Baku has gone through a hyper-growth period in the last few years as a result of Azerbaijan’s oil boom. This has resulted in the growth of the city outwards and upwards, with modern high-rise buildings as far as the eye can see. However, it has managed to preserve its unique old town which, with its labyrinth of narrow streets.
Although our office was located in the old town, I had never fully explored it. So in the company of my colleague Gibet and a local guide, we enjoyed a history filled visit to the sites and sounds of old Baku.
We started off at the ‘Palace of the Shirvanshahs’. This was started in 1411 and consists of a main building, a pavilion, a mausoleum and a mosque. All have been very well preserved and are a brilliant example of the excellent limestone stonework that is used throughout Baku’s old city, a tradition which continues today in Baku at large.
As we entered the complex there was a wall where the limestone was marked by bullets. This was clearly a legacy of executions. During the 20th century there were several battles in Baku. During the first world war, and during the Soviet invasion after Azerbaijan declared independence from the Russian empire, Baku was the scene of major battles and genocide between the various groups – Armenians, Bolsheviks, White Russians, and Azeris. Even the British army fought here for a time.
The main building had an impressive entrance. It was started by the sultan and then completed by his son. We went in and wandered through part of the building with vaulted ceilings. It had recently been restored and so did not show the wear and tear of some 500 years that we could see elsewhere. Even the guide commented that it looked a bit sanitized.
As we entered other parts of the palace I commented that a lot of the architecture reminded me of places I had seen in India, most memorably at the Taj Mahal. Our guide said that the architects for the Taj came from the school of Tabriz in modern Iran, who also designed this palace. We often think that that global consulting is a modern phenomena.
The entrance porticos often had very ornate carvings, particularly with excerpts from the Koran. I am always impressed with the skills of the artisans since one cannot make a mistake when carving writing in stone! Above each entrance was a small symbol which apparently showed the sultan to be a Shia Muslim, as opposed to a Sunni. Apparently, Azerbaijan is evenly split between these two groups, with the north Shia and the south towards Iran Sunni.
A number of the rooms had grates which were connected to the Caspian Sea. One theory is that they made the disposal of bodies after executions much easier.
Even though the palace had been explored for years, in 1939 they discovered a large baths below ground level. Fed from a dam, they had heated floors, separate change rooms, and many of the modern conveniences! For a long time they had been hidden under a garden.
In the Mausoleum of the Shirvanshahs we saw a number of tombs. The inscription on the entrance doorway indicates the purpose of the building, “Khalilullah I, the greatest Soltan, Great Shirvanshah, the namesake of the divine prophet, the defender of the religion ordered to construct this light burial-vault for his mother and son in 839” (1435-1436). Next to the tomb was the old mosque – which is no longer in use so we were able to visit. I was interested to see that there were two chapels for prayers in the mosque: a hall of a large size for men and a hall of a small size for women. The latter also had its own small door for private entry.
I commented that it was surprising that the Russians had let this place stand. Apparently at one time they considered tearing down part of the complex and putting up a church. It is a good thing that they didn’t as it would have been such a travesty.
Having completed our tour of the palace, we wandered through the streets of the old town. I had been part way before but got hopelessly lost as they really are confusing. It was a hub of building activity. We were told that the government has passed legislation which will remove all businesses from the old city, as well as banning vehicles. It cannot come too soon. With the old buildings, minarets, and unique atmosphere, it is not surprising that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it should be protected as much as possible.
As we walked down towards the “Maiden’s Tower”, probably the most famous landmark in Baku, we passed through a tourist area which was a bit of a shock. Lots of touts offering us everything from carpets to the typical tourist trinkets. I was surprised to see many Samovars – Russian tea kettles. I wondered out loud whether in fact they are as old as they look, in India they were excellent at making new things look old. One proprietor said that they have people scouring cities in Russia for Samovars – and that the new ones cost even more! As for the carpets, yes, they look old, but more than once I’ve seen newer carpets put out on the pavement for people (and vehicles) to cross to increase the wear and make them look older.
The Maiden’s Tower is architecturally quite unusual. It is a round tower, but one side is curved and continues down towards the ocean. Our guide said that it is thought this is to provide protection from Baku’s famous winds.
Legend has it that the tower was built by a Sultan at the request of his daughter. He wanted to marry her but she hoped to put it off by having the tower built. When time didn’t dampen his ardor she jumped. Some suggest that it was built at least in part by fire worshippers as there are vertical ducts running about half way up which could have been used for venting gas.
It was a much easier – and well lit – climb than our earlier visit to the castle, although there were a lot more people. There were displays at various levels, and shops selling trinkets. We particularly enjoyed the old paintings and photos of Baku.
It was interesting to see that the city wall was a “U” shape, with the open end towards the ocean. There were two sets of walls, and they extended out into the ocean. From the top we had a great view of both the old and new cities. One thing we could also see was the location of a palace out in the Caspian Sea. It was built at a time when the Sea was much lower. At the palace we had earlier seen many carved stones that had been retrieved from this underwater palace.
The photos below show some of the views from the top. The picture to the top left is of a caravanserai where we occasionally have dinner. You can see the large open area.
So ended our tour of the old city. It really is a special place and it is good to see that they are actively taking steps to protect it. Well worth a visit.