Social Studies

Pages of History – Baku


Pages of History – Baku

Excerpt from the book “Baku – pages of history” by S. Dadashova, E. Gasimzadeh, F. Mammadov. Baku, 2013

Oil and Baku are two inseparable words. The natural oil and gas has been part of the thrilling ancient periods, one of the most, maybe even the most esteemed spiritual center of the most ancient religion in the world, Zoroastrianism. It seems quite natural that Zoroastrianism, which emerged and spread in the Caspian region, chose namely Baku and its surroundings or its most esteemed sanctuary. We can rightfully date the establishment of the city back to the 6th century B.C., and the traces to human presence in the territories of the Absheron Peninsula to Mesolithic period.

However, it was not only the glory of the “sacred fires” of Baku, but also an extremely comfortable sea bay and plentiful natural resources that have since ancient times drawn attentions of not only scientists, travels and merchants, but also various conquerors. It would seem most natural that as a result its composition, Baku was subjected to many invasions and the city with its structures were constantly destroyed and rebuilt. However, there are no graphic images of Baku up to the 17th century. Only in 1683 Engelbert Kampfer, a German scientist, encyclopaedist and traveller who visited Baku as a part of the Swedish embassy, left a graphic image of Baku and its surroundings.


Some keywords to remember: thrill, esteem, Zoroastrianism, emerge, santuary, sacred,  trace, conqeror, invasion, depit, fuedal, intensive, shore, knock,

Class Activity: Find pictures of ancient Azerbaijan and compare to modern images of Baku. What are some of the changes you observ?

Up until mid-19th century, the historic urban nucleus of Baku, which developed within the fortress walls, remained almost the same as Kampfer first saw and depicted it. After mid-19th century Baku broke out from the borders of a feudal city and started to intensively develop the lands plots outside the fortress walls due to industrial growth and trade development, and significant increase of oil as one of the main types of energy commodities.

Baku is the largest populated city in the western shores of the Caspian Sea. This is how travellers described the city: “The flavour of the city is that the wind blows here day and night. At times if the wind blows strongly, one cannot walk against the wind. The horses and sheep are even knocked down to the sea in winter, as they cannot remain grounded.”


1870s, T. Taylor, A view of Baku

The city underwent its most growth during feudalism in the 15th century, when the capital of the Shirvan State was transferred to Baku from Shamakhi, which was the initial capital and suffered a destructive earthquake. The project structure of the fortress, which survived to our days, began to form in that century. Merchants from neighboring countries and lands, not only near ones, but also faraway lands, such as Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, Russia and others lived and worked in Baku.

By 17th-18th centuries significant changes in the socio-political and economic situation in the country due to Russian colonization of the western and south-western coastline of the Caspian Sea, led to the central part of the Baku fortress transformed into a trade and business spot, while the residence of the head of state was moved to the Shirvanshah palace towards the main road of the city, which joined the “Shamakhi Gates” with the “Maiden Tower” and ran towards the “Salyan Gate”, while connecting the upper and lower market places as well. This street surrounded the Baku fortress all around and was significantly wider than all other streets of the burg.

The streets of medieval Baku, which cut through the quarters of the city, were crooked and led to dead-ends, which likened the fortress into one big labyrinth, which was made throughout many centuries. Such chaotic manner of the developments also had its undeniable advantages, both while protecting the city from the enemy and cushioning the chilling Baku winds.

Towards early 15th century, the city already has a thorough underground duct system, made of ceramic elements. It was connected to almost all houses in the territory. Most homes were a one- or two-story houses with flat and tar roofs. The relief was complemented with massive sizes of minarets and swan-neck domes of mosques and bathhouses. This combination of different architectural volumes was the most important element in the architectural image of feudal Baku.

Religion had a pride of place in the spiritual life of the city at the time. The district mosques were rather small and they served both as a place for religious practices, but also as a place for gatherings and meetings, a club of sorts for the inhabitants of that district.

At the same time, quite differently from the “Icherisheher”, the “Inner City”, a significant portion of Baku residents lived in the outskirts, called the “Bayirshehir”, the “Outer City”, which included a number of large and small settlements. As of mid-to-late 19th century, these settlements became a single town-planning body, the “outer settlement”, due to changes in the socio-political system and the growth of the economic importance of Baku. However, some of the settlements, that were located farther from the fortress, did not lose their names and their territorial borders. They remained in the memories of Baku residents, giving their names into a range of modern-day settlements of the city, such as Sabayil, Yasamal, Ahmedli, Chemberekend, Darnagul, etc.


Some keywords to remember: earthquake, merchants, colonize, crooked, dead-ends, chaotic, undeniable, cushion, massive, outskirt

Class Activity: identify some of the sentences used in the passage that showed various tense forms such as past simple, past continious and past perfect.



Beginning of the industrial period in the history of Baku

As of mid-19th century, the socio-political formation in Azerbaijan started to change. The process was rather vigorous and concrete in Baku. Industries started to develop rapidly and the country started strengthening its economic and cultural relations with foreign countries. A brand new tier of industrialists and workers started to emerge. In a short period of time, Baku turned into one of the largest cities of Russia and the largest city in the Caucasus. It is enough to note a fact that from 1897 to 1913 Baku population tripled to more than five thousand people.

The population of Baku was very diverse. Over a short period of time, along the large mosque “Tazapir”, other large-scale houses of worship were built, such as “Alexander Nevsky” orthodox cathedral, a Lutheran protestant church, a Catholic church, a Gregorian church and a Jewish synagogue in the newly developed territories. “Icherisheher”, the old city, was secluded inside the borders of city walls and could not accept so many new city dwellers and the urban formation process “erupted” outside the territories of the historic nucleus and began shaping around its walls.

This is why the first general urban plans of Baku were developed at that time. This included both the historic nucleus, limited with the fortress walls, and the gustily developing outer settlements.

As Baku grew as the center of the world oil extraction in the late 19th and 20th centuries, this lead to an inflow of large oil international oil companies, such as “Branobel”, Rothschild’s “Mazut” association, an auxiliary of the “Royal Dutch Shell”, Rockefeller’s subsidiary company and others. Along with western petroleum industrialists, a large group of national oil producers were also born and successfully functioned in that period of time. Among them, large oil industrialists such as H.Z. Taghiyev, M. Naghiyev, M. Mukhtarov and others held a special place. They spent a big chunk of their incomes, earned from production of oil wells and oil refinery, on urban improvement of Baku, beautifying its architectural image. The first line of a modern water supply system in Baku was laid in 1911. Horse trams, the first means of urban public transport, were launched in 1892.

About the same time, a number of buildings destined to enrich the civil life of the population were built. Baku became home to the first ever theater in the Caucasus and the entire Near East. The theater was built for the funds provided by philanthropist H.Z. Taghiyev and staged plays by different authors, who, most certainly, also included local Azerbaijani writers.

A very important decision, made in that period of urban construction, was that of landscaping the city. The dry semiarid climate, the strong exhausting winds and lack of sufficient water sources had an impact on the harsh Absheron Peninsula, which was deprived of any dense vegetation. This is why the newly developed territories of the city naturally lacked green spaces. Up to mid-19th century there were next to none landscaped locations in Baku. The urban plan of Baku in 1895 boasts only one green spot inside the city borders, which was laid by a gardener of Greek descent Dracopulo and was only 2.5 hectares long. It was the so-called “Governor’s Garden”. A further urban plan includes not only the “Governor’s Garden” (now the Philharmonic Garden), the “Titsian” Garden (now the Nizami square), as well as the “Parapet” (now the “Fountain Square), and the “Molokan Garden” (now the “Khagani” garden) and others. They started building the seafront boulevard in 1909, which became the biggest event in the plans to landscape the city.

Besides being of immense significance as a centre of world oil industry of the time, Baku’s role significantly grew as the largest trade and traffic route, which brought together the most important maritime and railroad transit tracks of the Russian Empire, which lead to Iran and other countries in the East, and also connected Baku to Tbilisi and Black Sea shores of Georgia. It is noted that the greater part of Baku oil products were carried to the international market from that point. This created a favourable condition for the city to develop. Researchers claim that in a relatively short term, Baku experienced one of the tremendous periods of development. A city, whose nucleus had been shaped throughout many centuries within its city walls, created a brand new city center in the territories of its suburbs in literally in a couple of years. New residential regions emerged, parks and gardens were developed and measures were taken to install transport and urban communications. Baku gained a unique and inimitable image, which rightly brought the glory of being the “Paris of the East”.

The one- and two-storey dwellings, built in the city center in late 19th and early 20th centuries were added to more storeys. Suddenly there were more squares in Baku, allocated for greenery: residents farmed gardens in the squares and developed parks. In the upper part of the city a park was built to replace the ancient city cemetery. Still in the modern-day Baku it is one of the most frequently visited spots for every Azerbaijani: the historic-memorial complex of “Alley of Martyrs.

From 1930 to 1970s, buildings were erected in Baku, which still remain landmark constructions both in the history of the city and the country overall. These are residential houses “Azneft” (Azerbaijan oil), “Buzovnaneft’ (Buzovna Oil), “Artistes’ House”, “Scientists’ House”, M.F. Akhundov State Public Library, Government House of the Azerbaijani SSR, V.I. Lenin Central National Stadium (now the T.Bahramov central national stadium) and the Broadcast tower of the National Television and Radio Broadcast Center. Something that became truly significant for the entire Near East happened in Baku in 1967: The subway opened of which the project to construct it had started even before the World War II. The capital of Azerbaijan became the fifth city in the USSR (a country that Azerbaijan was part of from 1920 to 1991) after Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Tbilisi to have such a comfortable means of transport as the metro.


Some keywords to remember: vigorous, rapid, strengthen, emerge, diverse, othordox, protestant, extract, inflow, immense, erect, landmark, entire.

  1. What was considered the oldest religion?
  2. To what century can we date the city of Baku?
  3. What was the name of the first known artist who drew Baku? And in what year?
  4. When did Baku experience its most growth?
  5. Why did the capital Shirvan State was transferred to Baku from Shamakhi?
  6. Name some of the famous places of worship and prayers in Baku?
  7. Who are some of the well-known Azerbaijan oil industrialist?
  8. Besides that they are oil moguls, what other actions are these oil industrialist known for as contribution to Baku?
  9. When was the first subway commissioned in Baku
  10. There are five big cities in the soviet period, name them?

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