A little more than a century ago, Baku was home to the world’s first great oil rush, and the city turned into an art nouveau gem. Now its oil barons’ mansions have been lovingly restored. Brigid Keenan explores
With oil came a building boom in Baku, the like of which had possibly not been seen since the dawn of Dubai. From the striking Carpet Museum to the iconic Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre it is all a far cry from the beautifully ornate city of Baku built by the first oil barons. This happened in the brief few decades between the discovery and exploitation of oil in the 19th century, and the invasion of Baku by the Bolsheviks in 1920.
Ludvig Nobel, one of the first oil barons (and brother of Alfred, who created the Nobel Prize), described the frenzied, oil-obsessed town of Baku in 1870 as being like the Klondike in the gold rush. By 1900 Azerbaijan supplied more than half the world’s oil, and the successful speculators became the new aristocrats, vying with one another to create the most spectacular and extravagant houses in the capital – the houses have their owners’ initials, sometimes their names, carved into the façades like designer labels. It is said that one super-competitive chap actually built a house in solid gold; another, the self-taught oil engineer Murtuza Mukhtarov, built an enormous Gothic palace for his wife as a Valentine’s Day surprise – she had admired a building in Europe when they were travelling together and he secretly commissioned a copy of it for her back home.
Baku had been an Oriental city but now everything European became the craze; European-style architecture, and quite often European architects, designers, artists, workers in stucco, metal, stone and wood – there were jobs for them all in Baku. Hundreds of new buildings were constructed in those years, every one decorated with hand carving or painting or marquetry, parquet, gilding, and so on. Whole streets of these houses, built in the local golden stone, made – still make – parts of Baku look like Paris. The building frenzy then must have felt much as it does now.
Some of the oil barons – the Nobels, the Rothschilds – were foreigners, but most were locals, and there are wonderful rags-to-riches stories, the best one being the tale of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. He was the illiterate son of peasants, but he scrimped and saved and, with partners, invested in a piece of land in the hope of finding oil. They found nothing and the partners pulled out – but then came a small earthquake and oil gushed from Taghiyev’s land. Overnight he became one of the richest men in the world. Like many of the other oil barons of those times, Taghiyev not only built himself a fabulous palace (main image), but used his fortune for good, creating schools, public buildings and a whole freshwater system for Baku, with a reservoir outside the town and pipes and canals and pumps to bring water to the city.
Those first oil barons were civic minded: oil tankers were obliged to bring soil back to Baku from fertile Lankaran in the south (Baku soil was poor) so that public gardens and parks could be created. The Nobel family, whose house was a few kilometres outside Baku in what was known as the Black City (Baku itself was the White City), built a theatre (and formed a small orchestra to play there), as well as a school and a hospital for their workers.
All of these were burnt to the ground, however, by the 11th Red Army, when the Revolutionary Soviets stormed into Baku in 1920. The Nobels escaped with their lives, but many oil barons did not – Mukhtarov, he of the surprise Valentine’s gift, shot the soldiers who rode into his palace on horseback, but then turned the gun on himself. Every house was commandeered, and no ‘capitalist’ was allowed to stay. Even Taghiyev’s good works counted for nothing; he and his family were thrown out of their glittering palace – in which gifts from European nobility were mingled with those from the Emir of Bukhara – with only the clothes on their backs.
The Soviets turned some of the most spectacular of the barons’ houses into institutions: part of Taghiyev’s house became a museum; the ornate house that the Rothschilds built for their manager became Baku’s National Art Gallery (though for a while it was the offices of the new Soviet party leaders). The beautiful house once owned by the folk-singer-cum-oil-millionaire Mir-Babayev became the headquarters of the nationalized oil industry – today it is the offices of the State Oil Company.
The house that was the Valentine’s gift became the Wedding Palace, where couples celebrated their union. The marvellously painted home of Agha Bala Guliyev, the Flour King of Baku, became the Architects’ Union, the girls’ school that Taghiyev built became the Institute of Manuscripts, and the Muslim Philanthropic Society, modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice and built by Naghiyev, the richest baron of them all, in memory of his son, became the Academy of Sciences (it was rebuilt after a fire, and the new building has Soviet stars instead of Koranic calligraphy).
Buildings not imposing enough to be turned into institutions got short shrift in the 70 years of Soviet rule: they were divided up into small apartments, their decoration destroyed, their creators and their history forgotten.
Now, more than two decades since Azerbaijan regained independence, the Baku– Ceyhan pipeline supplies the West with oil, and the city is booming and once again proud of its oil barons. There has been a positive fever for restoring the wonderfully decorated oil barons’ houses – the Wedding House was reopened in 2012 after extensive restoration, and other buildings that have all been renovated include the Architects’ Union, the National Art Gallery and the Institute of Manuscripts. For anyone interested in a closer look, the architectural historian Shamil Fatullayev is known as the city’s authority on the subject and his Russian-language encyclopedia on Baku is a bible on these great old houses. But, better still, many of them (such as Taghiyev’s, Mukhtarov’s and Rothschilds’ houses) are open to visitors so come and marvel at Baku’s last golden era.
A version of this story featured in the spring 2012 issue of Baku magazine.
Photography by Tim Beddow