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Baku: The City of Ali and Nino on - The Best Documentaries... Instantly On Demand

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At turn of the 20th Century Baku was an astonishing place. An outpost of the Russian Empire on the Caspian Sea, its newly-minted local and foreign oil tycoons had transformed the city from a sleepy oriental trading-post in the desert into a throbbing international city. A bloody revolution resulted in a brief shining period of democracy before it was crushed by the Bolsheviks. Baku’s history has imprinted a colourful tapestry on this city.

“I went up to the flat roof, from there I could see my world." The massive wall of the town's fortress, Arabic inscriptions at the gate. Inside the wall the streets were narrow and curved, like oriental daggers. Minarets pierced the mild moon. Through the labyrinth of streets camels were walking, their ankles so delicate I wanted to caress them”, says Ali Khan as he looks over the glorious city of Baku.

In 1970, writer Paul Theroux discovered a lost treasure, Kurban Said’s epic love story Ali and Nino. Their love breached class, religion, and ethnicity and documented Baku’s most tumultuous period. Built on the philanthropy of its oil tycoons, Baku at the turn of the century was “like a mixture between medieval Baghdad, Al Capone’s Chicago, and the Paris of the east. It was literally the most extraordinary place. An irrepressible, exciting, fascinating, cosmopolitan kaleidoscope”, says historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore.

But with wealth came inequality. Life was bleak for the oil workers living in the so-called, ‘Black City’. Crime was rife, and the place was alive with the sparks of revolution. As events in the world began to turn, and the great powers were exhausted by war and revolution, the local forces in Baku made their moves. As different ethnic groups fought it out the city suffered. But in September 1918 secular and progressive Azeris were able to proclaim the birth of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. “Calling this territory Azerbaijan for the first time was very important for national identity. At last people thought of themselves as masters of their own land”, says historian Irada Bagirova.

For almost two years democracy flourished, before it was cruelly and viciously extinguished by the Bolshevik thirst for Baku’s oil. With the fall of democratic Baku, Ali and Nino’s love was extinguished. “The life of our republic has come to an end, as has the life of Ali Khan”, wrote Said, as Ali fell on the battlefield, defending his home.

Under Soviet control for 70 years, Baku is now rediscovering its former glory as it draws on its position as the bridge between east and west, and its rich and varied history


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