From caravan outpost to the world’s oil capital: this was the fate of Baku (Azerbaijan) in the late nineteenth century, a transformation which took not much more than one generation. The sudden accretion of wealth and prominence gave rise to a profusion of extravagant characters as well as notable buildings – mosques, Zoroastrian temples, casinos, Moorish palaces, theatres, rococo pavilions, and palace gardens. In strictly human terms, oil-rich Baku spawned no more extravagant personality than Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said. He was born into a wealthy Russian-Jewish family and developed into a picaresque man of letters, historian and political analyst, whose life was intertwined with some of the most vital elements in twentieth-century culture.
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