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  • Jerome Kocher

70. Baku - Art and Imagination

Baku is like walking through an archeological dig. In this photo you can see the modern imaginative Flame Towers of steel and glass. In the middle is a remnant of the utilitarian and functional Soviet style, and in the foreground the stone wall around the ancient inner city.

But the most beautiful building I have ever been in is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center that has no right angles. It’s a fluid flow of movement swelling up from the earth like a wave that folds over and into itself. If the Zoroastrians had a Temple of Fire, this is a Temple of Form and Space. Designed by a female architect, Zaha Hadid, it won Design of the Year Award in 2014. The exhibitions inside celebrate the culture of Azerbaijan, but the building celebrates the human imagination. One of the judges for the international design award complimented the flowing white nature of the building when he said, “It looks like Marilyn Monroe’s skirt.” And so it does.

Inside the Center, three colored fabrics constantly float up and down through pulsating air currents from below. This moving tapestry reflects the three colors of the Azerbaijan flag and the dynamic life of the country.

But this creativity did not emerge in isolation, for an hour outside of Baku there is ancient rock art dating back 5,000 to 20,000 years. I’ve heard of the famous Lascaux Cave art in France, but never of these in Gobustan, Azerbaijan. The petroglyphs etched into stone depict animal, fauna and human life in these ancient cave settlements. 

Roaming through the rock landscape I was surprised at how exciting it was to see remains of human art work. Forget carbon dating of human bones. Here were images of human imagination, maybe the most precious capacity we have. These were “footprints” of human thinking, taking their sensory experience of survival and hunting and conceptualizing it into a form recognized by others. Later, humans developed language that painted "word pictures" to communicate not only the external world but our inner life of feelings and ideas. 

Modern sports psychology trains athletes to imagine their movement before they execute an action. In daily life we may set a goal before beginning hard work. So these petroglyphs, whether reflecting back on or ritually creating a future hunt, seem like the stem cells of human imagination. Going to the moon starts somewhere. Why not here! Before you think I’m exaggerating, look at your own refrigerator. Do you have lists, grandchildren, loving memories magnetized to the surface. This is your life, your memories. On a human level, Gobustan is no different. The common denominator is “us.” In terms of evolution of consciousness, these rock formations in the Gobustan seemed to be the seminal foundation of the architectural imagination in the city itself.

So what about the people today. Baku is very secular and tolerant. The Soviet Union left several beneficial legacies. First, you don’t primarily identify yourself by religion. Here Sunni and Shia may pray together in the same mosque. In most places of the Middle East that would be unheard of, if not heretical. Second, the Soviets promoted women as valuable members of public society, especially the work force. Third, education is most important. 

In the 1930’s here there was a widespread protest of women in the streets taking off their hijab scarves or burka face coverings. The chant was “a black veil is a black jail.” Pretty catchy phrase in English. Don’t know how it rhymed in Russian. Since then women’s faces have been liberated as well as their career options. Saudi tourists present a contrast with their head to toe burkas. Ironically their men often dress in shorts and T-shirt. A definite statement contrasting life in Saudi Arabia versus Baku. And don’t forget women in Azerbaijan secured the right to vote in 1919, a year before women’s suffrage in the United States became law.

The pomegranate is an honored fruit in Islam. Azerbaijanis can also use it as a metaphor for their 35 different ethnicities including Armenians, Mountain Jews, even an Albanian church, not to mention all the other neighboring ethnicities. The pomegranate’s multitude of seeds lie side by side, but also within thinly separated sections of the fruit. In comparison they will point out that Armenia has little to no diversity with nearly 100% of the population Armenian. You can interpret that different ways.

You may have already seen Baku if you watched the James Bond film “The World is not Enough.” It takes place amidst the oil fields which are everywhere. Many of the pumps are as simple as those I remember in the Midwest when we visited our grandparents. We called them “grasshoppers” for their form and movement. Here they are called “nodding donkeys.” The first well was dug in the mid 1800’s long before one in Pennsylvania. By the early 1900’s Rockefeller, Rothschild,and the Nobel Brothers were all here as investors. At that time Baku was the Mecca of oil and gas.

The most popular sport and game is wrestling and chess. You won’t see Azerbaijanis in the World Cup, but you will see them medaling in Olympic wrestling. Former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov came from this region and represented the Soviet Union. In Georgia chess is part of the school curriculum to teach logic and thinking.

And for those of you studying Arabic let me share a verse from the Koran, the so called “boomerang” verse, to appreciate a universal message in all religions. “However small a good deed you perform, it will come back to you. And however small a bad action you commit, it will return to you.” As an American the phonetics of the Arabic language seem more than difficult with sounds emanating from the throat. But Arabs also have trouble with English because there is no “P” sound in Arabic. Native Arab speakers can't say Pepsi, but “Bebsi.”  To be clear, Azerbaijan is definitely not Arabic. I only mention this because the Koran in Muslim countries is the central mystery and miracle that unifies the Islamic world.

I started these thoughts with an “imagination” so let me close with one. Our guide, Jamil, took this photograph of a poppy field here in Azerbaijan. Notice how similar it is to the colors of their national flag. Does that have deep philosophical meaning? No. But it is beautiful.

Amazingly beautiful. And so is the city of Baku.

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