eid is a good time to visit Xinalaq as the tradition is to visit friends and family, so many doors were open to me and my companion.

Haji Balar

Haji Balar is a substantial man in his late-middle years, with shining intelligent eyes. He has been a collector of odd and interesting objects all his life and the best of them he keeps in a display cabinet at the back of his dining room. If he were English, living in the 18th century, he would be described an an antiquary as his interests are broad, very broad.

Next to the coins and banknotes from the Tzarist and Soviet periods was a clearly ancient quern stone used to grind corn, some amber funerary beads and some iron shackles that had previously been used (so he claimed) to fasten slaves to their galley seats. At some point, they had been brought to Xinalaq and converted into a hobble for horses. Actually, they looked old, but not that old! Maybe mid 19th century… Then something grabbed my eye. Was it, could it be?

Haji Balar's "Roman" short sword

Elkhan leaned across to me and said “he says this is a Roman sword” and truly, it did look just like the Roman short stabbing swords used by legionnaires across the empire. About 30cm long, it was broad in comparison to its length and substantially made of iron. It was rusty and had clearly been in the ground for many years. The handle had corroded long ago, leaving the metal blade exposed to the handle.

I did not have long enough to spend with Haji Balar to ask him where he found the remarkable object, if he uncovered it himself or if someone gave it to him. Certainly, even if it were a genuine Roman sword, there is no guarantee that it came to Xinalaq attached to a Roman soldier. But if it did, then this is circumstantial evidence that Heyerdahl would have jumped as it supports his theory that some of the Avar people fled their homeland over the mountains, into Europe and on to Scandinavia at the time of a Roman invasion.

I ogled the many and varied treasures in Haji Balar’s home for as long as was decent then with regret left to rejoin my other companions waiting for me outside. This is a story that needs to be investigated more thoroughly…

 

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Azerbaijan Days: Living in the land of fire…

After writing my blog (and over 58,000 hits-thank you guys!) for a little over a year, I have decided to focus this blog-spot on topics relating specifically to Azerbaijan. I will still be writing about the US and other stuff like “on this day” on my other sites America Watch at http://stevehollierdotcom.wordpress.com/  and Funny Bone (yet to have a web-address but I will post this later).

I look forward to reading your comments in the near future.

Good reading!

 

Steve

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Azerbaijan Days: Qırmızı Qəsəbə “Perhaps the only completely Jewish Settlement Outside Israel”

Mountain Jews of Guba: The school, early 1920's

“Shalom”, local people called to us, as we walked through the town. “Are you from Israel?” No we explained, America and Britain. My friends and I were in Azerbaijan, but at the time, it seemed like we had wandered through a wormhole to somewhere completely different. This was Qırmızı Qəsəbə, perhaps the only completely Jewish settlement outside of Israel.

 

Fancy tin roof of a house in Qırmızı Qəsəbə

Across the broad, stony river bed from the town of Guba in the North of Azerbaijan lies a small community of houses and shops, many of them with red-tin roofs. From a distance, it doesn’t look anything special. Maybe some of the houses have fancy sandstone frontages but all in all, it looks like just another small Azeri community. Qırmızı Qəsəbə, in English the Red Community (a prosaic name imposed in Soviet times) is however unique. Founded in 1742 as Yevreiskaya Sloboda or the Jewish Settlement, the local Khan gave permission for the Jewish community who had been living in the town of Guba from at least the 13th century to found their own village the other side of the river. This was a rare event as generally, Jews were not allowed to own land.

A Peace Corps friend of mine who lives nearby said local people believe the only reason he gave them permission to build there was because if invaders came from the North, Guba would be alerted by the Jewish community going up in flames. That may not be true but it is indicative of an ambiguous attitude towards the community by the wider population.

Many old houses line the streets

How large numbers of Jews came to live in towns and villages across the Caucuses is a story in itself.  Seemingly, their distant ancestors once lived in southwest Persia, fleeing their homeland of Israel after the destruction of the first Jewish temple in about 722BC. One of the “wandering tribes”, they adopted the Middle Persian language and finally settled in the Caucasian mountains in the 5th or 6th centuries. Some historians believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers as frontier guards against invading forces from the North. These days, that history is barely remembered by the residents of this unique settlement.

Tom Parfitt, a journalist writing for the Telegraph newspaper has stated that during the communist period, something like 18,000 people lived in the community but soon after the fall of the regime many left for Israel, Russian and the United States. Now, the population hovers around the 3,500 mark.

The refurbished synagogue

Parfitt points out that “before 1917, Krasnaya Sloboda was a thriving community of skilled leather workers and other tradesmen. Known as Little Jerusalem, it boasted thirteen synagogues. The Communists turned all but one of them into storehouses and carpet-weaving workshops and banished several rabbis to Siberia. It was the first blow in a long decline”.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/azerbaijan/1428516/Life-drains-away-from-lost-tribe-of-Mountain-Jews.html

Written eight years ago, the decline in numbers continues but the physical state of the community has improved greatly. Today the streets are clean, the houses smart and well kept although some have been long abandoned. The synagogue has been refurbished and looks well used but there are not so many children on the streets and old people predominate.

Mason and the dried fruit ladies

Three middle-aged ladies approached my friend Mason and tried to get him to buy some pressed semi-dried soft-fruit, used in making levangi, a regional specialty. He was willing to buy a single piece but was told it could only be purchased by the kilo. How about half a kilo? No, you can only buy it by the kilo. As he walked away, one of the ladies rushed up to him and gave him the one piece he was willing to purchase… I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, other than to say the people we met there were very friendly. Mind you, one mother shouted at her children “don’t let him take your photographs!” We would not have, without permission…

Mass grave across the river in Guba

Crossing over the river to the Guba side, we were confronted with a 20th century horror that resonates today. In 2007, an excavation beside a football field uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of some four-hundred Jews and other Azeris murdered as the Red Army advanced towards Baku in April and May 1918. Among the dead were some one-hundred women and fifty children. In all, Azeri historians claim that a total of 3,800 old men, women and children from the Guba area were killed at this time. Jews were not specifically targeted but suffered along with the rest of the population.

Today, relations between the communities are convivial as people rise to the challenge of modern day life.

As I took my leave of Qırmızı Qəsəbə , chewing my way through some of the semi-dried fruit Mason gave me, I hoped that the community would see a reversal in its fortunes and the continuation of a unique tradition and way of life.

If you would like to visit Qırmızı Qəsəbə, contact CBT AZerbaijan for details of homestays at nearby Gusar: cbtazerbaijan.com

 

 

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