A century-old former temple in central Baku has become a symbol of the clash between supporters of Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage and efforts to modernize the city.
Salaam Cinema Baku, a cultural organization that seeks to preserve and publicize independent cinema and other art forms, is spearheading protests against plans by the old building’s private owner to demolish and replace the building, once the temple for an Orthodox Christian splinter group.
More than 100 protestors began occupying the building, including overnight, beginning May 2 — the first “occupy” protest in Azerbaijan. The mostly young protestors played musical instruments, ate snacks and drank water and juice, including supplies sent in by supporters outside.
The temple is an ancient gray building with an ornate façade, located on Baku’s Suleyman Rustam Street. The building attracts attention with its unusual architectural features. It combines eclecticism and minimalism. The building dates to 1913, when it was built as a prayer house for Molokans, who moved to Baku under pressure from Tsarist Russia.
Members of the sect were an active community, with religious holidays and meetings held at their prayer house. Later, during the Soviet period, the building was converted into a radio station.
“When you walk inside the building, the old smell of the walls and the air gives you the feeling of kinship,” Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a young activist, who posted on Facebook to express her support for the young people to save the building.
The building's history since Azerbaijan achieved independence is unclear. At times, various offices were housed in the building, but eventually it became nearly empty and appeared to be neglected.
In January, a newly formed cultural organization, Salaam Cinema Baku, began renting the building and holding performances, exhibitions, discussions and trainings.
The occupy movement began when the local authorities and the owner of the building demanded that Salaam Cinema leave the building, so it could be demolished. The prospect of demolition mobilized the young artists. A spokesperson for the Nasimi District Executive Power told Meydan TV that the building needs to be evacuated because of its unsafe condition. No official notification has been presented to the cinema members though.
Rob Rombout, a film director invited as an official guest of European Tolerance Festival to hold a workshop on tolerance at the building, told Meydan TV that the lights were cut off and the building was about to be demolished in the middle of his workshop.
“This is the first time I did the workshop and they tried to break up the walls," Rombout told Meydan TV after the incident.
Salaam says it should leave the building on 15 June, according to its contract. But the owner claims the organization is staying in the building illegally.
Bahruz Ahmedov, the authorized representative of the building owner, told Report that Salaam Cinema Baku “has no contract."
“We have not signed any agreement with their representative; they entered the building without permission," Ahmedov was quoted as saying.
Salaam Cinema says it will not stop the protest until the building is safe and is included in the state’s list of historic buildings.
“We are concerned about the few historical monuments left in the city. We have to do our best to protect the building,” a cinema team member, who asked to remain anonymous, told Meydan TV.
According to members of Salaam Cinema, several attempts have been made to destroy parts of the building while protestors were occupying it.
Supporters, including public figures and current representatives of the Molokans living in Baku, have visited the building and expressed their support to the cinema members.
Veteran diplomat Hikmat Hajizada in his May 8 Facebook post said, “The lights were off but each of the young people there were shining out. I said salaam. I got salaam. I became proud of these youth. Our democracy won’t die, break down."
İlgar Mammadov, former political prisoner and chair of the opposition REAL party, told journalists after the visit to the Molokan temple that he is amazed by the atmosphere created by young people of the Salaam Cinema, whom he sees as the future of Azerbaijan.
“Young people from a majority-Muslim country came together to save the historic Christian temple in Baku from demolition," political analyst Rashad Shirin said, calling the movement “simply amazing." He thinks the young people’s objection to the demolition of the building is not just about the protection of the city’s history, but also it shows “the true spirit of multicultural Baku is alive."
Salaam Cinema wrote an open letter to first lady and vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva to ask for help.
Aliyeva in a post on Instagram said that all necessary measures will be taken to prevent damage to the country's cultural heritage.
“Preservation of the architectural and historical heritage of Azerbaijan and its capital Baku is a priority for all of us. For its solution, both civil position and people’s reaction that they are not indifferent to the image of their hometown, and active public control are needed. The situation around the ancient building in Baku's Suleyman Rustam street is under the state’s control,” Aliyeva said.
Leyli Gafarova, official representative of the Salaam Cinema Baku, has said vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva’s reaction “came as a surprise.”
“To be honest, we did not expect such an early reaction to our problem. We are very pleased with the response from Mehriban Aliyeva,” Gafarova was quoted as saying.
In Azerbaijan, addressing vice-president Aliyeva for solutions has become a trend, and so Salaam’s letter to Aliyeva prompted criticism from some social activists.
Giyas Ibrahimov, an activist who was imprisoned for 10 years for writing graffiti on a statue of the late president, doesn’t think writing a letter to Aliyeva is the right way to ensure the city’s history is preserved.
“The young people should not have to deal with the solution of the problems the way everyone resorts to,” Ibrahimov was quoted as saying.
Igrar Gurban, a filmmaker who is also part of the Salaam Cinema Baku’s team, says the building was getting crowded as many people from different ideologies were joining the effort to save the building. Gurban admits the team was afraid of losing control.
“Maybe we scared ourselves. I don’t know. But anything might have happened in Azerbaijan. No one might take responsibility if anyone is arrested or injured in case there was an incident," Gurban said, calling for critics to assess Salaam’s efforts in terms of reviving urban activism in Baku.
The movement to modernize and update Baku has led to the removal of several mosques, hamams and historical buildings. Recent plans to block ancient walls with constructions in downtown were halted by the intervention of Vice President Aliyeva.
The State Service for Cultural Preservation, Development and Renovation has officially appealed to the Cabinet of Ministers to put it the former temple on the list of historical monuments.