Hajji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev was born into poverty. The son of an illiterate shoemaker, it took him 40 years to save up and buy part of an oil-drilling concession near Baku. He drilled without success. After four years of penury, Taghiyev bought out his bankrupt partners with the last of his funds. Then, in 1877, a small earthquake opened a fissure in the earth, causing a 70m-high oil geyser to gush skyward like a million-dollar firework. Overnight, the penniless Azeri became one of the richest men in the world.
And so the story of modern-day Baku began. To reflect his new status, Taghiyev invested some of his fortune in a 50-room Italian Renaissance mansion. It’s now home to the Azerbaijan Museum of History, but the rococo interior is little changed. A marble staircase the width of four horses rises into a 10m-high salon with a gold ceiling and a thousand-crystal chandelier. Curtains were shipped from Germany, furniture from the United States. There’s a mirror the size of a Rolls-Royce. And do you want to know the amazing thing? Taghiyev’s palace was by no means unique in Baku in terms of its ostentation.
By 1900 the Azeri capital produced over half the world’s oil and the wealth this boom brought created a new strata of ludicrously wealthy oil barons who were determined to show off their fortunes. They built palaces, casinos and theatres, in the process transforming what had been a small settlement centred around an ancient core into a city that resembled a glorious confection of some of the world’s great capitals: an eastern Vienna, an arriviste London, a boulevardier’s Paris on the Caspian Sea.
You could argue that very little has changed in the ensuing 125 years. Today Baku is in the midst of another oil-fuelled architectural boom, with gleaming science-fiction structures such as the Flame Towers or Zaha Hadid’s undulating Heydar Aliyev Centre springing up across the city. It’s a hugely impressive undertaking, of course, but it will take some doing to match those first oil-rush years, when all the world appeared to descend on this hitherto unknown Eurasian nation.
“At the turn of the 20th century Baku was a cosmopolitan Klondike,” says Dr Togrul Bagirov, chairman of the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund. “French industrialists, Italian opera singers and Swiss bankers could be seen on our streets.” The fund operates a museum dedicated to the Nobel family, the accomplished clan of Swedish industrialists, which included not only the inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prizes but two more brothers who operated the Branobel oil company from Baku. These Nobels developed the world’s first oil tanker, which carried kerosene to Russia in two sealed iron tanks, paving the way for the modern petroleum industry. By 1910 Branobel was the second biggest in the world. “The largest was the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil, which would later become Exxon,” says Bagirov.
The museum is housed in what was the family’s own grand mansion, the aptly named Villa Petrolea, Byzantine on the outside, Downton Abbey on the inside. Today, several splendid rooms recreate Nobel-era Baku. Gramophones sit astride Ottoman recliners, pairing western technology with eastern promise. Glazed ceramic samovars could keep iced wine cold and tea hot. Bagirov lists other technological firsts. “The Nobel family used their oil tankers to bring back ice from Russia,” he explains. A series of pipes then blew the icy air around the villa through ornate grates that survive today – Baku’s first air-conditioning. “Nobel Oil also travelled down the world’s first kerosene pipeline from Baku to the Black Sea, to be shipped to Europe.” To anoint their success, Taghiyev himself gifted the Nobel brothers a sumptuous carriage clock, which the museum tracked down and purchased for the collection.
Like Taghiyev – now as famed for his philanthropy as his wealth – the Nobels looked after their workers. Some 40 per cent of profits were funnelled into worker pensions, orphanages and children’s schools. But like newly minted oligarchs, they couldn’t resist a touch of luxury too. The Villa Petrolea’s 10-hectare park was covered with sub-tropical earth shipped in from the fertile Iranian border. Here thrived 80,000 plants including Italian flowers and fruit trees from Uzbekistan. Today a new round of oil-funded construction drowns out the garden’s silence. Beside the villa, copies of Parisian apartment blocks are being built in a project designed by global starchitect Norman Foster.
At the Azerbaijan Union of Architects (AUA) there is a sense of déjà vu. “There are of course parallels with this Belle Epoque period and modern times,” says the union’s chairman, Elbay Gasim-Zada. “After each oil development we wish to develop ourselves.” Gasim-Zada has seen Jean Nouvel’s Baku Museum of Modern Art take shape. He even welcomed Zaha Hadid as an honorary member of the AUA in a special ceremony.
Gasim-Zada offers another example from yesteryear. “The oil barons who became wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holidayed in Europe,” he explains. “Then they brought in foreign architects to recreate the best of France or Italy in Baku.”
Musa Naghiyev started life as an oil cargo handler before becoming the richest of the petroleum barons. He fell in love with Venice’s Palazzo Contarini, then commissioned the Muslim Charity Society building – a few blocks from the AUA – in the same Venetian Gothic style. It’s a cathedral of honey-hued stone that mixes the power of a Victorian railway station with Greek columns and Islamic whorls. Gasim-Zada’s AUA bureau is housed in a smaller, if similarly evocative, building. It was the former residence of Aghabala Guliyev who earned his wealth not through oil but as Baku’s “Flour Mill King”. In the last half of the 19th century Baku’s population grew faster than London’s or New York’s. By providing the bread that fed the oil workers, Guliyev afforded staircase frescoes that enchant with Mesopotamian scenes of corn being sailed to market – the very source of his wealth.
There are similarities between ancient and modern. The 20 or so historical oil barons’ palaces synthesise the architectural flavours of Europe and the Islamic World. Each has an internal courtyard and each boasts rococo trimmings on an unimaginable scale. Baku’s contemporary architecture follows the same pattern. The soon-to-open Caspian Waterfront Mall recalls the Sydney Opera House with an Arabian spin. While the city’s best hotel, the Four Seasons Baku, couples a neoclassic exterior with antique mirrors that could have been lifted from an oligarch’s Belle Epoque manor.
One young man has bet his fledgling career on the allure of Baku’s ancient building stock. Alish Ismayilov, a 22-year-old apprentice at Pasha Travel, won a competition to create Baku’s best guided tour and now works as a guide for bakusightseeing.com.“Unlike the beautiful buildings in Paris, you can actually visit the interiors of Baku’s best houses as some of them host museums, offices or theatres,” says Ismayilov. “And as Azerbaijan’s economy diversifies from energy into tourism, they offer an oily history lesson too.” One of his favourite structures is the Philharmonic Hall, five minutes from the Four Seasons. In classic oligarch style it was copied from the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, yet with arched windows that funnel sunlight mosque-like through its interior pillars.
The baroque palace across the street is even more sumptuous. What is now the Baku Museum of Art was built for the Rothschild family, which possessed the largest Caspian tanker fleet after the Nobels’. Two stone wings host a mini Versailles of marble staircases and grand salons. Ceiling frescoes tell of birds, flowers and glorious Caspian summers, although the original parquet has sadly been replaced. A legend concerning the southern wing’s outdoor terrace sums up the era’s decadence. “A local story says that when an outdoor theatre for the Philharmonic Hall was being planned, a Rothschild manager bribed the developer,” explains Ismayilov. “The stage was eventually built where it could be seen from the Rothschild’s private terrace.” The twin buildings now envelope a new glass cube, where Quranic manuscripts and Soviet sculptures are displayed.
In the 1920s, Soviet troops nationalised the oligarchs’ holdings at gunpoint. One magnate, oil drilling baron Murtuza Mukhtarov, had recently built a copy of a French Gothic palace that his wife had admired abroad. “As long as I’m alive, no barbarian will enter my house in soldier’s boots,” he roared. When Russian horsemen charged up his marble staircase he fired at them, killing three, before turning the gun on himself.The Soviet empire was either too lazy or too poor to pull down the oil barons’ palaces. Each one was preserved as an art gallery, party headquarters or, in the case of Mukhtarov’s mansion, wedding hall. Now Azerbaijan is enjoying a new oil boom, the vitrines that once held silks from Teheran and butter from Kiev host Dior from Paris and Patek Philippe from Geneva. Opulence has returned. It’s Baku’s Belle Epoque, second time around.