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Baku's belle époque architecture, by Tristan Rutherford

Etihad Atlas Magazine, October 2018

Hajji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev was born into poverty. The son of an illiterate shoemaker, it took him 40 years to save up and buy part of an oil drilling concession near Baku. He drilled without success. After four years of penury, Taghiyev bought out his bankrupt partners with the last of his funds. Then, in 1877, a small earthquake opened a fissure in the earth. This caused a 70m-high oil geyser to gush skyward like a million dollar firework. Overnight, the penniless Azeri became one of the richest men in the world.

Taghiyev invested a minor part of his fortune in a 50-room mansion. Its Italian Renaissance façade now holds the Azerbaijan Museum of History although the rococo interior is little changed. A marble staircase the width of four horses rises into a 10m-high salon. Here Taghiyev quite literally painted the ceiling with gold, and the same gilded cornices now envelop a thousand-crystal chandelier. Curtains were shipped from Germany. Furniture from the United States. A mirror the size of a Rolls-Royce reflected the wealth of Azerbaijan’s original oil baron, as his ornaments echoed the globalism of Baku’s floodlit streets.

During the 1890s global demand for oil peaked. This was partly because the commodity could be refined in Baku into kerosene, then used to replace whale oil blubber in streetlamps. (Kerosene later fuelled space rockets and Formula 1 cars.) By 1900 the Azeri capital produced over half the world’s oil. However, the pumping derricks and gas fumes that pervaded the industrial suburbs of ‘the Black City’ choked even the nouveau riche. As a contemporary Turkish traveller noted: “You can feel the oil and inhale the fumes. You walk among clouds of smoke which cover up the sky.”

Using Taghiyev’s largesse as a model, Baku’s new oil barons transformed their vast wealth into palaces, casinos and theatres away from the viscous fug. The city would be an eastern Vienna, an arriviste London, a boulevardier’s Paris on the Caspian Sea.

Not all the oil barons were born in Azerbaijan. Sweden’s Nobel brothers, Ludvig and Robert, decamped to Baku in 1876. A few years later they commissioned the world’s first oil tanker, which carried kerosene to Russia in two sealed iron tanks. By 1884 they had constructed the aptly named Villa Petrolea where they oversaw their refinery operation. Byzantine on the outside, Downton Abbey on the inside, it’s now a museum dedicated to the Nobel family of petroleum pioneers.


“At the turn of the 20th century Baku was a cosmopolitan Klondike,” says Dr Togrul Bagirov, Chairman of the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund, which operates the museum. “French Industrialists, Italian opera singers and Swiss bankers could be seen on our streets.” In 1910 the Nobel Brothers Oil Company was the second biggest in the world. “The largest was the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil, which would later become Exxon,” explains Bagirov.

At Villa Petrolea, several splendid rooms have recreated Nobel-era Baku. Gramophones sit astride Ottoman recliners, pairing western technology with eastern promise. Ceramic glazed samovars could keep iced wine cold and tea scalding hot. Dr Bagirov lists other technological firsts. “The Nobel family used their oil tankers to bring back ice from Russia,” he explains. A series of pipes then blew the icy air around the villa through ornate grates that survive today – Baku’s first air-conditioning. “Nobel Oil also travelled down the world’s first kerosene pipeline from Baku to the Black Sea, to be shipped to Europe.” To anoint their success, Taghiyev himself gifted the Nobel brothers a sumptuous carriage clock, which the museum tracked down and purchased for the collection.

Unlike other oil barons, the Nobels pursued a Scandinavian style of social care. Some 40% of profits were funnelled into worker pensions, orphanages and children’s school. But like newly minted oligarchs, they couldn’t resist a touch of luxury too. The Villa Petrolea’s 10-hectare park was covered with sub-tropical earth shipped in from the fertile Iranian border. Here thrived 80,000 plants including Italian flowers and fruit trees from Uzbekistan. Today a new round of oil-funded construction drowns out the garden’s silence. Astride the villa, copies of Parisian apartment blocks are being built atop former oil refineries in a project envisaged by global starchitect Norman Foster.

At the Azerbaijan Union of Architects (AUA) there is a sense of déjà vu. “There are of course parallels with this belle époque period and modern times,” says the AUA’s chairman, Elbay Gasim-Zada. “After each oil development we wish to develop ourselves.” Gasim-Zada has seen Jean Nouvel’s Baku Museum of Modern Art take shape. He even welcomed Zaha Hadid, designer of the curvaceously cool Heydar Aliyev Center, as an honorary member of the AUA in a special ceremony.

Gasim-Zada offers another example from yesteryear. “The oil barons who became wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holidayed in Europe,” he explains. “Then they brought in foreign architects to recreate the best of France or Italy in Baku.” Musa Naghiyev started life as an oil cargo handler before becoming the richest of the petroleum barons. He fell in love with Venice’s Palazzo Cantarini, then commissioned the Muslim Charity Society building – a few blocks from the AUA – in the same Venetian Gothic style. It’s a cathedral of honey-hued stone that comprises the power of a Victorian rail station with Greek columns and Islamic whorls. Gasim-Zada also notes that behind each famous foreign architect were Azeri designers who implemented the project, then built Baku’s mansion-lined boulevards.

Gasim-Zada’s AUA bureau is housed in a smaller, if similarly evocative, building. It was the former residence of Aghabala Guliyev who earned his wealth not through oil but as Baku’s ‘Flour Mill King’. In the last half of the 19th century Baku’s population grew faster than London or New York. By providing the bread that fuelled the oil workers, Guliyev afforded staircase frescoes that enchant with Mesopotamian scenes of corn being sailed to market – the very source of his wealth. A wooden carved ceiling of unimaginable complexity contains green whirling swirls of Arabesque marquetry. The current government-funded renovation of the building’s façade begs a wider question. Could Azeris fall in love with their capital’s original oil boom architecture, as they are in thrall of its new?

There are similarities between ancient and modern. The 20 or so historical oil barons’ palaces synthesise the architectural flavours of Europe and the Islamic World. Each one has an internal courtyard to offer discrete recreation for pious female guests. And every palace shocks and awes with rococo trimmings on an unimaginable scale. Baku’s contemporary architecture follows the same pattern. The soon-to-open Caspian Waterfront Mall recalls the Sydney Opera House within an Arabian motif. 

One young man has bet his fledgling career on the allure of Baku’s ancient building stock. Alish Ismayilov, a 22-year-old apprentice at Pasha Travel, won a competition to create Baku’s most alluring guided tour. “Unlike the beautiful buildings in Paris, you can actually visit the interiors of Baku’s best houses as some of them host museums, offices or theatres,” says Ismayilov. “And as Azerbaijan’s economy diversifies from energy into tourism, they offer an oily history lesson too.”


One of Ismayilov's favourite structure’s is the Philharmonic Hall, five minutes uphill from the Four Seasons. In classic oligarch style it was copied from the Opera de Monte-Carlo, yet with arched windows that funnel sunlight – mosque-like – through scores of interior pillars.

The baroque palace across the street is even more sumptuous. What is now the Baku Museum of Art was built for the Rothschild family, which possessed the largest Caspian tanker fleet after Nobels. Two stone wings host a mini Versailles of marble staircases and grand salons. Ceiling frescoes tell of birds, flowers and glorious Caspian summers, although the original parquet has sadly been replaced A legend concerning the southern wing’s outdoor terrace sums up the era’s decadence.


“A local story says that when an outdoor theatre for the Philharmonic Hall was being planned, a Rothschild manager bribed the developer,” explains Ismayilov. “The stage was eventually built where it could be seen from the Rothschild’s private terrace.” The twin buildings now envelope a new glass cube, where quranic manuscripts and Soviet sculptures are displayed.

Perhaps the era’s indulgence and inequality ushered in an antagonistic age of Bolshevism and revolution. Or perhaps Azerbaijan’s neighbours coveted its baroque buildings and ever-growing wealth. Either way, in 1920 the clouds of war mingled with Baku’s viscous smog, and Soviet troops nationalised the oligarchs’ holdings at gunpoint. One magnate, oil drilling baron Murtuza Mukhtarov, had recently built a copy of a French Gothic palace that his wife had admired abroad. "As long as I'm alive, no barbarian will enter my house in soldier's boots,” he roared. When Russian horsemen charged up his marble staircase he fired at them, killing three, before turning the gun on himself.

The Soviet empire was either too lazy or too poor to pull down the oil barons’ palaces. Each one was preserved as an – exceptionally ornate – art gallery, party headquarters or, in the case of Mukhtarov’s mansion, a wedding hall. During Azerbaijan’s current oil boom the vitrines that once stocked silks from Teheran and butter from Kiev, now host Dior from Paris and Patek Philippe from Geneva. It’s Baku’s belle époque, second time around.


How Azeri oil fuelled the Nobel Prize

The world’s greatest philanthropic prize has its roots in downtown Baku. Alfred Nobel invested in Azerbaijan’s oil industry alongside his pioneering younger brothers, Ludvig and Robert. A technical genius, in 1867 Nobel invented dynamite, the world’s first stable and transportable explosive. It was primarily used to blast huge holes in mountains, allowing railroads to crisscross the known world. Thanks to dynamite, pipelines could also be laid through difficult terrain, including the Baku to Batumi link that carried the Nobel family’s kerosene to waiting tankers on the Black Sea.

Alas, dynamite’s widespread use in armaments tainted Alfred Nobel’s reputation. In 1888 a French newspaper published his obituary in error. It was entitled: “The merchant of death is dead”. A chastened Nobel bestowed almost his entire wealth – nearly 25% of it derived from his Baku oil holdings – to promote peace, science and cultural advancement via annual grants. His name lives on in the form of nearly 1,000 Nobel Prizes that have been bestowed on individuals and organizations as diverse as Arabian author Naguib Mahfouz and radiation pioneer Marie Curie, who scooped the prize twice. The Nobel Foundation, which invests Alfred Nobel’s exceptional gift, now stands at around US$500m.

Travel writer Tristan Rutherford has written extensively about Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Caucasus.

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