Baku Firing the Imagination

by Maniza Naqvi

Baku4What do the Swedes Robert, Ludvig and Alfred Nobel have in common with South Asian Multani pilgrims and traders? Well for starters a certain fire in the belly of Azerbaijan.

I wake up to the sounds and smells of explosives, the whiff of dynamite mixed with a faint scent of petroleum which sometimes wafts on the breeze here, it is midnight in Baku, and there are extravagant fireworks, over the Caspian waters, framed in my hotel window—as Azerbaijan marks its Independence day. I am awake, and from the tower where I lie, I stare into the near distance at the make believe flames superimposed on three glass towers shaped as flames and lit up at night, appearing like the licks of burning tongues. These are, yes, The Flame Towers, a monument of sorts to free enterprise, trading and a homage to fire temples in the beautiful city of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea on the peninsula of Absheron, in Azerbaijan, in the South Caucuses, north of Iran, South of Georgia and Russia, west of Turkmenistan across the sea and East of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that other country one doesn’t name here.

Bakufireworks

Baad e koo–city of winds—the strong gusts that rise from the south and the sea are called Khaezaeri while those from the north are called Kilavar. The Caspian in Azeri is Khaezer.

I am wide awake, resolutely denying jetlag and contemplate if I should work and finish the note I am to write on Somalia.I have a few hours before my day is to start. But staring at my reflection on the window glass, all I manage to scribble is: From Mogadishu to Baku there is you in common—From Mogidishu to Baku it always ends with you. I mull over the lines and tell myself I will write this. At some point. But as I drown and drowse and surrender to sleep, the moon wanes over the sea slick with oil rising to its surface and I dream of suns rising. My back hurts from the long flight over. I send whatsapp videos back home of the Towers.

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Baku1Azerbaijan was known as the land of eternal flames—because mysteriously, flames erupted from the ground and water and the people since antiquity, have worshipped fire. And later in the fifteenth century and nineteenth century this drew traders from the North of Europe from the land of the Aurora Borealis and from the banks of the Indus from Multan in South Asia. First the Nobels.

Robert Nobel, lived here, in Baku in his Villa Petrolea and added substantially to his fortune here. This is a little known fact. Nobel, yes that one, the Swede whose family fortune with his brother Alfred funds the Nobel prize, arrived in Baku from Sweden in search of the ideal walnut wood for his shotguns and instead smell oil fumes in the air in Baku and oil floating on the water and the eternal flames. He stayed and set up his family’s petroleum company. The Nobels Oil company was called Branobel and their home Villa Petrolea. The Swedes regret that what could have been their oil wealth became Norway’s fortune. But then, all that time they had Azerbaijan’s.

The main and very impressive boulevard in Baku is called Neftchilar–Oilmen’s Avenue. Along with expensive hotels there are the shops of almost every well known designer here.

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Branobel Oil with a logo of the fire temple, officially began operating in 1879. The first oil tanker of the Nobel’s was called Zoraster. It is said in Baku that the Nobels were Zorastrian. The oil profits from Azerbaijan along with the profits from dynamite and weapons funded the Nobel fortune (Villa Petrolea in the photograph below).

AlfredNobelpaintinginVillaPetrolea

LogoFew people outside of Azerbaijan know that the Nobel family has strong ties to Azerbaijan, to Baku and that the Nobel Prize is also funded from the fortunes VillapetroleaBakuof the oil in the Peninsula of Absheron where the city of Baku is located. In the old part of the city which was referred to as the Black town because of the black oil stands the Villa Petrolea, the home of Robert Nobel. When he arrived here in the 1870s he saw that people were soaking up the black oil in the water along the shore and wringing the oil soaked clothes into pots to use as fuel. The rest is history. (here,here)

Villa3 ‘Azerbaijan first caught the eye of the Nobel brothers in 1873, when the Russian government offered free competition for plots of land there. Robert Nobel, a chemist with experience RobertNobelportraitinVillaPetrolea selling American petroleum products in Finland, saw an opportunity. He and his brothers, Ludvig and Alfred, already knew about the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. In fact, Ludvig later went on to invent a type of refinery that was much more sophisticated than those created by the American oil companies. In 1879, the three brothers created a shareholding company and became the main owners.In 1882, Ludvig invited more technical staff to Baku from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany, and founded a colony that he called Villa Petrolea, located in what was then called, and still is – the “Black City” district of Baku. Oil products from their venture were distributed all over Russia by train and by ship to Central Asia and Europe. The logo of the Nobel Brothers’ Petroleum Company depicted the Surakhani Fire-worshippers’ Temple, with its flames fueled by gas from the oilfield nearby. It should be noted that the Nobel ships took on names of various religious and philosophical personalities- Zoroaster, Mohammad, Buddha, Brahma, Socrates, Spinoza and Darwin. Religious ceremonies took place within the Nobel Factory Compound. Sometimes they would go on for days and the workers were free from work.’ (here)

Stalin.Stalin. Yes Josef Stalin lived in Baku. And yes there was a connection to the fire in the belly of StalinyoungmanAzerbaijan and of his. We know about Czarist Russia and its role in the making of Stalin. But we don’t have light shed on the role of the Nobel family the ones who give the peace prize, on the making of Stalin. He arrived there in the 1900s to rally workers in the oil industry, to organize them against the oligarchs of oil, who then jailed him in Bayil Prison in Baku. His second wife was from Azerbaijan, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. A love story of a Georgian man and an Azeri woman. Joe and Nadya? The jail was razed to the ground later. (here and here)

Here is an excerpt contained in the blog cited above which quotes from “Twenty Letters to a Friend” by Svetlana Alliluyeva, (Stalin’s daughter). Harper & Row: New York, 1967, p. 47. ‘”My father had known the Alliluyevs for a long time, since the end of the 1890s. He loved and respected them both, and they felt the same way toward him. In his reminiscences my grandfather has dealt at length with their early meetings, which had to do with the underground workers’ circles. There is a family legend that as a young man my father rescued my mother [Nadezhda] from drowning. It happened in Baku when she was two years old. She was playing on the shore and fell in. He is said to have gone in after her and fished her out. Years later my mother met my father again. She was a schoolgirl of 16 by that time, and he an old friend of the family, a 38-year-old revolutionary, just back from exile in Siberia. Maybe the fact that he had rescued her seemed significant to her, for she was a romantic – full of feeling and imagination.”

And this:

‘On July 9, 1903, while in prison in Kutais, Stalin was sentenced to three years of exile to Siberia, and in November of that year he was transferred to the bleak, remote village of Novaya Uda. There he received his first letter from Lenin in response to one posing certain questions concerning Bolshevist policy and tactics. The letter confirmed him in his adherence to Lenin, whom he glorified as “Mountain Eagle.” Determined to escape, Stalin made his way safely to Irkutsk at the end of the year. From there he proceeded to Baku, in the Caucasus, where he experienced his second baptism of fire as leader of a strike of oil workers. It was part of a wave of strikes that swept Russia with her defeat by Japan, a wave that was the harbinger of the Revolution of 1905.Shortly after the outbreak of the general strike which was the key element in the revolution of 1905, Stalin met Lenin for the first time at a party conference in Tammerfors, Finland. From the Tammerfors conference Stalin returned to his activity in the Caucasus, where on June 26, 1907, on Erivan Square in Tiflis, he directed the celebrated “expropriation” which netted the Bolshevik party 340,000 rubles. There had been other such “expropriations,” but this was the biggest and most dramatic. Formally, Lenin and his associates had frowned upon these acts, but they, nevertheless, accepted the proceeds to help finance the party’s work. In the Erivan Square affair a band of revolutionists directed by “Koba” fell upon a convoy of two carriages carrying Government funds from the railway station to the state bank, and after bombing the Cossack guard escaped with the money, which was sent to Lenin. Following the “expropriation,” Stalin was arrested and lodged in Bailov fortress, in Baku, where the incident of his running the gantlet of rifle butts took place. Soon thereafter he was exiled for the second time to Solvychegodsk, in Siberia, from which he escaped on June 24, 1909. He returned to Baku to resume his revolutionary activity, but remained at liberty only eight months, when he was again arrested and sent back to Solvychegodsk. From that place he conducted secret correspondence with Lenin and his staff at Bolshevik headquarters in Cracow.’ (here)

Today the petroleum industry in Azerbaijan, a joint venture between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) and the British Petroleum, produces about 800,000 barrels of oil per day and 1 billion cubic meters of gas per year. ‘There is so much oil and natural gas reserve under the Absheron Peninsula that the ground practically leaks all over.’ (here).

‘Fire-worship was prevalent in the second half of the first millennium in Absheron and Christianity was widespread in the early Middle Ages in Shirvan, Mughan, Lenkeran, the Talysh region, South Azerbaijan and in the north of Azerbaijan. In several regions the most ancient cults have been preserved – the cults of rock, wood, moon and sun worship etc.’ (here) Pilgrims as far as from Multan in present day Pakistan came to worship here. Still to this day there is a carvansaerai in the old city in Baku called Multana Carvanserai.

‘I was looking at the curious shape of the Maiden Tower when I came across a sign that pointed to the ‘Multani Caravanserai’. Caravanserais — temporary abodes of ancient trade caravans —there were many in Azerbaijan, but why Multani? What did it have to do with our Multan (in Pakistan)? I followed the signs and after passing through a narrow passageway reached two stone buildings that had restored exteriors: one was Bukhara Caravanserai, the other one was Multani Caravanserai. I was told the Multani Caravanserai was built in the 15th century and was the resting place for traders coming from Multan. Presently, a restaurant by the name of‘Karvansarayi’ occupies both buildings that face each other. Multani Caravanserai’s basement with its vaulted ceilings appeared to be the original construction. This is where businessmen from Multan stayed during their stay in Multanicarvanserai Baku. The trade caravans in the ancient times must have had to travel around 2,000 miles going from Multan to Baku. With a maximum speed of 20 miles a day it would take 100 days to cover that distance. Did the trade caravans leaving Multan — with stopovers in between —reach Baku in six months? From Multan did they first travel north to Kabul, then East to Mashhad and finally reaching the southern point of Caspian; and from there they just went along the coast to Lankaran and then onwards to Baku? Trade caravans were the main connections between towns of antiquity. That is how students reached the centres of learning they wanted to go to. All the holy men landing in Multan too must have come with those trade caravans. Ideas and technologies too must have travelled that way. Maritime activity over long hauls being a dangerous proposition till around the 17th century, the ancient trade routes were mostly overland. South Asia was connected to Central Asia and Eurasia through these trade routes. The British came to our region through the sea; their domination of South Asia changed the trade patterns of this area. Even after the end of the colonial era, our region could not re-establish its vibrant historic trade connection with landmass north of it. I also nurtured thoughts about the power of ancient trade centres. Why was Multan so important? Its location by the Chenab River is vital, but did the Suraj Mandir with its awe- inspiring idols too elevate Multan’s status?’ How were the ancient trade routes formed? Little trade connections must have merged together to form routes that were thousands of miles long. And who decided when would a trade caravan leave a place? Who were those caravan leaders and what were their skillsets? How large were the caravans? What merchandise would they carry with them? Were there armed men with each caravan? Coming out of the Multani Caravanserai I could see silk,spices, grains, and perfumes, all loaded up on mules present outside the caravanserai.’ (here)

What is the relationship between the Zoroastrian fire temples in Baku and Suraj Mandir and other temples in ancient Multan (here)? What is the relationship of these temples and the Sufi Shrines in Multan to Baku and its fire temples? (here)

‘In the 15th century, a colony of Indian merchants lived and had caravanserais in Baku, Shemakha,Tabriz and other Azerbaijani cities. The 15th century Indian Multana caravanserai still stands in the ancient fortress of Baku – Icheri Sheher. Trading by Indian merchants, who mainly bought raw silk produced in Shirvan, Shemakha and other places, continued in Azerbaijan until the 16th century and later. About 50 m north-west of the Baku temple, Maiden Tower, there is a caravanserai building – totally reconstructed in the 14th century on the foundations of a more ancient construction – which had obviously served the same purpose. This building still carries its ancient name – the “Multana” caravanserai, taking the name of an Indian tribe of fire- worshippers. It seems that the name was given to the caravanserai in the 15th century, inherited from its more ancient predecessor, built in times of rigorous Zoroastrianism -the Sassanid era, or even earlier; This caravanserai was restored again in the 17th century and the last major work carried out on it was a reconstruction from 1974- 1976. Constructed right next to the high stone wall surrounding the temple, not far from the main gates, which were located a little further west,the Multana caravanserai served as a shelter for Zoroastrian pilgrims from far India.The Indian pilgrims often came to the ancient city of Ateshi Baguan and stayed at their caravanserai to participate in worship and sacrificial offerings at the principal temple of the Mazdaites – and later the Zoroastrians-the Baku temple of seven- headed fires. The temples of Baku were clearly visited by followers of the Zoroastrian religion. Opposite the caravanserai for Indian fire worshippers was the Bukhara caravanserai for merchants from Central Asia. The latter had been reconstructed in the 15th century on the site of an older building which had probably been a shelter for fire- worshippers from Sogda, Khorezm and Bactria.It would seem that these caravanserais enabled merchants from distant countries to combine business with worship of their God in the cult complex. While the flames continued to burn in the Baku, the temple complex of the ancient city of Ateshi- Baguan was probably the main cult centre of Mazdaism and Zoroastrianism, popular across Caspiana,Albania and Midia –Atropatena.’ (here)

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On June 12, 2015 again the world will come to Baku but this time to worship at the shrine of Games and sports in a glittering Olympiad constructed just for this purpose. Azerbaijan will be the host and welcome the world as the host to the European Games in stadiums built for this purpose. It’s a proud moment for a newly wealthy country anxious and eager to put up a good show and to show off its glittering brand new city and its decade of new construction. There are the BMW five series used for police cars, there are the fleets of black Mercedes limousines for guests, and of course there are the wide boulevards lined by show rooms for Mazaratis and Astin Martins, and Giorgio Armani and Brioni, in a Dubai touch of ‘look what money can buy’. It is that same old new of a capitalist present but here it does not rise out of a barren desert, here it mixes and builds on the old graceful limestone buildings of an imperialist past –and all of it as though a film set lit up at night, gleaming glass and metal skyscrapers flashing light montages on their facades of sportsmen and flames.

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The city boasts an award winning breath taking architectural gem which must surely be the envy of many major cities. It is the museum named after the father of modern day Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyiev and designed by the formidable architect Zaha Hadid—a woman originally from Iraq.

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The design seems as if it is a shrine to a rebirth of spirituality and the eternal birth of modernity and space and a temple to aesthetic sensibility of feminine curves and the sense of a drop of liquidity—which sensually and comfortingly shapes itself and grows and morphs as you enter into it– emerging from it renewed. The outer and inner walls as if freshly fallen snow drifts, or breeze solidified, or a membrane or a draping, eggshell white, as if an egg—in the motion of elongation—pulled this way and that. (here and here).

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At the opposite side of the city, past the national flag the size of several football fields and past the conference center created for the Eurovision 2012 contest and nestled in the hills is the shrine of another woman, Iraqi in origin, Bibi Heybat, or Ukeyma Khanum, (here) granddaughter of the 6th Shi’a Imam Jaffar Sadiq, the daughter of the 7th Imam Musa Kazim and the sister of the 8th Imam Raza— whose shrine is in Mashad Iran.

People go there to pray for fertility-for the birth of their children.

The Mosque over the shrine was Baku12first built in the 13th century by the Shirvanshah of the Yazdid dynasty that ruled present day Azerbaijan from the 9th to the 16th century (here). It was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936 and rebuilt later.

Perhaps both, the modern museum and the ancient shrine, are built on sites which in antiquity were already sacred and were fire temples given the proliferation of flames?

Baku11

And in between these two points at the Ministry which protects those who are socially, economically and in limbs disabled by war, by accidents by birth and by age sits a statue on a tall pedestal installed during the Soviet era. There, in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population stands the statue of ‘The Independent Woman’, a beautiful figure of a woman her back and head still draped in a chador in the process of removing the chador—her breasts thrust forward her stance of stepping forward—an image of beauty, body, breasts, womb—strong, a symbol of fertility and strength her chador half unfurling—half draping, like a banner at her back.

She is meant to be the symbol of emancipation. Independentwoman

The language of Baku’s architecture is of a past and present dreaming of the future. Of fire temples, to caravanserais, shrines, villas, penthouses, hotels, and from Czarist Russia and Swedish oil barons to the Soviet Union to present day museums, conference centers, stadiums and business towers trading oil, shops for designer clothes and fancy cars and shops selling Azeri carpets, and markets full of delicious tomatoes, cucumbers and potted caviar; and oil derricks like giant chickens pecking on the ground on the edges of the city and oil rigs out at sea. Its ancient roots of globalization of people traveling to these parts to worship and or to profit are still to this day the source of its reality.

Globalization and free enterprise in every sense of the words are not new concepts to Baku. The new modern steel and glass skyscrapers are modern versions of carvanserais and Villas Petroleas.

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The spoken Azeri language is the pure form of Turkish complete with its Turkic roots and Persian and Arabic words—spoken in Azerbaijan but no longer spoken in Turkey after Ataturk expunged the language of its Persian and Arabic words and alphabet.

This is a land where thousands of stories can be woven depending on which of the many strands are grasped at a time, coming together as they do on ancient trading routes, the silk road from Asia on to Europe. No wonder then that here in the streets and parks and cafes there is that soulful sweetness in the music and the languages. At every corner and turn the possibility of many more questions and many more stories. The tones of Russian, Turkic, Persian, Arabic and more, mix here creating a brew as delicious and intoxicating as its wines. I recommend the Savalan. And the gorgeous carpets made by the hands of women–and which will endure for ever and which weave stories of the crops they tended, the families they gave birth to and of insects and flowers and of caravans of camels, of turtles and dragons and of flowers and herbs– of Marco Polo and of travelers all the way from China.

My brother sends me a text message, asking me if everything is alright. He’s just woken up from a dream, he’s looking to connect his IPhone to an adapter, and I suddenly walk in my head is wrapped up and I’m hurt. It’s my back and there is a fire, somewhere. So he’s texting me to find out if I’m okay. I am.

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I listen to our Azeri host in Baku,over dinner, a lost twin it seems to Gary Shteyngart in humor, regaling us with stories. I barely catch my breath from laughing so hard when he continues ‘So you can only imagine the distress, when my childhood Russian friend, Vasiliy’s prosthetic leg, as a result of an accident when he was eight, on the train tracks one day on his way to school, comes off on the Ferris Azericarpet6wheel at Disney land in Paris where he is vacationing with his kids, and the prosthetic–please imagine it— goes flying across the air and lands in a nearby tree—imagine then the poor Algerian Ferris wheel operator who on seeing the projectile sail through the air—is traumatized for life at such a sight—such a possibility that such an amputation, which is now air borne—please can you follow the arc of my story, the awful thought that this missile may have been caused by him the simple operator of this amusement park’s Ferris wheel. Imagine the poor operator’s condition, when the prosthetic is retrieved from the tree, and is brought to Vasiliy just as he the Algerian operator is coming to. Imagine the poor man’s further distress, the re-fainting and so on at reseeing the detached leg.’ By this time in the story we are laughing so hard that I find it hard to breath, I am already hurting from laughing about all the other colorful stories of Vasiliy’s exploits on said Vasiliy’s and our host’s yearly summer vacations, and all the variations of what can go wrong and does when bears are involved. These tales of summer expeditions situates our host and Vasiliy in some bucolic region of Russia with more bears than people and an abundance of spawning trout—While I wipe away the happy tears thinking that just below the surface of this bureacrat lies a remarkable talent, our dead pan voiced story teller complete with doleful eyes and a melancholic somewhat apologetic delivery waits for us to recover and downs another vodka.

DumasAnd of course there is Alexander Dumas, the 19thcentury author of French and African extract, who wrote the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, who visited Baku the end of the 1858, as part of his nine-month journey through several guberniyas (regions) of the Russian Empire. He visited the site of the ancient fire temple in Ateshgag, where there is a gas field with an eternal flame near Baku. It made an indelible impression on his imagination.

‘Alexandre Dumas left Astrakhan by carriage for the Caucasus. He knew of the area from the ancient plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The grandeur and epic peace of the mountain peaks that hid the Titan Prometheus, the ancient traditions and local culture of the mountain people attracted the writer like a magnet and inspired his imagination. He devoted a whole book of essays, entitled The Caucasus, to the region. “When viewing the Caucasus, first of all you see a huge range of mountains, the gorges between them harboring representatives of all nations” is the somewhat dry beginning of his report. Yet the very next line is filled with poetry and amazement: “This was the Caucasus – the theatre where the first dramatic poet of ancient times set his first drama, with its hero a Titan and the gods as actors.” After traveling all through the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Cirkassia, Ossetia and Chechnya) and visiting Tiflis and Poti, Dumas proceeded through Derbent to Baku, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan. The panorama that opened before him captivated him immediately. It appeared as if the city were divided in two: the “black” city and the “white” city. The “black” city was the old part of Baku, on the seashore, where the oil industry was located. At a distance of 26 versts from Baku was the famous Ateshgag fire sanctuary, with its eternal flame. Having heard of the fire-worshippers’ temple, Alexandre Dumas immediately wanted to see this wonder of nature and ancient craftsmen with his own eyes: “…The carriages were ready. The idea was to see the Baku flames known to all, with the exception, perhaps, of the French, as the least traveled nation.” After visiting the temple, he wrote: Azericarpet “This fire is maintained with oil, that is, kerosene, which is easily inflammable, light and transparent.” The writer’s inquisitive mind could not ignore the practical use of oil or “black gold” as it is called. The scale of the Russian oil fields on the Apsheron Peninsula fired his imagination. Like a scientist, he began describing what he saw in detail and with great precision. “Oil is the disintegration of dense mountain tar, produced by subterranean fires. There is oil in many parts of the world, but the greatest abundance is to be found in and around Baku. In the environs of Baku, along the entire shore of the Caspian Sea, wells have been dug to a depth of from 3 to 20 meters; black and white oil seeps through the marl earth, which is soaked in oil. Almost 100,000 centners of oil are produced every year. This oil is sent to Persia, Tiflis and Astrakhan.” Alexandre Dumas continued: “Take a look at a map of the Caspian Sea and draw a straight line parallel to Baku to the opposite shore, and then imagine, right next to the shore, an island named Cheleken or ‘oil island,’ inhabited by nomadic Turkmen. From the other side, the Apsheron Peninsula stretches out into the sea, forming, along the same line, a large number of oil and brea beds. At the tip of Apsheron, creating a bay, is an island considered sacred by the Guebres and Persians because it also has gas and oil wells. And it thus spreads under the sea as far as the region of Turkmenia.” To conclude his account of the Baku oil, he makes economic calculations in favor of yet another economic application of oil: “A big company is currently being created to make candles from oil. A pound of the finest candles, like our sun candles, would cost 15 kopecks in silver, instead of 50 kopecks a pound for stearic candles in Tiflis and 35 kopecks in Moscow.” (here and here)

There is, of course, the well-known novel ‘Ali and Nino’ by Kurban Said set at the time of World War I. A love story between an Azeri Muslim boy and a Georgian Christian girl who meet in the old city of Baku. The novel ends with the death of the boy and the Russian occupation of the Caucuses (here). The book is set in the backdrop of the history of the region and of Baku.

Vahid FuzuliTo be Azeri is to be part of a proud heritage of poetry and culture that extends far beyond Azerbaijan’s borders–and includes fabled cities such as Tebriz and is a shared heritage with 25 million Azeris in Iran. Azerbaijan and the city of Baku are the homeland of great poets, philosophers and artists and most of the monuments and statues in the city and in its parks are dedicated to them and not to war or soldiers as in other places around the world. Here, there are statues and sculptures paying homage to the 12th century poet Nizami, and the 16thcentury poet Fizuli and the 20th century poets Vahid and Jabbarali and many others (here).

But more often than the verses of these poets, a particular verse of Pushkin another great author of African descent, is quoted here and it is related to the attributes of the character of a neighboring country. A statue of Pushkin is located at the corner of 28th May Street in Baku. May 28th marks the day that Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. But that declaration of independence was unfulfilled and shackles were only partially cast off with the Soviet invasion and occupation which came just two years later. And then decades later, the Soviet Union gone, there remain other grievances of invasion and occupation supported by the Russians. Despite this, or, because of it a statue to the Russian poet was erected in Baku as late in the day as 2001, perhaps pointedly on the corner of 28th May Street, and perhaps because of his much quoted verse here.

Baku3Almost 3 million of 10 million Azerbaijan citizens live in Baku—outside this glittering city the country remains mainly untouched by development, rural and remote for city dwellers. I am told proudly that of the earth’s 13 climatic zones 9 can be experienced in Azerbaijan. That explains, its flavorful harvests of fruits, vegetables and dairy. The delicacies of lamb, quail, sturgeon and caviar, olives, and cheese are without a doubt delicious, but the fresh vegetables, the various leafy herbs, the cucumbers and sweet plump tomatoes at this time of the year can transport you to happiness. And there are wonderful wines, did I mention that already? The Savalan wine, in particular, this lazy Saturday afternoon, is spectacular. Yes, let me contemplate the wine, the tones and fire, the sun and the stars here. There are inscriptions of the sun and stars which have been recovered from the sites of ancient temples and which I have seen displayed in Zaha Hadid’s architectural marvel, today. The Azeri currency is called Manat. I wonder why it is called Manat. It would tie in nicely for all that is the coin of feminine and worshipped here. But no, what I want it to be—for the sake of a story, it is not. Shucks. The currency is named from the word Moneta—purely for money, the Russian word for coin. Baku10

And lucky, lucky me. I am again in a land that treats me as an honored guest, refers to me as Khanim and Jan and adds the dimunitive ishka at the end of my name in affection. I feel this to be part of me, I am part of it, it is part of my soul, the Caucuses, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Turkey, Iran. Here I am in the South Caucuses on the shore of the Caspian Sea in the fantastical city of Baku and all around me are the modern day traders from everywhere and everyone is anxiously waiting for the Games to begin here. The sun has set, the Flame Towers in front of me are bathed in red light and soon this light will switch to the dramatic orange flames. And it is time for me to call it a day.

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