The old city of Baku

maiden tower

Old city

The Old city used to be the main gate of the city. For about thousand years a lively stream of traffic –peasants driving bull-carts, brilliant cavalcades of horsemen, camels, caravans and occasional pilgrims-poured across the drawbridge over the moat and through the arch with its massive iron-cased double gates.

The fortress wall still standing was the inner one. There was an outer wall about 40 feet off it. If the enemy succeeded in scalping the first wall they found themselves in a stone trap where they could be shot at by archers from all sides. Between the walls was a water-filled moat. The outer wall was pulled down when intensive buildings started in the 19th century.

In the course of the many wars over the centuries, the walls were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. The present perimeter of the fortress emerged in the 13th-15th centuries replacing an older one. A stone found in the ruins of one of the walls, bears the following kufic inscription:”Fortress built by the order of Shirvan –Shah Abdul Hidja Manutchehr of the Kesranid line (1120-49).”On the both sides of the gateway there are stones carved with texts from the Koran inserted into walls. The walls have been restored several times.

Now the citadel,Icheri –Shekher a unique historical monument. This open-air museum of Azerbaijan culture has been in the main preserved. Most of the important medieval structures (the caravanserais , the mosques, the baths and of course Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs) are intact. The 14th-15th century private dwellings, have nearly all been lost though. In those far away times, the nobility and countries of all ranks lived at court, the clergy round the mosques , the merchants and peasants bringing their produce to the market in the caravanserais. The citizens, artisans and small traders, who were not very numerous, had fairly modest dwellings. It is hardly surprising therefore that only a  few of these foundations have been preserved.

Further on you will find yourself in a narrow lane with a restaurant on every side. On the right is Bukhara, so called because it is set in a genuine 16th century Bukhara caravanserai. It specializes in Azerbaijan national cuisine. It has  16 private rooms arranged around a patio, which are attractively decorated with low tables, benches and brightly-coloured mutakka cushions. The waiters wear the  national dress.

On the left you have the  Multani restaurants , also set in a 14th century caravanserai where Indian merchants from the  Multani province used to stop. The Multani consists of two cellars with stylish interiors and period lamps over the tables. Above in the tea-room serving, there is a choose of oriental sweets ; it has nine private rooms, two of them are furnished in oriental style,with carpets and mutakka cushions. Notice  the 14th century ventilation shafts in the wall as you enter the building.

Past the caravanserais is the famous Gyz Galassy(Maiden Tower), a structure unparalleled for its architecture whether in East or West. Rising to a height of 90 ft, it stands much the same way as it did a thousand years ago, though today it is not surrounded by the waves of the Caspian Sea. Standing  on a coastral rock face which protected it from dampness and from tunnels being dug under its walls, the cylinder-shaped Maiden Tower has strange projection at its base which gives in the apperiance of a resort. The projection is conventionally referred of a resort to as a buttress but scholars tend to discount the view that is was built for defense purposes or to give the tower additional structural strength or to protect if from erosion by the sea waves. Nor has anything been found within the buttress to suggest that it served as an additional chamber or secret room. Another riddle of the masonry of the outer walls smooth below it starts to be ribbed from about halfway up the tower and buttress. Was this for decorative purposes to break the minority of the huge expanses of walls or is the different style of stonework accounted for by different building periods. The archaic shape of Maiden Tower the change of masonry style and colour of the stone darker than that of the earliest of the dated monuments of the Old City the 11th century Synyk –Kala minaret –suggest that it can be attributed to an earlier date of around 5th-6th centuries.The ruins of the obviously ancient buildings around tower support this suggestion.

Here are some legends giving various interpretations of the tower’s name. Once when Baku was under siege by an Arab host, and its fall seemed inevitable, the custodian of the sacred flame worked a miracle: he raised a great fire over tower which took shape of a maid with sword in her hand. One version of the legend goes that enemy camp at night and stayed the Arab commander.

The following interpretation of the name may be the most plausible: Maiden Tower means Virgin Tower or one never taken by the enemy. There are other defense structures elsewhere in Azerbaijan bearing the same name.

Now let’s go inside. A narrow spiral staircase leads up to a landing about 90 ft above ground level. This is a good place to appreciate the tower’s strength: its walls are 16 ft thick at the base and 13 ft thick towards the top. Its eight floors could accommodate over hundred men. Lighting was provided via narrow windows. The purpose of the clay pipe running down the whole length of the walls is unclear-it may have been a sewage system or used to channel gas to a sacred flame on top of the tower…From the landing one gets a magnificent view of Baku bay and Old City. Mind the steep steps as you descent.

We will now proceed to view the cluster of old buildings round Maiden Tower that came to light as a result of recent clearance work in the Old City(buildings of no architectural value were pulled following the removal of the majority of the fortress to Baku’s new residential areas). These historical monuments bear witness to the fact that in the early Middle Ages the tower occupied a central place in the social life of the Old city.

In the 15th century a new nucleus was formed round the recently built Shirvan-Shahs’ Palace but following the fall of the Shirvan –Shahs in the 17th century and with the construction of the Baku Khans’Palace near Shemakha Gate, the town centre shifted back to the area round the tower where it was to remain up to the beginning of the 19th century when Baku finally emerged from its fortress shell. On leaving Maiden Tower walk down the steps to the well-preserved 17th century market with its large inner courtyard bounded by the iwan a columned arcade of pointed arches. Note that similar arcade at the Shirvan-Shahs’Palace which we will come to later on in our tour. The use of independently standing columns, hitherto considered rare of view of seismic conditions characteristic of the area, is of particular interest of experts. Displayed in the market-place is an exhibition of stone-carving. Among the exhibits are 13tg-18th century tombstones and sarcophagi from the cemeteries of Baku and Apsheron; carved stones with inscriptions and figures of people and beasts from submerged Sabayil fortress brought up from the bottom of Baku bay; medieval tombstones carved in pre-Islamic style(7th century); and finally stone figures of rams and horses symbolizing wealth, courage(17th-19th centuries). The fine-grained Apsheron lime-stone combined with the skill of the Azerbaijan stonr-masons results in wonderful works art. There is a similar collection in the Shirvan-Shahs’Palace.

The following monuments next to the market are of interest: Hadji Haid bath-house(15th century); the Lezghi Mosque(12th century), and the old foundation under the Djuma Mosque(early 20th century). The Sunday services were held in the Djuma (Friday) Mosque (Friday is a holiday for Moslems).The Djuma Mosque contains the Museum of Carpets and Folk Crafts. Carpets have been weaved in Azerbaijan from time immemorial. Apsheron in particular was famous for its wool and natural dyes: fig leaves were used to obtain ochre, madder –for red, saffron-for orange, while the skin of pomegranates gave a beautiful brown-rusty colour… Travellers in the Middle Ages had high praise for local dying skills.

Azerbaijan carpets were mentioned by Abu Ajafar, Muhammad Taberi(9th-10th century),Marco Polo(13th century) and others. Carpets to characteristic Azerbaijan design are sometimes to be seen in the paintings of European artists –Hans Holbein(The Ambassadors), Jan van Eyck(The Madonna with canon van der Paele)

The exhibition opens with a display of carpets woven like tapestry which rivals that to be seen in Washington’s famous Textile Museum. This is the earliest type of carpet and can be traced back to the Stone Age.

There are seven main types of Azerbaijan smooth-faced carpets: palaz, jajim, kilim, zil, souman, vierni and shedde. Each has local variations. Local natural dyes are used and motifs reflect local flora and fauna. This room with its as tounding variety of pattern and colour is the museum’s pride.

Note how much lower is the market -place compared the level of the modern street. This gives one an idea of how much higher Maiden Tower would have appeared in the 17th century.

The Shirvan-Shahs’Place(15th-16th century)was built when the Shahs capital was moved from Shemakha to Baku. This was the most prominent architectural complex in the medieval city when latter’s importance was as its height. Some of the buildings forming part of assembly far surpass the palace in splendor. Despite the fact that assembly was constructed at different times with no single plan, it gives the impression of a harmonious whole.

The palace is a two –storey structure: the ground floor with its narrow window-slits accommodated service rooms, the upper floor-state rooms. The lay-out and external appearance of the building is modest. Among its 52 rooms the octagonal domed audience room with its plain portal on the outside is of special interest. Built in the 15th century by Halilullah the palace remained intact a hundred years. After Baku was taken by Shah Ismail the palace was abandoned and the contents of its treasury removed. Now the interior is being restored to its original 15th century appearance. Once restoration work is completed the palace will accommodate Baku’s History Museum.

Intourist Itineraries

One day Programme

Morning-3 hour bus tour Baku the Capital of Azerbaijan. Starting-point: tour of main sights and monuments of architecture. Information provided on the history and present-day life of Baku and the republic as whole.

Afternoon-tour of Apsheron, past the oldest oil-fields to the unique Ateshgah-fire –worship temple. During your free time from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. we suggest a walk to the Shirvan-Shahs’Palace and back following the route given in the 3rd or a visit to the Museum of Carpets f(Museum of Arts, Nizami museum ect)

Everning-dinner at the Bukhara restaurant in the Old City (national cuisine); a walk along the seafront , or a sea trip in a motor boat if you have free time.

Two day Programme

1st day. Morning-tour of the city and visit to the fire-worship temple. Afternoon fre –we suggest a visit to the Azerbaijan Historical Museum and a walk round the district in which the museum is located.

2nd Day. Morning-tour of the Old city and Shirvan-shah’s Palace. Afternoon –tour of Apsheron including a visit to gas sea-platforms. Everning-opera, consert or circus or another walk round the town. We suggest walk down to Philharmonic Garden dropping in at the tea-room on the way then take a car ride up to Mountain Park to see the evening panorama of Baku a ride back down finishing up with a walk along the seafront.

Three-day Programme

The first two days as above

3rd Day-Morning-trip to Kubustan. Afternoon free. Everning-visit to one of the factories, organizations, Cultural links with Foreign Countries.

What constitutes the charm of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan?

Its attractive position on the seashore and remarkable variety of its architectural monuments, its cult of poetry and music and the intense tempo of creatively that one feels as one wanders round the streets.

“A visitor brings happiness to the home,”

is what the Azerbaijani say –Welcome to Baku!


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