The Old Jewish Quarter of Baku

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.

Dilara Aliyeva Street

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.

Winged creature supports a balcony in Gogol Street

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.

Horseshoe Sign Outside Fantasia Bathhouse

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijani_Jews

Advertisements

About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Old Jewish Quarter of Baku

  1. Genie says:

    Hi Steve – what an interesting article. Thank you. Baku (& AZ) seems to have drilled its way into your soul! Am so pleased. Enjoy it all.
    Genie

  2. Hello Steve….is it possible for you to dig some history on juhuro/mountain jews (gorskie jews). The Old Jewish Quarter of Baku you describe above also belonged to juhuro jews.

    Thank you in advance

    p.s i hope you will remain in Baku in winter time I am planning to come back to visit

  3. Oh man Guba….i was there two times my grand grand parents were born there. I know one thing my ancestors and recent generation all escape from prosecution of occupiers Eretz Yisrael to Persia where I believe they settle there for a while until they felt threaten again. BTW how local juhuro jews doing in Guba….what the feeling you get from them. I know times changed. I remember how everyone were warm and open to each other. I am not sure about nowadays.

    My heart is broken first it was my school destroyed school # 60 next to stadium used to called Spartak “http://www.baku.ru/photos/07/75/07/77507.jpg” I have to admit my old and dear to heart school was falling apart. I can’t blame them not to take it down and it also had no significant architecture design. I forever will miss my old school I had the best days of my life in that school.

    But they did build a new school on the same spot where once my old school stood “http://www.baku.ru/photos/18/23/49/182349.jpg”

    Now you telling me my former house will be demolish from my childhood street…I am very very disappointed. When i do come back there won’t be anything to come back to =(

    Are they planning to demolish that Spa Fantasia too….it will be such a shame if they do that…that Banya how I like to call it is a jewel of the neighborhood. Thank for you for your time and effort. I really hope to meet with you when I do come to Baku.
    Best Regards
    Shamil

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s