They were meant for escape from Baku’s sizzling summer days, when high humidity and powerful winds can cover the skin with a gritty, wet film. Like dachas in Russia, a bağ evi
(literally, “garden house”) near the Caspian Sea used to be the way for Azerbaijanis to get away from it all.
“Barefoot . . .” recollects 25-year-old architect Subhan Manafzade. “We would run around barefoot and naked. The bağ, for me, is a space providing that freedom.”
In summer, Alexander Rodin, a 63-year-old carpenter and amateur spear fisherman, spends half the week in the bağ (pronounced “bahgh”) he built over 20 years ago in the Absheron Peninsula village of Mardakan, slightly inland from the sea. “Here, I do what I enjoy doing. I plant trees and fix things. I’m constantly moving around,” he says. “A person can make his life last longer like this.”
Absheron’s villages first emerged several hundred years ago around defensive towers built to alert the population about incoming attacks from the sea. The practice of building summertime houses in these spots started in the late 19th century, when Azerbaijan’s first oil millionaires – among them, Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, Murtuza Mukhtarov and Shamsi Asadullayev -- vied to construct the most luxurious villa with the greenest garden.
The villas, now mostly destroyed, changed the look of Absheron’s modest hamlets. But further change was to come.
After Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, the government began to lease land on the peninsula to Azerbaijanis prominent in the arts, science or industry.
Simple bağ evləri, described by architect Leyla Musayeva, 26, as “small white houses with verandas and flat roofs,” began to shape the villages’ look.
Given the peninsula’s strong winds, the houses had flat roofs covered with asphalt to keep the wind from blowing away the roof. Any swimming pools were built high above ground to prevent sand from blowing into the water.
But building the houses was not straightforward. Private ownership of land was impossible and construction materials not always easy to find.
“Depending on what connections one could use for getting construction materials, the houses were predominantly built with concrete, metal or wood and this has significantly influenced the architecture of these houses,” elaborates 26-year-old architect Muslum Imranli, who, together with Manafzade and Musayeva, has researched thebağ evləri (the plural of bağ evi) for their architecture studio, Pilla. “For example, if one had a relative working for a concrete factory, they would build a concrete house.”
Since they were used only in summer, the houses had no heat and sometimes no electricity. “In fact, having the bare minimum was the way of life in a bağ,” says Jale Sultanli, a 39-year-old conflict-resolution specialist, who spent her summer vacations at her grandparents’ bağ in Nardaran, about a half-hour’s drive from Baku.
“We did not have many things and everything was open. Even the gates were locked only symbolically” with a simple lock, she recalls. Neighbors were close friends or family members and high walls for privacy were not needed.
Sleeping outside in summer was the norm, so large verandas were common.
The wind was a constant companion.
“We could go swimming only if it wasn’t windy,” says Sultanli. “Every morning, the first thing I would do was to listen carefully and guess the nature of the wind by the sound of the leaves.”
With little rain, keeping the houses’ gardens green was difficult. “[T]he only trees were apricots, grapes, figs and mulberries,” Sultanli continues. “Although the tree variety was not great, the abundance of sunshine made those fruits extra-delicious.”
Underground reservoirs further facilitated the development of Absheron’s summer villages, although the water quality was poor. Pilla architect Subhan Manafzade, 25, notes that the water is salty in his grandmother’s well in Shuvelan, a seaside hamlet about an hour’s drive to the northeast of Baku. “It’s drinkable, but soap doesn’t foam in that water. It’s a big problem,” he says, laughing.
Despite nostalgia for the Absheron bağ evləri, some Azerbaijanis believe their time may have passed. Over the course of four weekends, this reporter could find only three such cottages in nine seaside villages.
With economic growth and the development of the domestic tourism sector, a trend is emerging among middle-class Bakuvians to travel abroad or elsewhere in Azerbaijan. Those who do head to the coast often favor those villages that have kindergartens, cinemas, hypermarkets, reliable utilities and Internet connections, observes 39-year-old urban researcher Rashad Shirin.
Consequently, the dynamic in villages with bağlar is changing, some complain. Splashy residences are becoming more common.
Carpenter Rodin shows the seven-meter wall that his neighbor has erected between his unfinished, five-storey villa and Rodin’s bağ. “People are afraid that others can see their lifestyle and family. They’re afraid of being jinxed,” he thinks.
Nonetheless, whatever the architectural changes, many still see the peninsula and its villages as a place for contentment.
“You can breathe. The sea is vast. It’s the horizon,” elaborates architect Musayeva. “You look at it, then you turn around and see that largeness [of the peninsula] again. . . [P]eople have managed to find harmony here.”