In writing this series of articles, I have spent most of my time traveling across Azerbaijan looking for the odd and the interesting but up to now haven’t written a single piece about the city in which I live, Baku. In addition be being the dynamic centre of a 21st Century oil industry, it is a place steeped in history that goes back at least two-and-a-half thousand years. No, I am not about to get lyrical about the İçəri Şəhər or old city, rather I’m going to take you on a stroll around one of the lesser known sights of Baku, the old Jewish quarter.
Between Fizuli Street and Fountain square is one of the most interesting areas of Baku, a place of narrow streets, full of late 19th century houses. These are not the astonishing mansions of the super-rich oil Barons, rather they are more modest homes built by the influx of European Jews from countries like Russia, Ukraine and Poland seeking to improve their lives by working either in the oil industry or providing services to the developing community of Baku. Families like that of Abraham Nussimbaum, a Georgian Jew who’s son Lev was born in Kiev before the family finally settled in Baku in the early years of the 20th century, where he invested in the growing oil industry. It was Lev, who later became a writer [using the pen-name of Mohammad Essad bey] and finally published Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli’s iconic novel Ali and Nino.
Earlier in the century, there were just a few Jewish merchants living in the old city of Baku and it was only after 1883 when the prominent Jewish family the Rothschilds, came to establish a drilling operation in Azerbaijan that the community began to grow and flourish. As Baku expended and the population increased from 12,333 in 1867 to 112,000 in 1897, the Jewish community came to number some 2,000 by the time of the census of 1900.
In 1901, the community opened a new Synagogue and a religious school for children, at the cost of some 100,000 rubles. Not all the Jews of Baku lived in the so-called Jewish Quarter and not all of the people living there were Jews either. The famous Azerbaijani artist Azim Azimzadeh lived on what is now Dilaria Aliyeva Street in the centre of the quarter. Born in Novkhani village, just outside of the city in 1880, he was a strong supporter of the early communists and used his art to focus on the inequalities and injustices in society, poverty and women’s rights.
At its peak, some 16,000 Jews lived in Baku, although these days the dumber has declined to a few thousand thanks to emigration to Russia, Israel and the United States.
Today, the area is very run-down but charming in its way. It is a place of stone-faced family houses, full of ornate covered balconies and wooden doors with vigorously carved mouldings. There you will also find tall houses with tottering chimney pots and delicate window tracery. On Bashir Safar Oghlu street, is one house where a pair of stone lions flank the front door and the pediment topped with ornate stone earns and a pair of rams horns.
Most of the buildings were erected in the 1880’s and 90’s as the key-stones remind you but one rather sad thing is that few of the names of the original builders are known today. This is because after 1920, when Azerbaijan became a Soviet dependency, all property came under the ownership of the State. It was not safe to suggest you “owned” a particular building as that would suggest you were a “land-owner” and by definition, an enemy of the people.
Each street has its own character. Judar Ibrahimov street is for example is full of very grand four and five story buildings, where on either side of windows you may find stylised Corinthian columns and open balconies with beautifully executed, delicate ironwork. Inside the entrance of a house on Gogol Street, now divided into apartments, is a wonderful series of moulded panels depicting scenes from classical mythology and on the outside, balcony supports in the shape of mythological beasts. These though are the exceptions. For the most part, the houses are not flamboyant although their building does show quality workmanship and attention to detail.
On Tabriz Khalil Rza Oghlu street stand no less than three hamams, including the astonishing Fantasia bathhouse. Built in 1887 it announces itself to the world by an old copper sign, in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe. With a lion’s head water fountain at each corner [unfortunately no longer working], the building now stands as it was when it was first constructed. The old stone wash-tubs and massage slabs are still in place and the steam rooms still hiss with damp and menacing energy. Sitting in the tea-room after a good wash and a scrub is an experience not to be missed.
Parallel to Dilaria Aliyeva is Marzagha Aliyev street, where you will find one of my favourite buildings. This rather grand town-house sports no less than three balconies. The centre balcony has windows on three sides above which is a domed roof covered in pressed, metal tiles. To my eye, it looks like it just escaped from Red Square.
If you are planning to visit this part of town, I recommend you do it sooner rather than later. In the Northern part of the site, a large area of several blocks between the Fizuli monument and the Heydar Aliyev Serai have already been demolished to make way for the new Winter Gardens development. It seems fairly likely that much of the rest of the area will be subject to redevelopment over the next couple of years.
If you would like to find out more about the old Jewish quarter of Baku or the history of the Jews in Azerbaijan, check out the following links: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Azerbaijan.html