Edited by Monica Ellena
From above, Baku is a blend of low old buildings, modern high rises and uninviting Soviet apartment blocks. Its walled historical heart, İçəri Şəhər or Old City, features elegant stone facades and shiny pebbled streets, a result of a steady beautification which earned Old Baku recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.
In the area sandwiched between these gleaming sandstone buildings and the busy İçəri Şəhər subway station lies a vibrant world, unknown to most -- a maze of crowded, often crumbling, courtyards dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries.
The population boom which followed Baku’s oil rush in the mid-1800s explains their existence.Soon, it ran out of space. New floors started being added to traditional two-storey buildings to make room for people flocking to the city in search of fortune.
Until the turn of the 20th century, “[m]ost houses were two-floor private villas where only one family lived,” explains architect Aytaj Akberli. “These villas were divided up into flats, external staircases were erected to connect them, and also give access to the communal toilets.”
Houses got taller to accommodate more families and the courtyards got crowded. The result was what Bakuvians started calling “the Italian courtyard”, a space resounding with voices and laughter, vibrating with colors and flapping laundry, smelling of both flavorful food and less appealing odors. Metal gates, often boasting curvy decorations, or low-arched tunnels connect streets to these yards. Inside, wooden and cast-iron spiral staircases connect each floor; often, each and every apartment.
For decades, the “Italian courtyards” housed rich traders and oil workers alike. Then, the 1930s changed them forever.
“The Soviets confiscated all private properties and gave them to the working class. The new [residences], built starting in the 1940s, were specifically designed for more, and larger, families,” adds Akberli.
Farida Sheykhzamanova was 30 when she moved with her husband, a civil servant, into an apartment at 57 Saraykin Street, just behind the building housing the Cabinet of Ministers. Now 84 years old, she still lives in the apartment the Soviet government gave them.
“It was never calm,” she recalls. “Children would play football or run up and down the staircases, neighbors would share food, [our] doors were always open to each other. We celebrated birthdays together and supported each other in hard times. We were like a big family.”
Tradition has it that apartments overlooking these courtyards were passed on from one generation to the next, with young couples and their children often livingtogether with parents in large, extended families.
With the end of the Soviet Union, this lifestyle began to disappear, including the courtyards’ vivid diversity. Ethnic Jews, Armenians, Russians and Azerbaijanis all used to populate the same space, Sheykhzamanova recalls.
“[That atmosphere] has disappeared. When my daughter is not with me at home, it is so calm outside that I may as well be on a deserted island.”
A few features still exist -- the long lines of laundry flapping in the city’s constant wind; the sky-high grapevine trellises that keep the courtyards cool during the scorching summers; the seasonal mulberry picking. The latter is a feast in which everyone participates. Bed sheets are spread under a mulberry tree and children climb up it and shake the branches until the last mulberry falls. The neighbors then share the fruit to prepare mulberry jam.
These colorful scenes are in stark contrast to the steel-and-glass buildings that have mushroomed across Baku over the last two decades. Over the past decade, a sweeping urban-renewal plan has led to the demolition of old brick apartment buildings to make room for high-rises, luxurious residential buildings or shopping centers.
In some cases, the Italian courtyards’ central location contributed to their destruction or to the slow, yet steady loss of their original features.
Ground floors have been turned into warehouses or cafés and small shops. The city government renovated a few of the buildings which it owns, and their courtyards, but, in most cases, the facelifts were only cosmetic and only affected the buildings’ glazed loggias.
Not all residents are happy with the changes.
“They renovate only the exterior,” complains the resident of one city-owned dwelling bordering Akhundov Park in central Baku. “The stairs are old, the wooden handrails decayed, the tiles broken. No one wants to repair it.”
The changes in Baku’s urban space have infiltrated the city’s social fabric as well, affecting the way people in the “Italian courtyards” relate to each other. Bakuvians used to jokingly ask each other, “Are you closer to your relatives or your neighbor?” No longer. Today, a distracted “Salam!” has replaced long chats under the mulberry trees.