Absheron’s Bağ Evi: Looking for a Lost Cottage

Author: Sheyda Allahverdiyeva

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.”


The Caspian Sea is an integral part of Absheron’s bağ culture. Here, a fisherman’s boat rests on the beach near Türkan.

Beaches in the southern Absheron Peninsula are less popular than those in the north since the sea water here is more stagnant.

Absheron National Park.

Fishermen in Artyem (Pirallahi).

According to Jale Sultanli, “the south warm wind Khazri would bring a lot of jellyfish (Mnemiopsis leidyi), and swimming with them is not pleasant.” Türkan.

A fisherman’s hut in Zagulba.

The Absheron National Park, which runs down to the Caspian Sea, contains some 50 varieties of birds and animals and roughly 25 plant species.

Fig trees can be found throughout the Absheron Peninsula.

High winds mean that trees on the Absheron Peninsula rarely grow tall.

The power of Absheron’s wind can be seen at this café in Mardakan. Only used in summer, the building must be renovated every spring.

Decorative elements on Absheron’s beaches do not always survive the peninsula’s harsh winter.

Abandoned beaches in early spring at Bilgah on the Absheron Peninsula

A café in Mardakan displays a sign that reads “Only for families.” This is to keep young couples out.

This Mardakan fisherman’s car features wheels adapted for sand.

For all the sun and sea, the climate is harsh on the Absheron Peninsula. Here, signs of drought in the town of Şıx (Shikh).

Azerbaijan’s petroleum industry got its start in the mid-19th century in Bibiheybat, on the Absheron Peninsula.

Shrimp and fish from the Caspian Sea for sale at Baku’s Teze Bazar

Oil millionaire Murtuza Mukhtarov’s tsarist-era villa in Mardakan was one of Absheron’s first summer residences. Its ruins now make up part of the grounds of the Institute of Dendrology.

Gas and power lines blend with a tree’s branches in a lane in the Absheron town of Buzovna.

This limestone wall and blue gate in Hovsan are typical of the Absheron Peninsula.

Carpenter Alexander Rodin, 63, is proud to have built his Mardakan bağ with his own hands. “In summer, when people want to come to [their] bağ, they don’t want to stay indoors, but spend time outside,” he says. “Therefore, a big dacha is a waste” of money.

A bedroom inside Alexander Rodin’s bağ evi in Mardakan.

Unlike the low walls that used to characterize Absheron’s simple summer cottages, this new residence in Mardakan features a high wall with bird houses.

Old and new walls in Mardakan

A bağ evi’s barrier with neighbors, often relatives or friends, was largely symbolic.

In Türkan, a town of several thousand on the southeastern Absheron Peninsula, a seaside wall designates private property. The closer to the sea, the more expensive the land.

A quiet lane in the Absheron town of Buzovna

As preferences for vacation spots change and property developers come knocking, many of Absheron’s houses and much of its land have been put up for sale.

Grape and mulberry trees seen from the veranda of a bağ evi in Türkan.

In the past, Absheron’s cottages frequently came with fruit trees. Mulberries are often more delicious when picked straight from the tree.

As elsewhere on Absheron, this Shuvelan bağ evi’s grapevines, or “tenek,” are as important for their shade as for their grapes. (Photo courtesy of Subhan Manafzade)

A favorite summer snack on Absheron is watermelon with salty white goat cheese and bread.

To guard against the wind, a bağ evi’s pool, like this one in Vishnevka, was “often built really high” and constructed with brick, says architect Subhan Manafzade.

For those who have grown up along the Caspian, leaving the sea and heading home are among some of the saddest childhood memories.

When on Absheron, if you do not remove dry clothes from a clothesline soon enough, they can stiffen from the salty wind blowing in from the Caspian Sea.

Many Azerbaijanis believe that getting enough exercise and sunshine in summer prevents contracting a cold or virus in colder months.

A neighbor cares for pigeons at a bağ evi in the Absheron town of Buzovna. Pigeon keeping is a favorite pastime throughout the Absheron Peninsula.

In the Absheron town of Buzovna, another large, new villa stands unfinished.




Chai-khana Survay