Azerbaijan's Legendary Centenarian
Story by Marcus Hopkins
Photos by Calman Caspiyev
Left: Shirali with his third wife.
Right: Shirali credits his longevity to hard work. Here he was supposedly over 160-years-old. All photos were taken in 1963 or later.
Azerbaijan is known for its centenarians, who often live in mountainous regions. Here, in our issue dedicated to youth, we thought it would be interesting to feature the Azerbaijani who gained the reputation during the Soviet period of being "The Oldest Inhabitant of the Planet."
The first time photojournalist Calman Caspiyev met "Shirali Baba," or Grandfather Shirali as he was affectionately called, the old man was more than seven times Calman's age. The young reporter for the Tass News Agency was 22-years-old, and Shirali claimed to be 158-years-old. That was in 1963. Old faded papers identified Shirali as having been born in 1805.
Although Azerbaijani scientists these days are skeptical about such longevity, it seems that Shirali clearly had passed his 100th birthday years earlier. No one knows for sure. Calman believes Shirali's documents but shrugs, "What's the difference between 20 or 30 years when you're that old!" It's clear that Shirali knew his descendants down to the 5th generation. A newspaper article in the mid-1960s commented that he was having difficulty remembering the names of his 200 grand- and great-grand-children. But when Calman made that first trip down to the Larik region close to the Iranian border to find Shirali, he really wasn't sure what to expect. Traveling by horseback, he finally found Shirali in the mountains in the Talysh-speaking village of Barzavu. It would be Calman's articles and photos that would eventually make the centenarian known all over the world and which would change the life of Shirali and his village. Centenarians were not uncommon in that region, which is 2,000 meters above sea level. In fact, you can still find some living there today.
Shirali credited his longevity to an active life and hard work. When he died at the age of 168 on September 4, 1973, his obituary read that "he had tended the sheep of the rich people for the first hundred years of his life." Afterwards, he was involved in collective farming on the "kolhoz." Calman took photos of him riding his horse and even chopping wood when he was supposedly over 160-years-old. The family lived in poverty, eating only what they could produce, which meant, primarily, a diet of yogurt, fruits and vegetables. There were no food markets. But there was an abundant supply of fresh spring water that tasted incredibly good, recalls Calman.
Left: The village of Barzavu in the Lerik region where Shirali Muslimov lived.
Right: Shirali had descendants down to the 5th generation.
Once he asked Shirali, "Which was better, pre-Revolutionary times or today?" Given the Soviet regime under which they lived, the question left Shirali little choice but to say he preferred the present. Calman pressed him for the reason and Shirali replied, "Well, before, I used to have 100-150 sheep, but one day a man on horseback came up the mountain swinging his sword and demanded half of them. He told me that half of them belonged to the czar. And so he left me the remaining half. Today it's better because nobody comes and takes anything from me." After Calman had finished writing down his comments, Shirali added, "And do you know why they don't come anymore? I have nothing left for them to take!"
After Calman's story and photos were published, Shirali gained international attention. A road was built up to the village. Electricity followed and with it, radios and television. Shirali was given a pension which made him feel very rich. He wasn't used to having money. Foreigners came to visit him, and he was constantly receiving gifts. In 1964, the government honored him with a big party for his 156th birthday. Government officials came to the celebration, and a documentary film was made which Calman thinks must still exist in the Leningrad Documentary Studio.
Calman brought Shirali to Baku a few years later. It was the old man's first trip to the city. He was around 160-years-old at the time. But riding in the car made him claustrophobic and nauseous. The fumes seemed to bother him as well. Calman remembers him begging, "Give me my horse. Take me back to Barzavu and give me my horse."
Of course, Soviet officials used the phenomenon of longevity to prove the superiority of the communist system over capitalism. And though there were centenarians living in other regions of the Soviet Union, especially mountainous ones, Azerbaijan had more than its share of these long-lived people. Shirali came to be known as "The Oldest Inhabitant of the Planet" and lived to the ripe old age of 168. The Soviets never claimed that anyone surpassed him.
Calman Caspiyev now lives in New York. Read more about Azerbaijan's centenarians as well as Shirali Muslimov's obituary in Autumn 1994 (2.3)