The bazars of the Old Baku


Without doubt, one of the most colorful places in any oriental city is a market, or bazaar.


In the times of the first oil boom (1872-1914), Baku – with all of its ethnic and cultural diversity – was no exception. It was here that centuries-long trade traditions of the city manifested themselves vividly. Even when the city became a major industrial center, responsible for more than half of the world’s oil production in the early 20th century, it maintained its oriental vibe, while markets served as a barometer of the society’s moods and an indicator of the public’s wealth.

There were many markets in the pre-revolutionary Baku: there was the Kubinsky Bazaar (where the Fizuli square is now situated), the Aleksandro-Nevskiy Bazaar (later known as “The Passage”) located by the grandiose cathedral with the same name and, unfortunately, raised to the ground in the Soviet days. There was also the Soldatsky Bazaar at the Yarmorochnaya Square (where the S. Vurgun Garden is located today) and many other district markets, mostly outdoor ones, at small city squares.

It is worth noting that there was a Bazarnaya – or market – street in Baku at the turn of the 19-20th centuries. It was later named Gusi Gadzhieva Street, today it is known as Azerbaijan Avenue. The street got its name on purpose – it started by the walls of Icheri Sheher, which opened its gates to allow the people access to Bazarnaya Street, and connected the Aleksandro-Nevskiy and the Kubinsky Bazaars. Shops, tea rooms, grocery stores and bakeries were situated all along the Bazarnaya Street.

This calm, slow-paced and rich life of Baku’s markets was captured in a unique collection of early 20th century photos by Ioannina Germanovich, kept at the Central State Archives of Cinema and Photo Documents of Azerbaijan. They show the store of greenery seller, full of fresh greens, bread stalls with pastry and bakery with lavash bread hanging on display, kebab, jiz-biz and refreshments vendors, as well as interiors of traditional tearooms with hookahs and pitikhanas. The faces and the looks of the people in these pictures ooze calmness, tranquility and confidence.

Services which accompanied trade in these times were just as developed and interesting. First and foremost, there was an entire team of carriers – “hambals” – assigned to every market. Those carriers, mostly from southern Azerbaijan, were easily distinguished by spacious bags – “palans” – which they could fill with groceries and later deliver to a specified location for a small fee. The safety of deliveries was guaranteed by the cooperative of “hambals”.

Interestingly enough, perishable products – like dairy – were often delivered personally by sellers. Every dairyman had regular customers. But, according to the acclaimed painter of Azerbaijan and big fan of the old Baku Qasim Qasimzade, buyers were not charged daily for deliveries. Sellers left a little vertical indentation at a door’s jamb – which marked every delivery – and at the end of the week clients paid in full for deliveries, after which a seller put a horizontal line over vertical indentations.

A vivid picture by I. Germanovich captured one of old Baku’s dairy sellers – barefoot on rocky pavement, with four massive buckets of qatiq (traditional sour milk product) on top of his head. Q. Qasimzade recalled a funny story about this particular dairy merchant. One bucket cost 1 abaz (20 kopecks). “If I sell one per day, I won’t earn much, - thought the merchant, - while two buckets would bring me 40 kopecks, three would bring me 60 and if I make a risky move and put four, then 80 kopecks a day would make me rich eventually and I, as a true Muslim believer, would embark on a hajj to Mecca. When I become a haji, everyone will greet me with a bow of their heads”. He was daydreaming about all that with so much rigor – imagining how people would greet him with a bow – that he totally forgot about the heavy load on top of his head, bowed and shattered all four buckets on the pavement.


Unfortunately, this rich and calm life ended when WWI began. However, even before revolutionary upheavals began, Baku City Duma – as if knowing that the dark times ahead would have an imminent hit on the city’s markets – published quite an interesting document. “A plea to Baku’s housewives”. Both the idea behind the document and the text itself are so interesting that we would like to provide a few quotes:

“A plea to Baku’s housewives”,
September 12th 1914.

“Such an extreme event – the war – massively disrupts not only political and social spheres, but also affects the lives of every single one of us. By distracting us from our everyday duties, the war undermines the country’s economic life.

One of the serious and key matters we’ve been observing since the war began is the continuing increase of prices for vital necessities. Many are trying to capitalize on these events and artificially hike prices for products, willing to enrich themselves off the wider population.

Baku’s public administration sees it as its duty to intervene into this matter and set things right. It is now very concerned with the matter of assessing prices for groceries.

Proper regulation of market prices, however, is impossible without precise information about existing market prices. The administration does not possess such information, and it cannot be obtained without cooperation of those who are making those acquisitions, who are also keen on eradicating the artificial price growth on vital products. As history of other cities shows, housewives are such people.

So, dear ladies, the city’s administration asks for your help and cooperation. By occasionally reporting prices for vital necessities to the public administration, you would positively contribute to the resolution of this quite important and severe matter”.

Housewives – having a vested interest in this matter – responded to the authorities’ plea. And in September 1914, a chart of average prices for key grocery products at Baku’s markets was compiled. The prices mentioned are kopecks per pound (409 grams).

For comparison, we can look at average annual salaries at that time. For instance, employees of the “Shamsi Asadullayev” Oil Company had the following salaries in 1916:

As we can see, even the lowest-paid worker could afford a kilogram of 1st grade beef with his daily earnings. No wonder that one working man was taking care of an entire family.

However, when the WWI began – the situation rapidly deteriorated. The war devalued the ruble, deprived many families of men who earned money and this immediately affected the life of Baku’s markets. An extraordinary event happened there in 1916.


The event described by Manaf Suleimanov in “The days of the past” book became the precursor of revolutionary upheaval. In February 1916 an incident at the Aleksandro-Nevskiy Bazaar rocked the entire city. After an argument about the price with a seller, one female customer flipped the counter in rage. Emotions were heated at the market and this led to a genuine explosion – when all women at the market, almost like on command, started destroying everything around them. This is how the famous “women’s riot” began.

The crowd of angry women spilled out from the Aleksandro-Nevskiy Bazaar into the Bazarnaya street, smashing and crushing all stalls and stores on their way to the Kubinsky market. Along the route, the raging mob grew – mostly with women, whose husbands were forcefully drafted into the army. The riot was suppressed only after the army was called in and received an order to shoot on sight. There were casualties and serious destruction.

In exactly one year after the “women’s riot”, the Russian Empire collapsed. For a period of time, deliveries of goods into Baku from the outskirts of the city and neighboring provinces were completely suspended. Baku’s markets turned empty. Only Baku’s liberation in 1918 helped to restore order – and along with that, according to memoirs of contemporaries, “bazaars came alive – beef and lamb appeared on the stalls”.


In the Soviet days, markets went through considerable changes. Fortunately, those did not affect the spirit of an oriental bazaar. First of all, city markets changed their location – as parks and squares started to appear at the sites of the old bazaars. For example, the Fizuli square with a majestic monument appeared instead of the Kubinsky Bazaar. A park and a monument to Samed Vurgun replaced the once-lively Soldatsky Bazaar.

New markets sprung up, mostly indoor ones and with better infrastructure than the pre-revolutionary ones. A network of major bazaars appeared in the city’s slums. Some of these projects were large-scale – like the Istanbul-styled, multi-domed Eastern Bazaar (Sherg Bazari). However, due to either its inconvenient location or lack of competent management, this complex – now going through major renovation – has not become a point of attraction.

The flagship bazaar of Baku’ soviet period – both in terms of variety and atmosphere – was Teze Bazar (the new bazaar). Its façade facing the lively Samed Vurgun highway, its rear adjacent to the famous Kubinka district. It eventually turned into the city’s largest black market, comprised of a labyrinth of narrow streets – resembling a Brazilian favela. It was here that in the times of soviet deficit one could buy almost anything – from “Marlboro” and “Camel” cigarettes to jeans, pornography and firearms. No wonder that “Nina” typography, which published Bolshevik “Iskra” newspaper in the pre-revolutionary times, was situated here.

Today Kubinka sees major housing development, while a market with the original name is being created in the place of the New Bazaar. The project’s team aims to recreate the iconic Baku bazaar, which will forever remain as the New Bazaar. The revamped market will become one of the country’s main showcases – where one would be able to find the best goods and products Azerbaijan has to offer.

The architectural project of the future complex will try to maintain the legacy, keep the charm and atmosphere of old Baku’s markets and reflect the vibrant history, uniting traditions and new ideas. You can find out more about it in the interviews with the project’s authors and the team.

Photos are kindly provided by the Central State Film and Photo Archive of the Azerbaijan Republic.