Walking Tour of Islam Safarli Street

What do people write about?

There is a lot of hype about urbanism as a social project to sustain an active, dynamic and vibrant city environment by Baku’s new generation. People with various backgrounds are attempting to conceptualize it as they understand it. Islam Safarli Street and the new grassroot local businesses of Baku Downtown have been subjects of this kind of hype recently.

Murad Nasibov (PhD candidate in Germany) thinks Islam Safarli Street is the most vibrant [back]street in Downtown Baku due to generosity of offering their venues to serve for “hosting exhibition, literary nights, live music, chess tournament, book discussion and film screening.” He centres all these activities at Coffee Moffie (local coffee shop), Le Chateau [music bar] (pub and bar), Etud [Cafe & Bar] (Jazz & blues club), Il Futuro (book cafe), where he believes youths of new generation engage in creative productivity.

Durna Safarova (journalist) assumes that there is a new emerging “neighborhood centered around Islam Safarli Street and encompassing Baku’s old Jewish district.” She vaguely attempts to describe alternative transformative movement in Baku against the social milieu what she calls it a government-made ‘a swanky Dubai-on-the-Caspian.’ However, she labels the movement as “independent creative renaissance in Baku” and it all is being taken place in “wine bars, coffee shops, live music venues, nightclubs, jazz bars, and ‘anti-cafés.” She discusses all these in an analogy of developments that already took place in Tbilisi. She believes that the promising creative youths of Baku are aspiring to replicate the production of Georgian capital Tbilisi’s “cool places to hang out.”

Urban Mobility Expert, Huseyn Abdullayev (Transport for Baku) believes that Islam Safarli Street has the potential to be as attractive as Nizami Street, the most popular street in Baku Downtown. Wide streets and beautiful European architecture of Islam Safarli Street underperforms its role in the city’s life. He lambasts utilization of Islam Safarli Street as parking lot as “it is simply shameful, embarrassing and stupidity…” His commentary about Islam Safarli Street reveals limits of Baku’s new generation as they are confined within the boundaries of their enterprises with little or no influence overall urban spaces outside their premises.

Jean-Luc Vannier (Psychoanalyst from Nice) takes on one of the locations in Islam Safarli Street, Coffee Moffie meanwhile interviewing two students, one of whom is a musician, pianist, composer, Rashad Alkhanov, to discuss Mugham, folk music. He does not miss the fact that these are commercial enterprises, but he does see that these are also a grassroots economic movement to produce an “Azerbaijani brand” with a vision of being exported region-wide. As per se the subject of his interview, he observes a projection to revitalize a national movement what he coins it with “re-Azerbaijanization”, “faithful to the Azeri spirit … a mixture of very sweet jazz and classic Azerbaijani melodies” offered to spectators every Friday evening at Coffee Moffie.

Of all these fuss about Baku’s emerging neighborhoods, once of the streets, Islam Safarli Street will be broken into pieces to bring up reflection of past to present.

Locating the street

Islam Safarli Street is 1.1 km long-street. It starts from Istiqlaliyyet street traverses along the eastern frontier of the Fountains Square, and crosses the Nizami Street, and ends in Alibey Huseynzadeh Street in the north.

The Central Park cuts structural continuity of the street towards the north. The section between the Fountains Square and the Central Park is the busiest part of Islam Safarli Street, and it’s quite a mixture of residential, business and cultural urban settings. Proximity to the Nizami Street and Fountains Square allows the street to stay on the edge of the busiest streets, but at the same stay away of noise and hustle and bustle of main business streets. Hence it is kind of hidden gem that valued by few.

The section between Central Park and Alibey Huseynzadeh street is more occupied by residential apartment blocks. This part was not included or has not been extended to in redevelopment and rehabilitation of Streets during the construction of the Central Park in the 2010s.

Past of the Street:

View of Fornarnaya, Parapet and Armenian Church, 1901 (Photo: Jonka / Public Domain)

The earthquake of 1859 in Shamakhi played a pivotal role changing the centre of Gurbernia (an administrative unit at the time of Imperial Russian Rule). Therefore all the central administrative offices moved to Baku in 1860.

The spatial structure of the Islam Safarli Street was formed at the same time of period when the city took a start in expansion outside the 12th-century Fortress Walls. A port city on the coast of the Caspian, planning and expansion always was considered with a mindset of defensive fortification and decided by military engineers.

As a new centre of Gurbernia, with the involvement of civilian engineers to plan city within Citadel Walls but also design expansion. First steps were taken to plan and govern the constructions of expansion in the area known as the Forstadt. Forstadt was a nominal term given to new emerging neighbourhood outside the fortress walls.

One of the first civilian engineers, Gasimbek Hajibababekov, Shamakhi’s former chief architect, had been tasked to carry out city’s expansion. He designed two Story Metropol Hotel (now Literature Museum) in the 1860s, 200 metres to the north another hotel building (aka Vatan Cinema) shaped the spatial structure of a street for the development. That street intially named Fonarnaya street (Lantern from Russian).

Fonarnaya street took its start from one of the central streets of Baku at the time, Nikolayevksya Street, travelled across Parapet, the favourite of Baku population, crossed the Torqovaya (Nizami Street now), ran along Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarters.

Fonarnaya Street later renamed as Vorontsov Street. Reading from city map of Baku in 1898, the newly renamed street ends at Vorontsov Square in the north.

Along the western side of Vorontsov Street, there laid Sisianov Street (now Təbriz Xəlil Rza oğlu Street). This street took the start from the Obelisk dedicated to Pavel Sisianov (Tsitsianov), the notorious Georgian origin Russian general, who was shot dead by Baku Khans in front of Shamakhi gates just outside Fortress Walls of Baku in February 1806.

The Obelisk dedicated to Pavel Sisianov. It was demolished during Soviet Time.

Another busier street further the west, Bazarnaya street (Hüsü Hacıyev, Azərbaycan prospekti), run to the west of Vorontsov Street. Bazarnaya Street starting from Shamakhi gates of Icheri Sheher runs to the Bazar Square (aka Quba square) and then continue as Shamakhi road all the way to Shamakhi (former capital of Gurbernia).

To the east of Vorontsov Street there lays street called Armyanskaya. The street is known as the Armenian Quarter (Erməni Məhəlləsi) in pop culture. There located a church and the Armenian Philanthropic Society along with residential apartments. With the construction of the building known as the Babayev Residence and Armenian Church during 1863-1869, Armyanskaya streets had been set up for development.

The development of important streets to the west and east such as Bazarnaya, Armyanskaya streets and crossing central streets such as Balakhana (now Fuzuli) and the Torqovaya, Vorontsov Street had already gotten its form towards late XIX century.

Night View of Islam Safarli Street

Personalities of the Street

In this street had lived few honourable men and at the same, it had and has carried names of few men who deserve the honour. There are few distinguishable people who influenced the history of the street. Among them are poets, architects, politicians and Businessmen. The street has also been influenced by the greatest architects Baku ever had.

The street had several names throughout its history: Fonarnaya, Vorontsov, Azizbekov and Islam Safarli. Two of these names are key political figures who had a certain degree of impact on political developments in Azerbaijan. The location was deemed appropriate to glorify these political figures in Downtown Baku during Imperial Russian and Soviet time. The latest name of the street is apolitical as it’s named after a poet, Islam Safarli.

Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov (1782-1856) had been acting as commander-in-chief and viceroy of the Caucasus during 1844-1853. His era was accompanied by various reforms that positively impacted the status of Turkic speaking Muslims of Caucasus (Azerbaijanis today).

Mashadi Azizbekov was an Azerbaijani Bolshevik Revolutionary active in Baku during the WWI. As one of the commissars, the pinnacle of his political career was to help the establishment of the Baku Commune (13 April to 25 July 1918), a short-lived socialist political administration in Baku.

Islam Safarli (1923-1974) was a poet, play-writer and translator. There is various music composed for his poems, and a few of his famous comedy plays are broadcasted every year several times on TVs.

Mammad Amin Rasulzade (Photo: Rasul Hasan / Public Domain)

Mammad Amin Rasulzade is simply known as one of the founding fathers of Azerbaijan. His role, as head of Azerbaijan National Council, was defining to establishing the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on 28 May 1918. His father owned as a residential house in Islam Safarli 9.

Ahmed bey Pepinov as a member of Azerbaijan National Council was one of the founding fathers to proclaim Azerbaijan’s independence on 28 May 1918. He was living in Islam Safarli Street during his political career in Baku.

The House Where Pepinov Had Lived with Bas-relief

Three architects, Nicholas von der Nonne, Jozef Goslawsky and Vartan Sarkisian, designed beautiful architectural masterpieces in Islam Safarli Streets. Nicholas von der Nonne has designed project of Fantasy Bath House. Jozef Goslavsky had served as the chief architect of Baku, designed project of beautiful gothic Palace for Tigran Melikov. Sarkisian, one of the prominent architects of Baku, designed Ambartsum Melikov’s neoclassical residential apartments in the street. All of these architectures are considered valuable monuments of the heritage of Azerbaijan.

Nicholas von der Nonne
Jozef Goslawsky

Vartan Sarkisian

Ambartsum Melikov, a businessman active in Baku and prominent public and political figure of Baku. Baku as a city located in arid, semi-desert climate, water has been a strategic and vital commodity. As cunning as it can be, Ambartsum Melikov involved in water business by owning a water spring in Zaqulba. Ambartsum had a son by name Georgiy (Gevorg or Georges) he married to Kovsar Assadullayeva, granddaughter of Musa Naghiyev and Shamsi Assadullayev, prominent Oil Barons. From the marriage of Kovsar and Georgiy, they had a son by name Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, a Paris based art critic. He and his son Tigran owned two-story residential apartments in Islam Safarli streets.

Walking Tour of the Street:

  • Islam Safarli street starts with a view towards western facade of the Literature Museum. The story of the museum is Reminiscent of the modern history of Azerbaijan.

    View of Literature Museum and Islam Safarli Str

    It was just a one-story caravanserai when 7000 people were living in Baku under the Imperial Russian rule until the mid-nineteenth century. The second floor was constructed once Baku became Gurbernia’s capital in the 1860s. The caravanserai was turned into a luxurious Metropol Hotel, and the third floor added in 1915, due to the changing dynamics of life in Baku coined as the first oil boom.

    Then it was a venue for the Cabinet of Ministers of the Independent Nation during 1918-1920. The cabinet survived for just 23 months. A few but the proudest months in the history of Azerbaijan.

    The Soviet invasion of the city in 1920 changed use of purpose of the building as offices for trade unions until 1939.

    To celebrate 800th jubilee of Nizami Ganjavi, the building was redesigned into the Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani literature: the neo-classic exterior style was transformed into national romanticist, the fourth floor was added and the loggia was constructed on the western facade with the statues of the six prominent Azerbaijani literary figures (right to left: Mahammad Fuzuli, Molla Panah Vagif, Khurshidbanu Nataven, Mirza Fatali Axundov, Celil Memmedquluzade and Jafar Jabbarli) from fifteenth to the twentieth century.

    Located at the feet of the highly elevated statue of Nizami Ganjavi, the Greatest of all the Greatests, this ensemble of literary figures is aimed at bringing the students and the teacher in a way that would seem like that they all look up to one another to pay their tribute.

  • View of Residental Building in Islam Safarli Str

    Walking the street to the north, on the right side, there stands grey lime-stone made four-story building designed by Mashadi Mirza Qafar Ismayilov, an Azerbaijani architect, and served as a caravanserai. Each floor has been decorated with details of all three distinct orders in Ancient Greek architecture on the facade. This was one of the popular entertainment centres serving as a cinema under different names (Spartak (Spartacus), later as Araz during different times. Now there chocolatiers and tea house

  • Further up to the street passing green colour Kiosk, you see yellow and white coloured three-story apartment building on the right side of the street. Continue the walk crossing the Nizami Street. On the left corner, there is a two-story residential building with art-nouveau windows. Walk along the pavement to take a small staircase to Coffee Moffie for a short stop. It is a hidden gem and local coffee shop where you can find Europe manifests within Baku’s emerging culture. Treat yourself with an espresso and chit-chat with a barista and glance the hall and people conversing thoughts. This is where communities with different work of line and social impact gather around over a cup of coffee in a coffee shop.

  • Right after Coffee Moffie the next block on the right in Islam Safarli Str 13, Ambartsum has built himself a two-story neo-classical grandiose monumental resident. Designed by Vartan Sarkisov as a residence, later it was converted into a public library named after Mirza Alakbar Sabir. It was one of the earliest public libraries in Baku since 1919. Many prominent intellectuals potilitician, including Nariman Narimanov of the time attended the library to deliver speeches or were readers of the library.

    The Library named after Mirza Alakbar Sabir
  • Continuing the walk up to north there you find an underground Cafe & Bar called Etud. Stop for a glass of local beer or cocktail, alternatively pay a visit on weekends for thrilling vibes to experience classic jazz, ethno jazz (remix of classic jazz with local folkloric music), soul-jazz and funky parties.

    Etud Cafe & Bar in Islam Safarli Str
  • Coming up the next is the three-story residence of Tigran Melikov, one of the sons of Abartsum Melikov, in Islam Safarli Street 19. Designed by Jozef Goslawski, it is one of the earliest gothic architecture in Baku built during 1895-1897.

    View of Malikov’s Residence and the Monogram “M”
  • Few steps forward on both sides of the street two little art studios are operating. You could join them for small chit-chat while observing them doing the job if you are lucky. If not, the best you can enjoy their art-exhibition hang on the wall and doors. One of these art studios also houses small second-hand bookshop known as bukinist. Here you can find very old dusty books mostly in Russian from Soviet Time.

  • View of Fantasy Bath House

    Three blocks further up to the north, there stands famed 120-year old Fantasy Bath House. However, the owner has never been identified and it was a design project by Nicholas von der Nonne, one of the prominent architects of Baku. Newspapers of the time covered the opening of the bath house in 1897 lengthily commenting on lavish interior design, electric lighting of in and around the building, telephone line, imported freshwater and relatively cheap services. Baku suffered from the scarcity of freshwater and absence of a centralized sewage system and bath houses had an important role in the city’s life. It was not just a place where people took bath but also engage in socialising, such as making deals, catching up with friends or mothers’ searching for a bride for their sons. Thus, going to a bath house was a special weekly occasion in everyday people’s life. Nonetheless, all fame is gone with winds, today the bath house stands as dormant.

    Then finish the walk with having fresh air, sitting one of the benches and observing local people on a night walk at the Central Park.

Join our Baku Original Walking Free Tour to explore best of streets in Baku.

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