Qala Open Air Museum – experiencing history

Qala is a historical village and archeological site located in the center of Absheron Peninsula, some 40mins drive east from Baku. Because of its high historical value, first signs of human occupation in the area date back to 3rd millennium BC, in 1988 the ancient part of the settlement was declared a historical ethnographic reserve. Today’s village is a blend of past and modern worlds. Among contemporary houses and mosques you will find ruins of buildings from time immemorial, the remains of a castle, bath houses, as well as mausoleums, vaults and storage lakes. The section of the village designated for tourists consists of three parts – the Open Air  Archeological Ethnographical Museum Complex, the castle and the museum building (each of them requires a separate ticket).


Qala fortress. image: Emre Celik

The museum

Thanks to over 215 historical and archeological exhibits gathered in the museum, visitors can learn what was the life like in the village, what were the key daily occupations of its inhabitants and how the settlement evolved  over the centuries. It’s possible to visit the pottery maker’s house, the local market, the enclosure with live animals, including camels, horses and mules, the kurgan, the kilim weaving workshop and the jewellery exhibition. Guests can explore as well the interior of the merchant’s house and taste typical Azerbaijani flat bread baked in a clay oven, tandir. In addition, the museum contains lots of other exhibits including petroglyphs and drawings, of which the oldest date back to the Bronze/Iron Age, and primitive music instruments.

qala museum 2

Qala museum.Stone carvings. Image: Galandar

Qala Fortress 

This well-preserved, picturesque building  consists of a tower (X-XIV Ct) and a stronghold (XVI-XVII Ct.). The tower is 13.8m tall and it’s possible to climb to its top to admire excellent views over the Absheron Peninsula. Within the stronghold are displayed fragments of ceramics and gold jewellery from the X-XVI Ct.


Qala Fortress. Image by Emre Celik

Useful links:

Heydar Aliyev’s Foundation: Qala Archeological Ethnographic Museum Complex

Visions of Azerbaijan: Qala, history in action


Baku Ballet and Opera Theatre – what happens when a capricious diva meets an oil baron


Source: wikimedia

Azerbaijan State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre  is certainly one of the most remarkable buildings in Baku. This eclectic construction with original and richly decorated façade was designed and built between 1910-1911 by an architect and civil engineer, Nikolai Bayev. The circumstances of its construction are surrounded by an urban legend, according to which a famous soprano singer, Antonina Nezhdanova, came to perform in Baku in 1910 but refused to sing after she realized that the city doesn’t have an opera house. Her decision sparked a response from one of her great admirers, a local oil baron Daniel Mailov,  who asked her to promise that she would return to Baku the following year if the city built an appropriate venue. Of course, the diva agreed.


Pictured Nikolai Bayev.

The millionaire ordered Bayev to build an opera theatre that would resemble the one in Tbilisi – just more impressive. Many expressed doubts that such a building could be constructed within a year. Among them was Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, a legendary Azerbaijani oil baron and philanthropist, who  made a bet that if Mailov succeeded within the deadline, he would cover all of the expenses related to the construction. Less than 10 months later the opera house was ready, and Taghiyev’s wallet much lighter. Daniel Mailov notified Nezhdanova of the ceremony by telegram and the renowned soprano became the first singer to perform at the new venue (Manaf Suleymanov, The Past Days).

Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the fact remains that the opera house was completed in record time. The grand opening took place on the 28th of February 1911 with the performance of the Mussorrgski’s opera “Boris Godunov”. The only problem was the deplorable condition of theatre’s poor neighborhood. Surrounded by shacks and unpaved roads, on rainy days the area would turn into a mud lake forcing prominent guests to reach the entrance by a piggyback ride from their servants. However, this had been improved over the years and today the area where the theatre is situated is one of the most elegant in the city.


Interior of the opera. Source:

The Azerbaijan State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre remains the most beautiful music hall in the country. After the opening it had been active until 1983, when it was closed for renovation. By 1985 the building was ready for use again, but burned down under mysterious circumstances (Source: Azerbaijan International), and the reopening had been postponed till  January 3, 1988. Today visitors to Baku can choose from a rich repertoire of both Azerbaijani and internationally renowned operas and ballets.

Useful links:

Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Azerbaijan International: Curtain call. Opera and Ballet Theatre

Program  of the performances. Official website of the  State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre – only in Azerbaijani language but it’s possible to understand which performances  are coming up.

Neft Dashlari – the Soviet Atlantis

neft dashlari

Neft Dashlari. Source: wikimedia

Neft Dashlari, or the Oil Rocks,  is an industrial offshore settlement situated some 100km away from Baku and 55 km away from the nearest Caspian shore. Founded in 1949 by the order of Stalin, in its heyday the gigantic floating construction reached the size of a small city. The place has become famous outside of Azerbaijan after it featured in the 1999 James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough, starring Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau.  NotablyNeft Dashlari was the first operating offshore oil platform in the world.

How it all started

After World War II Soviet engineers began test drilling in the ”Black Rock” reef to finally, on the 7th of November 1949, hit the high quality oil supplies  at a depth of 1,100 m below the seabed. Subsequently, they started constructing the oil platform that began with a single path out over the sea and developed into a system of paths and platforms built on the back of ships sunk to serve as the settlement’s foundation (Source: Timothy Gale, see the links). Over the next twenty years the construction had undergone a rapid expansion – 2,000 oil rigs, 300 kilometres of bridges, thousands of oil workers, industrial buildings, eight-story apartment blocks, schools, libraries and shops for the workers and their families were all set up on the platforms. In addition, ”the island had its own beverage factory, soccer pitch, library, bakery, laundry, 300-seat cinema, bathhouse, vegetable garden and even a tree-lined park for which the soil was brought from the mainland” (Der Spiegel).

neft dashlari spiegel

Source: Der Spiegel

The collapse

After the fall of the Soviet Union the city has fallen into disrepair, chiefly because of the fluctuating oil prices and discovery of cheaper oil in other parts of the country. Over the years the workforce was reduced down to about 2500 people and 2/3 of the construction disappeared in the sea. Only 45 km (28 miles) of the pre-existing 300 km (185 miles) of roads are still usable. At the moment the oil platforms are still operating and, according to the sources, the oil supplies should last for another 20 years. Time will show if the remaining of Neft Dashlari will survive this long.

neft dashlari 2


Getting there

Since Neft Dashlari is located ”in the middle” of the Caspian Sea, the access to the site is very limited. In addition, foreigners must get a special permission to visit the construction and these arent’ willingly given, mainly due to the safety issues. Hiring a private boat and having a look at the platforms from a distance is possibly the best solution at the moment.

Useful links:

Der Spiegel: Forbidden city of oil platforms. The rise and fall of Stalin’s Atlantis. 

Timothy Gale: Oil rocks, an infrastructured Soviet city. 

io9: Remembering Neft Dashlari, Stalin’s utopian ocean city made of oil and steel.

Azerbaijan International: Azerbaijan’s oil history.


Ivanovka – the remnants of the USSR

Ivanovka is a village of about 3,000 inhabitants located in the region of Ismailli, in northern Azerbaijan, less than 3 hours drive from Baku. The place is well-known in the country not only for the beauty of the landscape but also for the unique local culture. Despite over 20 years since the fall of Communism in Azerbaijan, the village still has got a functioning kolkhoz (collective farm) and is inhabited by a community of Molokans, religious dissidents that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church over 300 years ago.


Typical houses in Ivanovka. Image found on Pinterest

The Molokans

Origins of the name

There are various hypotheses about the origin of the name ”Molokan”. Some claim that it was used for the first time in the 1670s in reference to the people who ignored the 200 fasting days by drinking milk.  However, another theory claims that the name comes from the river Molochnaya in today’s  Ukraine, where the Molokans were first exiled by the Russian tsarist authorities.


Azerbaijani Molokans. Image by Vladic Ravich

The history

In the middle of the 16th Century in Russia a man called Matviei Simeon Dalamatov began spreading a new religious doctrine, which rejected the divine origin of tsar’s rule, the cult of icons and the cross, the concept of the Holy Trinity, baptism with water, the liturgy and the clergy. It proclaimed as well the unconditional Christian pacifism (Molokans rejected the military service) and a number of ritual rules relating to ‘clean’ foods. All of this was considered a heresy by the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and Dalmatov was soon arrested, tortured and killed. Over the next centuries the followers of the evolving religious movement continued to be persecuted over their values. In the 19th century, the government’s policy was to send the heretics away from the center of the country into the Caucasus and Central Asia, and this is how some of them ended up settling in Azerbaijan. Ivanovka was founded in 1847, and the initiator of the application for the village was a peasant named Ivan Pershin, in honor of which the village got its name.

The kolkhoz

Ivanovka by Ahmed Mukhtar

The beautiful region of Ismailli where Ivanovka is situated.

Molokans were considered hard workers who introduced the protestant work ethic into their labor. Thanks to their efforts, the collective farm set up by them in Ivanovka was thriving until the end of the II World War when most of the young local men died in combat. After that the kolkhoz went through a serious crisis and was on the verge of collapse but in 1953 a 20 years old man called Nikolai Nikitin was chosen its new chairman and brought it back to its prime. Under Nikitin’s management, which lasted 41 years,  the economic indicators of the Ivanovka’s collective farm were much higher than elsewhere in Azerbaijan. As a sign of appreciation he was proclaimed the “Hero of Socialist Labour”, and later became a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. After the fall of Communism he was promised  by the late President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, that as long as the people of Ivanovka want to remain collective, it’ll be so. This rule has been respected  as well by the current President.

What to do in Ivanovka

Apart from visiting the kolkhoz and exploring the Molokan culture, you can also check out the Monolit winery (Shato Monolit) next to the 5* hotel of the same name and taste the local spirits. The farming products of Ivanovka are famous all over Azerbaijan for their high quality so don’t forget to try the local delicacies. The area is also very picturesque and provides lots of hiking opportunities. Ivanovka is also a great stop-over during a trip to northern cities of Azerbaijan, such as Qabala and Sheki.

wine ivanovka

Château Monolit , Ismailli region. By Steve Hollier

Useful links:

Princeton, Molokans.

Steve Hollier: Azerbaijan days – Ivanovka, a little piece of the Soviet Union

CNN World View: Ivanovka, Azerbaijan – Back in the USSR

Sheki Azerbaijan blogspot: Land of plenty. 

Frenchies in Baku: Discovery of Ivanovka and Ismaily wines

The last of the Molokans, preserved in all its Soviet glory. 

Steve Hollier’s Blog: Azerbaijan Days: Chateau Monolit and Ismailli Wine. Quality Vino from Azerbaijan! Ivanovka and Kiululli

Visions of Azerbaijan: Ismailli wine and the Milk Drinkers


Azerbaijani carpets – centuries of weaving tradition and perfection

18th century

Azerbaijani carpet from the 18th century

The rich history

Carpets are one of the most ancient artisanal handicraft in Azerbaijan and, according to scholars, the beginnings  of this unique art go back as far as the Bronze Age. Many famous historians, including Herodotus, Claudius Elian or Xenofontus, mentioned Azerbaijani carpets in their writings. The art of carpet weaving had blossomed during the times of the Sasanian Dynasty (III-VII Century), a powerful Iranian empire that ruled parts of today’s Azerbaijan before the rise of Islam, when carpets began to be woven from silk.  Sometime around the XIV-XVII centuries carpets began to be made with incorporated gold and silk threads and adorned with precious stones. Such carpets were produced in Tabriz, Shamakhy and Barda, and due to their high cost were usually purchased by rich feudals. Around the XIII-XIV Century local carpets became famous abroad for their high quality and beauty, and  began to be exported worldwide in great numbers. The uniqueness of the carpets and weaving tradition was recently appreciated  by the UN’s cultural body that included it in the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Carpets in art

Azerbaijani carpets were praised in the writings of Persian poets, Khagani (1121-1190) and Nizami (1141-1209). They were also captured in paintings by famous XV Century artists, including: Hans Memling ( “Mariam with baby”, Shirvan carpet), Van Eyck (“Saint Mariam”, Zeyva carpet), and Hans Holbein (”Ambassadors’’, Gazakh carpet).


Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Regional differences

Latif Karimov (1906-1991), a renowned Azerbaijani scholar and carpet maker, researched the history of Azerbaijani carpets and systematized 144 styles based on geographical regions (cities, towns, villages). These were in turn subgrouped under 4 major regional groups, which include: 1. Guba-Shirvan (includes Baku); 2. Ganja-Kazakh; 3. Karabakh (includes Shusha and Jabrayil); 4. Tabriz (southern Azerbaijan in Iran, includes carpet styles of Ardebil). Information by Azerbaijan International. Click here for images of carpets from different regions of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan carpet weaving


The Carpet Museum

The visitors to Azerbaijan Carpet Museum have the chance to admire ancient and modern local carpets, and can learn how to distinguish different styles of local weaving art. The museum was established in 1967 and has changed its location a few times since then. It first opened in Friday’s Mosque in Icheri Sheher but in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was moved to the Lenin Museum, while the mosque was returned to its original purpose of worship. However, over the last years a new, modern museum has been constructed on the Boulevard, close to the Four Seasons Hotel, and the whole exposition is gradually being moved there.

carpet museum

The old Carpet Museum still located in the former Lenin Museum.

Where to buy Azerbaijani carpet

All over the country, and especially in the regions famous for carpet weaving, you will be able to buy beautiful local carpets. Arguably, the easiest thing is to head to one of the little shops in Icheri Sheher in Baku, which offer a wide choice of artwork together with an explanation regarding the origin of the item. Avoid buying old, expensive carpets as you’ll have to obtain a special export permission from the Carpet Museum. If the Museum will reject your request, the carpet will be confiscated by the customs guards.

flying carpet

A carpet selling shop in Icheri Sheher. Source: mustafazade.blogspot

Useful links

Carpets made to last. A walk through Baku’s National Carpet Museum. Azerbaijan International

Azerbaijan. Travel tips. click on the last icon on the bottom of the page for information regarding export of artwork etc.

Azerbaijan. About carpet.

But does it fly? Azerbaijani carpets. By Travbuddy.

Azerbaijani Carpets. UNESCO.

Azerbaijani carpet included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.   Azernews.

The land of jazz. Waiting for the 2013 Baku International Jazz Festival.

Jazz is arguably one of the most loved and celebrated music genres in Azerbaijan, and for the last 11 years every autumn many acclaimed local and foreign artists have come to Baku to participate in the music fete, Baku International Jazz Festival (this year between 23 October-3 November). However, the history of this music style in Azerbaijan has been much longer and not always trouble-free.

The beginnings

tofiq akhmedov

Tofiq Akhmedov in 1940s. Image source: Wikipedia.

Jazz in the country emerged sometime in the early 1900s and had been gradually gaining in popularity until the Soviets banned it in 1945 claiming it was the ”music of the capitalists”. This restriction didn’t come as a surprise as in totalitarian regimes any artistic performance based on egalitarian improvisation wasn’t welcomed by the authorities.  Therefore, not only jazz but also music played on saxophone was prohibited. During the ban musicians performed mainly in clubs and each others’ homes. This lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Despite the limitations, people continued playing in secret, which led to development of some of the most original music styles, including jazz mugham (or mugham jazz). 

Jazz mugham

During late 1960s and early 1970s Vagif Mustafazadeh, a famous Azerbaijani pianist and composer, incorporated mugham, a traditional improvisational modal music, into jazz and created a new music style labelled jazz mugham. Jazz mugham differs from ordinary jazz in that the rhythm and scales are improvised. The artist died in 1979 at the young age of 39 during a performance in Uzbekistan but fortunately the musical tradition survived him. Today jazz mugham continues to be played in Azerbaijan while it’s popularity is also growing worldwide.


Vagif and Aziza Mustafazade

Azerbaijani jazz today

The music legacy of Vagif Mustafazadeh has survived also thanks to his daughter, Aziza Mustafazadeh, a world-famous singer, pianist and composer who plays a fusion of jazz and mugham combined with classical and avantgarde influences. Among other renowned Azerbaijani jazz players are also Sevda Alakperzade, Salman Gambarov, Sahin Novresli and Israf Sarabski, who won the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Useful links:

All Eyes on Aziza, Azerbaijan International

Mugham Jazz: Vagif Mustafazade, Azerbaijan International

Sahin Novrasli official website

Interview with Isfar Sarabski in Visions Azerbaijan magazine

Baku Jazz Center

Jazz in Azerbaijan – videos

History of jazz in Azerbaijan

International Jazz Festival to happen in Baku by

King of Jazz by Nasrin Babanly

The Festival of Sacrifice – next week Azerbaijan will join the Muslim world to celebrate Qurban Bayram

Bibiheybat mosque

Bibi Heybat Mosque, Baku

As a secular country, Azerbaijan has only few religious festivities that are oficially celebrated, and among them are Ramazan and Qurban Bayram. The latter became public holiday after Azerbaijan gained independence in October 1991.

What is it?

Qurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha in Arabic) commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his oldest son, Ismail (Ishmael), as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham (Ibrahim) with a lamb sacrifice instead. Today, in remembrance of Abraham’s act, Muslims worldwide sacrifice sheep, lamb, camel or cow. The ritual is typically performed by the head of the family.

When is it celebrated?

Qurban Bayram occurs the day after the pilgrims conducting Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, descend from Mount Arafat. It happens to be approximately 70 days after the end of the month of Ramadan. In the Georgian Calendar the dates vary from year to year, and in 2013 the celebrations fall on the 16-17th of October.


Qurban Bayram

How is it done?

Allah’s name is recited along with the offering statement and a supplication. According to the Quran, the meat is divided into three shares, which are afterwards distributed among the poor, the relatives and neighbors, while the last share is eaten by the family during a feast. A large portion of the meat must be given to the poor and hungry so they can all join in the feast.

Some references in Quran

Quran says: “And the camels! We have appointed them among the ceremonies of Allah. Therein ye have much good. So mention the name of Allah over them when they are drawn up in lines. Then when their flanks fall (dead), eat thereof and feed the beggar and the suppliant. Thus have We made them subject unto you, that haply ye may give thanks. (36) Their flesh and their blood reach not Allah, but the devotion from you reaches Him. Thus have We made them subject unto you that ye may magnify Allah that He hath guided you. And give good tidings (O Muhammad) to the good.” (Chapter 22, verses 36-37).

Useful links

Eid al-Adha Wikipedia

Abraham and the child of sacrifice – Isaac or Ishmael? 

Eid Al-Adha

Kurban Bayramı or the Feast of the Sacrifice in a Nutshell by Witt Istanbul

Kurban Bayram by Baku Pages