Zerdabi is the penname of Hasan Bey Melikov, who was born on 28th of June in 1837, in the Zerdab Village of Goychay District. His homeland inspired him to adopt the penname.
Zerdabi, native of a remote village lost in the Aran dust in Goychay District, becomes a “tip of the spear” in many areas, as he was the very first Azerbaijani graduate of Moscow State University, first founder of a secular school in his mother tongue and a society to help poor Muslim students and the first director to stage a play in Azerbaijani.
Zerdabi received primary education in a religious school and continued at the district school in Shamakhi. He then moved to Tbilisi to continue his education. He was admitted into the Natural-Mathematics Department of Moscow University in 1861. He graduated in 1865 but stayed behind at the university to work and research. He returned to Azerbaijan after some time.
Hasan Bey Zerdabi primarily went down in history of Azerbaijan as the editor of the first ever newspaper in Azerbaijani. The “Ekinchi” (translated as “sower”), the first newspaper in Azerbaijani, was published at the Gubernatorial Printing House in Baku on 22nd of July in 1875. One could not just go and start publishing a newspaper at the time. This required a special permission of the government. It was not easy for Zerdabi to achieve a permission for publishing the newspaper. He wrote numerous appeals to different authorities and promised not to cover political issues in his newspaper, but to write exclusively about agriculture and science. Zerdabi especially highlighted the enlightening role and significance of the newspaper in his mother tongue. And he did get his way!
The first ever issue of the “Ekinchi” with a circulation of 200 copies came out in Baku, at the Gubernatorial Printing House on 22 July 1875. ‘When the tiny and clean newspaper came out, Hasan Bey was moved to tears. He came home excited and elevated, carrying the newspaper’, his wife Hanifa Khanim remembered the day. ‘It was the happiest day of his life.’
The first ever publication in Azerbaijan found great resonance not only in Azerbaijan. The first issue of the newspaper sold out within days in other Muslim regions of Russia. One of the main topics of the newspaper was agriculture, as Zerdabi had promised. The newspaper also offered numerous advice on medicine and hygiene. The newspaper also dedicated much of its space to commentaries of the authors and the editor himself on how the Azerbaijani people should develop. They especially highlighted the significance of education for both boys and girls.
The “Ekinchi” newspaper later grew and was published twice a month with a circulation of 300-400 copies. The newspaper was a platform for letters by Najaf Bey Vezirov and Asgar Agha Adigozalov (Gorani) from Moscow, Mohammed Taghi Shirvani from Shamakhi, poems by Seyid Azim Shirvani and articles by Mirza Fatali Akhundov. At first, they only had 100 subscribers, and they earned only 300 rubles, as each subscriber paid 3 rubles a piece. The newspaper stirred much concern among the Tsar government due to its enlightening role, especially during the years of Russia-Turkey war in 1877-1878. Thus they had to shut it down on 29 September, 1877. Until it was shut down, Zerdabi had published only 56 issues of the “Ekinchi”. Although Zerdabi’s “Ekinchi” lived a very short life, it inspired publication of other newspapers, such as “Hayat” (Life) and “Fiyuzat” (Blessing). The “Mullah Nasraddin” magazine was launched a little after that.
Zerdabi started living in his hometown Zerdab in 1880, where he continued his enlightening works among the local population. He still took an active part in the development of printed press in Azerbaijan. He was one of the most active members of the first congress of Azerbaijani teachers in 1906. As Zerdabi chaired the first professional congress of teachers, the participants discussed significant issues for the development of national education, such as introducing Azerbaijani as a mandatory subject in elementary and middle classes in Russian-Tatar schools, developing new syllabuses, discussing a single method, improving life and work conditions for rural teachers, moving the Azerbaijani department of the Gori Seminary into one of the Azerbaijani cities and developing education of women.
Hasan Bey Zerdabi suffered from sclerosis in his declining years. He had an apoplectic seizure in 1906. Hasan Bey Zerdabi died on 28th November 1907. The entire city gathered to bury him and letters and telegrams of condolences arrived from all corners of Russia. One of the ribbons sent to his funeral was a red ribbon by typographers and employees at the printing house of the “Caspian” newspaper, signed ‘A body dies, a thought remains’. In 1957, Hasan Bey Zerdabi found eternal shelter at the Alley of Honors in Baku.