Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)
Pages 44-45

The Ali and Nino Walking Tour
by Betty Blair and Fuad Akhundov

Academy of Sciences
Istiglaliyyat 10
(Pre-Soviet: Nikolayevskaya Street)

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This building was constructed as a memorial to the son of the wealthiest of oil barons, Musa Naghiyev (1849-1919). Unfortunately, his wealth was not able to save his son Ismayil from a tragic death from tuberculosis, a scourge that was so prevalent in that day. The building's intended use was for the Moslem Philanthropic Society. The building was designed by Polish architect I.K. Ploshko and under construction from 1907-1913.

In March 1918 when the Armenians and Bolsheviks raged through the city, slaughtering an estimated 10,000 Azerbaijanis, the building which came to be known as "Ismayiliyya" was torched. Naghiyev's descendents insist that the combined loss of his son and the burning of the building, which had been dedicated to his son's memory, left him a broken man. He died the following year of a broken heart.

The Soviets rebuilt the hall and today it houses the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, but still so often it is referred to as "Ismayiliyya".

Musa Naghiyev features predominately in a scene in "Ali & Nino" when the most influential oil barons gather to meet with Ali's Father in their home on Kichik Gala Street in the Old City.

Left: Ismayil Naghiyev.

Other historic figures who attended this meeting in the novel include: Taghiyev (1823-1924), Ashurbeyli and Asadullayev. The narrator of the novel dubs this group as "The Assembly of 'One Thousand Million Rubles' [1,000,000,000 or 1 billion rubles]". Naghiyev's Building is directly on the opposite side of the wall of the citadel from Ali's home. In the novel, Naghiyev's statements are viewed as the most profound expressed that night.

Extremely worried about the deteriorating political scene, the millionaires wonder what the future holds and what will become of them. Little did they know that the Bolshevik occupation of their land in 1920 would bring an absolute end to their entrepreneurial capitalist activity for more than 70 years. In most cases, those who did not flee to neighboring countries were assassinated or imprisoned. Only in late 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, did Azerbaijan regain its independence and once again the entrepreneurial began to revive.

[To understand the sentiments of Oil Barons after the Bolsheviks took over Baku, see the short story "Maybe They'll Give It All Back", by Jalil Mammadguluzade in AI 7.1 (Spring 1999). Search at]

From "Ali & Nino", pages 136 ff.

"One day my father said: "Stay in tonight, Ali Khan. Some people are coming, and we will discuss important things." He sounded a bit embarrassed, and glanced away. I understood and teased him: "Didn't you make me swear, Father, never to have anything to do with politics?"

Below: The Ismailiyya Building.

"Caring for one's people does not necessarily mean politics. There are times, Ali Khan, when it is one's duty to think of one's people".

"I had arranged to take Nino to the opera that night. Shaliapin was appearing that night as a guest artist and Nino had been looking forward to attending it for days.

"Our guests arrived at 7 o'clock, and they were exactly the people that I had expected to see. In our great hall, sitting on the red carpets and soft divans, were assembled "one thousand million rubles", or rather the men who, between them, commanded over one billion rubles.

"There were not many of them, and I had known them all for years. Seinal Aga [Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, referred to as Zeynal Agha here], Ilyas Bey's father, was the first to arrive. His back was bent; his eyes had a veiled look. He lowered himself onto a divan, put his cane down, and thoughtfully started to eat a piece of Turkish delight [type of candy].

Left: One of the renderings for the architectural design of the building which, fortunately was rejected.

"Then came two brothers: Ali Assadullah and Mirza Assadullah [Asadullayev]. Their father, the late Shamsi, had left them a dozen million rubles. The sons had inherited their father's intelligence, but they had also learned to read and write.

"Mirza Asadulla loved money, wisdom and peace. His brother Ali was like Zarathustra's fire-burning, but not burning to death. [Zarathustra, 628-551 BC, was the founder of Zoroastrianism]. He was always moving around, and loved war, adventure and danger. Many stories were told about him throughout the country-stories of fights, assaults and bloodshed.

"Sullen Burjat Sade, sitting next to him, did not love adventure, but love. He was the only one of us who had four wives, always bitterly at war with each other. He was very ashamed of this situation, but could not change his nature. When asked how many children he had, he would answer sadly: "Fifteen or eighteen, how would I know, poor man that I am?" And if asked about his millions he would give the same answer.

"Yusif Oghlu, sitting at the other end of the hall, looked at him with disapproval, and jealousy. He had only one wife, and it was said she was not good looking. On their wedding day, she had told him: "If you squander your sperm on other women, I'll cut their ears off, and their noses and their breasts. And what I'll do to you, I don't even want to say."

"As this woman's kinsfolk had a well-deserved reputation of being quick on the draw, her threat had to be taken seriously. So the poor man collected pictures.

Left: Residence in Vienna which provided the inspiration for Ismayiliyya building.

"The man who came into the hall at half past seven was very small and very thin. The nails of his delicate hands were tinted red. We all rose and bowed to him, honoring his misfortune. Ismayil, his only son, had died a few years earlier. The father had built a splendid house in Nikolai Street [now Istiglaliyyat Street]. The name "Ismayil" shone on the front in big golden letters, and the house was dedicated to Islamic charity. His name was Aga Musa Nagi [Agha Musa Naghiyev], and he was a member of our circle only by virtue of his two hundred million rubles for he was not a Muslim any more. He belonged to the heretic sect of the Bahaists, founded by [1820-1850], whom Shah Nasraddin had had put to death. Only very few of us knew what Bab's teachings were. But we all knew that Nasraddin had had red-hot needles put under the nails of Bahaists, burnt them alive and flogged them to death. Very evil indeed must be the teaching of a sect that deserves such punishment.
At 8 o'clock all guests had assembled. There they sat, the Oil Princes, drinking tea, eating sweets, and telling each other of their booming businesses, of their houses, their horses, their gardens and their losses at the green table in the casino. So they talked till 9 o'clock, as etiquette decreed.

Above: Clockwise from top left: The most well-known Oil Barons in Baku: Taghiyev, Naghiyev, Ashurbeyli and Asadullayev.

Then the servant cleared away the tea, closed the doors, and my father said; "Mirza Asadulla, son of Shamsi Asadulla, has given much thought to the fate of our people. Let us hear him." Mirza Asadulla raised his beautiful dreamy face: "If the Grand Duke wins, there will not be one single Muslim country left on the map. Heavy will be the Czar's hand. He will not touch us who are here tonight because we have money. But he will close our mosques and schools, and forbid us to speak our language. Strangers will overrun the land, for there will be no one to defend the people of the Prophet.

Left: Inside the Ismayiliyya Building which was built by Musa Naghiyev, Baku's wealthiest Oil Baron. Obviously, this photo was taken during the Soviet period, probably late 1920s or early 1930s. Note portrait of Stalin. All property was confiscated by the Soviet government when the Bolsheviks took control of Baku in 1918.

"If Enver [Enver Pasha, 1881-1922 Ottoman General and Commander in Chief who occupied Baku in 1918 for a short period before the Bolsheviks took power] wins, it would be better for us, even if his victories were few.

"But can we do anything about it either way? I say we cannot. We have money, but the Czar has more. What shall we do? Perhaps we should give the Czar some of our money and some of our men. His hand might not be so heavy on us after the war, if we give him a battalion. Or is there another way?"

"His brother Ali raised himself. He said: "Who knows, maybe after the war there won't be a Czar any more."

"Even so, my brother, there still would be too many Russians in our country."

"Their number can be reduced, my brother."

"We can't kill them all, Ali."

"We can kill them all, Mirza."

They were silent. Then Zeynalagha spoke, very softly, tired with age, and quite without expression: "No one knows what is written in the Book. The grand Duke's victories are no victories, even if he were to take Stamboul [Istanbul]. The key to our destiny does not lie in Istanbul, but in the West. And there the Turks are victorious, even if they are called Germans. Russians are occupying Trapezund, Turks are occupying Warsaw. Russians? Are there any left? I have heard that a peasant-I believe his name is Rasputin-rules over the Czar, caresses the Czar's daughters and calls the Czarina Mama. And there are Dukes who want to dethrone the Czar, and people who just wait for peace, so they can start a revolution. After the war, everything will be quite different."

"Yes," said a fat man with brilliant eyes and a long moustache, "everything will, indeed, be different after the war." This was Fatali Khan of Khoja [Fathali Khan Khoyski], a lawyer by profession. We knew that he was always thinking about The People and Their Cause.

"Yes," he added fervently, "and as everything will be so different, we need not beg for anyone's favors. Whoever wins this war will come out of it weak and covered with wounds, and we, who will be neither weakened nor wounded, will then be in a position to demand, not to beg. We are an Islamic, a Shiite country, and we expect the same from the House of Romanov as from the House of Osman. Independence in everything that concerns us! And the weaker the Great Powers are after the war, the nearer is freedom for us. This freedom will come from us, from our unspent strength, from our money and our oil. For do not forget: the world needs us more than we need the world."

"The 'Thousand Million Rubles' assembled in the hall were very satisfied. "Wait and see" was a good policy. We have got the oil; the victors will have to beg for our favors. And what will we do till then? Build hospitals, children's homes, blind people's homes-for those who fight for our faith. No one could accuse us of lack of character. I sat in a corner, silent and angry.

"Ali Asadulla came across the hall and sat down next to me. "And what do you think, Ali Khan?" Without waiting for an answer, he bent forward and whispered: "Wouldn't it be wonderful to kill all Russians in our country? And not only the Russians-kill all these foreigners who talk and pray and think differently from us. We all want to do that, really, but I'm the only one who dares to say it aloud. And what then? As far as I'm concerned, Fathali can rule, though I prefer Enver. But first we must exterminate all foreigners." He spoke the word "exterminate" with such tender longing, as if it meant "love." His eyes shone, he smiled mischievously. I did not answer.

"Now Musa Naghi, the Bahaist, spoke: "I am an old man," he said, "and I am sad to see what I see, and to hear what I hear. The Russians are killing the Turks, the Turks are killing the Armenians, the Armenians would like to kill us, and we the Russians. Is this good? I do not know.

"We have heard what Zeynal Agha, Mirza, Ali and Fathali think of our people's fate. I understand they care deeply about schools, our language, hospitals and freedom. But what use is a school when what is taught there is nonsense, and what use is a hospital if it is the body only that is healed there, and the soul is forgotten? Our soul strives to go to God. But each nation believes they have God all to themselves, and He is the One and only God. But I believe it is the same God who made Himself known through the voices of all sages. Therefore, I worship Christ and Confucius, Buddha and Mohammad. We all come from one God, and through Bab, we shall all return to Him.

"Men should be told that there is no Black and no White, for Black is White and White is Black. So my advice is this: let us not do anything that might hurt anybody anywhere in the world, for we are part of each soul, and each soul is part of us." We sat silent, nonplussed. So this was the heresy of Bab. Suddenly I heard loud sobbing, turned round and saw Asadulla, his face bathed in tears, and distorted with grief.

"Oh my soul!" he sobbed, "How right you are! What happiness to hear your words! O Almighty God! If only all men could find wisdom as profound as yours!" Then he dried his tears, sighed deeply and added, noticeably cooler: "Doubtlessly, venerated sir, the hand of God is above all our hands but, nevertheless, Oh, fountain of wisdom, the truth is, that one cannot always depend on the Almighty's merciful intervention. We are but men, and if inspiration fails, we have to find ways to overcome our difficulties." It was a clever sentence, as clever as his tears had been. Mirza was looking at his brother, full of admiration. The guests rose. Slender hands touched dark rows, saluting. Backs bent low, lips murmured; "Peace be with you. May the smile remain on your lips, friend."

"The meeting was over. The "Thousand Million Rubles" went out into the street and parted, nodding, saluting, shaking hands. It was half past ten. The hall was empty and depressing. I felt very lonely."

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