Winter 1998 (6.4)
The ABC's of Baku
Monograms on the Oil Baron Buildings
by Anne Kressler
Hundreds of beautiful mansions were built in Baku during the Oil Boom period (1885 to 1915). At that time, Baku was producing more than 50 percent of the world's supply of oil, even more than America. With the money Azerbaijanis made from selling the oil, many beautiful private mansions were built. Some were as big as a city block and had 50 to 60 rooms. The Oil Barons wanted people to remember them even after they died, so it became a tradition to use the initials of their names and make very decorative designs called monograms.
Sometimes the owner used only one letter-such as "M" for Mukhtarov (pronounced mukh-TAH-rov). Others chose two letters-such as "MN" for Musa Naghiyev (pronounced NAGH-ee-yev). Sometimes they used three letters- such as "TAA" for Teymur Ali Ashurbeyov (pronounced a-shur-BEH-yov). Traditionally, a person's middle name was the same name of his or her father. This was, and still is the custom, even for girls. For example, the oldest daughter of Teymur Ashurbeyov was named Sara Teymur Ashurbeyov.
During the Oil Boom, the Azerbaijani language was officially written in the Arabic script. However, Cyrillic letters used for the Russian language were more prestigious and that's why most of the building monograms use Cyrillic even though Cyrillic did not become the official alphabet until 1938.
You'll discover that some letters in the Cyrillic alphabet look just like English letters; others are very different. For example the letter "N" in Cyrillic looks like the English letter "H". Musa Naghiyev's initials look like "MN" in English but "MH" in Cyrillic.
When the Russian Bolshevik army came to Baku in 1920 to set up a new government based on communism (1920-1991), they told the poor people that wealth should be shared by everyone, not just rich people.
So the Bolsheviks killed many owners of these beautiful buildings and stole their homes and everything inside. Some of the families escaped before the soldiers came. Then the Bolsheviks ordered many families to come live in these big homes. So instead of one family, sometimes 20 families lived together in these big mansions. Of course, there weren't enough kitchens and bathrooms so the families had to share them.
Here is the story of some of the owners of these buildings and what happened to them when the Bolsheviks came. You can see pictures of most of the mansions in the Oil Baron article (pages 29-40) under the name of the owner.
A is for Asadullayev
Asadullayev (1840-1913) (pronounced ah-sah-du-LAH-yev) was famous as the "Oil and Kerosene King." He was born into a poor family but came to own 40 oil derricks that produced nearly 6 million barrels of oil per year. He died before the Bolsheviks came and his home was divided up into many apartments. His family had to flee the country and today one of his granddaughters, Zulekha Khanim, lives in Washington, D.C.
M is for Mukhtarov
Murkhtarov (pronounced mukh-TAH-rov) was an oil engineer and an Oil Baron. He and his wife Liza traveled to Europe where his wife saw a beautiful palace. He decided to build one like it in Baku. Mukhtarov hated the Bolsheviks so much that he said that he would never let them enter his house. But when they came riding up the palace stairs on their horses, he got his gun and shot at them. Then he shot and killed himself. Lisa Khanim had to live in one room in the basement of her palace. Finally she escaped to Turkey. The mansion is now the Wedding Palace where young couples come to get married (See Mukhtarov, page 39-40).
MN is for Musa Naghiyev
(1849-1919) Naghiyev (pronounced NAGH-ee-yev) was considered the wealthiest Oil Baron. He is remembered for building a hospital and a palace. Unfortunately, his son Ismayil (pronounced is-mah-YIL) became very ill with tuberculosis. Even huge amounts of money couldn't cure him, and he died. His father decided to build a palace in memory of his son. He called it Ismayilla. In 1918 Bolsheviks and Armenians burnt down the beautiful palace. Naghiyev died the following year before the palace could be rebuilt (See Academy of Science, page 30).
In the Russian alphabet (Cyrillic) the letter for "N" looks like "H".
TAA stands for Teymur Ali Ashurbeyov
(pronounced a-shur-BEH-yov). Ashurbeyov died in 1904 just as the mansion was being finished as a wedding present for his son Bala bey. When the Bolsheviks came, Bala bey took his wife and six children to Turkey where they lived for six years by selling diamonds that they had brought with them when they fled the country. But Bala bey was very homesick. Six years later, thinking that it would be safe for them, he took his family back to Baku. It was a tragic mistake. He was arrested just because he had been an "Oil Baron" and sentenced to death in 1937 (See Ashurbeyov, page 32).
This is a photo of Teymur's grandchildren who grew up in the mansion. The oldest one is Sara. In 1999, she was still living and was 93 years old.
ZT is for Zeynal-abdin Taghiyev
(1823-1924) Taghiyev (pronounced zey-NAL-a-ba-din TAGH-i-yev) who was an Oil Baron and a philanthropist, meaning that he gave away much of his money to help others. As a child, Taghiyev was very poor and could not go to school so he grew up barely knowing how to read and write. Taghiyev built the first school for girls in Baku. Until then, only boys could go to school.
The people remembered Taghiyev's kindness and respected him. This made the Soviet leaders angry. If you look closely at the monogram on his house, you'll see that they tried to chisel away the "ZT" and leave Taghiyev's monogram blank so that people would forget who built this beautiful mansion. But the plan didn't work; people still remember him and love him even one hundred years later (See Taghiyev, page 39).
Fuad Akhundov also contributed to this article.
From Azerbaijan International (6.4) Winter 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.