Absheron – Baku

Absheron peninsula 

Due to its location in a bay, a dry and hot climate, prolific soils and the availability of mineral resources, this area has been inhabited since ancient times. It is a place of fresh and saline water lakes. There are about 40 lakes here, including Masazir, Boyuk Sor, Mirdalabi, etc. There is so much iodine in these lakes that sometimes they have a red coloring. Some people come here to receive salt baths, others dive into saline waters to soak up in salt. The salt manually collected here is processed and sent for marketing.

Absheron place-name

It derives its name from the name of a Turkish tribe Afsar. It also means a place in which the Afsars lived. There is information on this place-name being given to a village, a town, a port and even a lighthouse. The first written evidence of this word being used is a 1731 book by F. I. Soymonov, “Main map of the Caspian Sea”. A source attributed to the 12th century described the Absheron peninsula as the Baku peninsula, adding that this is where white and black oil is produced. There are flames rising from the ground. The Caspian, the Absheron port and the peninsula as a whole were once known under the name of Baku. Therefore, these names are often mentioned together, so we decided not to separate them either. Absheron differs from other regions for its specific nature, customs, beliefs, people, a pronounced accent and the meykhana.

Meykhana

This is an art of word. This culture form is characteristic of the peninsula. Following high-rating TV contests, it paved the way to many other parts of Azerbaijan and became very popular in the country. Meykhana is a verbal contest between masters of word whose goal is to outsmart the opponent by saying humorous poetic verses. It resembles the Ashig art of western Azerbaijan. The difference is that the meykhana verses are said in the Aruz classical poetic meter. Earlier, no musical instruments were used and meykhana was spoken to the sound of finger flips. Today the meykhana verses are usually accompanied by a music synthesizer. Meykhana represents improvisation from start to finish. It begins with an Aruz meter line and meykhana masters are supposed to immediately think of a rhyming line of the same meter and do so in an impromptu manner. All this means that those aspiring to become meykhana masters should have a good vocabulary, quick wit, the ability to speak one’s mind and to respond to criticism. Interest in meykhana, which used to be confined to small settlements and was considered a form of tent culture, has expanded so much that it enjoys popularity throughout the country. Meykhana shows often become part of wedding feasts. The biggest master of word in the 20th century was Aliaga Vahid who was originally from Novxani.
Let’s get to know the peninsula by its most recognizable addresses. So,

Summerhouses

It is a long-standing tradition in Absheron for both the urban and rural population to move to summerhouses for the summer. The summerhouses season lasts from May to September. Abu er-Rashid-el-Bakuvi wrote in the 14th century: “There are a lot of figs, pomegranates and grapes here. Summerhouses are far from the city, therefore, most city residents move there for the summer, spend some time and return to the city. They do this every year.” The natives of Absheron and those who have settled down here more recently still follow this tradition.

History of summerhouses

Medieval travelers used to say that summerhouses are typical of the Absheron peninsula. According to written evidence dating back to 1842, the Khan summerhouses of Nardaran and Buzovna belonged to the family of the 18th century Khan of Baku Mirza Mahammad. The mansions built on the Absheron peninsula by the well-off became particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to the oil millionaires who were erecting summerhouses for their own recreation and amusement. It was not an easy task to set up luxury mansions in places entirely consisting of rocks, stones and clods, with no water, away from the railway and no roads. It required a lot of work and money. Only oil millionaires could cope with such an unreasonably difficult task.

Gardening school

The gardening school H. Z. Tagiyev established in Mardakan in 1894 paved the way for a widespread construction of summerhouses on the Absheron peninsula. Trees were planted on arid and sandy areas, while wormwood groves were turned into vineyards. New fruit trees started spreading their branches in all directions. One of the first summerhouses set up in Mardakan was owned by Murtuz Muxtarov. Its construction commenced in 1890, as thousands of cubic meters of fertile soil were bought in to the seaside. The key reason for establishing most summerhouses in Mardakan was its relative closeness to the city, clean air and shallow waters.

Summerhouse season

The summerhouse season lasts a maximum of three months. The influx of people to cities observed in recent years has slightly undermined the summerhouse tradition because many of those trying to escape from busy cities eventually settle down in summerhouses permanently. Many use the summer months to prepare for the winter by cooking different delicacies from their garden crops. Absheron summerhouses are noted for delicious grapes. There is a tradition to make jams, grape fruitage and vinegar from it. Grapes are also dried to make seedless raisins. Raisins are considered one of the best desserts here.

Fig trees

One of Absheron’s natural and indispensible assets is its famous yellow figs. This locally grown fig is as sweet as honey. It yields twice a year. People make jam out of it or dry it to eat together with walnuts and hazelnuts. It is a tradition to eat freshly-collected figs on an empty stomach in the morning because they are believed to be good for health.

Olives

Olives are grown in Azerbaijan only on Absheron. Their cultivation commenced in the mid-19th century. Despite that, neither olives proper nor olive oil is popular in the national cuisine. Other Absheron settlements, such as Zira and Hovsan, are noted for their tomatoes and onions respectively.

Saffron

It is the only plant growing only on Absheron in Azerbaijan. Saffron is considered an indispensible asset of Oriental cuisine. It is used both in main courses and as a dessert. Saffron adds an exquisite taste, smell and color to the dish. It is mostly used in the cooking of pilafs and dusbara in Absheron settlements, and is also required in baklava, a popular sweet dish. One of the settlements of the peninsula where saffron is particularly popular is Qala. The pick-up season is August and November. Every saffron bud has several petals and it is these petals that should be gathered. This means that to obtain a kilo of saffron, a hectare of land has to be tilled. Therefore, natural saffron is very expensive.

Absheron cuisine

The fact that Absheron is located on the seaside has largely shaped its cuisine. There are very many fish dishes. Sweet things hold a special place in the national cuisine as well. Sakarbura and the Baku baklava are absolutely irresistible during the Nowruz holidays. Another feature characteristic of Absheron residents is conservatism with food. People meticulously follow the recipe of every dish. Even if a small ingredient is not present or the appearance of a dish is not exactly the way it should be, it still doesn’t count. For instance, when dusbara is cooked, the size of every piece should be small enough for 12 pieces to be placed on a spoon. As a result of a subsequent calculation, the cook is either criticized or praised. In fact, dusbara-qutab is the most popular dish of the Absheron cuisine. Although both are also individual dishes, it is customary to eat them together. Dusbara represents dumplings stuffed with lamb, boiled in water and covered with dry mint and vinegar. Qutabs are extremely popular in Baku.

Corat

This is a village located on the seaside between Sumqayit and Novxani. Those hungry for qutabs should come here. Corat is also noted for sweet qutabs made of camel meat. Meat and green qutabs are also quite popular. Meat qutabs are usually dipped in sumac, while green qutabs are eaten with sour clotted milk. Most of the austere seaside restaurants of the settlement are packed with customers throughout the year. The Corat place-name dates back to the 13th century – a Mongol tribe which took part in the occupation of Asia was called jurat.

Baku villages

Written sources point to the existence of a number of villages around the city, each of which has a formidable fort. According to a Catholic missionary who traveled to Baku before a visit by Peter the Great, there is a total of 34 villages around Baku. A register dating back to 1870 says there is very small population in 41 villages around Baku. According to a 1813 report, the biggest village, Mastaga, has a population of only 582 people. The report notes further that most of those living in the Baku villages are Iranian Tats.

Tats

They were resettled to Eastern Azerbaijan from the south of Iran in the time of the Sassanid dynasty. The Iranian government used them to protect the country’s northern borders from migrant Turkish tribes. Boasting of their vagrant lifestyle, Turkish tribes subordinated the Tats and gave them their name. For their belligerence, Shah Abbas used them in fights and even described them as Shahsevan (those loving the Shah). After settling down in Azerbaijan, they subdued other small ethnicities and tribes. The Massagetean tribes, which used to form the population of the Mastaga village, were among those subdued by the Tats. Resembling the Talish, the Tats speak a language similar to Persian.

Baku accent

The vocabulary of Baku residents did not develop much due to the centuries of Iranian influence. All writing was in Persian. A mixture of Persian and Turkish was used in domestic life. Some words relating to sailing and navigation could be heard only in Baku. Persian, Russian and Turkish languages have affected the Baku accent a great deal. Residents of Baku, who had extensive maritime contacts with the Turkmens, often replaced the letter “b” with “m”. For instance, instead of saying “bunun ucun”, they would say “munun ucun”, etc. Just like Turks, they replaced letter “e” with “ə”, thus saying “vərdim” instead of “verdim”, etc. Under the influence of Persian, Baku residents would pronounce “u” instead of “o”, e.g. “unun” instead of “onun”, etc. Also, Bakuvians would often say the same word twice, such as “gede-gede”, “qaca-qaca”, “gule-gule”, etc. In fact, there is a popular joke on the subject. When a Bakuvian is asked why he says the same word twice, he answers, “this is usually done by some villagers-villagers”.

Village of Mastaga

This is the biggest village of Baku. The name of Mastaga is related to the Massagetean tribe which once settled down here. They were first mentioned by Herodotus who lived in the 5th century B.C. They first lived in Turkestan, the homeland of Turkic tribes, while afterwards on Mediterranean and Caspian coasts, in Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. A. A. Bakixanov provided detailed information about that in his work “Gulustani-Iram”.

Bird-fanciers

One of the specific features of Baku villages is the abundance of small bird houses. Those fond of birds are called bird-fanciers here. Many people have a collection of birds kept in specifically made small houses. Bird-fanciers look after the birds well, feed them and give necessary injections. Most of the birds are pigeons. Many have names. Some owners proudly boast of the pigeons, others sell them. Quite often pigeons return to their original owner after being sold.

Village of Nardaran

It is the second biggest village of Baku, next only to Mastaga. It is a seaside settlement where powerful see-breezes are felt more than elsewhere. The Nardaran population has historically been engaged in sailing and fishing. The names of Baku villages have often changed in accordance with the occupation of their residents. One theory suggests that Nardaran derived its name from “nar” and “aran”, which translates as “a place like a pomegranate”. Another theory says the local population was once engaged in camel-breeding: “nar” also translates as a double-humped camel.

Nardaran fortress (13-15th centuries)

In 1301, Hurum ordered Barak to build this castle. The name of its architect, Mahmud ibn Saat, is inscribed on the walls. The 12-meter three-tier fortress, located in the north of the village, is of a rectangular shape with tower gates at every corner.

Summer residence of Shirvanshahs (13-14th centuries)

The local people refer to it as “Khan bagi” (Khan’s garden). There is a large vineyard around it. This used to be a summer residence of Baku rulers. It is a sandy area located 2 km from the sea, in the north-east of the village. The Shirvanshahs chose this as their summer residence due to its favorable coastal climate, strategic geographic location and closeness to the fortress. The Shirvanshahs’ summer residence in Nardaran differs from their other mentions on Absheron for its austerity and magnificence. There is a 10-meter-deep well here and one can see two roads heading east- and westwards at the bottom of it. According to a local legend, the roads down the well allegedly lead to the Nardaran fortress and the famous Nardaran mosque. Incidentally, Nardaran is the most religious village of Baku.

The Nardaran mosque (8th century)

It is located in the north of the village. The grave of Imam Museyi Kazim’s daughter, Rahima, is in the mosque. She was one of the Prophet’s children who came to Azerbaijan in the time of Harun er-Rashid Mamun. The new mosque was built in 1994. It has four 41-meter minarets. The grave can be visited by 1,500 pilgrims at a time. On religious holidays, during the month of Muharram, especially on the Day of Ashura, there are so many people at the mosque that it is hardly possible to move. Another important site erected in honor of the Imams is situated on the other end of the city, at the entrance to Baku.

Bibiheybat (12th century)

The mausoleum used to be located at a cemetery at the foot of a mountain 5 km from Baku. The ancient village adjacent to it is called Six. According to a legend, the mausoleum was called Bibiheybat because there are graves of eighth Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Reza’s sister, Hokuma, and her servant Heybat here.

Legend

Escaping Harun er-Rashid’s persecution in the late 8th century, Hokuma, the daughter of the 7th Shiite Imam Museyi Kazim, found shelter in what is now the Six village. She had a trusted servant named Heybat. He used to call the woman “bibi” (aunt). Both are buried here. A short while later, on the order of ruler Gazankhan Mahmud (1205-1304), Shirvanshah Akhsitan oglu Farruxzad built a mosque at the grave. The mosque was subsequently called Bibiheybat and turned into a place of worship.

According to local people, the beauty of the mosque built in the middle ages was mesmerizing. It was the most magnificent and best known place of worship on Absheron. It was frequented by pilgrims in spring and early autumn. It was visited by people of all walks of life. The well-off organized a feast where Aliasi (pilaf) was served. Anchorites were reciting odes. Pilgrims surrounded the anchorites, watching and listening to them. There is a grave in the center of the mosque, where salah is performed. During pilgrimage, the pilgrims who have no children, suffer from illnesses, as well as those facing problems and difficulties, throw themselves onto the grave weeping and praying for mercy in their suffering. The mosque is packed with people on Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, Muharram and the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.

Stories

There are very interesting stories about the mosque. It is said that one of the Bibiheybat pilgrims in 1845 was Khurshidbanu Natavan (one of the best lyrical poets of Azerbaijan). She had no children and was seeking help through prayers. When she visited Bibiheybat again in 1858, she already had two kids. While at the mosque, Khan’s daughter met with French writer Alexander Dumas. Appreciative Natavan decided to pay back for her happiness by having the uncomfortable stony road to the mosque repaired at her own expense. Although the mausoleum was knocked down in the 20th century in the interests of the Baku-Salyan highway construction, it was restored at the end of the century again.

Village of Qala

It is located in the northeast of the peninsula. Qala is one of the most popular Baku tourist destinations. The excursion here lasts five hours. Situated 45 km from the city, Qala is the oldest residential settlement of the Absheron Peninsula. The historical evidence of the 3rd century B.C. is still preserved in the village. Although archeological excavations suggest that Qala used to be a residential settlement 5000 years ago, its structures surviving to the present day are largely attributed to the 16-19th centuries. There are five mosques, three bath-houses, homes, agricultural enterprises, tombs, mausoleums, burial mounds, remains of castles, etc. in the village. There used to be several neighborhoods here. The first outdoor archeological and ethnographic museum has been established on the territory of the Qala Historical and Ethnographic Reserve. There are 243 historical, archeological and architectural monuments on an area of 200 hectares.

Qala houses

Absheron is noted for its inimitable architecture. Every house resembles a formidable fortress. Most houses on Absheron are built of limestone. Predominantly one-storey structures have two rooms, one of which is a living room, while the other is a kitchen. The living room is usually fitted with shelves to store crockery. One of the key elements in such rooms is a niche carved in the wall to put the kerosene lamp and the Koran on. Outside the buildings there are stone gutters to prevent the accumulation of rainwater. In the past, Qala was noted for its potters and blacksmiths.

Bath-houses

There were several bath-houses in the village. One of them was placed underground near a lake and has been removed only recently. The salty water of the lake was believed to have curative properties. Another well-known bath-house still operates in Qala. It is noted for being the only place where water can be heated with only one candle. Those who have witnessed this were truly amazed. As is the case elsewhere in Azerbaijan, Absheron’s medieval bath-houses have become dilapidated over time.

Water storages

These are special wells used in Absheron villages to store water. There are several storages like that in every village. Most are protected, while some are still in use. Their structure is quite interesting. The oldest storage in Qala is at a local cemetery. It was dug in the time of Shah Abbas II in 1665. The steps carved in the rock will lead you to a water source.

Qala place-name

The place-name relates to an ancient fortress. The meaning of it is fortification. The tower of the fortress, built on a local hill in the 14th century, was knocked down in Soviet times. The remains of fortress walls and the medieval Cuma mosque adjacent to it have survived to the present day.

Village of Mardakan

The village inhabited by only 100 people in the early 19th century turned into one of Absheron’s most popular places in the 20th. Local sanatoria provide treatment to those suffering from heart, stomach, intestinal and neural diseases. The place-name is of Turkish origin. The “mardi” or “amardi” tribe, which lived in Central Asia, means “capable, courageous, agile and honorable”, while “kan” denotes a place. Therefore, it means a place of the courageous. There are two old fortresses in the village.

Mardakan fortresses

They were built in 1187, in the time of Axsitan, the son of Shirvanshah Manuchohr. The rectangular fortress is 22 m high. Its 76-step tower has two drinking water and 60 food wells. There is a circular tower 500 m away, is known as a “round fortress”. It is also called the “Six fortress” after Sheikh Abu Said Abulkheir. It is 12 m high. The Arabic inscriptions on it suggest that it was built by architect Abdulmacid Masud in 1232. The Tubashahi mosque, built in 1481, is one of the oldest local structures. All of them are believed to have an underground road connecting them to each other.

Mir Movsum Aga sanctuary

This is the best-known historical and religious site of the village and country as a whole. It is located at a cemetery on the right side of the road leading to the Suvalan settlement. Mir Movsum Aga’s grave-stone was built in 1992-1994. The house in the Old City in which Mir Boyukaga Mir Abutalib oglu Mir Movsumzada (1883-1950) lived is currently a mosque. Hundreds of people visit both sites every day.

Carnations

Baku villages have been noted for their green-houses since Soviet times. Flower gardening has developed quite well here. The flowers cultivated in Baku villages are sold domestically and exported, mostly to Russia. Carnations hold a special place. Usually the flower of weddings and holidays, carnations turned into a symbol of mourning after 20 January 1990.

Bloody Saturday night

The National Liberation Movement started in Azerbaijan in 1988. A million people were demonstrating in the Azadliq Square of Baku, causing the entire USSR to shudder. Fearing the implications, Soviet leaders rolled troops on Baku to kill the demonstrators. Hundreds of young and old people, women and children were brutally murdered. The streets of Baku were all in blood. Those cultivating flowers, unable to remain indifferent to Soviet atrocities, laid millions of carnations onto blood-stained streets, making them look as if they were covered with a red carpet. Since then carnations have been a symbol of martyrs’ blood. Those events were one of the last nails driven into the coffin of the Soviet empire.

Suraxani

It is one of the oldest villages of the peninsula famous for its oil and gas fields. Its best known feature is the gas coming from under the ground, which has amazed visitors for centuries. The place-name is explained as a mineral spring. Scientists link the phenomenon to mineral springs, not flames.

Atashgah

There is a fire temple 21 km east of Baku, with permanent natural gas flowing from under the ground. The temple was built by Indian merchants in the 18th century. After discovering the source of gas, the Hindus from the Ganges started visiting the site to pray. As the merchants praised the place, the number of visitors increased. According to historian Sara Asurbayli, the Suraxani fire temple was built on an ancient fire worshipping site. Atashgah resembles a small fortress. There are cells inside the stoned-fenced courtyard, while the shrine is in the center. There are burning gas flames at every corner of the structure. Fire-worshippers led an ascetic lifestyle here. Expecting nothing from the material world, they people confined themselves to the cells.

The Suraxani fire temple has always attracted travelers and writers. The most detailed account of it is in encountered in Alexander Dumas’s book “Caucasus trip” written in 1858. Tourists don’t leave Baku without visiting the site. In 1902, the natural flames were put out because a gas well drilled in the vicinity led to a blowout. Fifteen wells had to be drilled and a pipeline laid, which led to Atashgah losing its uniqueness. In 1975, it was turned into a museum.

Fire worshipping

Fire worshippers consider fire, water, land and air to be four most important things in life. It was established by Prophet Zoroaster. The holy book of Avesta was written on the hide of 12,000 bulls. Avesta mean fire and water.

Atashgah legend

The fire worshippers’ site on the Caspian (the Maiden Tower) remained under siege for 90 days and nights. Shah Nuraddin besieged the holy fortress and was determined to return it to powerful Iran, which had declared Zoroastrianism its state religion, at any cost. The priests’ unending prayers seemed futile, as residents of the fortress were ready to surrender. However, the senior priest didn’t give up, saying “the holy site’s flames will save us”. All of a sudden, the door opened and a fiery girl holding a burning sword appeared. The priest asked her for help. After listening to him, the fiery girl went to see Shah Nuraddin and enchanted the young ruler. Shah tell her that if she gives up her sword, he would tell her that he loved her. The fiery girl hesitated for the whole night, while Shah Nuraddin got drunk and fell asleep. In the early hours of the morning, after hearing the sound of a pipe calling Zoroastrians to pray, the girl killed the ruler with her sword and returned to the tower. She told the priest that she had fulfilled her mission and killed herself too. Then a thunderstorm began. It lasted seven days and nights and put out all the flames. Everyone was in panic. The priest attempted to calm down the crowd by showing some flames at a distance. Indeed, flames of seven colors were shining at a distance from the Maiden Tower, thus bringing the fiery girl back to life. This led to the establishment of a holy site named Surakshana there.

Yanardag

It is located in the Mahammadi village. The roads leading to the village pass through dry and lifeless hills. There is a place along the way which has been burning for centuries. It is called Yanardag (Burning Mountain). The whole mountain is said to have been burning before. Now the tongues of flame have reduced, but the slope still is on fire. The most tumultuous ceremony of fire worshippers, the Nowruz, has been marked by the state around Yanardag in recent years.

Nowruz Bayrami

It is one of the most ancient Turkic holidays marked on 20-22 March. It symbolizes the arrival of spring and means abundance and prosperity. The most widespread myth goes as follows:

“An oghuz (Turkish tribesman) living in a cave was afraid of the cold winter, which is why he always put aside some food. One winter happened to be very long and the oghuz ran out of his food supply. So he had to go out to get something to eat, but failed. On his way back he came across a wolf cub and explained his situation to him. The wolf cub told him that he would find a herd of sheep, wheatear, a spinning wheel and a hand-mill at the, that he can eat the lamb, make some clothes from the wool and hide, grind the wheatear in the mill to bake some bread. Then the spring will come. But, he said, you will have to raise the wheatear and the sheep yourself, shedding your own sweat. If you can’t do this, you can’t survive.

The oghuz went ahead. The wolf cub proved right. The oghuz followed his advice and it worked out quite well for him.

From then on, he worked hard every year, while on the 30th day of the period of forty cold days from the beginning of winter he started preparations for holidays. He ate, drank, played music, visited his relatives on the last four Wednesdays of that year. The oghuz started counting the year from that very day and gave it the name of Nowruz. He started celebrating and Nowruz brought him abundance.

According to another Turkic myth, Nowruz is the day when the first human child was born. The old Turkic calendar describes this day as the birthday of Adam.
Nowruz is also linked to another historic event. There is a legend that the son of Iranian and Turanian Keykavus, Sayavush (Siyavarsharap, Avesta), came to Afrasiyab’s country. Afrasiyab received him very well and even wedded his daughter to him. To be remembered, Sayavush decided to build the Bukhara gate in Afrasiyab’s country. However, their enemies managed to set them against each other. As a result, Afrasiyab had him killed and brought to the Bukhara gate. Zoroastrians buried him at the Eastern gate. Different theories suggest that the day Sayavush was buried was called Nowruz. It is also believed that Zoroastrians considered that day to be the first day of the year.

Nowruz in ancient sources

According to poet Ferdowsi’s poetic opus “Shahnameh”, the holiday was celebrated in early March, the first month of the Iranian calendar. Nezami Ganjavi’s “Iskandarnameh” and Ali-Shir Nava’I’s “Sadd-i-Iskandari” suggest that Nowruz was a major holiday among Turkic peoples in 350 B.C. It is not by chance that Iskandar visits the Barda ruler Nushaba on Nowruz in Ganjavi’s “Iskandarnameh”.

Nowruz in Zoroastrianism

According to Zoroastrian beliefs, Nowruz is linked to four most important symbols of life: water, fire, wind and flames. Zoroastrianism led to the creation of a series of fire-related holidays. Each of the last four Wednesdays has a symbolic name. Nowruz celebrations, beliefs and rituals are described in Avesta, the main book of Zoroastrians.

Therefore, there must be seven dishes starting with letter “s” on the table on Nowruz. There must be an abundant selection of dishes, parties must be baked in every household and everyone must be at home. Before the holidays, cleaning work should be done, everyone must be clean and wear new clothes. On the first of the last four Wednesdays, some wheat is placed on a plate and watered, so that there is semeni (sprouted wheat) by the holidays. Semeni is grown in every household. The main attribute of Nowruz, semeni symbolizes abundance. In some places, on Absheron in particular, it is used to cook halva. Baklava, shakarbura, shorqogali, the holiday pilaf are absolutely necessary on holidays. Also on Nowruz, eggs are painted and egg-breaking competitions are held. The most colorful characters of the holiday are Kosa and Kechal. Going from door to door, they receive their share of the holiday feast and become the main source of fun. Qovurga (fried wheat) is cooked and served together with walnuts, hazelnuts and raisins. There is always a hat throwing tradition on Nowruz, as children put a hat at a door, knock on it and hide. The tradition goes that the host of a house should fill the hat with Nowruz delicacies. There are many other rituals and beliefs, some of them change depending on the region. What never changes in the Nowruz bonfire. Starting from the last Wednesdays of the year, including the holiday night, bonfires are built in every neighborhood. All youngsters take an active part in the tradition. The bonfire is built when it gets dark, people gather around it, joke, laugh, have fun and dance, and when the fire becomes smaller, jump over it saying “let all my pains and sorrows stay with you”, thus leaving all problems behind. This is how the new year starts.

Maiden Tower

This is the symbol of Baku. It is also called the Eye Tower. It is attributed to the 11-10th centuries B.C. Gobustan’s rock art engravings suggest that because of its unassailable nature the Romans called it the Ruling Tower in the first century of the Christian era. During the Zoroastrian revival the Maiden Tower was linked to the God of Fire Ahura Mazdu.

The tower was restored in the 12th century and this is when it is considered to have been built. According to the engravings on it, it is the tower of Masud ibn Davud. There were about 30 defense fortresses on Absheron at the time. Those of Mardakan, Ramana and the Maiden Tower informed others of the threats approaching from ground and sea. Some scientists have likened it to the torch tower and linked it to the Gilgilchay fortification. There are dozens of legends about the Maiden Tower, which used to stand in water before. In 1960, the tower was restored. It is 29.7 m high, its walls are 5-4 m thick and 16.5 m in diameter. The tower is located in the south-east of the Old City.

Old City

The real old Baku is the Old City. This walled area has stayed exactly the same, covering 21.5 hectares. It used to comprise nine neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is named after its mosque: the Cuma mosque neighborhood, the Shah mosque neighborhood, etc.

Turkish traveler Elviya Chelebi who visited Baku in 1647 said in his Travel Book that there were 70 semi-circular towers and over 600 gun ports in the wall surrounding old Baku. He said the wall was built on rocks and was 40 elbows high. There is written evidence that the Old City had five gates opening in different directions, including three onto the sea and two on the ground. In the 18th century, the boundaries of Baku did not go beyond the city walls. There were around 300 houses and 3,000 residents in the Old City.

In 1859, after the powerful earthquake which raised the town of Samaxi to the ground, the capital was moved to Baku. That made things even worse for the local population. Surprisingly, however, no-one wanted to leave the city boundaries and live elsewhere. But as the oil industry developed, so did the city. Mutual respect among city residents and the influx of people to Baku are still among its most notable features.

The Palace of Shirvanshahs (15th century)

In the middle ages, Baku was the second biggest city of Sirvan next only to Samaxi. The Palace of Shirvanshahs was built in the time of Shirvanshah Khalilullah I (1417-1462) on a hill. In 1683, German traveler Ebgelbert Kempfer who visited Baku was so amazed with it that he subsequently wrote:

“There is a wonderful palace up the hill, called the Palace of Shahs. It was built on a rock and is truly magnificent. At the entrance, there are two engravings of two lions facing each other. There is another animal’s head on their heads and it looks like a camel”.

There are ancient structures such as the Shah mosque (1441-1442), the tomb of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi (“the anchorite tomb”) and the Shirvanshahs tomb (1435-1436) in the compound. The last is the Shirvanshahs’ family tomb built by Shirvanshah Khalilullah for his mother and son.

The Mahammad mosque

It was built on a fire worshippers’ temple in 1078-79. It is largely known as Broken fortress. It has interesting history. In 1723, the artillery of Peter the Great, on an offensive along the Caspian coast, opened cannon fire on Baku. The minaret of Baku’s oldest mosque was damaged in the attack. It has been called the Broken fortress since then.

Abd ar-Rashid al-Bakuvi: “Countries monuments and information about Allah’s slaves” (14th century)

“This city has a special feature: wind blows here day and night. Sometimes the wind is so strong that it is impossible to walk. In winter, the wind throws horses and sheep into the sea because they can’t stand on their feet.”

City of winds

This is another name of the city. Baku has always been noted for Khazry (northerly wind). When it starts blowing, it lasts a week. When old Bakuvians want to find out whether someone is originally from Baku, they ask, “When is there winter in Baku?” If the person answers, “During Khazry”, there are no more doubts left.

Note

Traveler Zeynalabdin Shirvani who visited Baku in 1826 wrote:
“Baku is also called Badukuba because there are always winds there. Sometimes the wind is so strong that even large buildings get damaged. For this reason, building basements are made of cut stone, while roofs are covered with resin”.

Ancient Baku

It is located on the west coast of the Caspian where northerly winds blow incessantly. It is placed in a depression and surrounded by tall and bare hills. It is not known what century it dates back to. Some ancient settlements around the Caspian have been flooded. As the level of water rose, many buildings were deluged. In fact, a whole town of Sabail is said to have been inundated. In the 8th century, Baku was also a commercial seaport. According to scientist Sara Ashurbayli, Baku existed as a feudal city as early as in the 8th century. Therefore, the city has a history of 12 centuries.

Baku place-name

It is said that the name is derived from the word “baki”, i.e. a hill, because it rests on hills. Another theory suggests that the place-name relates to Turkish “bey-koy”, which means the main city. Starting from the 18th century, sources refer to Badukuba, a derivative of two Persian words: “bad” – wind, “kuba” – a place where winds blow.

Al-Masudi (10th century): “Source of gold and jewelry”

“There is white and other oil in Baku. It is available only in Baku. This oil-rich land is noted for inextinguishable fire coming from under the ground like a volcano. There are islands near oil fields. At night, one can see these sources of fire at a distance.”

Hamdullah Qazvini (1280-1349): “Amusement of hearts”

This is what he says about Azerbaijan:

“There are many oil wells, most of which are in Baku. People have dug shallow wells in the ground and reached oil-bearing horizons. Water injected in the wells brings the oil to the surface.”

Kingdom of oil

Russian academic I. Lerkh, who visited Baku in 1733, said he had seen 52 oil wells in Baku. In 1820, all oil wells were at the disposal of the state.

Oil industry

In 1825, oil was produced from hand-dug wells in five places on the Absheron peninsula: Balaxani, Sabuncu, Binaqadi, Bibiheybat and Subani. There were several manually operated shallow wells on Pirallahi (Artyom) island. In 1848, Russian engineer Semenov dug the world’s first oil well in Azerbaijan (11 years ahead of America).

Oil pipeline

In 1873, the “oil paradise” known as the Black City started emerging in Baku. Subsequently, an industrial area covering the oil producing villages of Suraxani, Bibiheybat, Balaxani and Sabuncu appeared on the peninsula. This is where the world’s first oil well was drilled, the first tanker to transport oil was built and the Baku-Batumi oil pipeline was laid.

Oil gushers made Baku famous in Europe. This was a real sensation for foreign capitalists, and in the mid-1870s foreign capital starting flowing to Azerbaijan. The city was developing at a pace unseen in Russia and Europe as a whole. Business people from all over the world were coming to Baku looking for work and happiness. Improvement work around the city was in full swing and the number of magnificent estates was on the increase. This made Baku one of Russia’s biggest centers and the most important city of the Caucasus.

Statistics

The industrial oil well drilled in Balaxani in 1871 was producing 700 tons of oil a day in 1900. A total of 661 poods (Russian measure of weight equal to 16 kg) was produced in Baku, or 95 per cent of total production in Russia and more than half of the world output. In 1883, the population of Baku exceeded 45,000, while in 1913 it reached 200,000. In the early 20th century, the Baku oil accounted for half of the world’s oil production. During World War Two, Baku contributed 75 per cent of oil production in the Soviet Union and 90 per cent of aviation kerosene.

Oil Rocks

The legend of the Oil Rocks started in 1948, when the first contingent of oil-workers and engineers disembarked there. In 1949, oil was produced from what is now called the Oil Rocks. This is when offshore oil production is considered to have started. The development of the Oil Rocks field commenced also in 1949. That was the first time in the world when oil was produced at sea.

Oil magnates and millionaires

There were many millionaires in Baku, some of whom were famous throughout the world. They were also called oil barons because they made their fortunes thanks to the oil.

Hajji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev

He earned a reputation for charity work and support for education. Taghiyev established a school for Muslim girls and went from door to door to encourage families to send their girls to it. The mansions he has built are still among the most beautiful sights of Baku. One of these is a palace built in 1895-1897. The author of its architecture and interior decoration is Polish architect Goslawski. The building currently houses the museum of Azerbaijani history.

Aga Musa Naghiyev

This man’s excessive greed has passed into a proverb. The magnificent building, Ismailiyya (1908), which he established in the center of the city in memory of his son Ismayil, who died at an early age, currently houses the Presidium of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences. He has also built the present Semashko Hospital. Working as a porter with a back pillow in his younger years, he became an oil millionaire and built many structures in a short period of time. He was so tenacious that even when kidnapped twice and asked for a ransom, he managed to get away unhurt. He is said to have promised to pay his kidnappers 1,000 rubles.

Nobel brothers

The first foreign company in Baku was established by the Nobel brothers. In 1843, Emanuel Nobel traveled from Sweden to Russia, set up a plant and started manufacturing arms, ammunition and steam generators for warships. After the Crimean war there were no more state purchases, and the Nobel brothers faced the threat of bankruptcy. Ludwig and Robert Nobel set up military works in St Petersburg and began producing rifles. It wasn’t very profitable for the Nobel brothers to bring nut-trees for rifle butts from Germany. Neither were there nut-trees growing anywhere near St Petersburg. Specialists informed the brothers that the only place where nut-trees could be found was the forest of Lankaran, so Robert Nobel traveled to Azerbaijan and made a stop-over in Baku. While in Baku, he toured its black and white parts, and studied the industrial and economic situation. He soon discovered that Baku was the source of enormous wealth. So he wrote to his brother Ludwig that Baku was a very promising place for business, as wealth was pouring from its oil-fields day and night. He suggested establishing a company here. Shortly afterwards, the brothers purchased an oil-field and a refinery and engaged in day-to-day activities in Baku.

Villa Petrolea

It was built in 1882-83 for the company personnel. Discernible in the incessant smoke emissions of oil industry enterprises, it resembled the Gulustan villa. Well-known Polish specialist E. Beklin was specifically invited from Warsaw to design the mansion. When it was clear that the local soil was contaminated with oil residue and wastes, ships loaded with fertile soil were quickly dispatched from Lankaran. Water for irrigation was brought in from Astrakhan. A total of 80,000 trees and decorative shrubs were brought from Russia, Georgia and other parts of Europe. The villa, surrounded by fountains and swimming pools, was entirely at the disposal of the Nobel brothers and his servants. Many statues, works of art, sculptures and books were delivered from Petersburg. Local and Iranian carpets adorned the rooms of the mansion to create a truly aristocratic atmosphere. Wasting no time, the Nobel brothers rented the Pirallahi island and discovered a major oil field there in 1904. Over a short period of time the small fishing village developed into an industrial settlement. There was a fire temple and a mosque in the settlement, which is why it was called Pirallahi. People were coming here from cities and villages, eventually branding Pirallahi Nobel’s Sakhalin.

Murtuza Mukhtarov

Before becoming an oil millionaire, he was a wagon-driver. He would carry oil barrels from fields to the city and sell them. As was the case in Baku and America (Rockefeller, etc.), most of the early oil millionaires started out as workers, worked as apprentices and then masters. Having to travel to North Caucasus on business quite often, he built magnificent twin-minaret mosques first in Vladikavkaz and then in his native Amircan village. The latter is still open.

Mukhtarov married a daughter of Gen Tuganov from Vladikavkaz. Her name was Liza. Although they loved each other, one of the reasons for their union was that his children from the previous marriage had died due to incest. Liza and Murtuza went to Europe after the wedding. While in Venice, they fell in love with a building there and a year later, in 1911-1912, Murtuza built a similar one in Baku and presented it to his young and beautiful wife. Architect Ploshko designed the luxurious mansion in the French Gothic style. The Mukhtarovs lived in this house until Bolshevik takeover of Baku. Mukhtarov is said to have been at home when the Bolsheviks wanted to plunder his house. When they knocked on his door, the oil industrialist opened it himself. There was a fight, Murtuza killed two communists who were demanding at gunpoint that the house be vacated, and then killed himself. At present, the building serves as the marriage palace.

The mansions and facilities built by oil millionaires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played an important part in the formation of Baku as a city. After the socialist revolution everything the millionaires owned was confiscated in favor of the state. Unwilling to put up with persecution, some of these families left Azerbaijan for America via Georgia and Iran. Many of their descendants have not returned to Azerbaijan to the present day.

There are many more destinations on Absheron and it would take too much time to travel to each one of them. More detained information about the peninsula can be obtained from the Old City museums and travel agencies dealing with local tours.

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