After 17 months in Baku I believed that I saw all major museums and sights that a tourist/Expat could have. When friends recommended a walking tour I was interested, but hesitant to sign up. What could a tour guide show me, that I haven’t seen or read upon yet? My friend has been living here for a few years and she was highly impressed by the content and felt very entertained during all 3 hours of the tour. That sounded promising, so I contacted the person who organizes the tours and after a few weeks finally an English walking tour became available. Everything about this tour was unusual, in a good way. To sum it up: It was very insightful, informative, animated and inspiring!
To me, there are three reasons why this walking tour was outstanding: (1) The presentation and interpretation by the tour guide himself, (2) the overarching theme of the famous Azerbaijan novel Ali & Nino, (3) history of the city’s landmarks and their famous oil barons.
Our tour guide is a born Bakuvian residing in Canada. A few times a year, he comes to Azerbaijan to conduct walking tours in English and Russian. The first review I found about Fuad Akhundov’s tours were dating back to 2004 . An interesting note about him was published in the New York Times in 2005 by Tom Reiss who has toured Baku with Fuad, as he was researching for his international bestseller The Orientalist. It is a story about Lev Nussimbaum, a Russian Jewish-born writer, and most likely the author of Ali and Nino. At this point, I should mention that the dispute about the real author of Ali and Nino is still ongoing. Most theories point to Nussimbaum, who wrote the book under the pseudonym of Kurban Said.
Fuad is a real Bakuvian, who devoted many years researching the history of his city. He grew up in the Soviet Era and worked later for Interpol, the international police agency. As Fuad says himself he was “not a historian” but he spent a lot of time investigating and talking to Baku’s residents of several generations to track down Azerbaijan’s history buried by the Soviet past. As we met him he was carrying a big folder that was so thick, it seemed it would burst any moment. During the tour he kept pulling out black and white pictures of buildings and people from this folder. It was impressive, how knowledgeable he was about every building and every detail of that building. When I asked about origins of the Puppet Theater at the Boulevard, Fuad pulled out an old photograph. He explained that it was originally build as a movie theater and casino for a cost of 60 000 Ruble (today approx. 30 840 USD. Out of curiosity I ran some approximate calculations: In the early 1900s, 1 Ruble was supposedly 0.514 ounces of gold. Today, 1 ounce of Gold cost 1274 USD.)
During our tour, Fuad would stop and recite a paragraph from Ali and Nino to prove the resemblance of the places and people in the book to buildings in Baku and real families of that time. His charismatic persona and animated facial expressions transported us back to the time of oil barons, when Baku was producing 50% of world’s oil. Whenever we stopped, Fuad would pull out the novel and open it at one of the 12 marked sections to read from it while pointing at the location as described in the book.
Ali and Nino is the national novel that reflects Azerbaijan’s struggle for identity. It has been first published in 1937 and is available in 20 languages. It tells about a romance between an aristocratic Azerbaijani Muslim boy and a Georgian Christian princess unfolding between 1918 to 1920. This specific period makes the book a window to the lives of Baku’s residents during a crucial time: An oil rich Baku struggling for independence and identity. It was May 28th, 1918 when Azerbaijan became the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world. Just 2 years later Soviet Russia retook Baku and it’s oil wealth as well as the wealth of Baku’s citizens.
The first page of the book already sets the tone. It is not just a love story but a story about Azerbaijan. The author expresses Azerbaijan’s dilemma through the words of the history professor teaching at Ali’s school: “The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains, through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while other, in view of Transcaucasia’s cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.”
The dichotomy of “progressive Europe” and “reactionary Asia” is reflected in the characters and the plot. As for instance, while proud Ali lives in the Old City (Icheri Sheher), which is considered to be Asian and historic, beautiful Nino lives outside the fortress, the Boom Town (a term used to describe the downtown area with its numerous mansions) , and European part of the city. The story takes an even more intriguing turn when Ali’s friend, an Armenian kidnapped Nino. Ali chases him down on a horseback and kills him to avenge the betrayal.
The third instance of our walking tour was the actual stories of some of Baku’s buildings and their owners. Fuad would show us photographs of oil barons and their buildings, tell us how they lost their wealth and how they were separated from their families as the Soviet nationalization progressed after 1920. We also got to know the story behind the architect of the Philharmonic. Originally, the building was designed as a casino modeled after the Casino Monte Carlo. The construction plans were met with huge opposition from the residents because it required several trees in the park to be removed. But an interesting deal has been struck to benefit the city in a different way.
Only, a few steps away from the Philharmonic is Ali’s school which is today the Azerbaijan University of Economics. Nino’s school is just across the street. We follow Ali’s footsteps from his school to his house located in the Old City. We stopped at Icheri Sheher’s main gate (Gosha Gala Gapi) that still caries Baku’s original coat of arms, and is the place where Ali was stationed to defend the city from the approaching Soviet troops.
It was revealing to see the city through the lifes of people who lived there. Now, I can truly understand Baku’s history.
To those who would like to experience Baku through this tour can select between 3 tours, each 3 hours long: Ali and Nino Tour (a video version of this tour is available on DVD), tour of the Old city Icheri Sheher, and Beyond The Fortress Walls: Upper City Tour (from the Philharmonic to the Wedding Palace), as well as Beyond The Fortress Walls: Lower City Tour (from the main gates of Icheri Sheher to Gogol Street).
The tours are organized through Lala Huseynova +994 (0)506727626, whom you can contact to inquire about the upcoming tour schedule. Fuad is expected to be back in Baku mid-February to March. Most of the tours are being held in Russian but if an English speaking tour is not set it can be arranged with a minimum of 15 people.