Letters to the Caspian Sea

Photographer: Emin Mathers

Edition: Neighborhood
Topic: City

Dear Caspian


Over the years it's getting harder and harder for me to see you. I remember the iridescent swell on your surface and small islands. I remember how calm you were when a strong wind blew between me and the peninsula. Every day I follow the sun that slides over you, which eventually begins to hide behind me.





The view from the top of Bayil Hill. On the right is an oil platform; the Flame Towers are on the left.
An oil pump surrounded by a concrete building.
Neftchi means “an oilman” in Azerbaijani. It is also the name of the Baku soccer team.
A view of Bayil from Dağüstü Park (High Land Park).

Construction on the territory assigned to the Maritime Department began in 1858 and in a short time, the general contours of the admiralty and the port began to emerge, as well as the shape of the quarters built directly outside the military settlement. This marked the beginning of the independent military-administrative and residential area of the city. The layout of Bayil was created within the port with the admiralty, the administrative-public zone and the residential territory, which included the officer and sailor quarters.

The first residential areas in Bayil grew along the road that runs from the Bailovsky Cape to the mosque in Shikhov. Bayil was expanded toward Baku after the creation of Black City and the opening of oil fields in the Bibi Heybat region. In 1870-1880, the oil began to be transported along this road from the Bibi-Heybat fields to the factories in Black City. Construction materials and fishing equipment moved in the opposite direction. Rows of eateries, tea houses and shops for workers and field workers lined the road. By the end of the 19th century, the residential area spread across the steep slopes and moved toward the city, which outgrew its borders and merged with the surrounding areas. The center of Bayil remained in the port area. Year by year, the former energy center, rich in oil, becomes a modern coastal residential area.

The bright lights of Baku juxtaposition with the warm lighting of a typical Bayil yard.
This Soviet-era building is known as a Stalinka, which means it was built during the Stalin years.
A building under construction in Bayil.
A fresh fruit and vegetable stand and neighborhood mini-market.
Young men take a smoke break near a wedding party.

Until recently, the people who settled in this area lived alongside the oil pumps.

Bayil is also known as one of the most destructive and economically damaging landslide zones in Azerbaijan. For this reason, no construction work was carried out in the area during the Soviet period, although later a large number of houses, dining establishments, and villas were built in the area. The most devastating landslide in the last 100 years was on March 6-7, 2000. It resulted in 200 damaged private houses; 43 of which were beyond repair. 

Each of the facilities in Bayil has its own special history: one was the former prison No. 1, known as Bayil Prison. Until recently, it was the oldest and largest remand prison in Azerbaijan.

The most famous prisoner at Bayil prison was Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, known as Koba at that time. Stalin served his sentence in cell number 39. 

Until the abolition of the death penalty in 1998, those sentenced to death in Azerbaijan were held in the prison’s notorious “Fifth Corps”.

In 2009, the prison was torn down to build Flag Square, despite civil activists' requests to turn it into a museum.

A girl listens to music as she runs after a bus.

Dear Bayil,

Yes, I missed those times.

Do you remember how I stroked your foundation with warm waves? I confess, having separated from the ocean, I began to move away from you until humanity arose between us. It originated clearly at our junction - it swam on me, then walked on you, and settled over time so as not to go far.

It's funny, do you remember how your stones were dragged onto this island to protect them from themselves? And making sure that it could safely begin to make holes in you for the sake of the pus that has been accumulating under you for centuries. It was funny until they found a way to what is under me...

Kind regards,



Local boys play on a summer evening.
An evening conversation in the yard.
A Bayil resident recalls life in the neighborhood.
A woman watching over her grandsons in Bayil.
Cars in Bayil
Driving in the evening as a side job.
The elderly often play board games outside in the evening.
Lower streets in the neighborhood are covered to level the surface for construction.
“Satılır” means “for sale” in Azerbaijani.
Flag Square, once home to the highest flagpole in the world.
New residents on seaside streets, amid the construction.
The southeastern side of Bayil Hills.

Now it is the main southern entrance to the Bayil settlement and Flag Square, home to the former highest flagpole in the world. Behind the new, bright buildings, there are neighborhoods that retain the same atmosphere that resembles the 1980s and 1990s. With my camera, I like to explore them, documenting the small courtyard groceries and taxi-funiculars that take residents up the steep slopes.

On the district’s horizon, between the old, handmade fences and the sky, which became a symbol of the city’s potential, you can see the newly built glass skyscrapers in the bright light of the coastal center of the city, as if portending future developments in Bayil.

Laying the foundation of a new building in the district.
A new building, ready to be sold.
The new, modern Bayil with high-rise buildings under construction.
Seaside view from Bayil on to "White city," a former industrial district that was known as “Black city.” Bayil Fort Island lies between them.

Dear Sea,


I remember, of course, as well as how later my landscape began to change, while they pierced the sky, and then your coastline as well. But let's not talk about cruelty...


I also remember when, unlike humanity, I had to wait until the moon appeared in order for it to get light. But humanity—it glows every night and grows brighter over the years; so bright that I forgot about the moon.


With love,



An oil pump in a residential neighborhood.

This photo essay was produced as part of the workshops led by photographer Heba Khamis, with the support of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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