A bit of Baku center city,a quest

Saturday morning, Shabbat for the observant , means going to the synagogue. So, some of the group did that and some of us broke into small groups and headed out to explore the central areas of Baku. I was in search of old or “antiq” jewelry as souvenirs. In Iran and in Turkey I had found places that had odds and ends of old, usually silver-ish traditional style necklaces and earrings. This sort of thing is perfect to bring home- low intrinsic value, small and light. Baku being a very old city gave me hope that there might be a source of interesting stuff. I was ready for the hunt.

Three of us headed out to explore the Old City area, where our hotel is located. It is a hilly part of Baku, but not far from the Caspian Sea. I had asked everyone I encountered about where to look and one after another I got a vague wave of the hand and the comments “in the Old City”, somewhere. There are quite a few small shops selling souvenir craft stuff, ceramics from Turkey, small machine made carpets and shiny fake-looking jewelry items. One guy had some old stuff, but it wasn’t really anything I’d use and his price was way too high ( $150 for one that needed repair). I kept dragging my small band from shop to shop. They were patient and understanding – a quest is important when traveling, it gives you a focus for asking questions and interacting with people.  

As we walked along music started, and we walked a bit faster towards the sound. People were standing on a section of wall dancing with their arms in the air and wide smiles on their faces! Down the slope a bit there were more people dancing to the music, in a long line. It started, and then it ended and everyone left. I have no idea what it meant, but it seemed joyous and that is always good.                

I did manage to find a guy who sold me some silver bangles with interesting inscribed patterns. He said that they were “old” but the lack of signs of wear left me unconvinced. Still, my quest was somewhat resolved,not totally satisfactorily. Oddly enough, it was time for lunch and one of my small band had researched food options in Baku before leaving for the trip and suggested a place not in the Old City but not far away. We encountered another small group and decided to head out to lunch together. The kebab place turned out to have excellent food and we enjoyed ourselves. On the way back to the hotel there was a distraction- a shop selling knock-offs of famous designer clothes and accessories. Some of us were more drawn to this display than others, but somehow we all managed to be entertained by the bright colors.

Back at the hotel, the schedule said that at 3 the group was walking to the Carpet Museum and Modern Art Museum, but when we arrived back at 2, much of the group was assembled in the Atrium listening to a woman who apparently was from the office of the President talking about  religious freedom in Azerbaijan. I ducked out and headed to my room to reconnect with Bill who had been out walking along the Caspian for a few hours. We decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and hang out in the sunlit atrium of the hotel and catch up on writing and reading. After a bit, I felt like some tea and walked over to the small cafe off of the hotel lobby. I asked for two cups of tea and maybe a piece of their version of baklava. The waiter brought it to us ,including a plate of 4 pieces of the nutty delicious cake(that’s how it comes, apparently).  We didn’t mean to, but he brought it and we ate it!

Dinner was at a converted caravansary down the street and then we were going to experience celebrating Purim at the “European” synagogue, a bus ride away. A caravansary was a particular kind of building which was designed to function as  a stable for camels, a hotel for the traveling traders and a kind of hall for trading goods from their caravans.I first saw a caravansary in the south desert area of Iran, out in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. The color of the stone from which it was made was just the same as the desert all around, so it blended in to the surroundings very well.

This caravansary is different , in a city rather than the desert is a very big difference. On a high part of the Old City, and about a quarter mile from the Caspian Sea, I could imagine a string of camels trudging up the cobblestones and under the archway into the courtyard of the caravansary. Our dining room was down in a stone basement with an arched ceiling. A long table was set for our large party of 30+. The evening took a detour due to the celebration of the birthday of one of the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which included a delicious cake and surprise musicians. They had local instruments and also sang. Everyone got involved in dancing to Hava Nagila deep under Baku! With a lot of good energy surging through our group, we descended the hill and boarded our bus for the Purim celebration.

The synagogue is Orthodox, with a central bima, or raised platform for reading from the Torah, and a balcony for the women. Not my cup of tea, but for Purim, women were allowed downstairs, with screens were erected lest men see women dancing and enjoying themselves. We arrived while the Megillah, the story of how Esther saved the Jews of old Persia and defeated the evil advisor to the King,by the name of Haman was still being read. The tradition is that each time the name Haman is read, the assembled crowd boos and bangs on things and tried to drown out his name. And there can be drinking involved.And then, there is loud music and dancing. I hadn’t been to a Purim celebration since my sons were young and it was fun, for a while.

Bill and I retired to the waiting bus and met up with a few others who had decided that enough was enough for that evening. Another day in Baku. Tomorrow we go to meet the “Mountain Jews” in Quba.


Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 4:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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