At the end of the 19th century Azerbaijan was responsible for more than half of the world's oil production, and Baki was rolling in money. Between 1885 and 1915 hundreds of luxurious mansions were built by entrepreneurs and oil barons who had grown wealthy almost overnight.
The architecture they created displays a unique and exuberant blend of European and Oriental influences, in which neoclassical, Renaissance, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles merge with Persian, Egyptian, Ottoman and Moorish designs. Thousands of tons of topsoil were imported into the city to create parks and gardens, new streets and avenues were laid out and planted with trees, and new libraries, theatres and concert halls were endowed.
Fortunately many of these fine buildings have survived the Soviet period, although most were subdivided into small apartments. Even today, if you half-close your eyes, some of Baki's boulevard could almost be in Paris - albeit a Paris that hasn?t been washed for 50 years.
Much of the finest oil boom architecture isconcentrated around the OldTown, and immediately to its north and east. This turn will only take an hour or so.
Hajinski Mansion on Neftchilar prospekti
Begin on Neftchilar prospekti, opposite the Maiden's Tower. The grand house on the corner immediately east of the tower is the HajinskiMansion. It was built in 1912 for the wealthy oil-baron Isabey Hajinski, and is noted for the comic faces carved into the facade. It is said that the architect siphoned off so much of his boss's money that he was able to build his own luxurious mansion on the other side of town (it now houses the American Embassy). Head south on Neftchiler, and turn right at Azerneft meydani.
The huge three-storey building on the far side of Azerneft meydani is the headquarters of SOCAR (State Oil Company of the AzerbaijanRepublic). This huge mansion was built in 1896. and was purchased in the 1900s by Mir Babayev, a famous Azerifolk singer who struck it lucky when singing at a society wedding. One of the groom's wealthy relatives was so impressed he gave Babayev a gift so large that the singer was able to become an oil baron himself.
headquarters of SOCAR
Continue west up Niyazi kuchasi, to the junction with Istiqlaliyyat. The two buildings on the left side of the street house the StateMuseum of Art. The classical building with portico overlooking the open-airauditorium was built in 1891 for the Baki agent of the Rothschild banking business-After the Soviet takeover in 1920 it was occupied by Mir-Jafar Bagirov, First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and Stalin's bosom buddy. The other building was originally a girls' school.
On the right is the Italian Renaissance style Filarmoniya (Philharmonic
Italian Renaissance style Filarmoniya
Concert Hall), built in 1912.
Turn right and continue north along Istiglaliyyat kuchasi.
Beyond Baksoviet metro station rises the grand baroque edifice of Baki's City Hall (still known by its Russian abbreviation ?Baksoviet'). It was built between 1900 and 1904 and designed by the Polish architect Joseph Goslavski, who was also responsible for Baki's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This great church was built in 1888 and once stood nearby on Ahmad
Baki's City Hall - ?Baksoviet'
Javad kuchesi, but was demolished at Stalin's order in the 1930s.
The next building along is the Institute of Manuscripts, which was completed in 1901. It was originally the AlexandraBoarding School for Muslim Girls, the city's first school to provide secular education for girls, and served as the Parliament of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920). The school was endowed by Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, a philanthropic oil baron whose own mansion now houses the StateHistoryMuseum.
If you manage to fight your way across the traffic-clogged street here (alternatively, there's an underpass back at the
Baki's Wedding Palace
metro station), it's worth making a short detour along M Muxtarov kuchesi to see the WeddingPalace. This magnificent French Gothic mansion was built by the oil baron Murtuza Muhtarov in 1912. A staunch capitalist, Muhtarov did not give up without a fight whenRed Army invaded Baki in 1920.
When two mounted Bolshevik soldiers rode into the grand entrance hall of his house, the old man (he was 65) shot them both before turning his gun on himself. The Soviets did not carve up the building into separate apartments, but made it into a 'WeddingPalace' where young Communist couples would pledge their vows to each other. It?s still serves this purpose today.
Return to Istiqlaliyyet kuchesi and turn left downhill. The last big building on the right is the IsmayillaPalace, probably the most elaborate of Baki's oil boom mansions. It was built between 1908 and 1913 at the behest of Musa Nagiyev, one of the city?s richest magnates, in memory of his son Ismayil who died of tuberculosis. Its ornate and colourful design was based on the Palazzo Contarini in Venice. The building was devastated by fire during the street battles that marked the birth of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918, but when the Communist authorities restored it in the 1920s they replaced the Koranic inscriptions and oriental ornamentation with more ideologically correct Soviet stars. Today the palace houses the offices of the Azerbaijan State Academy of Sciences.
Across the street from the IsmayillaPalace is the Monolit, a massive Soviet apartment
Monolit in Baku
block built in the 1940s. Continue straight downhill past monuments to two great Azeri writers - the seated figure of satirist and poet Sabir (1862-1911) on the right, and a standing statue of 12th century poet Nizami on the left. At the foot of the stairs beneath the latter is the colourful facade of the Nizami Museum of Literature with a row of statues depicting famous literary figures.
Go left around the museum and turn right into Fountain Square - Baki's prime people-watching arena. The fountains only work occasionally, but there are plenty of cafe terraces where you can enjoy a drink and watch the world go by. On the north side of the square is a rare survival - a 19th century Armenian church, now used as a storage space.
Nizami Museum of Literature
Leave Fountain Square on the south along the pedestrian precinct of Aziz Aliyev kuchasi (between the NizamiMuseum and the Ramstore Supermarket). Fork left at the statue of the 19th century poet Natavan, which stands in front of a glass facade tacked on to the building that houses the Azerbaijan Cinema. Turn left at the next street. A.Alizada kuchasi, and enter the shopping arcade (to the right of the "Gold Passage'). This two-storey Italian Renaissance arcade was built in the 1890s and was Baki's first department store, catering to the wealthy families of the oil barons. Today the shops are jammed with imported consumer goods for the city's second wave of nouveaux riches.
Exit the far end of the arcade and turn left along Azerbaijan prospekti. Two blocks along turn left on Z. Tagiyev kuchesi.
Baki's first department store - old BUM
The entire block on the right side of the street is the former home of oil baron Zeynalabdin Tagiyev.This vast Italian Renaissance mansion was built between 1895 and 1902 to the design of Joseph Goslavski, who also designed City Hall. Although it was once one of the most splendid residences in Baki, today it looks a little the worse for wear. It was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and escaped being divided into apartments. Instead it became the State History Museum, a role it continues to perform today. Continue north past the museum to return to Fountain Square for a well-earned beer.
State Museum of Art
The State Museum of Art is housed in a late 19th century mansion on Niyazi kuchesi, opposite the Filarmoniya. The main building houses a collection of 19th century Azeri and Russian art, while the annex immediately uphill contains Azeri modern art.
Perhaps the most interesting - if unofficial - exhibits are the bullet-scarred bronzes of poet Natavan, singer Bulbul and composer Hajibeyov in the courtyard behind the annex. These once stood in the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh, but following the Armenian occupation of the region the busts were discovered in Georgia, having been sold for scrap.
The State Museum of Art is open from to Tuesday to Sunday. Entry is $3.
Housed in the former mansion of the oil baron Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, the StateHistoryMuseum at Z Tagiyev kuchesi 4 is worth a visit just to see the undiminished splendour of the upstairs reception halls. Approached via an extravagantly mirrored, marble-clad staircase, the grand halls are decorated with ornate mouldings in a mixture of oriental and European styles, covered in gold leaf and sparklingly illuminated by huge chandeliers.
The main galleries on the ground floor contain exhibits of pottery, metalwork, architecture and inscriptions, including a plaster cast of the 1st century AD Latin graffito at Qobustan. Unfortunately there are no descriptions beyond the barest minimum of labels (in Azeri and Russian only), so it may be worth engaging the services of an English-speaking guide.
The upstairs galleries have displays of weapons, early oil industry technology, carpets and textiles, plus endlessly dull galleries of dusty photographs and documents from the Soviet era.
The StateHistoryMuseum is open from to Tuesday to Sunday. Admission costs $1. An extra $1.25 is charged if you wish to visit special exhibitions in the upstairs galleries.
State Museum of Carpets & Applied Art
Baki's carpet museum (493 05 01) is housed in a huge, colonnaded Greek temple (formerly the LeninMuseum) on
State Museum of Carpets & Applied Art
Neftchiler prospekti at its junction with Samed Vurgun kuchesi. Around 1000 out of the museum's huge collection of some 6000 carpets are on display, divided into flat-weave (kilims) and knotted carpets and catalogued according to style and area of origin.
If you are a serious carpet freak, then this place is a must - there are many rare and beautiful examples of Azeri carpets, not only from Azerbaijan but also from northern Iran and Dagestan - though the non-air-conditioned galleries can be hotter than hell in summer. As usual there are no descriptions on the exhibits, ensuring that interested visitors will have to pay for a guide. The museum is open from to Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is $3, plus another $5 for an English-speaking guide.
BakiBay and the city's boulevard
Though you might not guess by the look of it, BakiBay and the city's waterfront have been declared a national park. Some areas of the park are neglected and in need of repair, but it is still a pleasant place to stroll and local people take full advantage of the shady walks, funfair rides, kiddie cars, cheap donar stalls and outdoor pool tables, and you might even see the occasional kid on roller-blades! World chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was born in Baki, is said to have cut his teeth on the public chess tables here.
Boat trips around the bay depart from the little jetty opposite the distinctive scalloped roof of the Mirvari Cafe. A 30 minute cruise accompanied by deafening Azeri pop music costs 75 cents.
In the aftermath of 20 January 1990, when the Red Army rolled into Baki and massacred more than a hundred citizens, a
Shehidlar Hiyabany (Martyrs' Lane)
lover's lane in a hilltop park south of the OldTown was rededicated as a cemetery and memorial to those who had died. It was known as Shehidlar Hiyabany (Martyrs' Lane), and in the years that followed it was surrounded by the graves of those who had fallen in the Karabakh conflict. Today there are thousands of tombstones ranged amid the trees and flower beds.
The landscaped terraces around the cemetery were formerly known as KirovPark. A grandiose but crumbling staircase mounts to the summit of a hill that was once surmounted by a massive bronze statue of Sergei Mironovich Kirov (1886-1934), the first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party from
Baku in night from the summit of a hill
1921 to 1926 and Stalin's right-hand man in Transcaucasia. Kirov's assassination in 1934 - a murder that was probably engineered by Stalin himself - marked the beginning of the period of purges and show trials known as the Great Terror.Kirov was a much-hated figure in Azerbaijan, and his statue was removed soon after independence. The hilltop terrace still offers fine views over the city and BakiBay.