Sunday 30 September 2012

Midnight in Moscow

I have to confess, despite considering it to be primarily for tourists, and knowing that its a place that Muscovites don't really hang out in, I love Red Square. From my very non-Russian point of view the square is Moscow - those fantastic onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral - so imposing from the outside and relatively small on the inside; the views across to the Kremlin's domes from the square and the juxtaposition of Lenin's tomb together with the remains of several other Soviet leaders looking directly across at Moscow's once drab and now glitzy department store - GUM (pronounced "goom"). How ironic that Lenin and his comrades should come to rest looking at a symbol of the new capitalist Moscow - money and lots of it!

Moscow by Yekkes
GUM by night
This is a very expensive city. Eating reasonably well is not cheap. I am very fond of an Armenian restaurant - Cafe Ararat that sits in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel. The food is good - this time I enjoyed lavash (the Armenian flat bread) together with herbs and soft curdy cheese, followed by a delicious lentil, walnut and herb soup, all washed down with apricot juice, Germuk - the slightly salty Armenian mineral water and followed by "sand" coffee and an Armenian take on creme brûlée. Extremely tasty, extremely satisfying, extremely expensive - the equivalent of fifty pounds - just for me, and with no alcohol!

Still, I enjoyed the food and the service was good, very good.This is not always the case in Russia where service can be outstandingly good (as at my hotel - the Metropol) or spectacularly bad. After dinner one evening I decided to have my coffee elsewhere and wandered into the Moscow branch of Le Pain Quotidien. OK so its an international chain, but its a good one and I fancied a nice coffee and a strawberry tart. Things did not go well. The waiter began by denying the existence of an English menu, which I could see lying on the next table, then pretty much refused to take any order for around 20 minutes by which point I had decided that there are other coffee shops in Moscow and left. On the way out I encountered the duty manager - a well turned out smiling young woman with good English. She seemed to find the incident amusing to the point of laughing out loud. I reassured her that it wasn't, pointing out the unintelligent example she was setting her staff. The laugh ceased and the lips turned into an inverted "U". Of course, I hated myself later for letting the incident annoy me, but this young woman didn't even have the excuse of not having learned any customer care skills in Soviet times. Rant now complete, thanks for listening.

Of course there is also a "third way" to service in some Moscow restaurants. My favourite which shall remain nameless was where a very keen, very smiley, very polite young waitress took my order for soup and asked me if I would also want dessert. I ordered ice cream which she then brought with a beatific smile. Great, except the soup hadn't arrived at that point. I asked about the soup and was told "wait". It came soon after. Well she tried.

As well as frequenting Red Square, getting cross in cafes and enjoying my lovely hotel, I took advantage of an unusual guided walk. I have recently read Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita after having seen the Thetare de Complicite's stage performance earlier this year. Intrigued by what a "Bulgakov tour" might involve, I signed up. The walk retraced the steps of the Master and Margarita's plot, including the Patriarchs Ponds (incidentally there is only one pond, so not sure why it has a name in plural), a chance to sit on the bench where  Woland first met Berlioz (not the composer) and Bezdomny. OK so I know its not the bench, but I like the idea that someone has gone to the trouble of trying to work out where that particular bench would have been situated.

You then get to see the point in the road, where as predicted the young woman spills cooking oil, Berlioz slips in it and is killed by an on-coming tram being driven by a woman. Great detail, even if the guide did advise me that it seems no tram ever ran through this square. Has he never heard of the willing suspension of disbelief? The tour goes on to include a peep at the house alleged to have been Margarita's when she lived with her husband. It is generally believed that Margarita was based on a real life character who shared that house with her real life husband - a senior Communist Party official!

Best of all is the Bulgakov House Museum where the tour ends. The museum is located in the apartment that Bulgakov once occupied on the Garden Ring. The apartment is reached through climbing several sets of stairs. The stairwell is decorated with graffiti related to the Master and Margarita, some of it extremely well done and witty. Apparently the residents in the rest of the block do not like this, seeing it as vandalism and regularly painting over it, much to the chagrin of my guide.

The apartment has a series of rooms, recreating the Soviet Moscow of the 1920's and 1930's, with its shared approach to living - several families would have lived here, each with a tiny space of their own and sharing the dark kitchen. Communal living offered few opportunities for privacy, many for snooping and spying (with the encouragement of the state of course) and resulted in many disagreements between tenants, including over the alleged theft of food!

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Courtyard of the apartment block where Bulgakov lived
Bulgakov's writing room is re-created with copies of the original furniture. Do not be taken in by the large black cat laid sleeping on the desk. It is real, as several other visitors found to their surprise when touching him to check! Behemoth reincarnated perhaps? The museum does Bulgakov tours by arrangement. Beware of the rival museum on the ground floor in the courtyard of this building - it has no real links with Bulgakov and contains no original furnishings or other items.

I have already written about constructivist architecture in Moscow here, but I also find the city's Style Moderne architecture thrilling. Style Moderne was the Russian take on art nouveau and one of the best examples of this is the Gorky House Museum, originally known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, completed in 1902 and designed by Feodor Shekhtel, one of Russia's greatest ever architects. The original residents fled the Bolsheviks who used the house as an administrative building until it was given to author Maxim Gorky in 1931. Gorky is reported to have disliked the house which only goes to show that even great artists often lack taste in other people's fields.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Detail of the Ryabushinsky Mansion staircase
The house contains a number of items relating to Gorky and his family, but make no mistake the star of the show is the building itself. The hall and its central staircase is absolutely stunning with its wave like Italian limestone staircase, stalactite lamp, dark wood panelling and colourful Japanese influenced stained glass. This was my second visit to the house and a new treat was in store for me. The Ryabushinsky family were "Old Believers" a Christian sect forbidden in Tsarist Russia. Like many wealthy members of the sect, the Ryabushinky's had a secret chapel in their house - this one in the attic. It has been recently restored and is open to visitors. It is an absolute riot of colour and reminded me very much of some of the earlier works of Koloman Moser. Well worth the climb to the upper floors for a look!

The city has many other Style Moderne buildings as well as buildings in the "Neo-Russian" style which  also paid tribute to art nouveau. Some of these are hidden in relatively ordinary streets and can either be missed if you don't have your wits about you or take some finding even if you know about them. One of my other favourites is the the former Moscow dormitory for visiting Orthodox priests, hidden behind Tvertskaya Boulevard. Once facing directly on to the main road, the building was enclosed by new structures when Stalin decided to remodel Tvertskaya as part of his new look Moscow. Now tucked away behind some fairly nondescript buildings it is well worth searching out and admiring. I love the multi coloured tiles and interesting features it boasts, especially the detail around the windows.

Also tucked away is the Sokol building at Mashkov 94, built 1902-03 and designed by Ivan Mashkov. The round bay on the house's facade is set off with extremely ornate ironwork whilst the large ceramic panels at the apex of the house, designed by Nicola Sapunov, show a falcon flying over snow-capped waves. Sokol is the Russian word for falcon. These panels were the subject of a lawsuit between the designers of the  Metropol Hotel and Mashkov, both claiming to have been plagiarised by the other. The Metropol won out.  If you want to know more, there is a great book by Kathleen Berton Murrell called "Moscow Art Nouveau". Its very difficult to get hold off and dreadfully expensive, but just leafing through my precious copy to check some of my dates here has made me want to return to Moscow to explore further.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Sokol building
This post began in Red Square. It is headed "Midnight in Moscow". Why? well, I happen to be addicted to the tune of the same name, written by Vasiliy Solovyov-Sedoi and Mikhail Matusovsky in the 1950's and originally entitled Leningrad Nights, I have associated the tune with Red Square ever since hearing it as a small child and seeing images of St. Basil's. And not just this. One night when leaving the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, I came upon at least 100 couples of mainly older people dancing to this music in the square and for some reason felt extremely touched. So, I always wanted to hear the tune in Red Square at midnight. I might have had to settle for hearing it on my i-pod, but I did it and if I say so myself, took a rather nice picture of the GUM department store to prove it!

Saturday 29 September 2012

Dijvan Gasparyan and Hossein Alizadeh live at the Barbican

A traditional Armenian piece featuring Gasparyan and Alizadeh

I really wanted to get tickets for the Barbican's evening of Iraqi music- "By the banks of the Tigris" on Thursday night. Yair Dalal, an Iraqi born Israeli and musical maestro of the oud and violin - and he's a damn fine singer too - was playing. Unfortunately I left it too late and the event sold out. However, all was not lost as I noticed that last night at the Barbican main hall, there was to be a concert of Armenian and Iranian music, featuring Dijvan Gasparyan, duduk virtuoso and Hossein Alizadeh, probably the world's leading exponent of the six stringed Persian tar. Both concerts are part of the fourth annual "Transcender" festival of world music.

The duduk is a traditional woodwind instrument indigenous to Armenia, but variations fit can be found in the Middle East and across Central Asia. I came across performances involving the duduk in both Armenia and Uzbekistan. The Gasparyan performance was wildly different to either of these (of course) with the real beauty of the duduk exposed to the audience - smooth, delicate notes as well as the shrill, exciting sounds I was familiar with from my travels. Also astonishing, is the way the ensemble is held together by one musician holding a single note throughout each piece, acting as a base and holding the performance together.

Then tar is a long necked instrument popular in Iran, Afghanistan and across the Caucasus. The word "tar" means string in Farsi (the language of Iran).

The concert was divided into two halves - the first featuring a lengthy improvisation session from Alizadeh accompanied only by a drummer followed by Gasparyan and three other duduk players, one of which was his grandson. The duduk quartet worked their way through some Armenian folk classics included one piece that I recognised as a Levon Malkhasyan composition.

Both performances were well received by the audience but the second half was magical. The duduk ensemble were joined on stage by Alizadeh, two other Iranian musicians (including a male vocalist) and  a stunning female vocalist. I speak neither Farsi nor Armenian so am embarrassed to admit that I don't know what language she sang in, but that woman's voice was big, clear and haunting. She sang seated which I always imagine to be difficult. The second, very long piece of the second set included some incredible ululating from this young woman. If anyone reading knows her name and if any recordings are available - then please let me know!

Dijvan Gasparyan also sang in the second set. The man is now 84 years of age. His voice is still extremely clear as was his delight in performing. The evening's hostess explained that Gasparyan first heard the duduk played when as a young boy he and his friends would sneak into the cinema in his home town of Yerevan to watch silent movies. Unlike in the UK where silent movies were accompanied by a pianist, in Yerevan, the films were interpreted through the music of the duduk!

These two maestros have worked together for some time. Gasparyan has travelled to Teheran to perform with his friend Alizadeh and the two of them recorded the critically acclaimed  "Endless Vision" album together in 2006. Both musicians are interested in the relationship between the music of the two cultures and of course, Armenians have been living in what is now known as Iran for more than 2,000 years.

A good concert and glad I went but I need to move into grumpy old man mode for a moment. The women next to me smelled appallingly of moth balls. The man to my right was "filming" the concert with his tedious i-phone despite being asked not to at the beginning of the concert and the woman sitting in front of me appeared to be unable to go for more than 30 seconds without chattering to her sleeping husband. I wish to thank them all for assisting in my enjoyment of the evening. Oh and one more thing. Dear Barbican, why do you close the rather nice design shop before the concert interval has finished? You have several hundred people in the building - what a great time to close the shop!

Rant over. Whilst we are on things Armenian, the rather wonderful Tigran Hamasyan has a concert in London in November as part of the London jazz festival. Note to self - buy tickets now!

Thursday 27 September 2012

Jewish Moscow

It is estimated that around 80,000 Jews now live in Moscow. Before 1905 this would have been unthinkable as Jews were legally barred from living in the city. Some exceptions would apply to individuals with skills or a trade that the city was short of and in these circumstances, the long established anti-semitic laws confining Jews to the Pale of Settlement in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Belarus would  sometimes be waived.

For almost the entire Soviet period, Jewish culture, religion and history was ruthlessly suppressed. Emigration was forbidden. Hebrew was forbidden. Support for Israel was looked on as being disloyal to the Soviet Union. Following the fall of the Communist regime, over one million Jews left the former Soviet Union to settle in Israel. Russian can be heard in all of Israel's major towns and cities and there are many businesses with both Russian and Hebrew signs in Haifa, Jerusalem and other cities.

A new Museum of Jewish History in Russia, funded privately, opened in 2011 in an office building close to the Dinamo Moscow stadium. I found out about the museum when browsing the internet and made an online appointment to view the collection. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit but finding the building and then gaining access was a bit of a challenge. I do not speak Russian. The security man looking after the whole building (not just the museum) spoke only Russian. He was not especially helpful and took the somewhat British approach to speaking to foreigners who don't understand - shout very loud and waive your arms a lot. Thankfully I was rescued by one of the museum staff who saw me and let me in.

Once inside, it soon became clear that the time and energy spent trying to find the museum and then to gain access was well worth the effort. I was shown around by a non-Jewish but extremely knowledgeable employee at the museum - Svetlana, who speaks much better Hebrew than I do and knows Yiddish too! The museum consists of a number of galleries showing different aspects of the Jewish experience in Russia, including religion, politics, everyday life in the shtetl compared to that in the city and also arts and cultural activities. The theatre gallery includes some wonderful playbills and photographs of the former Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (known as the GOSET) whilst overall, the collection consists of about 4,000 items. Svetlana advised me that many of them came from Moldova, Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

In acknowledgement of the diversity of "Russian" Jewry, there is also a gallery that currently displays clothing, household and ritual implements and photographs recording the history and culture of Jews from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Bukhara. This was very interesting, especially as just a week previously, I had visited the entirely Jewish town of Krasnaya Sloboda in Azerbaijan and taken pictures of some of the places featured in this exhibition!

The museum is also making its presence felt more widely, contributing items to the current Chagall exhibition at the Tretyakov and also to the "To See and Remember" exhibition of Jewish religious objects at Moscow's Russian Library of Foreign Literature. I made it to the Chagall exhibition at the "old" Tretyakov in Lavrushinsky Lane. The exhibition marks the 125th anniversary of the artist's birth and is entitled "The Origins of the Master's Creative Language", setting his work in the context of his Judaism, early life in Vitebsk (now in Belarus) and experiences as a young artist in Paris. The exhibition includes paintings, graphics, drawings and personal items belonging to Chagall. The signage is in Russian only, and there does not appear to be a catalogue but it is well worth spending an hour here as a number of the works on display are from private collections with no regular access for the public.

I stayed at the Metropol Hotel whilst in Moscow (pictured below). It is a beautiful art nouveau/ style moderne building from the end of the 19th century which among other things features some fabulous external mosaic  murals by Vrubel. The hotel also has an interesting Jewish connection. A suite of rooms formed the original Israeli Embassy in Russia following Israel's independence in 1948. The first ambassador was Golda Meyer. In Martin Gilbert's book "Israel, a history" the author tells how Golda recalled holding an open house every Friday evening in the hope that some of Russia's then 2.5 million Jews would drop in for cakes and tea. Journalist visited as did Jews and non-Jews from other embassies, but no Russians came and no Russian Jews came - out of fear of the regime, which steadfastly maintained there was no "Jewish problem" in Russia and which forbade emigration. We will come to how Golda eventually got to meet Moscow's Jews a little further on.

Moscow by Yekkes

I visited three synagogues during the time I was one in Moscow. I had been to the Choral Synagogue (pictured below) before, back in 2008. This is a building with an interesting history. Before the 1905 revolution, the Tsarist authorities had forbidden the construction of synagogues inside the formerly enclosed Kitai-Gorod area of Moscow and so the Choral was built a short distance from its walls. Austrian architect, Semeon Eibschutz was appointed by Moscow's Jewish community in 1881but had his original plans rejected by the city authorities. His second attempt won approval in 1886 and construction began in May 1887 but the authorities ordered the removal of the completed dome and forbade the exterior image of the scrolls of Moses. Five years later, with the building still not complete, the city again intervened to prevent it opening and it was not until 1906 that the Synagogue eventually began to be used for its intended purpose. In the meantime, Eibschutz died in 1898 and architect Roman Klein was brought in to complete the works.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes

This was the only synagogue to operate throughout the entire Soviet period and was subject to constant surveillance and harassment from the authorities. People were photographed leaving the synagogue and often lost their jobs soon after. Like all religious authorities, the rabbi was required to complete reports for the state on who attended services, how they behaved and what they had said whilst there. To make matters worse, the state occupied parts of the building in both both 1923 and 1960 for non-religious purposes.

Golda Meyer pops up here again. In October 1948 she made an  unauthorised visit to the synagogue for Rosh Hoshanah. Both Golda and the authorities were astounded that around 50,000 people turned up rather than the normal 2,000 at the high holy days, calling out "shalom" and "Golda". This was the most public display of Russian Jewish support for the newly restored State of Israel and she recalled being overwhelmed by the emotional response to her visit - women came to her in the women's gallery to look at her or touch her coat. She remembered being so emotional that she did not know what to say. Bundled into a car to help her extrapolate herself from the crowd, she wound down the window and said in Yiddish "A dank eich dos ibr sent geblieben Yidden ", which means "thank you for remaining Jews". Ten days later she returned to the synagogue for the Yom Kippur service to a reception from another vast crowd. She later recalled that when the rabbi recited the closing words of the service - next year in Jerusalem - "a tremor went through the entire synagogue". It would take a lot longer than one year for most of Russia's Jews to realise their dream of reaching Israel.

On my most recent visit to the Choral synagogue, the service was still progressing and I was unable to take photographs. I was most touched by the scenes inside the main prayer hall with a group of primarily (although not entirely), older men gathered around the bimah to witness the reading of the Torah and waiting to be called up to read themselves.

Eibschutz designed a synagogue that at least from the outside resembled a cathedral. The building is large and imposing, but apart from the Magen Dovid on the dome, it could easily be taken for a church. Despite its size, the building is easily missed from the end of the street and in order to fully appreciate its size and to see the Magen Dovid, one must stand well back on the opposite side of the road - occupying ground formerly frequented by the KGB. The interior is exquisite. The main prayer hall has an extremely beautiful cupola with strong blues and greens and which depicts trees and floral motifs. The synagogue is Ashkenazi and Orthodox but also houses smaller prayer halls for Georgian, Sephardi and Bukharan Jews who follow different traditions.

There are also two Lubavitcher synagogues in the city, both of which I visited. Both have an impressive network of services for their congregations, including various kinds of advice, Hebrew classes, health activity and other support in addition to ministering for the religious wellbeing of the community. The Bronnaya synagogue Agudas Chasidei Chabad (see below) is housed in a striking structure where an older building has been encased in a glass atrium and new towers built with a dominating menorah showing on the exterior. This synagogue once had a theatre as a neighbour. Solomon Mikhoels, the genius and star of the Moscow Yiddish Theatre was linked to it. A convinced atheist and devoted communist, Mikhoels is believed to have been happy when the authorities closed the synagogue in the 1930's. Unfortunately, he was also to fall foul of the regime and to die in suspicious circumstances.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes

Before we leave the synagogues, a word about security. Moscow's synagogues have fairly heavy duty security in response to a series of attacks over a number of years - some fatal. I fully understand and support the need for this type of security but got the feeling that some of these men had watched too many Hollywood movies - check the suits, hairstyles and the severely snarly attitude. I am reliably informed that Russia's burgeoning security industry is largely led by former KGB men and that this was deliberately encouraged and developed in order to prevent them drifting into organised crime.

The aforementioned Solomon Mikhoels was one of Russian Jewry's most interesting and talented characters. Born in what is now Latvia in 1890, he had a stellar career in the theatre before becoming artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre in 1928. He shone in a range of roles including Tevye the Milkman in Sholem Aleichem's play of the same name, as Jewish heroical historical figure Bar Kochba and most famously of all as King Lear in the Yiddish version of Shakespeare's play.

Although Mikhoels was without doubt a major star in the Yiddish Theatre, it is important to note that he was one of many hugely important actors, artists, musicians and designers connected with the company.   Chagall, Nathan Altman, Robert Falk Aleksander Tyshler and Isaac Rabinovich all designed scenery and or playbills and programmes for the theatre. Joseph Achron composed music for the theatre. Isaac Babel wrote screenplays for films made by the theatre whilst the works of writers Isaac Leib Peretz, Sholem Asch, S An-sky and Sholem Aleichem were adapted for the theatre. Hannah Rovina, Benjamin Zuskin and Mikhoels were amongst the theatre's most accomplished actors - Rovina eventually leaving for Tel Aviv where she became the star of the emerging (and still thriving) national theatre there - Habima. The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre had probably the most astonishingly talented group of artists ever assembled in the Soviet Union. Sadly many of them felt obliged to flee the country, were executed or exiled during Stalin's terror that commenced in 1937 and continued in various forms until his death in 1953.

Mikhoels was a key player in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, cynically established by Stalin  during the second world war. Stalin made use of the actor during the war years, sending him to the USA to raise funds, ostensibly to assist and resettle Jews fleeing from German persecution further west. Mikhoels was very persuasive and is known to have raised millions of dollars for this cause. What is also known is that Stalin gratefully received the money but there is no record of any of it being spent on the purpose for which it was raised. Mikhoels was the most prominent member of the Committee. Whilst Stalin was happy to stage show trials for the other leading lights resulting in the execution of all but two of  the Committee members, a show trial for Mikhoels could have been dangerous as he had been extremely close to Stalin. Rather conveniently, he was killed in January 1948 in a hit and run incident in Minsk. It is widely believed that the accident was staged on Stalin's orders. A plaque to Mikhoels (pictured below) can be seen on the facade of the theatre around the corner from the Bronnaya synagogue. His death precursed a significant shift in state policy to one of vigorous anti-semitism with staged trials, the coining of the phrase "rootless cosmopolitans" to describe Jews in order to avoid accusation of racial persecution and complete suppression of Jewish religious and cultural activity.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes

Aside from  Mikhoels, the most famous of the Russian Jewish artists to perish as a result of Stalin's paranoia was probably the poet Osip Mandelstam. Another convinced communist, he became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, wrote a poem critical of Stalin, for which he served time in prison, was tortured and eventually exiled to the freezing far eastern region of Russia where he died of starvation. There is a plaque to Mandelstam on the external wall of the former Writer's Club in Moscow.

And what of today? Moscow is seen as the centre of Jewish life in Russia. Although the community is large compared to other cities in the country, it is tiny compared to the overall population as Moscow is a city of at least 12 million people. There is a revival of Jewish culture, evidenced by the development of the new museum, the themes of exhibitions held elsewhere in the city and the growing Lubavitcher presence in Moscow - all of this despite seven decades of Soviet persecution preceded by centuries of persecution under the previous regime. Svetlana, my guide at the museum told me that many people are rediscovering their Jewish roots or ancestry and that there is almost an element of "trendiness" in discovering a Jewish grandparent. That is an interesting idea, but I am unsure of how valuable or realistic such feelings are to the revival of Jewish culture and religion in this huge city. Witness the security measures felt necessary at the synagogues. Time will tell.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Picture post number seven - Arbovian Street, Yerevan

Armenia 2008 by Yekkes
I visited Yerevan in 2008 as part of a tour of Armenia and Georgia. I landed at 1am at a busy airport in about 35 degrees of heat. Well, it was August. I had arranged a transfer and was driven through the night to my hotel on Arbovian Street, where after calling the middle aged female handy-person to fix my air conditioning, which she did by switching it on - how embarrassing, I collapsed into bed.

After a breakfast that included fresh apricots and a drink of fresh cherry juice I set out to explore. Yerevan is not especially large (about 1.1 million inhabitants) and much of the old city was destroyed in various earthquakes. However, there are still some pockets of elegance from earlier times - or as in the case of this picture, faded elegance.

The wooden framed balcony - clearly too delicate to be used - hangs over a barber's shop on Arbovian Street and gives a clue of how pleasant the city must once have been. It also shows just how alike the Caucasus countries really are - despite their political differences. Old Baku has several of these structures, whilst Tbilsi in Georgia has even more. It is sad that Yerevan has so few left, but look at the picture in this post and then look at this picture from Azerbaijan and you will see the similarity.

I enjoyed Yerevan. There is a National Gallery that contains a number of paintings by Russian artists from the the early 20th century, but the real attraction is the large number of works by Armenia's own Matiros Saryan who was clearly influenced by his "eastern background both in terms of subject matter and colour. There is also an excellent Matiros Saryan House Museum in Saryan Street which all visitors should take the time to see. In addition to the very large collection of his works from a number of years, the house itself is also interesting. The covered bazaar is another great place to visit - it was extremely quiet on the afternoon I strolled along and I was clearly looking good as I was swooped on by many of the traders who wanted me to try apricots cherries, apples, nuts and myriad other items. I bought a kilo of cherries - kept them in the hotel fridge and enjoyed them over four days. Very sweet and very cheap.

Armenia has a strong musical tradition with live folk music being easy to find in restaurants throughout Yerevan, but the city also boats a jazz maestro in the shape of  Levon Malkhassian. Mr Malkhassian has his own jazz club and it is fairly easy to find his recordings in the city. You can here a short sample of his music here. Khatchaturian (sabre dance) was also Armenian whilst the city's musical heritage is further marked by a very striking monument to the composer Arno Babajanian just across fro  the Opera House.

Like their Azeri and Georgian neighbours, the Armenians enjoy an evening passagiata - and the streets were full of families strolling in the late evening and as late as 1 am once the heat began to reduce a little. To coincide with this, many of the cafes remained open late and a musical fountain performance was held most evenings in the city's main square outside the art gallery. Yerevan was a friendly, welcoming city - its hard to believe that four years have gone by since I was there!

Sunday 23 September 2012

Picture post number six - Machane Yehuda Shuk, Jerusalem, Israel

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

I love this picture. I love it because it brings the smells, sounds and excitement of Jerusalem's wonderful Mahane Yehdua shuk (souk in Arabic - market in English). I love the redness of those tomatoes, the richness of the aubergines, the green vegetables and the variously coloured plastic bags!

Most of all I love the way this photograph shows the diversity of Israel's people. The woman with her back to the camera, wearing a headscarf is an Ethiopian Jewish woman - young enough to have been born in Israel, but perhaps also just old enough to have been one of the many thousands of Ethiopian Jews rescued from the danger of the Mengistu regime back in the 1980's and 1990's. The older woman staring at the camera is an Orthodox Jewish woman - recognisable through her "turban" and the "modest" although still colourful clothing. The fair haired woman - who appears to have already selected a number of items - witness the bags on top of what I think are courgettes - could be an Ashkenazi Jew born in, or having made aliyah to  Israel whilst she could just as easily be a Christian tourist.  The stall holder speaking to the woman at the reader's extreme right of the photograph is almost certainly a Mizrachi Jew, that is, of North African or Middle Eastern descent. It is estimated that more than half of Israel's Jewish population can trace ancestors to Morocco, Algeria,  Libya,  Tunisia, Iraq,  Egypt and other countries in the region, before being driven out from the 1940's onwards.

People from these and many other diverse backgrounds come together to shop in the shuk every day (except Saturday of course). There has been a market here since the end of the 19th century when the city was under Ottoman rule. During the period of the British Mandate, sanitary conditions were upgraded and since independence in 1948, the shuk has seen many changes and developments. There are now some smart cafes and restaurants amongst the fruit, vegetable, fish, herbs and spices, as well as specialist Ethiopian and Iraqi food stalls. These developments have made sure that Mahane Yehuda maintains its character as a place where Israelis of all kinds come together to share normal, everyday activities. It is one of the places in the city where Jews and Arabs shop together.

Security measures are in place to guard against terrorist attacks - 23 people were killed in suicide bombings in 1997 and 2002 (including two consecutive bombings on the same day in 1997), whilst a further 282 were injured. As in many other parts of the city, there is a reassuring army presence to make sure the shuk remains a safe and enjoyable place to shop and spend time.

My favourite shuk experiences? Quite seriously, my favourite times in the shuk are when I can wander around, taking in the delicious smells of the spice stalls, munching a pastry or some dried fruits and stopping off for a Turkish coffee in one of the many cafes - I especially like the ones where you can still see old timers playing shesh besh and other games  whilst taking part in some serious coffee drinking! Less familiar visitors can take advantage of a number of  organised tours focusing on different types of food tasting (!)  and which also cover the history of the shuk. The surrounding area, also known as Mahane Yehuda is also a great place to wander and spend time - full of history and character.

The shuk has its own website with lots more information here.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Moscow avant-garde - constructivist architecture and the new Tretyakov Gallery

I am a self confessed Russophile. When planning my recent trip to Azerbaijan, it occurred to me that I could spend a few days in Moscow on the way back, and so a little impulsively I tacked four nights in Moscow on to the end of what was meant to be just one week away in the Caucasus!

Having been before and visited the usual tourist sites - St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin, etc. I decided to do something a little different. There have been a number of Russian themed exhibitions in London recently, including "Building The Revolution" at the Royal Academy and the constructivism exhibition at Tate Modern last year that focused on the works of Rodchenko and Popova. I loved both of these exhibitions and decided to go and take a look at some of the buildings myself, and to have another look at the avant-garde artists of the 1920's and 1930's.

I spent a day and a half touring Moscow by Metro, by bus, by taxi and on foot to track down some of the remaining constructivist buildings which are scattered across the city.  I will write about just a few of them here. Many are in a very poor state of repair - the Narkomfin building and Melnikov's house, probably being in the worst state. Others continue to function, such as the Intourist garage and the Izvestia building, whilst others have been damaged by ugly extensions or other factors.

There seems to be a complete lack of understanding in Moscow about the cultural importance of these buildings and indeed, if nothing else, of their potential financial value were they to be restored (not renovated please note), marketed as tourist attractions, or in the case of Narkomfin, brought into use as private flats (I can hear the architect and the original inhabitants turning in their grave at this, but there appears to be no state willingness to rescue the building which is pretty much derelict). I can see no good reason for this neglect - there is no lack of money in Russia for building projects, although it was proposed to me that constructivism = communism = bad and therefore worthless in the few of many people.  It is ironic that Stalin rejected and suppressed constructivism - it seems fated to be unloved.

In the years immediately following the revolution of 1917, architecture and the arts generally were used to try to shape a new society, one built on communal living. Built in 1930, the Narkomfin is a prime example of this. It included communal cooking facilities and a dining room, a somewhat bourgeois rooftop swimming pool (!) - communal laundry and showering facilities, library, and gymnasium. Of the 54 flats in the building, none (at least legally) had their own kitchen. However, the Soviet utopia showed cracks fairly early on and Stalin specifically disliked the Narkomfin, referring to it as "Trotsykist". It is located at 25 Novinskii Bulvar.

The main body of the Narkomfin is not especially beautiful but its iconic balconies (pictured below and which would not be out of place in Tel Aviv) and its communal dining facility give clues to how it once looked. Jewish architect Moisei Ginsburg designed the Narkomfin, as well as being a writer and teacher. He was enthusiastic about Le Corbusier's philosophy and must have been thrilled when the Swiss architect  listed the Narkomfin as one of his own sources of inspiration. Ginzburg initially resisted the state pressure to turn back to historicism in architecture, going so far as to speak in defence of artistic independence for an hour at the first Congress of Soviet Architects in 1937, but like many others, he too eventually took discretion to be the better part of valour and conformed.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Balconies of the Narkofin building
The Narkomfin is my personal favourite Constructivist building in Moscow, but I also have a strong admiration for the works of architectural genius Konstantin Melnikov. Melnikov worked for the regime designing a number of workers' clubs, bus garages and of course, his own private residence in the Arbat quarter. He won a competition to build a number of workers' clubs across Moscow. The clubs were an important part of the regime's plans to collectivise society, providing education, propaganda and community centre functions for workers living in the vicinity.

The Rusakov Workers' Club is, to say the least, an extremely unusual building, with three cantilevered sections at the front holding seating areas but which could also be used as completely independent halls or linked together to seat 1000 people. I understand that the current drab colours were not the original, but a clue to a more vibrant look can be found at the rear where some areas of red remain! It is unlikely that such a building could have been constructed much later than this as by 1930 Stalin wished to move to a more historicist (and less interesting or challenging) style. Melnikov designed no further buildings for the state and retired from architecture in 1933.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Rusakov Workers' Club
One of his most striking works - the Intourist Bus Garage (pictured below) was completed after his retirement in 1934. The facade of the garage is retained today but Melnikov had plans for a much grander structure than even this. Unfortunately his plans were not deemed appropriate and a dull looking wing was added to the building to complete it. The garage is still used by Intourist and can be found at Suchevsky Val Street 33. Although it may be a little worse for ware, the garage is still in use and is in a much happier condition than Melnikov's own house at Krivarbatskii Pereulok 17. The house is locked and appears deserted. It has been the subject of a protracted legal battle including Melnikov's (now dead) son to his first wife and Melnikov's final, much younger wife who is since remarried to an extremely wealthy businessman. Her new husband has purchased the adjacent land, and built mock "old" houses on it. The vibrations from those building works caused significant damage to the house. The garden is badly overgrown so its hard even to take decent photographs now and the sign stating the house to be under government protection seems to be fairly meaningless.

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Intourist Bus Garage
The architect described his house as consisting of two cylinders, one eleven metres high, the other eight metres, intersecting for one third of their diameters. The internal space is allocated to three near circular spaces dedicated respectively to sleeping, living and working. Melnikov described the ground floor kitchen and dining area as the "stomach" of the house, the first floor bedroom and living room as its "heart" and the top floor studio as its "brain". The hexagonal windows were designed to cast light that is both intense and even in line with his belief that a good sleep depends on the quality and amount of available light. He would be somewhat distressed today as most of the natural light must have been blocked by the overgrown garden and adjoining structures. He was heavily criticised both for the design and for the idea of having a large private space which was completely against the prevailing philosophy if not the law. Thankfully, he seems not to have cared!

A much lesser known building is the former dormitory and club of the Markhlevsky Communist University of Ethnic Minorities (pictured below). Located at Petroverigsky Lane 8/6, this beauty was built between 1929 and 1931 and was a designed by the architect Dankman. The original plans had a communal dining area and other shared facilities as well as the dormitory. Although not in the same state as the Narkomfin, it is in poor shape but according to the external sign, it is being used for student accommodation.
Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes
Former club and dormitory of the Markhlevsky Communist University of  Ethnic Minorities
There is an excellent book on the architecture of the constructivist and other twentieth century styles in Moscow - "1920-1960 Moscow Architecture Guide Book" by Natalia and Anna Bronovitskaya, published by Giraffe in 2006. I have been unable to track a copy down. Let me know if you find one!

The Tretyakov Museum's collection of Russian avant-garde art from the 1920's and 30's has to be the best of its kind. Until recently it was housed at the beautiful Tretyakov building in Lavrushinksy Lane with the museum's extensive holdings of earlier Russian art, including a magnificent collection of icons, religious and historical paintings. The avant-garde works are now housed in the new Tretyakov in a major development at Kultury Park.

The collection is breathtaking with room after room of some of the best and most original art ever produced. The first room is given over to the early works of Goncharova and Larionov and includes a textual summary in English as well as Russian. The early years of the twentieth century and indeed the years immediately following the Revolution were a period of immense creativity and also artistic freedom in Russia. The series of exhibition rooms tracks progress from this early flowering, through the darker days of the early 1930's and then the eventual total state control of artistic expression and the official turning against the avant-garde as the 1930's came to a close.

Peacock Bright Sunlight by Natalia Goncahrova

This first room includes Goncharova's "Peacock -Bright Sunlight" from 1911 (left) and "Parrots" from 1910. I was struck by the "bigness" of the paintings. Although not particularly physically large, they dominated the room for me with the "thick" paint and tropical colours, whilst Larionov's "The Waitress" of 1911 also stopped me in my tracks. I can't imagine a work of this nature being allowed in the later 1930's. It shows a well dressed customer standing rather too close to a waitress. There are very strong sexual overtones to the painting - he almost touching her, her with one hand tucked behind her back and the other safely in her pocket, but her expression clearly wanting the closeness. The class differences between the two are obvious and in the background, its possible to make out the scandalised faces of the other cafe customers.

Jews on the Street by Natalia Gocharova
There are a number of Goncharova's paintings of peasants, but I was particularly struck by her "Jews on a Street" (right) of 1912, showing three Jewish women of different ages, two with heads covered and the third a dark haired almost-beauty. Bread, fishes and wine can be seen in the background - for me these are strong Christian references, but who knows what the artist meant by them? 

Amongst the highlights of my visit was seeing Rodchenko's "Workers' Club" of 1925, complete with functional red wooden seating, racks for the display of journals, angled reading desks and even special seating with a built-in chess board for keen players! This particular plan was never realised but it is not hard to see the influence his proposals have had on a number of current designers, including some involved in library design. I would have been very happy to have been able to sit down, take a magazine or a book from the rack and pass several hours relaxing. There was also to have been a "Lenin corner" featuring his portrait and no doubt copies of his speeches - at least the non-realisation of this project spared the workers that!

Lyubov Popova has a number of works on display - including some graphic work. Many Russian artists of the early 20th century were involved in costume and theatre design as well as painting. Popova's "Costume for actor number 5" (1921), for a play called the Magnanimous Cuckold is an example of this multi disciplinary approach by artists of the period. The character's name is re-assuringly Soviet!

The graphic collection is enormous and also includes some interesting works by Sergey Senkin -  a photomontage from the late 1920's entitled "City", Yuri Yurkun's watercolour "Ladies and cavaliers" of 1935 Alexander Tyshler's two works from 1930 "Decreed to take off the veil" and "Listening about the veil". I like these not just because they are great works of art in themselves, but also because they describe the changing political mood in the Soviet Union  from the early 1920's to the late 1930's. Tyshler's works show central asian women listening to a commissar telling them that they were being liberated from their veils by the State - a real historic event and there are photographs and memoirs describing the ritual burning of the veils. It is intriguing that having disposed of them back in the 1930's, then being liberated from Communism twenty years ago, there is a movement to put them back on in some parts of Central Asia. These countries exchanged one kind of oppression for another back in the 1930's. History has a habit of repeating itself.

Senkin's photomontage of skyscrapers and street scenes illustrates the high hopes many people had in the early 1920's in the Soviet Union. It seems to express a new optimism when technology would bring many benefits. As we know the optimism was short lived and Yurkun's watercolour from 1935, a coquettish image of "lades" and "gentlemen" flirting with each other is probably one of the last times such an image would scrape by as acceptable under Stalin. Recent writings about Yurkun, indicating a long time intimate relationship with poet Mikhail Kuzmin may also give additional meaning to the picture - perhaps redefining it as a challenge to the virulent persecution of homosexuals and others deemed anti-Soviet under the communist regime.

Self-portrait - Nathan Altman
Self portrait - Nathan Altman

Two of my favourite artists are also featured in the exhibition. Armenian Matiros Saryan was heavily influenced by his cultural heritage. He has four works on display at the moment and two of them - "Old Yerevan" and "My Family" especially demonstrate his commitment to his background. The main art gallery in Yerevan has a great collection of his works as does the Saryan House Museum, also in Yerevan.

My other favourite - Nathan Altman - is represented here by a self-portrait from 1912 (right), a depiction of a "Provincial town square, Minsk" from 1926 and a surprising sculpted self-portrait from 1916, entitled "Young Jew" complete with side locks!

I pretty much had the gallery to myself. Whilst this was great for me, this would not have been the case at the old location. The nearest metro station is Kultury Park which is a fifteen minutes walk over the Moscow River to the new site. There are no signs to help you get there and when you do reach the park there are road works everywhere - not exactly welcoming. The new home is very Soviet style - massive with huge un-used spaces (maybe there are plans), a cafe that isn't open and a tiny kiosk for a book shop. I sincerely hope they haven't made a mistake by moving this showpiece collection here. Come on Tretyakov - get it sorted! And please, not the ghastly coffee urn stuff you are selling at the old Tretyakov - yes, I spotted the wretched new urn at Kultury Park. For goodness sake!

Moscow is one of the largest cities in the world. These treasures represent just a tiny fraction of what the city holds (and often hides). I am continually struck by the overwhelming creativity of the Russians, despite their inhospitable climate and their terrible history. The Tretyakov's collection and the wonderful buildings I visited represent a very short period in Russian and Muscovite history. Future posts will look at other areas. You can see more pictures from Moscow here.

Friday 21 September 2012

Baku - boom town architecture, a jazz maestro and a haunting ancient city

Baku is an oil town. It has twice benefited from oil booms that have impacted on and redefined the way the city looks. The first boom came at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the proceeds of which helped finance some extremely striking private residences collectively known as the "oil baron's mansions". My favourite is the Hajinksi Mansion (pictured below), which has a view of Baku's bay, enabling today's occupants to keep an eye on the current oil boom,  as they can see the platforms from their front windows!

The house, completed in 1912, was built for Isa Bey Hajinski, a wealthy land owner, who discovered oil on his property. It has five storeys and was once one of the city's tallest buildings. It also sports limestone carvings on the facade together with a number of very attractive decorative elements. There are fantastic views of the house from the top of the nearby Maiden's Tower in the old city. Hajinski died before the Bolsheviks took power and his three sons fled to the west following the revolution. During the Soviet period the house was divided into several apartments and in 1944 General de Gaulle stayed here on his way from Tehran to Moscow where he had an appointment with Stalin.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Another wonderful building from this period, also with an interesting story is the Muktarov Palace, built in neo-Gothic style, also in 1912. It was designed by the Polish architect Josef Plosko and was a gift from oil baron Murtaza Mukhtarov to his non-Muslim Ossetian born wife, Lisa Tuganov. Legend has it that on a trip to France they saw a beautiful Gothic building which inspired Lisa to say that whoever lived there must be happy. Taking the hint Mukhtarov had an exact replica produced in Baku before taking his wife there in a carriage and announcing it was hers!

Unlike Hajinksi, Mukhtarov lived to see the arrival of the Bolsheviks - although not for very long. Following the revolution of 1917, part of the house was occupied by the organisation of "Liberated Turkic Women" but the family also remained in residence. When the Bolsheviks came to Azerbaijan in 1920, Mukhtarov resisted giving up ownership and when soldiers came to commandeer the house, he shot three of them before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. The building is now used to register marriages. 

The Mammadov residence is in the heart of the old city. Completed in just one year, 1908-9 and designed by architect Nikolai Georgiyevich Bayev, it was restored by the Mobil company in 1996, working from old drawings and photographs since many of the original features and furnishings had been destroyed or stolen. Less externally ornate than either the Hajinski or Mukhtarov residences, the Mammadov house has a beautiful enclosed wooden balcony, in keeping with the traditional Azeri style houses in the old city. I understand the interior has a grand staircase with superb murals on either side. Mammadov himself escaped the Bolsheviks to Poland and then disappeared. The house went through the usual routine of being subdivided into flats but only after serving as government offices and as a nursery.

Also worth a look is the superb building that houses the Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature, situated on the edge of the central Fountain Square (a vast public space which attracts thousands of visitors every day and upon which several important streets converge) and is just a stone's throw away from the old city. This building started life in 1850 as a single storey caravanserai before passing to the Metropol Hotel in 1915 when a second story was added. It assumed its current purpose in 1939 (although it did not open its doors as a museum until 1945). The exterior features a number of statues of great Azeri writers and has a striking white and blue contrast design whilst one of the side entrances has retained a brightly coloured "oriental" feature around the doorway (pictured below). The ground floor has a book shop that stocks books in English as well as Azeri and Russian.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990's, Baku became capital of a newly independent Azerbaijan and after some extremely difficult initial years, the city is enjoying a boom period. New buildings are going up everywhere, some mere pastiches of neo-classical buildings whilst others are frighteningly close to Soviet style architecture at its worst. However, there are also many stunning examples of new architecture, not least the "Flames" (pictured below) - three enormous towers that loom over the city and can be seen from just about everywhere. Not yet occupied, one will be the local branch of the Fairmont Hotel, another an office and business complex and the third a government building. At night, the "Flames" are lit (!) electronically and show a series of graphics including the waiving of the Azerbaijani flag and a yellow and red burning effect.
Azerbaijan by Yekkes

There are many other new structures - the soon to be opened Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre designed by Zaha Hadid (although the roof is already being replaced due to a fire) and the Crystal Hall which hosted this year's Eurovision Song Contest. This oil financed building boom is one of the main reasons that Baku is now sometimes referred to as the Dubai of the Black Sea. I've never been, so I couldn't comment. Its not on my list.

Speaking of books, I read the Azeri classic - Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said, before coming to Baku. It is a fast moving, episodic and extremely readable story about the romance between Ali, an Azeri Muslim and Nino, a young woman from a notable Georgian, Christian family. It makes several references to the politics of the time - the story is set at the beginning of the 20th century and includes Azerbaijan's very brief period of independence in 1920. It also mentions the Shirvanshah Palace in the old city and a number of other well known sites. The identity of the author is a bit of a mystery, with several theories about his real identity. Less of a mystery is the success of the book shop that shares the name of the novel. There are two branches - one just off Fountain Square and another on the busy pedestrianised Nizami Street. The chain also has a small but cosy, period furnished cafe of the same name which is decorated with scenes from the book. It too is also just off Fountain Square.

I recently discovered the wonderful music of jazz pianist Vigaf Mustafa-Zadeh. He fused jazz with mugham - a local traditional musical form which is also popular in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Vigaf was at the height of his creativity during the Soviet years. Jazz was considered to be western and somewhat decadent and he was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet authorities.

The old city of Baku is home to a small but fascinating house museum to his memory. Tucked away in a very narrow, and apparently un-named alley of the Icheri Sheher (old city), the house is marked with a small plaque to tell intrepid travellers that this is where the maestro once lived. Yasine, my excellent guide, is extremely knowledgeable about the old city but even he hadn't been before and had to ask several locals before we found someone who knew the museum. I was very grateful that he persevered. We were shown up the stairs by a slightly nervous, but smiling museum keeper who proceeded to tell us about Vagif's life, drawing our attention to the exhibits with the help of a Soviet style pointer!

The exhibition is housed in three rooms of what was a shared apartment and acted as home to three families. The walls are covered in photographs of the musician's family, including his mother who had a musical background and his two daughters - Aziza who is also a jazz performer and daughter of his second wife, whilst Lala is an award winning classical musician and daughter of his first wife. There are some posters advertising his concerts, a haunting painting of Vagif  which dominates the second room of the exhibition and most charmingly, his little mono record player and some of his record collection. Its a small museum, but well worth a visit and you can even buy a CD of his recording before you leave. And of course, I bought it. My favourite piece of his is Baku Night - you can hear it by clicking on the link below.

Incidentally, Yasine also helped me find some other CDs that I wanted - collections by Azeri greats, Rubabe Muradova and Shovket Alekbarova. Thanks for all of your help Yasine - including in researching the oil baron's houses!

The Icheri Shehar has many other attractions. Deemed to be a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is now protected and therefore secure from inappropriate development. The Shirvanshah's Palace was commissioned by Sheikh Ibrahim I in the 15th century. The attractive courtyard (pictured below) at the entry leads to an initial gallery with a map of the Shirvanshah empire and a family tree, establishing context for the visitor.  The palace houses a collection of artefacts from the times of the Shirvanshahs as well as a very simple, but starkly beautiful private mosque and burial place of a Sufi mystic - Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, who worked as a tutor to the Shirvanshah children. The palace is arranged on two levels - the upper being closed when I visited.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

The Maiden's Tower, Baku's most distinctive landmark (perhaps until the arrival of the Flames?), overlooks the Caspian Sea which once reached its walls. The current tower dates from the 12th century, but there is general disagreement over its origins. Visitors can climb to the very top to view the city, look out across the Caspian and see the oil platforms and best of all for me to get a really good view of the Hajinski house. The climb to the top is quite demanding up a narrow, circular and steep set of stairs.  Is it worth the climb? Definitely, but take it slowly and mind your head - the ceiling is quite low at some points! At the time of my visit the tower was being cleaned and was wrapped in scaffolding, so no pictures this time I'm afraid.

Yasine told me one of the many stories attached to the Tower. An invading army was about to take the city when its leader offered to turn back his troops if the ruler would hand his daughter to him in marriage. In order to save the city and his subjects, he reluctantly agreed and his daughter was married to the invader. She set one condition - that she be allowed to dance on the roof of the tower at her wedding. Her wish granted, she promptly threw herself to her death, having fulfilled her promise of marriage. The invaders withdrew and never returned to the city. This story would make a good opera - the romance of it!

The Icheri Shehar is also home to many other historical monuments - a hamam, two caravanserai, the ruins of an early Christian church, a number of mosques and a set of museums.  But best of all is simply strolling the streets, exploring the narrow alleys and being taken by surprise at each new delight as you turn another corner. Once again, I think another visit is on the cards!

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Sunday 16 September 2012

Clouds over the Caucasus - Travelling in Azerbaijan

I visited Armenia and Georgia in 2008, but chose not to go to neighbouring Azerbaijan as the wounds of the Armenia/ Azerbaijan conflict were still raw and a visa in your passport for one of the two countries made it extremely difficult to visit the other one. Things are quieter now and I have been planning this trip for some time, but that didn't stop me being asked a number of questions about my visit to Armenia in 2008 before, satisfied I was a bona fide tourist, I was waived through immigration at Baku, with a passport stamp and a smile.

The plan was to spend some time in Baku but also to see some other parts of the country, including a beautiful town in the north, called Sheki. I spent the first night in Baku - exhausted after a four hours flight to Moscow, six hours waiting in transit and then another three hours flying to Azerbaijan. I dumped my stuff and headed for the old city, foolishly really as I was already dead on my feet. My initial excursion into the centre lasted all of one hour as I felt I would fall asleep in the street and to make matters worse it started to rain heavily. So back to the hotel and to sleep.

However, that short trip to the old city was fascinating in itself. Boarding a bus to the nearest metro station (named January 20th in honour of the fallen peaceful protestors on this date in 1990 when Gorbachov sent the Soviet army in to quell a feared rebellion), I asked the driver to tell me when to get off. Very few Azeris speak English and I was a little worried I hadn't made myself understood. My Azeri consists of one word - chaihor, which means tea addict, rather than someone who does it for a cup of tea - so I was a bit limited. No need to worry. A young man who had heard the exchange not only reminded the driver to tell me when we had reached my stop, but he also pointed out the somewhat obscure entrance to the Metro station for me.

This treatment continued when, struggling with loading up a travel card with coins, an elderly woman took control and completed the exercise for me and two passengers on my train escorted me to the correct platform at the interchange having seen me pondering the intricacies of the station named November 28th. I was very pleasantly pleased. The pleasant pleasing continued when I noticed that although the train was full, whenever a woman got on, at least one man would stand to offer, nay insist on her taking his seat. This was usually followed up with an initial demure refusal followed by a nice sit down.

I will write more about Baku in a further post but first I want to write about Sheki - a small town in a beautiful setting which is little known, but waiting to be discovered. About a six hours drive to the north of Baku and enjoying a much more temperate climate, Sheki's prime attraction (at least for me) is the extremely beautiful and carefully restored Emir's Sarai (palace). A complete riot of colour with stained glass windows, geometric designs, floral motifs and in contravention of Islamic law, miniatures featuring representations of humans and animals, the interior of the Sarai is mesmerising. Everywhere I looked there was something to draw me to examine the walls, the ceilings or the windows in more detail.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

The exterior is also extremely ornate and colourful, but somewhat understated in comparison. Again, geometric shapes and many different colours are used to stunning effect. The Sarai dates from the 18th century and most interestingly of all,  it was built without a single nail. The stained glass windows are made by placing hand cut pieces of glass into a complex wooden-slatted frame.

Photographs are allowed of the exterior of the building but are strictly forbidden inside. It is possible to buy a small set of frankly poor quality "postcards" for 5 manats inside the gift shop or a well illustrated book which includes English text for the princely sum of 80 manats - which was too expensive for me (about 65 pounds). A third option is a poorly illustrated Soviet style (and dated?) publication on all of Sheki's attractions. A little effort in producing something of much better quality at a reasonable price would pay dividends in terms of income generation - but this is a small quibble. The Sarai was one of my main reasons for visiting Azerbaijan. There was some doubt that it was open to visitors, but it was open, and it was a real highlight for me.

The fortified grounds of the Sarai include two museums, one in a former religious building which is well maintained and the other in a less well preserved soviet style structure. The collections are described as "ethnographical" and include some traditional costumes, musical instruments and everyday  
items from Sheki homes, photographs of famous people originating in Sheki and a moving section on the town's contribution to the Great Patriotic War (World War Two), where over 10,000 townspeople lost their lives.

There is one other "attraction" in the grounds of the Sarai - the so-called "wolf man". For one manat, the fur hatted elderly gent will allow you to take his photograph together with his stuffed wolf, having switched on the electric "red eyes" in his little friend first. Bizarre? Yes. Did I part with one manat? Of course. I am told he considers himself the only human ever to have benefited from a wolf. Mmm.

Baku has many expensive and sophisticated shops. Sheki has a bustling, noisy, sprawling bazaar. I saw fruit, nuts and vegetables, meat and poultry, live animals, mouse traps, brooms made from twigs, electrical goods, household items and clothing. I was delighted to see (and buy) some of Sheki's famous sweet halva. It is sold from enormous piella style pans at a ridiculously low price (4 manats for a massive box), which I was only too happy to take advantage of, supplemented by a healthy half kilo of dried apricots for even less, while my guide bought a huge bag of walnuts, a smaller bag of hazelnuts and a phenomenal number of eggs to take home on our return to Baku.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

The bazaar is not for the feint-hearted. As well as some very sad live poultry, sitting with legs tied together waiting to be sold (and not for their eggs), you can see trays of offal and also severed sheep heads for use in cooking. Portobello Market it certainly is not, but I enjoyed the experience - again, the people were very friendly - men and women greeting me with a "salaam" and lots of people wanting to know where I was from. I also noticed an elderly man with a prayer mat spread out underneath his stall where he was saying his afternoon prayers whilst the market was in full swing.

Sheki is set in a very green valley and wherever you are, you only need to look up to see the mountains that surround the town. The effect of the very green hills against the almost uniform red slate roofs of the  mainly single storey houses is very striking. But not as striking as the constant clean white clouds that drift across and down the hills and mountains, creating a mystical effect and making it easy to believe that you might be in a different time, far away from the present. There is something hypnotic about these clouds that hang over the Caucasus and I tried, largely in vain, to capture that mood in my photographs.

Speaking of a different time, I met, quite by chance, four veterans of the Great Patriotic War whilst in Sheki. There is a panoramic viewing platform overlooking the city and it was here that I saw the four elderly men being filmed by Russian television for a TV show. They were extremely charming and friendly and through my guide told me that their oldest comrade was called Farukh. Farukh is 93. He survived the siege of Leningrad and also fought in Finland. Like his colleagues he was very be-medalled. He told me that he still plays the oud and that he would be playing for the television programme. Another one was anxious to tell me that his son had studied at Cambridge University. It occurred to me that his son could well be 70 years old. It was an unexpected pleasure to meet these four men who are part of a very rapidly reducing remnant of people who experienced those terrible times.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

The centre of Sheki boasts two caravanserai, one of which has been converted into an hotel with a series of craft and souvenir shops around the outside. The courtyard of the hotel is beautiful with an ornamental garden and seating which some of the rooms look down onto. The shops mainly sell a range of silk and woollen items, various souvenirs and trinkets as well as one shop that sells handmade wooden instruments. There is also a small and friendly post office adjacent to the caravanserai, so you can send your postcards home from here.

The village of Kish is just a short, but bumpy drive from Sheki and is home to what is claimed to be the oldest church in the Caucasus. Known as the Albanian Church - no links with the Balkan state of Albania - but named for a different ethnic minority that inhabited these parts in the middle ages), it has been lovingly restored through the efforts of local people working closely with a Norwegian charity linked to author Thor Heyerdahl. There is some dispute about the age and origins of the church but several sources date it from the 12th or 13th century. There are stories that link the site both with the apostle, Thaddeus and also with the prophet Elijah. No longer working as a church - there are no Christians living in modern day Kish - local people still recognise it as a shrine and cherish it both for its historical and spiritual significance and because of the work it has brought in the wake of foreign visitors. A great example of tourism bringing benefits to local people rather than destroying environments.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Next stop - Baku!