Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan is on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea. Blessed with a great location and a wealth of natural resources, Baku is a cultural and economic hub. Often called “the most European city in Asia”, Catholic and Orthodox churches sit side-by side with mosques an synagogues among narrow alleys and cobbled streets of the UNESCO-listed Old Town. At-nouveau architecture begs to be photographed and contrasts with the sleek, modern glass skyscrapers that mark the city's newfound status.
Baku Old Town
The center of Baku is the Old Town, which is also a fortress. The walled city of Baku (called "Icheri sheher" meaning "Inner town") became in December 2000 the first place in Azerbaijan classified as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Most of the walls and towers, strengthened after the Russian conquest in 1806, survive. This section is picturesque, with its maze of narrow alleys and ancient buildings. Wander the cobbled streets past the Palace of Shirvashahs, two caravanserais (ancient inns), the 11th century Maiden Tower (nice view of the harbor), the baths and the Djuma Mosque (it used to house the Carpet and Applied Arts Museum, but now is a mosque again. The carpets got moved to the former Lenin museum). The old town also has dozens of small mosques, often without any particular sign to distinguish them from the next building.
The boom-town, south of the old city, was built after massive petroleum exploitation began nearly a century ago and has interesting beaux-arts architecture. Fine arts, history and literature museums are there, all housed in the mansions of pre-Revolutionary millionaires.
Few people know about the deep connection that the Nobel brothers - Alfred, Ludvig and Robert - once had with Baku. In fact, when the Nobel Prizes were established more than a century ago (1901), roughly 12% of the prize money came from Alfred's shares in the Nobel Brothers' Petroleum Company in the city. Alfred Nobel was the largest single shareholder in the Baku oil fields and factories owned by his brothers, Robert and Ludwig. When Alfred died in 1896, much of his legacy went to fund the Nobel Prize. Swedish historian, E. Bargengren, who had access to the Nobel family archives, insists that it was this "decision to allow withdrawal of Alfred's money from Baku that became the decisive factor that enabled the Nobel Prizes to be established."
Modern buildings spread out from the walls, its streets and buildings rising up hills that rim the Bay of Baku. Greater Baku has 11 districts and 48 townships. Among these are townships on islands in the bay and one island town built on stilts in the Caspian Sea, 100 kilometers from Baku proper ('Oil Rocks').
Located in the walled town (Icheri-Shekher) the Maiden's Tower (Gyz Galassy) is Azerbaijan's best-known landmark and the de facto symbol of Baku. Giz Galasi or Maiden's Tower is one of the most popular and striking of the city's landmarks. Located in the Old City, at the western end of the Boulevard, the tower has become the unofficial symbol of Baku. According to legend, the tower was built by a Shah in 11th or 12th century for his daughter to force her to marry a rich nobleman. The young princess, who loved a poor young man, jumped from the tower on the day of the wedding to escape her fate.
After her death, the tower was given the name of the Maiden's Tower. According to another legend, in early centuries the tower served as a Zoroastrian temple where people from all over the Middle East and as far afield as India came to worship. Giz Galasi is within the Old City, part of the city built in the Medieval period. You can climb its eight floors and enjoy a magnificent view of the old town and Bakubay. The cylinder shaped tower is about 30 meters tall with a diameter of 16.5 meters and walls 5 meters thick. Archaeologists estimate that building the tower started in the 7th or 8th century and enlarged in the 11th or 12th century by a Massud ibn Daud, as a Kufic inscription reveals. Built on a coastal rock, that made tunneling under it impossible, the tower as a bizarre projection at the base which gives it the look of a retort (closed on Sunday).
Shirvanshahs' Palace complex
The most striking example of the medieval palace structures in Azerbaijan is the Shirvanshahs' Palace complex. It's in the Inner City (Ichari Shahar). In XV century the governors of Shirvan have transferred here the capital of the state from Shemaha to Baku, have rebuilt this palace and made it their residence. The domes and arches, mosaics and stonework are in beautiful shape. This grand complex has the main building of the palace, Divankhana, the burial-vaults, the Shah's mosque with a minaret (1441), Seyid Yahya Bakuvi's mausoleum, a portal in the east - Murad's gate (1585), a reservoir and the remnants of the bath-house.
The Palace, the main building of the complex which is the earliest of all the palace constructions was built almost within ten years. Its construction was started in 1411 by Shirvanshah Shaikh Ibrahim I. The two-storey building of the palace numbers about 50 different dimensions and outlines of the constructions connected with 3 narrow winding staircases. The big lancet portal directly leads from the courtyard to the second floor, into a high octahedral lodging covered with a cupola. A small, also an octagonal vestibule, located behind it, connects it with the rest of the lodgings in the palace.
Divankhana is a small fine pavilion. It is situated inside a small yard surrounded by a gallery-arcade on three sides. The Divankhana pavilion consists of an octahedral hall covered with a stone cupola both inside and outside. The well-proportioned high portal of the main entrance is decorated with an ornament and inscriptions of extraordinary refinement and beauty. The ornament pictures the interlacing fig and vine leaves. The portal is also decorated with two medallions inside of which there are inscriptions in the Arabic language in graphic print of Cufa. The architectural composition and planning of Divankhana are original and don?t have analogues.
The family burial-vault of the Shirvanshahs is of a rectangular shape and crowned with a hexahedral cupola which is decorated from outside with multi-radial stars. The inscription on the entrance doorway indicates the purpose of the building, "Khalil-Ullah I, the greatest Sultan, Great Shirvanshah, the namesake of the divine prophet, the defender of the religion ordered to build this light burial-vault for his mother and son in 839" (1435-1436). On two drop-shaped medallions in the flannel parts of the portal, there are inscriptions with the architect's name - Memar Ali (architect Ali).
The Palace Mosque is situated in the lower court of the complex. The laconicism of its prismatic volumes, completed with two slightly pointed cupolas, is shaded by a well-proportioned vertical line of the minaret rising above in the north-eastern corner of the building. There are 2 chapels for prayers in the mosque: a hall of a large size for men and a hall of a small size for women, also a couple of small subsidiary rooms. There is an inscription laid under the stalactite belt of the minaret which reads, "The greatest Sultan Khalil-Ullah I ordered to build this minaret. May God exalt the days of his governing and reign. The year of 845" (1441-1442).
Seyid Yahya Bakuvi's Mausoleum is situated in the southern part of the complex. Seyid Yahya Bakuvi was a royal scholar in the court of Shirvanshah Khalilullah. The Mausoleum is of an octahedral shape and covered with an octahedral marquee. It consists of ground and underground parts. The upper part of the Mausoleum served to perform the cult rites, and the lower one housed the sepulchral vault. There are three small lancet windows with a stone bar - shabaka on the southern, eastern and western verges of the Mausoleum.
The Shirvanshahs' Palace complex also includes the portal of Eastern Gates, the so-called "Murad's Gate". It was built within the walls of the citadel rather later than all the other constructions of the complex during the seizure of Baku by the Turks in the XIV century. The gates were named by them in honor of Sultan Murad III.
The Palace Bath-house is situated on the lowest terrace of the complex. It was discovered in 1939. The archaeological excavations exposed a big bath-house consisting of 26 rooms. On the basis of the surviving remains of the walls of the bath-house, one can say that its rooms used to be covered with cupolas and the light penetrated through the openings in the cupolas. The bath-house was semi-underground for keeping the heat in winter and the cool in summer.
The Shirvanshahs' Palace complex was declared a museum-reserve in 1964 and was taken under the state protection. Nowadays it is open for a thousand of tourists.