İcheri Sheher-Old City Magic

İcheri Sheher-Old City Magic

By Jill Sperandio 

I will be leaving my home in Icheri Shahar, Baku’s Old City, very soon and know I will miss it. But what will I miss the most? Will it be eating out in the summer under the willow trees in the shadow of the Maiden’s Tower, or enjoying a feast of Azeri dishes in a richly carpeted and tiled room of an old caravansarai, gas fire blazing and heavy wooden door shut tight against the cold? I will certainly miss running the gauntlet of carpet dealers and failing once again to resist their entreaties to “just take a look”. Oh the joy of those long hours sipping tea and watching one jewel-colored carpet after another rolled out before me, or rummaging through the ever changing piles of junk and antiques. 

And I will miss the people – fresh faced soldiers marching across the square by the main gate; the gatekeeper who stubbornly refuses us free entrance when we forget our resident’s pass; the gallery owners, happy to sit and talk about the latest exhibition and its artists; the vegetable seller, ever hopeful that one day I will become a Manchester United fan. Not to forget the friendly guard outside the Greek embassy who keeps an eye on our car park, and our elderly neighbour, pausing in his exercises in the little park each morning to greet us graciously or welcome our return. I know I will miss the morning pasagiata of two turkeys, six ducks and assorted chickens, together with an occasional rabbit, to the little park by the gates of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace. Here they enjoy a scratch around in the scruffy grass, a shuffle in the dust, or a splash about in the little pond that has formed by the dribbling fountain, before proceeding in stately procession back to their courtyard home, their watchful owner bringing up the rear. And I shall miss the cats. Stone cats carved above doorways and real ones too. Beautifully groomed, wellfed cats looking down on you disdainfully from balcony and window as you pass through the passage beneath. The garbage cats, big, bad and begrimed, that leap from the bins as you approach, waiting resentfully till you depart so they can resume their rummaging in search of some tidbit in the newly deposited plastic bag. Romantic cats, their nightly love songs less than music to the ear – rambunctious cats, hiding around corners and under cars to ambush their rivals in a whirl of hissing, clawing, tabby and striped and tortoiseshell. Which season will I miss the most? Winter, when the wind howls and you hurry to find the shelter offered by the narrow, twisting streets? Passing neighbors bent against the wind, women wrapped tightly in their ankle-length leather coats, faces framed by fur lined hoods, and the men carrying bags of groceries homeward, collars up and fur hats pulled down around their ears. 

The thrill of an unusually heavy snowfall that transforms the rooftop vistas and has you ducking the snowballs of the gangs of kids beside themselves with glee at the welcome change from the daily street football, dodging the cars and learning to score goals uphill. Or maybe spring, when the grapevines clambering up the balconies of the older buildings soften the stone and iron with a fretwork of green and the parks around the walls are bright with marigolds and stocks and the promise of daisies and hollyhocks to come. Spring, when the old trees, roots and trunks now one with the foundations of the city, flower and give shade to hidden corners and tiny squares. This is the time when the children salvage timber from the latest house renovation to build Novruz bonfires, leaping through the flames to bring luck to the coming year. Or perhaps I’ll miss the long, slow autumn, when those same vines and trees turn golden but refuse to relinquish their leaves until late November. Housewives lay out the wool stuffing for their winter bedcovers to air in the sun, washing flapping on the lines crisscrossing the alleys and the pomegranates and grapes piled high on the vegetable stalls. But best of all are the memories of summers evenings, looking out over the rooftops of the Old City as the setting sun turns the stone buildings golden, the distant sea lies a shimmering blue in a bay of pastel pink and a lonely sail boat tacks back to shore. As the sky darkens to a velvet blue, the swallows swoop and swerve between the buildings, vying for the last insects of the day. A flutter of white doves settles down to roost in the trees around the Shirvanshahs’ Palace and a cat that has dozed lazily on the warm stone steps of the ruined bath house wakes up and stalks off among the fallen stones in search of mice. 

A new crescent moon and the evening star hang silver over the minaret of the deserted palace mosque. The clock in the tower above Baki Sovieti plays its tune and strikes, and the call to prayer drifts up from the Juma Mechid mosque where men are hurrying from the darkening streets, passing through the ornately carved door to an interior ablaze with the light from the crystals of the enormous chandelier. Night settles over the city and the music of the tar, accordion and tambour fills the air as a lively party gets underway in the caravansarai. All through the streets and alleys the smell of roasting lamb on charcoal braziers slips under the gates of a hundred courtyards to tease the noses of passers by hurrying home through the streets to their own evening meals. Close your eyes and watch the camels passing through the city gates, shaking the desert dust from their hooves… To live in the Old City is to live with the past, but what of the future? We hear that there is to be no more building until a master plan has been drawn up, and it’s good to know that someone cares. There is no place here for blank concrete walls and garish colors… 

it would be nice if some of the wires that drape the streets and the broken-down cars and garbage trucks would disappear. And parks – little areas of green with roses and a fountain, where the old men can sit each morning and talk politics, and lovers sit entranced as night falls. But more than that, I hope that thought is given to those who live here -whose families have been here for generations. Each office, embassy and luxury apartment mean less homes, less children playing on the streets, less corner grocery stores, less women gathering in each others homes to mourn a death or plan a wedding, less life. I will take many fond memories of the Old City with me when I leave Azerbaijan, and they will be memories of a living city, not a historical monument.