Azerbaijan International

Summer 2005 (13.2)
Page 18

Inside Oil Baron Mansions
by Betty Blair

betty blairIt's Oil Show time again. The 12th Annual Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition opens June 7 - 10th this year. And for us, it's time for summer issue when we try to give foreigners a glimpse of Baku amidst their busy schedules as they shuttle back and forth between hotels, exhibition halls, restaurants, receptions and the airport.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Baku was producing more than 50 percent of the world's supply of oil and even though Henry Ford was just beginning to manufacture his Model T, the profit from oil was phenomenal. If you have any doubts, take a glimpse inside the residences in which the Oil Barons lived.

To our knowledge, this is the first time some of these buildings have ever been featured. In most countries, dozens of coffee table art books would have been published on such topics. Nothing exists here. We hope our work here will inspire some beautiful art books to be published.

This issue has been hard work to produce; but it has been fun as well. It's been an absolute delight to traipse all over the city and catch a glimpse of aesthetics of those who lived more than a century ago.

history museum
Left: Taghiyev's residence which now houses the Museum of History. One of the rooms presently closed to the public.

A few aspects of interior design stand out. One is the incredible sense of color. It's enough to make any computer graphic designer jealous. The subtlety of color in some of these buildings is as modern today as it was back then.

Then there's the awareness of texture and the expertise in the use of stucco to create three-dimensional effect - especially on the walls and ceilings.

There are some interiors, especially those based upon Moorish architecture of the 13th and 14th century where not a single inch of wall or ceiling has been left untouched. You wouldn't dare think of hanging up a wall painting. It's all done in stucco.

Like an Oriental carpet, the designs are juxtaposed next to each other from the floorboards to the ceiling. And it works. It's gorgeous. The amount of handwork and the level of artisan craftsmanship are amazing. Nothing seems to have been mass-produced. It's rare to find any of the ornamentation duplicated. Of course, there was a deep sense of competition and drive to express individuality.

Strangely enough, a sense of permanence pervades this architecture. The Oil Barons had in mind for these buildings to last. So much attention was paid to details. No expense seems to have been spared to create beauty.

But there's another side to the story of these mansions. Like a broken record, we've mentioned it so many times on this Editorial page. Because the political situation reversed itself so abruptly in 1920 when the Bolsheviks took control of Baku, so many Oil Barons had to flee for their lives. Many landowners were killed, others fled to Europe. All property was confiscated.

Most homes throughout the city were divided up; suddenly neighbors were living on the other side of a thin-walled partition that split what used to be a grand dining room. Or sharing kitchen or bathroom facilities. The mental pressure must have been incredible, especially those early days, when people were so unaccustomed to such practices.

We've said it so many times before, but when the political situation makes it dangerous to speak about things that once were glorified in a culture, it doesn't take long before the "corporate memory" of a nation is lost.
And so, an incredible amount of information about Baku's architecture during the Oil Baron period has been lost. One can't help but wonder what happened to those who created this beauty? What happened to their families? The architects? The engineers? The workmen? The artisans?

One is amazed at the sudden rise to such dizzying heights of some of these individuals who became Oil Barons. But then it was all free fall! The plunge to incredible depths. One might add that it seems they have never recovered. Baku's history has been one of "rags-to-riches" story, and then back again.

Take Musa Naghiyev, for example. He died of a broken heart within a year after the beautiful palace (the Ismayiliyya Building which is now the Presideum of the Academy of Sciences) built to the memory of his only son was gutted with fire by Dashnaks and Bolsheviks. His relatives say that he commissioned 98 buildings throughout the city to be built. He was Baku's largest landowner.

When he died, his money could not be accessed. A small rock inscribed with his name in Arabic script marked his grave for the duration of the Soviet period. Furthermore, three times, his remains had to be reburied. Three times that little rectangular block stone followed him to a new resting place.

Or take Taghiyev. At age six, he apprenticed as a porter. Born into poverty, he never had the chance to go to school.
He never learned to read and write. Yet, he was the one who donated one of the most beautiful buildings in the city so that young women could be educated (now Institute of Manuscripts). His own residence has the most gorgeous interior in the entire city. It now houses the National History Museum. But when the Bolsheviks came to tell him to leave and to confiscate his property, they wouldn't even allow him to put on his jacket. "You won't need that any more," he was told, according to stories that circulate. No doubt there are hundreds of stories of such pain and humiliation.

How does this affect those who live in the city today? Of course, it is impossible to know the impact of subconscious on a single person, much less an entire nation. But it would seem that Azerbaijanis have an acute awareness of the possibility of reversals - a sense that luck will run out, a deep-seated fear that things will reverse themselves and fortune disappear. And this, in turn, breeds skepticism or, at best a guarded sense of optimism, especially since Azerbaijan, as a small country, has always been at the mercy of countries that are more powerful than they are. There has always been a sense that they are not in control of their destiny no matter how hard they try. And so, oil just always complicates their lives.

Azerbaijanis have waited 10 long years for the pipeline to be built and become operational. Here when the promises of untold wealth are being broadcast endlessly, most people, no doubt, sit back quietly and say, "Let's wait and see. Will fortune really come our way?"

From Azerbaijan International (13.2) Summer 2005.
© Azerbaijan International 2005. All rights reserved.

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