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Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia

Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia

Exploring Baku's Old City

Contents list | Introduction | Getting to Azerbaijan | What to see, where to go | Exploring Baku's Old City | Mud volcanoes!



What to see and do

(Icheri Shähär/Içǝri Sǝhǝr,
Map Æ© p83)
Narrow alleys, dozens of small, forgotten little mosques some barely distinguishable from the houses that surround them, a handful of old caravanserais and plenty of quirky, overhanging balconies. This delightful and evocative pastiche nestles in the long, powerful curve of the restored Old City wall, bristling with towers and battlements, but you’d better hurry to see it while any of its antique character remains. During the mid-1990s the mini oil boom seemed in danger of turning every building into an oil company HQ. This trend reversed noticeably for a while after the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and as bigger companies moved out. Sadly in the last couple of years the builders have returned once more. While most new structures have been very carefully designed and stone-clad to fit tastefully within the city’s stylistic cocktail, some of the most recent constructions are unforgivable travesties and the 2007 demolition of the whole south-western corner for a big (if tastefully designed) new hotel caused considerable dismay. Still, there remain homely ‘lived-in’ corners to discover and it’s worth simply launching yourself into the alleys and wandering aimlessly. The map on p83 shows every path and thoroughfare but occasionally some routes are blocked by building work.

Maiden’s Tower (see box below; Qız Qalası; Map Æ©M14)

Unique in world architecture, this ancient, almost windowless, eight-storey, 29m-high fortress was reconstructed in the 12th century but may have started life as a fire beacon and lookout post as long ago as 500bc. There are some far-fetched suggestions for its cross-sectional shape: that it represents one half of the Yin-Yang oriental symbol of balance, that it’s based on the Paisley-arabesque ‘buta’ motif (a Zoroastrian religious symbol of fire) or that it’s inspired by the number 6, the base number of the Babylonian (world’s first) counting system.
    The name Qız Qalası translates literally as ‘Virgin tower’, leading to a host of Rapunzel-style, distressed-princess tales.
    The most imaginative is of a warped city ruler who fell in love with his own beautiful daughter and asked to marry her. The poor girl was trapped between the obvious revulsion and illegality of her father’s incestuous proposal and her duty of paternal loyalty. As a stalling manoeuvre she demanded that he build her a tower that would allow her to view her father/husband’s entire domain. Each time the builders announced it was finished she would demand yet another storey be added. Finally when it reached its full height, she climbed to the top to examine the view and threw herself off.
    An alternative version accuses Khunsar, the legendary founder of Baku, of locking his guiltless sister in the tower. She threw herself to her death and as retribution God drowned Khunsar’s great pastures and created the Caspian Sea.
    In fact the term Qız Qalası has nothing whatever to do with young, abused female relatives. It is a name quite commonly applied to fortress towers – ‘virginity’ referring to the fact that it was never ‘penetrated’ by the various attackers who besieged it throughout history. True or not, the name gave defenders of such towers a certain feeling of invincibility.
     Entry to the tower (AZN2, 11.00-18.00, closed Monday) allows you to climb to the top for good views though the interior exhibits are limited.
    On the pedestrianized square outside is a rotunda seat and a useful pictorial map of the old city for further exploration. Behind that are the excavations of a medieval bazaar along with several interesting carved stones discovered in the area.

Shirvanshah’s Palace (Æ©P4)
(46 Böyük Qala St; 10.00-19.00 daily; entry AZN2, camera AZN2). The palace site was chosen for its five valuable wells in what was then a forbidding desert. The oldest surviving remnants are 15th century but considerable renovations have been made throughout history. Defensive slits were added to the outer walls during the Russian period.
    In 1905, JD Henry reported that plans to turn the palace into a museum had been shelved. Initially it was declared that the space was needed as a hospital for wounded Russian soldiers returning from the war in Manchuria. Ironically, following the appalling massacre within Baku itself, the hospital idea was dropped and the palace became an ammunition store. The complex was finally reconstructed in 1920 and opened to the public. Renovations in 2006 were so extensive that parts of the complex feel virtually new.
    At the back of the courtyard area is the turbe of court astronomer Seyd Yahya and the Bailov Stones, dozens of carved fragments recovered in 1951 from Sabail Castle. Azerbaijan’s Alcatraz, Sabail prison island in Baku Bay was originally built in 1235 as Bandar Gala (‘port castle’). The whole structure disappeared under the rising Caspian, perhaps with the help of an earthquake, and was only rediscovered when the water level started dropping rapidly in the 1930s and ‘40s. It is now hidden again.
    The Bailov stones of greatest interest to experts are the sections showing bison and somewhat Mongoloid human faces. These elements show the carvers had either a wide international understanding or a pretty poor standard of representation. Whichever is the case, they were certainly not inhibited by the mores of strict Islam which discourages representation of living creatures.
    There are photogenic sunset views of the Shirvanshah complex from the rooftop terraces of some neighbouring hotels, notably the Icheri Shähär, though access may be limited to guests only.

Bust of Vahid (Æ©N2)
Recently moved to a small garden behind Iç?ri S?h?r metro is a thoughtfully impressive giant bust of Vahid. There is rich symbolism in the many contrasting scenes which have been carved into what initially looks like his hair. The overall point is to show the balance between optimism and realism, humour and tragedy for which the poet (who died relatively unknown in 1965) has come to be valued.

Double gates (Æ©U12)
It was outside the old city’s photogenic Double Gates that the Russian army’s Caucasian commander Tsitsianov came in 1806 to receive the keys to the city from the Baku khan. Instead he received an assassin’s bullet from the khan’s cousin, much to general public delight! The Russian troops fled but returned in force within the year. The area was known as Tsitsanov garden until 1918, its fountain being an important early source of drinking water.

The Old City is polka-dotted with tiny mosques. Although few are actually open to visitors or worth a special detour, some are intriguing for their very invisibility – often indistinguishable from neighbouring houses except for the little ‘historic monument’ plaque rusting quietly on a wall. The most visible mosques have old stone minarets topped with rounded, fluted mini-domes. Baku’s oldest is the active little Mohammad Mosque (SL6) whose 1079 Sinik-kala minaret has a typical stalactite-vaulted parapet support and is encircled by kufic Koranic quotations. The minaret’s staircase was built so small that an apocryphally rotund muezzin once got stuck on the way up and couldn’t call the faithful to pray. The Juma Mechid (SK9), originally 11th century too, was totally re-worked in the early 20th century and now has the most ornately carved façade, best appreciated by walking around the back and into the surrounding courtyard.
    Other Old City mosques include: Bäylär (19th century but with an old-style minaret, SN7), Gajibani (16th century, now a house, SQ5), Gileyi (1309, SK2, active), Haci Heybat (1791, also a house SR5), Lezghi (1169, Sunni, SL11), Mäktäb Mosque (1646, SM11), Molla Ahmed (SR10), Sheikh Ibrahim (1415, SI6) and Xıdır (1301, SK5).


Half a dozen historic caravanserai buildings are crammed within Icheri Shähär.
    The atmospheric Karavansara Restaurant (see p115) occupies both the 14th-century Bukhara Caravanserai and the cavernous 15th-century Multan Caravanserai just across the passage. In the latter a ‘secret’ swing door leads through into a private dining cavern which was supposedly once the tethering place for camels (notice the holes in wall-stones for tying the ropes). Other caravanserais hold the Mediterranea and Mu?am Club restaurants (better food, pp114-15) and the Old City museum offices (SI9).

The Center of Contemporary Art ([CCA], SP12, % 492 5906, 11:00-20:00, closed Mon) is run by the talented United Artists’ Club. Standards are excellent and this is the place to make contacts if you hope to visit the ‘secret’ art studio loft (fQ2, p87) or the artists’ apartments (tC1, rear entry door 6) at Inshaatchilar 28.
    The CCA’s subterranean café hosts occasional film nights, writers’ group meetings and parties. Outside look up to see some curious carved façade details including a trio of sandstone cats (graphic p84) in a faux window.
    The commercial but ever-inspiring Qız Qalası Gallery (SN14; Qüllä 6, :, daily 10:30-19:00) has regularly changing exhibitions and an impressive stock of works by classic Azeri artists. The latter aren’t always displayed so ask. Other commercial galleries include Absheron (SI4), Bakı (SQ4) and Ali Shamsir‘s atmospheric little Studio-Gallery (SS5, % 497 7136) displaying his impressionistic poppies and women in red. There’s a Miniatures Gallery (SN9) on Böyük Qala.

Oil-boom mansions
Both within and beyond the Old City walls are some superb turn-of-the-20th-century mansions.
    Perhaps the most eye-catching exterior is the ornate 1912 Hajinski Mansion (SM14) decorated with a selection of stone-vines, gargoyles and animal heads, as well as distinctive overhanging corner windows. It was here that Charles de Gaulle (then an outspoken, independent-minded resistance leader) stayed on 26 November 1944. He was en route to see Stalin in Moscow to discuss the anticipated post-war carve-up of Europe. He’d flown via Tehran to avoid crossing enemy airspace and for reasons unexplained, decided to stay on an extra night in Baku for a performance of Hacibayov’s classic Azeri opera Koro?lu.
    Before merging with Exxon, Mobil spent millions recreating the Pre-Raphaelite/art nouveau interiors of the Gani Mammadov residence (SK8), but that’s now a private residence not open to visitors. It was built on the site of a 1646 madrassa of which only one stone portal remains, now used as the diminutive Ticmä souvenir shop.
    The attractive building at SR12 topped off with a statuette (once part of a trio) was once the Ethnographic Museum but is being repurposed as a Heydar Aliyev museum. Baku was much in need of one of those.

Yasil Aptek (Æ©F5)
Qasimbey’s Hamam was an elegant multi-domed 15th-century bath-house, renovated in the 19th century. Today it houses a small herbal pharmacy (Yasil Aptek, Mon-Sat 10-18:00) beneath the flaking ceiling-domes which had once been colourfully painted with Azeri literary themes. The whole area behind here all the way to Neftchilar was brutally demolished in 2007 to build the new Four Seasons Hotel.

Mir Mövsüm’s house

Sit for a few minutes beside the little fountain in the stone patio area opposite 3 Firdowsi St and watch the people passing that house (ST8). At least one in three will touch the stone doorway as they pass. Coincidence? Not really. Though there is absolutely no sign this was the Baku residence of Mir Mövsüm, the ‘Meat Lord’ (see p154), and in the deeply superstitious Azeri form of Islam, his spirit remains a powerful source of good luck. Though a private house, you will be quite welcome to go into the recently gentrified room where the ‘boneless one’ used to sit. Make a prayer (and a token donation) at the makeshift shrine and feel free to kiss the door on the way out!

Other Old City attractions
For real ‘local flavour’ there’s no beating a good rub down at the 18th-century Aga Mikayil hamam (SH2, AZN2.50, 8-22.00 women only Mon & Fri, men only other days), though don’t expect the big communal pools or majestic vaulting of Istanbul equivalents. A passingly curious private museum displays a room full of miniature books (SP3, free entry, 11:00-17:00, closed Mon & Thu, % 492 9464), the smallest of which is just 2mm across – remarkable, though still over double the size of the world record holder (0.9mm by 0.9mm). Jazz fans might appreciate the appealing house museum of Vagif Mustafazade (SI8). It’s in the alley beside hotel Meridian, marked by an expressive bust-plaque (see graphic p57).

Carpet and souvenir shops
Icheri Shähär has various interesting carpet, ‘antique’ and souvenir shops, often tucked away in stone nooks and corners. Browsing can be fun but before you buy read pp60-1 (Carpets) or pp58-9 (Art), and leave plenty of time (preferably two weeks) to certify your purchases for export.

Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia