Walled City of Baku
The Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower comprises the remains of a historic town, that has been the capital of Azerbaijan since 1191.
The Old City has preserved much of its 12th-century defensive walls. Within the walls lies a maze of narrow alleys, with ancient residences, stores and mosques. It also harbours the Maiden Tower, the city’s most ancient monument. Its Shirvanshah’s Palace is the most prominent example of Azeri architecture from the Shirvanshah dynasty.
Community Perspective: the cosmopolitan city of Baku gets lots of praise, but this historic center won’t hold your attention for more than an hour or so.
Map of Walled City of BakuLoad map
I visited this WHS in 2023 shortly after the Formula 1 Grand Prix organised around the Walled City of Baku. The metal/concrete protection on the fortified walls was still there as were the spectator stands and lack of painted road signs (really messy when driving through Old Baku towards Gobustan).
It is easier to appreciate the remaining walls around the old city of Baku from outside, especially near the city gates and double gates. From within the city walls, there will most likely always be a stark contrast between Old Baku and the modern high rise buildings outside the city walls. Earthquakes have devasted most of the historic buildings several times throughout history and as recently as the year of Baku's inscription on the WH list. Especially most of the residential buildings (with their wide wooden balconies) within the city walls have collapsed and have either never been rebuilt or have been rebuilt in a dull modern style. Therefore, the remaining historic buildings within the city walls stand out.
The Baylar Mosque is worth visiting inside for its architecture. It has been converted into a Koran Museum with a permanent sacred relics exhibition. The Mohammed Mosque and Minaret dates back to 1078-1079 and stands at the heart of Old Baku between the city's two main highlights: the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Other noteworthy buildings worth visiting in Baku are the Gasim Hey Hammam, the National Museum of History, the Ismailiyya Palace, the Nizami Museum of Azerbaijan Literature and the Teze Pir Mosque.
The Maiden Tower is situated in the southeastern part of the "Icheri-Shahar" (Baku Fortress), referred to by visiting traders as the "Acropolis of Baku". This unique cylindrical monument supported by a solid narrow and roundish addition was built in two periods. It is believed that the "tower part" of the monument till 13.7 metres dates back from the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The height of the tower is 29.5 metres while its diameter is 16.5 metres. The thickness of the walls is 5 metres at the base, 4 metres at the top. The tower is eight storeys high and is built of coastal rock. Each of the 8 floors of the tower has a round loophole and the floors are connected by a stone staircase. Daylight penetrates the tower through these loopholes which are wider inside. Apart from the view from the top, by visiting the tower's interior you'll be able to see the 13.5 metres deep well pit on the second floor. On the southwestern part of the tower there are some Kufi inscriptions. Around the Maiden Tower there is the open-air State Historical and Ethnographic Reserve as well as a few remaining residential buildings housing local arts and crafts. Just near the entrance to the tower is a bronze plan of the walled city which is also a UNESCO WHS inscription plaque.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs ensemble was built in the 15th century and is situated on the highest point of one of the hills of Baku and is spread over three terraces so as to be seen as truly mighty especially from sea. The buildings are crowned with cupolas with the well-proportioned portals and minaret, adorned with deep carvings and elaborate masonry. The ensemble contains: the residential building of 3 Shirvanshahs, the Divankhana for official receptions and state meetings, the Turbe or Shirvanshahs' family tomb, remains of the Keygubad Mosque and the hammam. The two-storied residential building is the biggest and oldest monument of the ensemble with more than 50 premises of different forms and sizes, connected by 3 spiral staircases. It now houses a lot of interesting artefacts and carpets inside and around its exterior there are huge inscription remains of the Bayil Fortress. The highlight inside is the highly adorned octangular vestibule that connects it with the palace's four entrances. Last but not least is the octangular Mausoleum of Seyyid Yahya Bakuvi (also known as the dervish's mausoleum) with a pyramid-shaped top and a very narrow opening and staircase in front of it which leads beneath it to the plain tomb. The best places for a panoramic viewpoint of the palace are the cafes with a terrace just next to the Italian Embassy and the free Museum of Miniature Books.
I was lucky to stay within the walled city of Baku for a good number of days. This was crucial to be able to watch the old city wake up early in the morning just after sunrise (the best light for most of the city monuments), but especially to avoid the rush hour traffic to get to Baku. The contrast between old and new Baku is interesting closer to the Caspian sea promenade but quite of an eyesore in other places just outside of the walled city. I was very surprised by the nightlife with cafes, bar and restaurants open till late everyday. I particularly enjoyed the "Nar"/Pomegranate wine and the Shah plov or pilaf, as well as the excellent cherry meat stew dish topped with a piece of dough as if it were a pie.
It's more of a "City with some walls" and it's rightly on the endanger list because urban development has made it seem like there are just remains and ruins in-between a modern city. It's not horrible in any way but I wouldn't call it a marvel of culture to be placed on the world heritage list.
Anyone coming to Azerbaijan is probably gonna set foot in Baku. It's the gateway to the country and the only thing you could avoid is the city center. The airport is a bit out of town and after you drive and marvel at the modern skyscrapers that reminded me off Dubai, built by gas money for sure, you can set foot in a sort of old town. There aren't many special things to see. The tower as seen twice in my pics is probably the biggest thing. Trotting around will take less than an hour and you will feel "oh it's another brick wall" here and there - nothing major. You find street peddlers, shops, food bazaars and it's all pretty enjoyable. As I said it's nothing bad and a stopover in Baku is easy and probably on the average Joe/Jane's itinerary anyway so just don't expect too much.
p.s. not sure how it is these days but as you can see from my pic I visited in 2017 and Google Maps didn't allow navigation so be prepared for alternatives if you want a drive app running (Waze probably works better).
Azerbaijan isn’t exactly a tourist magnet, but it does try really hard to reach out to the world. In a few weeks' time it will stage its first Formula One race (on a street circuit just like Monaco!), and it has been host to the European Games and Eurovision Song Contest in recent years. Its capital Baku houses half of the country’s inhabitants and is a sight to behold. A relatively small part of it, the Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower, has been designated as a world heritage site.
Despite the "Walled" epithet, the medieval city center isn’t fully enclosed anymore. Only the western and northern sides still are fortified. In our timeline, we put ‘12th century’ as the age of this WHS, derived from the construction date of the landmark Maiden Tower. This tower lies on the edge of the old town, at a stretch without a continuing wall. It has a peculiar cylindrical shape, with a rectangle brick structure attached for additional stability necessary in this earthquake-prone region. It is climbable via an inner staircase, you’ll see that there’s a cistern hidden inside.
The whole site is easily walkable and low on traffic. There are many restaurants on hand for a tea break or a kebab, and there is outdoor art (some of it Soviet-style). Somehow I had expected more of a ‘medieval town center’-atmosphere, but most of the buildings are from a much later date and/or don’t have their original purpose anymore. In this way Azerbaijan has similar ‘problems’ as the Gulf States – while now they have the funds and self-consciousness to celebrate and preserve their ways of the past, most of these have been demolished or died out. The core zone for example has several hammams, but none is in use anymore (“All the houses have bathrooms now!”, exclaimed our over-enthusiastic guide). When you use your imagination (a lot), you can see there’s a hint of Silk Road cities like Bukhara here. But especially the long Russian dominance has erased a lot.
Probably also a result of Soviet times is the low-key existence of mosques. The call-to-prayer has been forbidden in Baku for example (although I heard it during my stay). While the old Uzbek cities are full of ostentatious religious monuments, Baku’s old town Friday Mosque is easily overlooked.
The second main monument inside the walls, the Shirvanshah’s Palace, housed the rulers of medieval Azerbaijan when they moved their capital to Baku in the 15th century. The complex consists of several elements, including its own mosque plus a minaret and mausolea. The main residential palace can be visited but is rather bare. Its façade is covered with bullet holes stemming from "soldiers shooting training", or the inter-ethnic conflict in 1918 known as March Days / Azeri genocide by the hands of Armenians (all depending on who you ask).
During my visit, I came exactly to the same conclusion about Baku as Solivagant did more than 10 years before: while the walled city center is worth a visit, the real attraction of the Azeri capital lies in the ‘modern’ town. There you can find many monumental late 19th-century constructions in (mostly) neoclassical style, testimony to an earlier oil boom. These buildings have found new functions and are well-cared for, especially the facades are splendid. The Azeris also use this successful window-dressing technique to hide uglier building fronts from the Soviet period.
Devotees to modern architecture will find in Baku a masterpiece like the Heydar Aliyev cultural center, done by the recently deceased Zaha Hadid. And the three elegant Flame Towers will draw your attention from afar, especially when illuminated in the evening in yellow & red. Both constructions were only finished in 2012, and these are just two of the highlights. More are on their way - until the natural gas & oil money runs out I guess.
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The Walled City of Baku was the other WHS in Azerbeidzjan we visited, including Shrivanshah's Palace and the Maiden Tower. Pity, the restauration activities made the tower almost invisible.
+39 an humid was my first impression of Baku, the largest and most cosmopolitan city by the Caspian Sea, a city that easily could become a major tourist resort if the tourist hotel was in place, houses refurbished and the oil industry somewhat more careful about polluting the water. The actual World Heritage Site, the Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower, is located in the centre of the town, next to the Fountain Square and the main shoppingareas on Nirzami Street. The Shirvanshah’s Palace has been recently refurbished and together with the Maiden Tower and Caravan Saray’s, it provides an excellent image of life of the mid-15th century and days of the Silk Road trade.
My stay in Baku lasted for a week which also provided me with the opportunity to see more of the Absheron peninsula where Baku is located and the south and northwest of Azerbaijan.
Everything in Baku is centred around oil since the mid 19th century when the Swedish Nobel brothers together with other oil-prospectors basically started the world-wide oil-boom ou of Baku. But even before these days, the Baku area was filled with oil-related phenomenas. Today you can visit Zoroastrian Astegah Fire Temple, a sacred temple since the 6th century as well as burning mountains besides finding thousands of “donkeys” – oil-pumps working 24/7 delivering the black gold.
My traveling also took me further south, to Gobustan where you find strange nature phenomenas as mud-volcanoes and the over 12.000 year old petroglyphs (listed on the tentative World Heritage Site), over 6000 rock carvings, witness of ancient mans’ civilization by the Caspian Sea. When I later headed north of Baku, to the small town of Quba, I found myslef in the mountain landscape of the Caucasus, reminding me more of Norway and Austria than Azerbaijan.
Taken as a whole Baku is, in my opinion, “worth a journey”. However, the medieval part of it, which has been inscribed as a WHS site, is not particularly notable or interesting in itself – “worth a visit” for an hour or so if you are already there but a bit lost in the modernity of Baku and lacking the scale and atmosphere of some other such Central Asian medieval cities. Perhaps its most amazing aspect is that it even survived the changes in Baku during the Oil boom and the Soviet era.
There are however a number of sites on the WHS Tentative list around Baku which should not be missed including the petroglyphs and “singing stones” at Gobustan and the Zoroastrian Fire Temple in the suburb of Surakhany. A number of more modern sights are also “worth the journey”:-
a. many fine buildings from the 19th century “oil boom city”
b. the “surreal” environment in the oil fields around the city with pipework, “nodding donkeys” and seeping oil everywhere
c. the artificial islands and roads leading from the shore to oil wells stretching far out into the Caspian
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2009 Removed from Danger list
2003 In Danger
Loss of authenticity due in part to the earthquake in 2000 and to the urban development pressures
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