The mysteries behind Baku’s mansions


Təzə People asked city researcher, creator of excursions and tourist routes in Baku Alla Garagashly to take us along central streets and tell us – how can one see the beauty in ordinary city landscape and find genuine treasure by taking a peek inside building entrances.

Modern-day Baku is not just about bustling bazaars, noisy streets and people always rushing somewhere. It is also about endless fascination when you see how architecture of the East and the West intertwines here. This luxury came here together with one of the most vivid episodes in the country’s history – the period of the first oil boom. Back then, at the crossing of the 19th and the 20th centuries, the city’s first oil millionaires invested hefty resources into construction – to share their success with the city and reinforce Baku’s status of the region’s cultural and trade capital.

Looking at photos, one can see how Baku’s image was rapidly changing in the 1880s. Just imagine – huge numbers of people from all over the world flocked to the city on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in hope of waking up as millionaires. The oil fever which was the trend of those times gave an opportunity to realize the most daring urban projects. Not even fully realizing that, Azerbaijan’s first oil millionaires became part of global changes to the city’s landscape. Having gone outside the fortress’ walls, they started building mansions for themselves, trying to upstage one another. All of them played a huge role in Baku’s transformation into the city we are seeing today. This century-old architecture fits excellently into modern realities, creating a fusion of European and Oriental cultures.

Baku’s path from a small town within the fortress’ walls to a bustling city is quite phenomenal. Believe it or not – simply by driving through one of the central streets, you can travel from the 5th century to the 21st. On one side you would see the one-storied Old Town, on the other – “The Flame Towers”. A genuine time machine in action!

And we start our journey with the basics – rocks. A mascaron, literally meaning the depiction of a human face, head of an animal, an antique god or a mythical creature, which looks at you closely, either scaring or charming you. The root of the word is “mask” – Latin for “ghost, spirit”. And these mascorons served as a protective amulet.

Depiction of a human is forbidden in Islam, but it came to the Muslim Baku along with the oil boom, foreign architects and mansions. These architectural details infuse the buildings with their aura and fill the space with meaning. Above the doorway of Dmitry Mitrofanov’s building on S. Rustamov street (formerly Orlovskaya street) we can see a green man –a forest spirit in a floral ornament, which symbolizes resurrection, revival of the nature in spring time.

There is an opinion about depictions of lions that they came onto the fountains of the building straight from ancient Roman sarcophagi – as symbols of guardians, who see off souls on their path from the world of the living into the world of the dead. And, without doubt, all the chimeras, gargoyles, gorgons, angels and gods are protecting the buildings and their owners from evil spirits and plights.

The Mitrofanov building has no frescos or incredible ceiling ornaments. But it has a cast-iron staircase, which has been preserved since 1902 and panoramic windows in two of its entrances. The building is a big one – it used to be a profit house. Not only Mitrofanov and his family resided here, but some of the premises were rented out. The French mission to Baku used to be stationed here. And if you want to hide from the bustle of the city, make sure to come into the inner courtyard. It is as traditional for Baku as it can possibly be – quiet and calm.

Some mansions look like genuine art masterpieces, so it is impossible not to share pictures of them. One of such buildings belonged to a great man – Zeynalabdin Tagiyev (the Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev street, 4). Nowadays, the Museum of Azerbaijan’s History is located here. And everyone living in Baku or visiting it as a tourist should pay it a visit. You can see nine rooms with interior items, photos, documents and genuine medals which belonged to the Tagiyev family. The mansion was built in 1895-1901 by architect Iosif Goslavsky. You can see initials “ST” (Sona Tagiyeva) on ciphers – that was the wife of the philanthropist, who helped him in his charitable and academic endeavors.

The things you should pay attention to: incredibly beautiful and detailed ceilings, green balcony with tiles, some of the windows with Tagiyev’s name written in Arabic, mirrors and windows brought from Europe. The Eastern Hall (Receptions Hall) was decorated with eight kilograms of gold.

The mansion was restored based on photos from the family archives. 270 people took part in its construction – engineers, architects, carpenters, painters and other specialists. Zeynalabdin Tagiyev’s office and other rooms are located on the first floor. Living quarters, another office and two halls – European and Oriental – are on the second floor. The third floor, with an exit on the Mamedaliyev street, consists of 16 rooms. From 1914 onwards, Baku’s merchant bank was located here, which was headed by Tagiyev. In the year 2000, personal belongings of the family were handed over to the museum as exhibits.

It is hard to underestimate Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev’s achievements in developing different spheres of Azerbaijan. He put efforts into developing economy and education - he launched several factories, opened the first Muslim school for girls, built a theater, opened a bank and held charity events with his wife, all profits from which were directed at paying for youths’ education. A monument to him was erected by the building of Baku’s Duma.

The building of companions Teymur-bek Kulibekov and Najafgulu Mamedov (the Akhmed Javad street, 4) is quite ordinary-looking from the outside. Its easy to miss it. Although one’s attention might be caught by the wooden door at the entrance with the construction date on it – 1909-1910. It is behind doors like this one that genuine treasures are usually concealed. This mansion has two of those – the inner courtyard with glicine flowers , planted here as a symbol of love to the building owner’s wife, and the decorated walls of the entrance. The glicine flowers were planted in the inner courtyard by Kulibekov – for his wife Sureyi-khanum. The couple experienced a tragedy – two of their three children died. One was dropped by a nanny, the other passed because of an illness. They decided to send Sureyi-khanum to Europe – for observation and further treatment. While she was there, she told her husband that the scent of purple glicine flowers gave her strength. That is how the majestic glicine flowers appeared inside the new mansion’s courtyard. And it still preserves a very special atmosphere here.

Just like many other buildings of the first oil boom era, this one has a distinguished art-nouveau style – which rocked England of the 80s and later conquered the whole of Europe. Its main characteristic – smooth curved lines, floral patterns, natural overtones with flowers like cyclamen, gladdons and lilies serving as symbols. Founders of “T. Kulibekov and N. Mamedov Trading House” lived here with their families. They owned factories, oil enterprises in Balakhany and Sabunchi, steamboats. The building’s entrance still has frescos from those days, depicting natural landscapes, while one can notice metallic dowels on the stairs, which used to pin carpets on staircases in the olden days. Kulibekov’s and Mamedov’s descendants still live in this building.

If you want to grasp an Oriental atmosphere, you can visit the building of “the flour king” Aga-Baly Guliyev (the Murtuz Mukhtarov street, 24), where the Union of Azerbaijan’s architects is now located. The building was constructed in 1899 by Polish architect Evgeny Skibinsky, who was inspired by the Shirvanshakh Palace’s architecture. Unlike other Polish architects who worked in Baku, Skibinsky was born in Azerbaijan. Which might explain his love for everything Oriental. Frescos of different, yet surprisingly harmonious styles have been preserved inside the building. The mansion’s owner went from selling kutabs made by his mother to becoming a business owner – he bore the status of the First Guild merchant, owned flour-grinding and paddy factories. On several occasions he was elected as the speaker of Baku’s City Duma. Had an unfortunate episode when he was involved in a staged kidnapping of a girl – in order to marry her – but eventually got convicted, which hampered his business activities. But, eventually, after a long fight for freedom and many intercessory letters from his friends, he was acquitted.

In the close proximity to Aga-Baly Guliyev’s building stands the mansion of the Alibekov family (the Suleyman Tagiyev street, 60), which was built by Nikolay Prokofyev in the early 1900s. It was owned by oil tycoons brothers Aga-Selimbek and Bala-bek Alibekovs, who came here from the village of Kishly. Locals call Kishly “Shanghai” – because of railroad tracks passing by very closely to residential dwellings. The Kishly train station was built by the Alibekovs, which helped to deliver food to the village’s population and protect them from attacks – and people here still remember that. The houses in the village were built by people who went to Baku from villages to work. The sons of Bala-bek Alibekov – Sabir-bek and Isa-bek – got their education in St. Petersburg. Isa-bek became one of the first pediatricians in the country, while Sabir-bek became a lawyer. One of the most famous decorated entrances in the city is located in the Alibekovs’ mansion. Restoration works are now being held here – the balcony’s original look has been returned, works are now being held inside, frescos are being revived. You would need to pay attention to wrought handrails, decorated with sunflowers.

Another well known family – the Ashurbekovs – lived at the Gogol street 28 (formerly – the Prachechnaya st) in a building constructed by Polish architect Iosif Goslavsky. He was also behind such projects as Baku’s City Duma, the Muslim school for women, the mansion of Zeynalabdin Tagiyev. The first floor was occupied by the company, the stores and spaces for rent. Bala-bek Ashurbekov’s family lived on the second floor of the luxurious mansion, which was presented to him as a wedding gift by his father Teymur-bek. The third floor was where Teymur-bek Ashurbekov himself lived with his wife Tutu-khanum and his son Ali-bek. Thanks to the smarts of gouvernante mademoiselle Greylo the building still has the original decorations at the entrance. During the March 1918 riots, she put the French flag outside of the door, creating the illusion that the building was occupied by the French Mission – and that helped to keep this part of the building intact. When the Bolsheviks came to power in the 1920s, Ashurbekovs were forced to emigrate to Turkey. Bala-bek soon returned to Baku, upon the request from his brother, but unfortunately he was arrested on charges of “belonging to nobility and owning oil enterprises”, and in 1937 he was executed by a firing squad. Soon after that, Ali-bek also passed – his heart stopped.

One street below, there is a mansion built on architect Ivan Edel’s blueprint in 1896 – it was owned by Shamsi Asadullayev (the Gogol street, 9). The oil industrialist was born in the village of Amirjan, in a poor family. Since a very young age he worked at Surakhan’s oil enterprises. And then the story which could happen only in that particular period in time took place. Shamsi saved enough money to purchase a patch of oil field, became the owner of his own company and built a major business, even outside of Baku. Shamsi had two wives. Five children were born with his first wife – Meyransa-khanum. He had no children with his second wife, Maria Lebedeva – the couple was involved in charity and built foster homes. In the 1920s the building was partitioned into multi-apartment one. Today its refined bas-reliefs can be enjoyed by ordinary passers-by and those researching the urban landscapes.

Let us finish with one of the most mysterious buildings – the three-storeyed residential building on the Shemakhinskaya street (known today as the Jafar Jabbarly street, 4). There is very little information known about it, only one thing is certain – it was built in 1912-1914. But we would like to use this one as an example of how specially beautiful Baku’s building entrances are. Oh, those lions…We recommend taking a closer look at the details. Residents say that the entire entrance used to be decorated with ornaments. Now only drawings on the ceiling and beautiful panoramic windows have remained.

This is how vibrant Baku’s past was. Grandiose parties, incredible mansions, great people, Europe’s influence and Oriental traditions. Just like with any past, it helped to create a wonderful foundation for the future.