Baki's compact OldTown is a mixture of Medieval monuments, 19th century oil boom Mansions, and a few Soviet-era monstrosities. It once extended farther east towards the sea, but part was demolished to make way for Neftchilar prospekti and the waterfront park. Since the mid 1990s many oil companies and other foreign firms have opened offices in the OldTown, and there has been extensive building and restoration work.
Walking Tour The OldTown's maze of alleys is ideal for exploring on foot, and is small enough not to get completely lost in. The following tour should take about 45 minutes, not including time spent exploring the attractions on the way.
Begin at the Shamahi Gate, the main entrance to the OldTown, just south of Fountain Square. The twin arches lead through city walls that were originally raised in the 12th century, were strengthened following the Russian occupation of 1806, and have since been extensively restored. Above the gates you can see the ancient arms of Baki, two lions and a bull beneath the symbols of the sun and the moon.
Continue along the broad expanse of Boyuk Qala kuchesi, past an 18th century portal beside El Kafesi restaurant, and take the left fork at the far end. This narrow street contains a commercial carpet exhibition on the left, but be sure to look up to your right to see the charming sculptures of children and cats peeking out the windows of an early 20th century apartment.
The street ahead squeezes between two medieval caravanserais - the 15th century Bukhara caravanserai to the right,
Old City street
now a nightclub, and the 14th century Multan caravanserai to the left, now Karavansaray Restaurant. Beyond the caravanserais you emerge into an open square with the Maiden's Tower rising to the left. The sunken area to the right of the street was excavated in the 1960s and found to be the 17th century market square. It has almost returned to its original function, serving as a display area for carpet sellers. The low domed buildings behind it are 17th century baths.
Continue along A Zeynalli kuchesi. More carpet sellers will be found ensconsed in the Madrassa Masjid, a 14th century mosque and religious school, and in the courtyard of the small caravanserai across the street. The little Lezgi Masjid (Lezgi Mosque) dates from 1169. The Juma Mascid (Friday Mosque), with its intricately carved portal, was originally built by the Shirvan-Shah Khalilullah I in the 1440s. The original 15th century minaret survives, but the mosque itself was rebuilt in 1899-1901.
Turn right at the Juma Mesjid and head uphill to a little square, then turn left along the narrow lane called M.M. Mansurov kuchesi. As it climbs gently uphill, note the squat Siniq-Qala Minara, which dates from 1079 and is the oldest surviving building in Baki. Follow the increasingly narrow lane past the minaret for another 50m, just past where it kinks to the left, then turn left down an alley and stairs to emerge on Zeynalli kuchesi.
Turn right and follow the street round to the left into an open square in front of the British Council offices. The sunken courtyard ahead contains the 17th century Qasimbay Hammam whose domed buildings are now occupied by offices and a desultory Museum of Pharmacy.
Turn right and head up Kichik Qalakuchesi directly beneath the OldTown wall. About 100m along on the right is a still functioning hammam. Continue along this street for another 400m, passing the modern white Icheri Sheher Hotel, to where the road curves right and uphill to a wide open square. You will see the entrance to the Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs at the south end of this square.
Very little is known for certain about the origins of the Maiden's Tower (Qiz Qalasi), Baki?s most famous tourist sight.
Maiden's Tower in Baku
Estimates of its date of construction range from the 7th century BC to the 12th century AD, and historians have variously claimed that it was a defensive tower and lookout post, a fire beacon, a Zoroastrian temple and an astronomical observatory.
The massive structure, built on a rock outcrop, is 30m high and 16m in diameter, with walls 5m thick at the base, tapering to 4m at the top. A buttress projects from the eastern side, and openings on the south side permit light to enter. There are eight floors inside, all linked by steps within the walls, except for the ground floor, which is linked to the first floor by a modern iron staircase. A deep well descends from a recess in the second floor chamber, and a doorway on the third floor opens into thin air, its original function unknown.
One of the more popular theories is that the tower was a Zoroastrian temple, perhaps even a 'Tower of Silence' where the dead were laid out while the vultures stripped the flesh from their bones. In accordance with this interpretation, the door on the third level opened onto a wooden balcony that gave access to niches in the buttress' which served as an astodan ? an ossuary where the bleached bones were then stored.
Icheri Sheher map
Today, the second level contains an interesting display of old photographs of the tower, while the third is given over to a souvenir shop. There are good views of the OldTown from the top.
The Maiden's Tower is open from to daily, and admission is 50 cents.
Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs
The Shirvan-Shah Khalilullah I built this royal palace in the 15th century. Built on a series of terraces, the palace complex is Baki?s most impressive medieval monument and the finest surviving example of Shirvan architecture. The outer walls of the complex with their defensive loopholes date from the 19th century.
The ticket booth is in the main ceremonial courtyard, which is dominated by the towering portal of the main palace apartments, built in the 15th century for Khalilullah I. A small gateway on the left leads into the courtyard of the Divan Hana, where the court of the Shirvan-Shah once assembled. The western portal is beautifully decorated with intricate carving and calligraphic inscriptions.
Steps lead down from the ceremonial courtyard to the main courtyard, which contains an octagonal cistern (for water
Minaret in Shirvanshahs Palace
storage) and the so-called Dervish's Mausoleum. This pointed-roofed structure is the tomb of Seyyid Yehya Bakuvi, a scholar at the court of Khalilullah I, who achieved a reputation as an astronomer, philosopher and mystic. To the east of the tomb lie the ruins of the Keyqubad Mosque and the surviving Murad Gate, which date from the 16th century. The carved stone blocks that lie around the courtyard, inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, animal figures and human faces, are known as the Bayil Stones. They were recovered in the 1950s from the ruins of Sabayil Qala, a 13th century castle that once stood on a now-submerged island near the BayilPeninsula in the south-west corner of BakiBay.
The next level down to the west is the religious courtyard, which contains the Royal Mosque, a small and rather plain structure, with a simple, unadorned mihrab (niche which indicates the direction of Mecca) opposite the door (ie the south wall - the direction of Mecca from Baki). An inscription beneath the balcony on the minaret reads: 'Built at the command of the great sultan Khalilullah I. May Allah glorify his reign. The year of the Hejira 854"' (AD 1444).
The Mausoleum of the Shirvan-Shahs is also very plain, with simple faceted decoration around the base of the dome. Photographs inside the building show archaeological excavations carried out in the 1940s on burials within the palace grounds. Another gate leads down to the final terrace and the ruins of the Palace Hammam. In the chamber farthest from the entrance stairs you will find fragments of coloured tiles on the walls.
The Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs is open from to daily. Admission is $1.25. An English-speaking guide is available for an extra $5.