Summer 2005 (13.2)
Oil Baron Mansions
by Betty Blair
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.
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
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?
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
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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