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.
His father, Abraham Nussimbaum, was an Ashkenazi Jew, born in Tiflis (Tbilisi) in the Caucasus. His parents came originally from Kiev, or maybe Odessa, and were attracted to the Caucasus by the rare degree of tolerance that Jews enjoyed there, in contrast to the rest of the Tsarist Empire. The