Spring 1996 (4.1)
Literary Monuments of Baku
Tribute to a City of Poetry Lovers
by Fuad Akhundov
Architecturally, Baku is known, not only as a city for its a unique combination of European and Oriental styles, but also for its many monumental landmarks. Amazingly, the overwhelming majority of these memorials are dedicated to literary figures. Politicians and public figures have always received much less attention from Azerbaijanis than have our poets, writers and dramatists. When we gained our independence in 1991, memorials to Communist leaders, such as Lenin, Kirov, Dzerzhynski, and Shaumyan were torn down in rage. But literary figures were left untouched and undamaged-even those honoring writers and composers who had been revered by the Soviet system, such as Samad Vurgun and Uzeyir Hajibeyov.
Left: Sabir (first monument to a literary figure in Baku) in 1922.
Right: Sabir, 19th Century Satirist and Poet
Left: Nizami, 12th Century Poet
Right: Natavan, 19th Century Poetess
Left: Fuzuli, 16th Century Poet
Center: Vahid, 20th Century Poet
Right: Jafar Jabbarli, 20th Century Poet and Playwright
Left: Shah Ismayil Khatai, 15th Century Poet
Right: Akhunzade, 20th Century Poet and Playwright
Behind each statue is a fascinating story. I'll mention just a few. The first monument to a literary figure in Baku was built in 1922 to commemorate Sabir (1862-1911). Azeris still appreciate his satirical poems written at the turn of last century. Many of his works are still relevant and resonate with the same satirical sting. Sabir was a sharp-tongued, witty poet with immense courage. He openly criticized the backwardness of the clergy at a time when their influence upon the Azerbaijani society was overwhelmingly oppressive-not like nowadays. In his allegorical works, Sabir alluded to the fact that he was less afraid to be in a place where there might be devils and ghosts, than in one where there were fanatics. Such remarks brought threats to his life. "You may be able to kill my weak body," Sabir would reply, conscious of how chronically ill he was with tuberculosis, "but you'll never be able to destroy my poems."
Fortunately, Sabir died in 1911 prior to the revolutionary clashes and subsequent horrors of Stalin's era. Why fortunately? Because had he lived beyond 1920, no doubt like many other famous and gifted Azeri poets, he would have been silenced one way or another, either via exile or execution.
In 1922 (only ten years after his death), a statue was erected to Sabir's memory to mark the 60th commemoration of his birth. Keylikhos, a talented Baku sculptor of Jewish origin, created a life-size figure depicting Sabir in a standing position.
In 1958 this statue was replaced by another, designed by the famous Azeri sculptor, Jabbar Qaryagdy. This time the poet was shown sitting down, immersed in deep thought. Contrary to what might be expected, the sitting position is much more striking and prominent.
Replacement of the Sabir statue led to a joke that was quite widespread throughout Baku at the time. "To force someone to sit down" in Russian slang means "to imprison someone." People used to jest that the Soviet authorities had finally succeeded in "seating" Sabir.
Some of Azerbaijan's most gifted and most courageous poets were women. Just to be accepted as writers, they had to challenge many societal conventions and restrictions. Nowadays, Azeris deeply cherish the names of two outstanding women poets, Mehsati Ganjavi (12th century) and Natavan (19th century).
Natavan lived in the city of Shusha (nowadays occupied by Armenians) and was deeply respected for her poetry and wisdom. A magnificent monument of this beautiful, but sad, Oriental lady who lost her teenage son to tuberculosis, was created by Omar Eldarov and erected on the promenade near the Azerbaijan Cinema in Baku (See also AI 2:2, 34, 1994). There is also a bronze bust to her memory which has been brought to Baku from Shusha. Pocked by bullet holes, it stands as another mute witness to the casualties that have resulted in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nizami Literature Museum
Two buildings in Baku are famous for rows of literary statues built into the portals of the architectural design-the Akhundov National Library and the Nizami Literary Museum. Originally, the Nizami Literature Museum housed the luxurious Metropol Hotel, which was considered among the most fashionable at the turn of the 19th century. In 1941 the hotel was totally remodeled and converted into a literature museum to coincide with the commemoration of Nizami's 800th anniversary. Today, it stands as one of the most distinct and prominent buildings in the entire city. (See magazine cover).
Six monuments to literary figures stand in its portals. Among them are some of the most prominent Azeri poets, writers and thinkers whose works span centuries. There is Fizuli (15th century), Vagif (18th century), Akhundov and Natavan (19th century) and finally Mammadgulizade and Jabbarli (20th century).
Overlooking the Museum, perched on a very high pedestal is a statue of Nizami himself (1141-1204). This writer is highly respected by Azerbaijanis and considered one of the early creators of Oriental poetry. He was revered as a "living encyclopedia" because of his vast, comprehensive knowledge which he acquired without even leaving his home city of Ganja (from which his literary name "Ganjavi" is derived). Azerbaijanis often consider his poems such as "Treasury of Mysteries," "Khosrow and Shirin," "Leyli and Majnun," "Seven Beauties," and "Iskandar-Nameh" not just as poetic works in the traditional sense, but as philosophical treatises.
World War II interrupted the building of this statue as many creative projects were postponed during those years. Nizami's statue took eight years to complete. The sculptor Abdurahmanov also had to deal with the problem of imagining what the poet might have looked like as there were no sketches of him from the 12th century.
There are many more monuments than those we have featured here. It is virtually impossible for most people in Baku to go about their everyday activities without passing at least one of them during the course of a day. Those who live or work in the center of the city are surrounded by these reminders of our literary heritage.
Since ancient times, Azeris have held their poets and literary figures in highest esteem, always raising them high on a pedestal in their minds. Elderly people, who know so many long passages of literary works from memory, will tell you that it was our precious literary heritage that helped preserved the Azeri character, its values and traditions, and which shielded us during the Soviet period with all its terror and oppression when so many of our talented literary figures were intimidated, arrested and silenced. Today, these memorials in marble, granite and bronze give witness to the incredible intellectual legacy these great thinkers have given us-linking us to our own past and enabling us to preserve our identity as we step forward into the future.
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.