Summer 2002 (10.2)
City that Oil Built
by Farid Alakbarov
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by Farid Alakbarov published in Azerbaijan International, whose
specialy is researching Azerbaijani manuscripts written in the
Azerbaijan has long been known
for its rich oil resources. The earliest exploration of onshore
oil fields goes back at least to the 7th century BC, during the
age of the Median kingdom in what is now Southern Azerbaijan
[Iran]. The Median province that bordered Assyria became the
first place in the world to extract oil from wells. Beginning
in the 5th century BC, oil was lifted from wells in leather buckets.
Oil played an important role in the everyday lives of the Medians,
Caspians and other ancient tribes of Azerbaijan. As fuel, it
was used to fill their lamps of clay and metal. Oil also made
an effective weapon; Median warriors would apply oil to the tips
of their arrows, javelins and projectiles. Once lit, these objects
were hurled or catapulted into enemy camps and ships. Ancient
Greeks referred to this ancient weapon flame-thrower as "Median
During the Middle Ages, oil was extracted in Azerbaijan on a
larger scale - especially from the Absheron peninsula. In the
10th to 13th centuries, "light oil" was extracted from
the Balakhani village and "heavy oil" was extracted
Above: Fireworshippers' Temple at Atashgah,
not far from Baku's International Airport, was built by Zoroastrians
(Parsees from India). Today a fire fed by gas into the center
of the cupola burns constantly.
Azerbaijanis have known how to distill oil since the early centuries
AD. Thirteenth - century geographer Ibn Bekran writes that oil
was distilled in Baku in order to minimize its bad smell and
make it more appropriate for medicinal applications.
Marco Polo wrote in the 13th century that the excellent Baku
oil was used for illuminating houses and treating skin diseases.
Azerbaijani geographer Abd ar-Rashid Bakuvi (14th-15th centuries)
noted that up to 200 camel bales of oil were exported from Baku
every day. Since a single "camel bale" is the equivalent
of approximately 300 kg of oil, this would have meant a regular
supply of 60,000 kg of oil per day.
According to Hamdullah Gazvini (14th
century), workers used to fill the oil wells with water so that
the oil would rise to the surface. Then the oil was collected
in leather bags made from the skins of Caspian seals. In 1669,
medieval scholar Muhammad Mu'min likewise noted that these types
of leather bags were being used for the storage and transportation
Right: Political cartoon on the front cover
of Molla Nasraddin publication, showing how Azerbaijan (depicted
as the beautiful lady) was being both courted and threatened
by foreign lands because of oil resources. 1922
In 1572, British businessman Jeffrey Decket visited Baku and
recorded his observations about the city. According to him, a
large amount of oil had seeped to the surface of the earth in
the vicinity of Baku. Many people traveled there to obtain this
oil - even from considerable distances.
Decket wrote that a type of black oil, called "naft",
was used throughout the country to illuminate homes. This oil
was also transported to other countries on the backs of mules
and donkeys, in caravans of 400 to 500 animals. In the vicinity
of Baku, he noted a white and very valuable kind of oil. He supposed
that "it was similar to our petroleum (the mountainous oil)."
In 1601 the Iranian historian Amin Ahmad ar-Razi mentions that
there were 500 oil wells in the vicinity of Baku from which oil
was extracted on a daily basis. Katib Chelebi, the Turkish historian
of the 17th century AD, quotes these same figures.
Lerch, the 17th-century German traveler, writes that there were
350-400 oil wells in the Absheron peninsula and that there was
a single well in Balakhani village where approximately 3,000
kg of oil was extracted on a daily basis.
Left: Haji Zeynalabdin's home in the Inner City with
the cannon set up in front of it. This Baroque mansion was demolished
in the 1970s and its place, a Soviet style building, known as
the Encyclopedia Building took its place.
German scholar and secretary
of the Swedish Embassy, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), who visited
Baku in 1683, wrote in his diary that the oil wells there were
up to 27 meters deep, with walls covered in limestone or wood.
During this period, Baku oil was already being exported to Russia
and other countries in Eastern Europe.
He writes that in Surakhani, a village alone not far from Baku,
between 2,700 kg to 3,000 kg of oil were extracted daily for
export. This quantity filled 80 carriages carrying 8 oil bags
As far back as the Middle Ages, oil extraction led to the pollution
of the environment, though, obviously, this was not a primary
concern at the time. Azerbaijani author Muhammad Yusif Shirvani
wrote in his "Tibbname" (Book of Medicine, 1712) that
as a result of oil and sulfur extraction, both the soil and water
of the area had become contaminated.
According to British missionary Father Willot, who visited Azerbaijan
in 1689, the annual income that the Safavi shahs derived from
Baku oil was 7,000 tumans, or 420,000 French livres (the French
currency that was used before the franc was introduced in 1799).
Source of Sacred
Before the introduction of Islam in the region at the end of
the 7th century AD, the people who lived in what is now known
as Azerbaijan were Zoroastrians who worshipped fire. The area
around Baku became a spiritual hub for Zoroastrianism because
of a curious natural phenomenon: so much oil is buried deep inside
the ground that the gas seeps through fissures in the surface
and catches on fire. It was at these sites, which were considered
sacred, that fire-worshipping temples were built in Surakhani
and other districts near Baku on the Absheron peninsula.
Right: Gochu Mammad Hanifa with his children, Abbas
and Ana Khanim. 1911. Mammad Hanifa succeeded in preventing the
Bolsheviks and Armenians from entering Baku's Inner City during
the massacre that swept the city in March 1918. In 1920 when
the Bolsheviks took power, Hanifa was arrested and assassinated
as an "Enemy of the People".
Even today, a gas torch
burns from atop Baku's famous Maiden's Tower. Some scholars believe
that the Maiden's Tower was used for defense purposes. Others
suggest that it was used as a Zoroastrian temple as far back
as 2,500 years ago. Archeological excavations have revealed that
there was an altar located near the Maiden's Tower. The altar's
stone basin contains traces of oil and fire, leading researchers
to interpret that this holy basin was kept filled with oil in
order to keep an eternal flame burning. Professor Davud Akhundov
also believes that there was a "Temple of Fire in the Water"
located on the seacoast in front of the Maiden's Tower in the
Caspian during the 1st millennium BC.
Oil and gas continued to be used as a source for Holy Fire, even
during the Middle Ages, after most Azerbaijanis had converted
to Islam. In the 18th century, the burning oil of the Absheron
peninsula attracted fire worshippers from India who built a Temple
of Fire (Atashgah) in the Surakhani village near Baku. These
Zoroastrians worshipped the eternal, sacred fire that was being
nourished from the gas and oil burning inside the temple.
In the 19th century, French novelist Alexander Dumas visited
Atashgah and wrote: "With the exception of Frenchmen who
rarely travel, the whole world is aware of the Atashgah in Baku.My
compatriots who want to see the fire-worshippers must be quick
because already there are so few left in the temple, just one
old man and two younger ones about 30-35 years old."
Dumas described the temple as follows: "We went inside the
temple through the gates, which were entirely enveloped in flames.
The prayer room with the cupola is erected in the middle of a
large quadrangular court; the eternal fire is ablaze right in
the middle of the prayer room."
Oil and oil-based products were widely used for medicinal purposes
during the Middle Ages, according to manuscripts on medical and
pharmaceutical practices that are currently held at Baku's Institute
of Manuscripts. Mineral oil was used in ointments that were applied
externally against such diseases as neuralgia (neurological disease),
physical weakness, paralysis and tremor. Oil was also used for
chest pains, coughing, asthma and rheumatism.
photos below: During World
War II, Hitler was set on capturing Baku's oil fields to fuel
his own efforts of the war. At that time Baku's oil was providing
almost the entire supply of fuel for the Soviet resistance. Hitler's
plan was to attck Baku on September 25, 1942. Anticipating the
upcoming victory, his generals presented him a cake of the region
- Baku and the Caspian Sea. Delighted, Hitler took the choice
piece for himself - Baku. Fortunately, the attack never occurred
and German forces were defeated before they could reach Baku.
Photos from documentary film. The Allies were not unaware of
Hitler's goals and had drawn up a map of the oil wells in Baku's
city which they intended to bomb if Hitler managed to take Baku.
For example, the book "Jam-al-Baghdadi" (Baghdad Collection),
written in 1311 by Azerbaijani author Yusif Khoyi, addresses
the use of oil and bitumen in medicine. He said that ointments
made from oil were applied externally to treat tumors, eye drops
made of oil were used to treat cataracts, and eardrops were used
to treat earaches.
In his 1669 book "Tukhfat al-mu'minin"
(Gift Of True Believers), Muhammad Mu'min recommended the use
of oil-based remedies for asthma, chronic cough, colic, dyspepsia
and intestinal worms.
Similarly, 17th-century Azerbaijani author Hasan bin Riza Shirvani
described the curative effects of "white oil", "blue
oil", "black oil" and bitumen. Black oil is unrefined
oil, "blue oil" is poorly distilled oil, and "white
oil" is distilled oil or what Azerbaijanis today call kerosene
- "agh neft" (white oil).
Oil was used for veterinary purposes as well. Abdurrashid Bakuvi,
a 15th-century scientist who lived in Baku, wrote about oil's
antiseptic properties. According to Bakuvi, residents of Baku
and Absheron treated the coats of camels with oil to protect
them from mange.
In modern Azerbaijan, oil is still used
medicinally, such as with Naftalan, a special oil that is found
in its natural state in north-central Azerbaijan where a therapeutic
center has been built. Several therapeutic centers in Baku also
use oil as an alternative means of healing.
Baku has not always been the architecturally beautiful city that
it is today. In the 18th century, it was still just a small port
on the Caspian Sea, with only 7,000 residents. Its architectural
heritage included only the Shirvanshah Palace, the Maiden's Tower,
the medieval city walls and several ancient mosques, bathhouses
and fortresses. At that time, the amount of oil being extracted
for commercial use was insignificant.
After Azerbaijan was occupied by Russia, oil extraction on the
Absheron Peninsula increased substantially. Oil money was spent
to construct beautiful houses and gardens in the city. By the
second half of the 19th century, Baku had become the center of
the Caucasus and one of the largest industrial centers of the
Baku did not become such a large city overnight. By the end of
the19th century, there were two large, beautiful cities in the
Caucasus: Baku and Tiflis (now Tbilisi). These two cities competed
with each other in magnificence and beauty. Shamakhi and Ganja
(in Azerbaijan), Yerevan (Armenia), Batumi (Georgia) and other
small cities were seen as less important.
At that time, the Russian government paid attention to Tiflis
and spent a great deal of money beautifying the city. The Tsar's
general-governors of the Caucasus made their seat of government
there. Soon Tiflis was filled with beautiful buildings and considered
to be the best city in the Caucasus.
Even though the Russian government did not pay nearly as much
attention to Baku, the city developed through the use of its
rich oil resources. During the period of 1890 to 1920, Baku surpassed
Tiflis in both size and beauty. Oil barons such as Taghiyev,
Naghiyev and Mukhtarov filled the city with palatial mansions
in various European styles, including Baroque, Renaissance, Mauritanian
and Early Modern.
The establishment of Soviet rule in 1920 meant the end of construction
for the grand oil baron palaces. Instead, a number of standard
"house-boxes" appeared throughout the city. But even
throughout the Soviet period, Baku remained the largest, most
important and most beautiful city in the Caucasus. In fact, during
the Stalinist era, some very beautiful administrative buildings
were constructed. One of the most impressive of these buildings,
found on Nizami Street, was built for oil workers and named "Buzovnineft"
(Buzovni Oil Field).
In terms of population, Baku was the largest city of the USSR
after Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Tashkent. A number of
oil processing plants, chemical enterprises and factories for
oil drilling equipment were constructed there. Because of its
natural resources, Baku became one of the most important industrial
centers of the Soviet Union.
Ever since Azerbaijan gained its independence in late 1991 and
began its transition to a market economy, oil has had even more
of an influence on the city's architecture. As a direct result
of the second Oil Boom, hundreds of new, beautiful buildings
have already been built in Baku this past decade.
Oil and Culture
Baku's early-20th-century Oil Boom helped to revive many branches
of Azerbaijani culture. Azerbaijani oil barons like Haji Zeynalabdin
Taghiyev made huge contributions and supported the arts with
their patronage. For instance, 110 years ago, Taghiyev financed
the construction of the first European-style drama theater in
the entire region. Several years later, he founded the Russian
Muslim Alexandrian Female Boarding School in Baku, the world's
first Muslim boarding school for girls.
Brilliant Azerbaijani composers like Uzeyir Hajibeyov and Muslim
Magomayev were provided with resources and the opportunity to
revolutionize Eastern music. Hajibeyov melded the Western musical
genre of opera with the Eastern form of music known as "mugham"
to create exquisite works such as "Leyli and Majnun"
(1908) and "Koroghlu" (1937).
Oil turned Baku into a cultural center - not just of the Caucasus,
but also of the entire Muslim East. Between 1900 and 1920, hundreds
of Azeri-language newspapers, magazines and books were published
in Baku. One of these was the famous "Molla
Nasraddin" newsletter, founded by satirist Jalil
Mammadguluzadeh and influential not only in Azerbaijan but
also in Central Asia, Turkey, Iran and the Balkans.
Taghiyev and the other oil barons sent Azerbaijani students to
study in Russia and Europe. This education abroad stimulated
the intellectual growth of figures such as Mammad
Amin Rasulzade, ideological leader of the Azerbaijan national
movement and founder of the first Azerbaijani political party;
Khoyski, first President of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic
(1918-1920); Ahmad Aghayev, writer and ideologist of the Azerbaijani
national movement; Jeyhun
Hajibeyli, brother of composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov, member of
the Musavat Party and one of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic
(ADR) diplomats (1918-1920) to France; and Sabir, a satiric poet
who wrote about socio-political issues.
Consequently, it is no accident that the first democratic republic
in the Muslim East appeared in Azerbaijan in 1918. Five years
later, even while Azerbaijan was under Soviet rule, Azerbaijan
became the first Muslim country to adopt a Latin-based alphabet
to replace the Arabic script. Azerbaijani intellectuals Ahmad
Aghayev and Ali Huseinzade deeply influenced the development
of Pan-Turkist ideology in Turkey. And Muslims and Turks from
all over Russia came to Baku to learn more about the Azerbaijani
During the first Oil Boom, Azerbaijan deeply influenced the development
of politics in Iran, especially in Southern Azerbaijan. Hundreds
of peasants came to Baku to earn money in the oil fields. Baku
residents called these workers "hamshahri" (compatriots).
The peasants were so poor that they didn't even have regular
clothes. Their shirts, arms and faces were always covered with
black oil. Even today, Baku residents will say to someone with
very shabby and dirty clothes: "Why are you dressed like
The "hamshahri" soon came under the influence of national
Azerbaijani and socialist ideology. The ideas that they picked
up in Northern Azerbaijan helped to promote the progressive movements
in Southern Azerbaijan (Iran) under the leadership of Sattar-khan
and Sheikh Mahammad Khiyabani in the early 20th century.
During Soviet rule, Baku gained a reputation as a large cultural
and tourist center. It was often the third major city (after
Moscow and St. Petersburg) in the routes of many of the foreign
diplomats, tourists, opera and pop singers who visited the former
USSR. Of course, the fact that Baku could pay with hard currency
from oil revenues, undoubtedly, influenced these visits as well.
Under the rule of the Communist Party, oil once again had a significant
impact on Azerbaijani culture. Propagandists established the
cult of the oil worker as a "hero of labor." Writers,
painters and composers were commissioned to glorify "the
great work of oil workers." Hundreds of songs, poems, novels
and films were created about the life and work of these people.
For instance, Azerbaijani painter Tahir Salakhov, who now lives
in Moscow and serves as chairman of the Russian Artist's Union,
depicted scores of oil workers in paintings such as "Neft
Dashlari"(Oil Rocks). Famous singer Rashid Behbudov performed
songs about oil and played the main role in a musical film about
oil workers, "On the Distant Shores," which was produced
in the 1960s by Azerbaijan Film Studio. And poet Samad Vurghun
wrote about oil in his famous poem "Azerbaijan".
Today, many international oil enterprises have helped to support
various branches of Azerbaijani culture. Some oil companies provide
financial help to orphanages, schools and kindergartens. Others
restore architectural monuments, donate computers and technical
equipment to Azerbaijani universities and scientific institutions
or sponsor talented youth by funding their education at local
and foreign universities.
Oil and Revolution
Up until 1917, the region known as Azerbaijan was ruled by the
Russian Empire and its leaders were not very much involved with
international politics. That situation changed with the Czarist
regime's collapse and the ensuing October Revolution in Russia.
The great Russian Empire, which had controlled Northern Azerbaijan
for the previous 100 years, was overthrown. Azerbaijan and the
other states in the Caucasus found themselves in a very confusing
and precarious situation. Baku, with its large supply of oil,
was the envy of many countries. Azerbaijan's large and powerful
neighbors were envious of Baku and sought to gain control over
In 1918, Azerbaijan declared its independence, but the country's
legitimate government was not able to enter Baku. As the center
of the area's oil industry, the city remained in the hands of
various foreign forces, including the Bolsheviks, the Central
Caspian Dictatorship and the British.
In Soviet Russia, Lenin kept a watchful eye on the rich oil fields
of Baku and dreamt of gaining control of them. "Soviet Russia
can't survive without Baku oil." Lenin said repeatedly.
"We must assist the Baku workers in overthrowing the capitalists
so they can join Russia again!"
The Russian Bolsheviks worked to recapture the power. They supported
the 26 Baku Commissars, who were mostly Armenian and Russian,
not Azerbaijani. The Chairman of the Baku Commune of Commissars,
Stepan Shaumian, declared: "Russia suffers very much without
Baku's oil. The international working class of Baku must help
build the world's first Bolshevik state. We must supply them
with oil. In turn, the Russians will send us bread and feed all
of the poor in Baku!"
However, the Bolsheviks were not the owners of the Baku oil fields.
To assist Russia, they first needed to capture the power structure
of the city. But it was not so easy - most of the Azerbaijanis
and even Russians in Baku did not want to live under the leadership
of the Bolsheviks. As a result, the Bolsheviks used the Baku
Armenians as their primary allies in the war for Baku oil.
Oil and Ethnic
Before the arrival of the Russian army in the early 19th century,
Armenians and Azerbaijanis did not consider themselves to be
enemies. In fact, these two cultures are very similar to one
another, especially in terms of customs, music and cuisine.
So who or what provoked this animosity between Azerbaijanis and
Armenians? In order to maintain its power and influence in the
Caucasus and Asia Minor, Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia repeatedly
attempted to arouse national hatred in the region. In 1918, the
Bolsheviks encouraged Armenian Nationalists, known as "Dashnaks",
to undertake pogroms against Azerbaijanis. The Dashnaks were
members of the Armenian Nationalist Dashnaktsutsiun Leftist Party,
which carried out military and terrorist actions.
That year, the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks conducted secret negotiations
and decided to attack the Azerbaijanis in Baku and capture the
city. The Dashnaks prepared themselves for a lengthy battle,
stationing many armed troops in Baku. These fighters called themselves
"Mauserists", referring to the large Mauser revolver
that each of them carried. The Bolsheviks desperately needed
Baku's oil and felt they couldn't wait any longer, so they urged
the Mauserists to attack the Azerbaijanis.
In March 1918, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Baku began.
This outbreak was in reality a massacre of Azerbaijani civilians,
not a war between military forces. Unlike Armenian Dashnaks,
the Azerbaijanis in Baku had few weapons and military forces
to protect themselves. They were not prepared to resist a strongly
The Oil Barons anticipated the attacks as they had received warnings
about the planned pogroms from informants and government authorities.
They fled the city and hid in their countryside dachas, many
to Mardakan on the Absheron peninsula. Some left for Moscow,
St. Petersburg and Tehran. This left behind thousands of poor
Azerbaijanis who didn't have country villas to escape to or enough
money to leave the city. Many of the residents were not even
aware that trouble was brewing.
Once the dust from the March 18th massacre cleared, an estimated
12,000 civilians had been murdered in their homes and in the
streets of Baku. [Source: "Azerbaijan" newspaper -
the official organ of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic government].
My great-grandfather, famous philanthropist Hatam Abdul Bagi
(Generous Abdul Baghi, as he was called), was among them. In
one incident, Armenian Dashnak commander Lalayan captured hundreds
of Azerbaijanis and held them hostage in the Opera House, demanding
heavy ransoms from their families. But after receiving the money,
instead of releasing the victims as he had promised, he shot
all of his hostages.
Another Dashnak leader, Amazasp, continued the pogroms throughout
Baku and various cities in Azerbaijan. In Shamakhi, Dashnaks
locked hundreds of people inside a mosque and set it on fire.
In Guba and Salyan, Amazasp's forces killed and mutilated hundreds
Even though few of them were armed, Azerbaijanis gathered in
the streets to try to resist the Dashnaks. Famous flour and oil
baron Agha Bala Guliyev went throughout Baku, declaring: "My
compatriots! It is necessary to save our nation. I'll grant you
4,000 bags of flour from my factory. Come and defend our city!"
Likewise, oil baron Teymur Ashurbeyov told the Azerbaijanis:
"I can offer you 4,000 guns and 200 boxes of bullets."
Hundreds of Azerbaijanis went into the streets to defend their
city from pogroms. However, the Armenian-Bolshevik coalition
was stronger, and the Azerbaijanis were defeated.
In this way, the 26 Commissars captured the city. Baku oil was
in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Stepan Shaumyan, the new head
of the Baku government, said on the occasion: "I'm sorry
that so many Muslim civilians died, but our victory is so great
than we should not think about such insignificant things."
Within one month, the Baku Commissars had sent 1.5 million tons
of oil to Russia.
During the Soviet period, all of these terrible events were kept
secret. Nobody could speak about the murder of thousands of civilians
in various parts of Azerbaijan. Many people didn't even know
that the remains of these victims had been buried in mass graves
on the hillside of what is known today as Martyr's Alley. Only
this year - 2002 - did the Azerbaijani Parliament identify these
events and call them the "Genocide of the Azerbaijani People."
Oil Rescued Inner
The only part of Baku left untouched by the Armenian-Bolshevik
massacre was the ancient walled Inner City. This was largely
due to the efforts of oil barons and local "gochus"
(an outlaw-type character) who armed and mobilized the Azerbaijani
resistance. Some of these oil barons bought weapons with their
own money and distributed them among the population. Protected
by the walls of the ancient fortress, the Azerbaijanis were able
to stave off the Armenians, who were forced to retreat.
One of the most courageous resisters was Mammad Hanifa (1875-1920),
who helped to organize the defense of the Inner City. The owner
of the Volcano Steamship Company, he himself was the son of a
famous oil baron and landowner, Haji Zeynaladin (1837-1915),
nicknamed "Gatir" (Stubborn). Mammad Hanifa was engaged
in the shipping of oil from Baku to Astrakhan, Rasht, Anzali
and other ports in the Caspian. The oil business had made him
very wealthy and influential in the Inner City. At this critical
time, he used this oil money to save the Inner City from pogroms.
Mammad Hanifa's nickname was "Gochu Mammad Hanifa"
(Brave Mammad Hanifa). His pastimes included wrestling and shooting
his revolver. Before the Armenians attacked, his relatives cautioned
him: "Soon, Armenians will kill all of the Muslims in the
city. We are going to leave for our countryside homes. Don't
be a fool, leave the city!"
But Mammad Hanifa countered: "I'm not a coward. The people
in the Inner City consider me their leader. Besides, I'm the
chief of the local Gochu. They respect and trust me. How can
I run away and leave them alone in this terrible situation?"
Mammad Hanifa bought revolvers, guns and even machine guns and
distributed them among the native residents. Then he conscripted
all of the Inner City's men. Some of them were afraid of war
and didn't want to defend the Inner City, but Mammad Hanifa made
personal visits with his armed gochus and forced them to join
One story is told how a merchant named Abdul answered his pleas
to join the resistance: "Please don't bother me! I have
a large family. Who will take care of them if the Armenians kill
me? I'm rich. Let me and my friends go home and pay you!"
Mammad Hanifa became enraged and replied: "I don't need
your filthy money, you coward dog! I have a family, too, but
I haven't shrugged from war. Stand up and come with me, or I'll
kill you here on the spot!" The merchant joined.
Mammad Hanifa led the Inner City's defenders himself. His national
hat, called a "papag", got shot through with bullets
several times, but he himself was not harmed. This hat has been
kept in my own family as a relic of these events: Mammad Hanifa
was my grandmother's uncle.
In the end, the Inner City was saved, but Gochu Mammad Hanifa
did not survive long afterwards. In 1920, he was arrested by
Bolsheviks and assassinated as an "Enemy of the People."
I read these accounts about Mammad Hanifa's courageous efforts
in the Azerbaijani newspapers of 1918 that documented these terrible
events. No doubt, there were hundreds of other brave gochus throughout
Baku who played an important role in saving civilians from the
pogroms, but their efforts have been forgotten and obscured during
the Soviet period (1920-1991).
Oil and International
The Baku Commissars' power over the city did not last long. The
Russian government took the Baku oil but did not want to send
the bread in return as they had promised, so the poor in Baku
starved. The Mensheviks and Dashnaks in Baku rose up against
their former ally, Soviet Russia, and decided to invite the British
army into the city. In the summer of 1918, a British military
detachment was sent to Baku and arrested and shot the 26 Bolshevik
Commissars. Again, Lenin was deprived of the Baku oil.
The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) government, which was
stationed in Ganja at the time, tried to return to Baku with
some help from Turkey. On August 31, Turkish general Nuri Pasha
entered Baku with just 3,000 soldiers and defeated the 30,000-man
military coalition of Dashnaks and Russian Mensheviks. The English
hastily retreated from the city, and the young Azerbaijani government
was able to move its seat of power from the small city of Ganja
to Baku. On November 17, according to an international pact,
the Turks left Baku and the British army returned there again,
formally recognizing the ADR government.
However, the Bolsheviks did not give up on their plans to seize
the Baku oil. On April 18, 1920, the ADR was annexed by the 11th
Red Army, and Azerbaijan became part of what eventually became
the USSR. Moscow emissary Serebrovski was appointed to supervise
the entire oil industry in Baku. After that, private owners were
deprived of their oil resources and all their properties were
seized and confiscated. This is the situation that continued
for more than 70 years (1920-1991).
In 1920, many of the oil barons in Baku suspected that the ADR
would be overrun by Bolsheviks, so they tried to sell the shares
of their oil companies. Nobody wanted to buy them because the
political situation in Caucasus was so volatile. One exception
was the famous American millionaire John Rockefeller, founder
of the Standard Oil Company. He dared to buy the oil shares from
the Nobels, Mantashev,
Naghiyev and other famous Baku oil barons. When Baku was recaptured
by the Bolsheviks in 1920, Rockefeller was stunned. He was sure
that the Bolshevik rule would be short-lived. He waited for them
to be overthrown, but all in vain.
War II, Adolf Hitler went in hot pursuit of Baku's oil fields.
At that time, 90 percent of all Soviet tanks and airplanes were
powered by fuel from Baku. Hitler had drawn up plans to attack
the capital on September 25, 1942. Documentary film footage even
shows him, surrounded by his generals, celebrating what they
thought would be an obvious win. The choice slice of the "Victory
Cake", on which the word "Baku" was written, went
to Hitler. The "Caspian Sea" was shared by others.
Nor were the Allies oblivious to Hitler's obsession to lay claim
on the Caspian; the British had even drawn up plans exactly where
to target their bombs in Baku's "Black City" oil fields
to destroy the oil fields if Hitler succeeded in taking the city.
Fortunately, the bitter winter of 1942 brought the stoic German
troops to a halt in the isolated mountains of North Caucasus.
Had Hitler succeeded in capturing Baku, the Soviet Army would
have been deprived of its main source of fuel, and the war could
well have ended differently. Not many people realize that they
have Azerbaijan to thank for the significant role it played in
helping the Allies defeat Nazi Germany.
After Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, once again the nation
got the chance to benefit from its own oil resources. As of September
1994, nearly two dozen major oil contracts have been signed with
international companies - some of the largest corporations in
the world. As a result already millions of dollars have been
invested in the local economy.
Life in modern Azerbaijan is still closely associated with oil.
In addition to providing new jobs for Azerbaijanis, oil money
has changed the architectural face of Baku. Hundreds of new buildings,
markets, restaurants and gardens are being built throughout the
city. Once again, Azerbaijan is turning out to be the economic
and political center of the Caucasus and the driving force is,
as it has been for centuries - oil.
Dr. Farid Alakbarov, a frequent
contributor to Azerbaijan International, is chief scientific
officer in the Department of Arabic Manuscripts at the Institute
of Manuscripts. To read other articles by him, make a SEARCH
here at AZER.com. Several of Farid
Alakbarov's articles may also be found in Azeri Latin at
AZERI.org - our website that
features Azerbaijani language and literature.
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AI 10.2 (Summer 2002)
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