Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Page 18

Old City: Heartbeat of History
by Betty Blair

"Hello - How are you? - I'm fine - Thank you very much!" came the greeting, all in one single breath as the little girl blurted out what seemed to be all the English she knew. It was a hot summer day in Baku's "Ichari Shahar" (pronounced ee-char-EE sha-HAR) the part of town, which foreigners usually refer to as "Old City". Such earnestness is so typical of the kids who play in the streets there.

And then there was Nura (see page 12 and 28), a bright, young engaging 11 year old who, with limited English vocabulary, managed to keep me, an adult happily engaged for nearly an hour.

"What's your name?" "Where are you from?" "Do you have any children?" "Do you like Baku?" "Do you want to see my English books?" "When I grow up, I'm going to America to study in high school".

And then Nura drew a sketch of a hopscotch grid and succeeded in telling me that when you reach Level 7, the rules don't allow you say a single word or even laugh while you're jumping, even if your playmates try to trick you. Otherwise, you lose your turn. It seems that imposed silence was much more challenging for Nura than reciting a poem or singing a song that subsequent levels required. Clearly, she excelled at communicating and making friends - even with total strangers. Being quiet and withdrawn was totally alien to her personality and so uncharacteristic of the place in which she was living - Ichari Shahar.

Left: Typical street scene in Baku's Old City

So, what is this phenomenon called "Ichari Shahar" that dates back at least to the 12th century? For most foreigners and even Azerbaijanis (at least, the ones who don't live there), Ichari Shahar is defined by the major thoroughfares that transverse this corner of town, and by the major monuments found there, such as Maiden's Tower, Shirvanshah Palace, several caravanserais, which have been converted into restaurants, the Friday Mosque, a few bathhouses, art galleries, a carpet workshop, and the big gray Soviet-constructed Encyclopedia Building which natives deem "the ugliest building" in all of Ichari Shahar.

Actually, you can walk the entire perimeter road just inside the citadel walls in little more than half an hour. Exploring all the lanes and alleyways - indeed, many kilometers - requires several hours. But if you really want to understand Ichari Shahar, get off the main thoroughfares and wander along the narrow alleyways. It's there that you'll discover that Ichari Shahar is really all about community.

To Westerns, it might seem that living in such close proximity to so many people would cause them to become introspective and secretive. But the opposite seems to be true. In Ichari Shahar, it's really hard to keep any secrets when your neighbors know so much about you, including what time you go to bed, what time you wake up, what's cooking for dinner, what triggered last night's quarrel, what TV channels you prefer, and what your favorite music is. It wasn't so long ago that people had the practice of going to the bathhouse and upon their return, neighbors would call out in greeting, "May you always be clean!"

But it's all fair game, you probably know equally as much about them. Perhaps that's the glue for these relationships. Maybe centuries have taught the natives of Ichari Shahar that survivability really depends upon friendship, not isolation.

We were surprised to find that so little had been written about the Old City. In other countries, if they had such a charming gem in the heart of their city, there would be no end to the books and souvenirs available about its history. Not so, in Azerbaijan. We couldn't even find many resources in Azeri and there was virtually nothing available in English.

Probably the greatest deterrent to documentation has been the frequent reversal of political systems. Since Azerbaijan has valuable resources, greedy neighbors have eyed and successfully conquered them on many occasions. During the Soviet period, for example, to glorify the entrepreneurship of the Oil Barons of the previous historical period could have led to exile or even death. And, thus, there has been a tendency not to commit anything to writing. Unfortunately, oral history results in distortion of facts and lapses in memory - very quickly.

We did locate a few documents that we've included here: accounts from the 14th century by Bakuvi who wrote in Arabic, and from early 20th century by Khadija Aghabeyli who wrote in Russian.

We've also tried to feature some of the brightest personalities who have recently emerged from Ichari Shahar such as Pianist Vagif Mustafazade who created the brilliant sound of mugham jazz by merging traditional modal music with jazz. Elmira Abbasly's character dolls reflect enormous depth in her philosophy of life. And no discussion about Ichari Shahar would be complete without observations by activist artist Mir Teymur who has worked so hard for the preservation of this medieval city. Each of these artists has credited growing up in Ichari Shahar as the strongest factor that shaped their lives.

To our delight, we even discovered that the novel, "Ali and Nino" by Kurban Said [Gurban Sayid], which has its setting in Ichari Shahar has become an enormously popular book and now is available in 26 languages and more than 100 editions and reprints. That makes it the most celebrated book about Azerbaijan in the world.

Ichari Shahar, like the archaeological layers upon which it is built, has so many facets to explore. We hope the pages of this magazine will further strengthen your resolve to get to know and feel the heartbeat of history in Azerbaijan - Baku's Old City.

From Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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