Walled City of Baku: World Cultural Heritage

Eurasia News

The  Walled  City of  Baku,  also known as  Icherisheher  (Inner City or  Old  Town)  is the core of ancient Baku,  the capital city of the medieval Azerbaijani  state  of Shirvanshahs.  As the historical and architectural pearl of ancient Baku, it is an open sky museum, also called  the Acropolis of Baku, Old City or Icherisheher. With the development of  the  oil  industry  in  Azerbaijan in late 19th century,  the  city expanded  beyond  the  fortress  walls and many buildings  were  constructed  outside the fortress walls, and Baku grew rapidly in size. The Walled City of Baku remained as a traditional residential and historical centre coexisting with the surrounding city.

Icherisheher as the world heritage

The splendour of  Icherisheher  (Walled City of Baku) is that it reflects a mixture of unique architectural monuments and the spatial urban planning with original street views. The historical city is still a  vibrant city with residential areas housed by local communities.  The distinctiveness of Icherisheher within Baku is evident from a view of the plan of the city. The surrounding urban pattern is strikingly different from that of the fortress.  The medieval street pattern creates a feeling of an endless maze that is perceived while walking within the city. Its quarters are much smaller than the blocks of the rest of the Historic Centre. Icherisheher has retained the relative homogeneity of its architecture and urban pattern because of its exclusion from Baku’s dynamic urban development in the 19th and 20th  centuries.

This phenomenon is rare among historic cores in modern cities. The low and  dense urban  structure  ascending in steps onto the hill has been accentuated only by minarets, the Palace and the Maiden Tower.  Icherisheher has preserved much of its  defensive  walls,  which  define  the character of the property. The most ancient monument of  Icherisheher  is  the  Maiden Tower – symbol of the city of Baku. Another monument  of  universal  value,  one  of  the pearls  of  Azerbaijan’s  architecture,  is  the 12th to 15th-century Shirvanshahs’ Palace, located at the highest point of Icherisheher. Earlier monuments of Icherisheher include the Mohammed Mosque, together with the adjacent minaret built in 1078, and remains of  the  9th  to  10th-century  mosque  near the  Maiden  Tower.  Considering  that  this medieval city represents an outstanding and rare example of a historic urban ensemble and architecture, UNESCO inscribed it on the World Heritage List in 2000, and it is being preserved under the auspices of UNESCO as a historical-architectural reserve.


Monuments of Icherisheher

There   are   hundreds   of   historical-architectural  structures  in  Icherisheher,  a site no bigger than 22 ha, surrounded by the fortress walls. Four of these structures are  of  international  and  28  of  national significance.  The  remaining  monuments (about 500) are of local value. The Maiden Tower, located in the heart of  the  Walled  City  of  Baku,  has  a  unique cylindrical form and distinctive interior. The tower  was  built  on  a  giant  rock  sloping down to the shore of the Caspian Sea. The heights of the northern and the southern parts of the Maiden Tower of Baku are 31m and 28 m respectively. There  are  several  theories  about  the history   and   purpose   of   the   tower’s construction. According to some historians, people  used  the  beacon  tower  for  the purpose of sending alarm signals to other towers,  with  fire  during  the  night  and smoke during the day.  There are also researchers who relate the history of the monument to ancient times, referring primarily to the tower’s structure. They believe the Maiden Tower goes back to the Zoroastrian period and was a Zoroaster cell, a fire-worshipper’s temple. Thus the Maiden Tower is believed to have been built for fire-worshipping, and only later in the Middle Ages used as a defence tower. Another landmark in the Walled City of Baku is the Palace of Shirvanshahs’ Palace, the residence  of  the  Shirvan  governors. With  its  unique  historic  and  architectural characteristics, it is one of the prime examples of the Walled City’s medieval architecture.   The  Shirvanshahs’  Palace  complex is  composed  of  nine  buildings:  the  Palace, the Divankhana (Courthouse), the Dervish’s Mausoleum,  the  Eastern  Gate  (Portal),  the Palace  Mosque,  the  Key-Qubad  Mosque, the  Palace  Burial  Vault,  the  Hammam (bathhouse)  and  the  Ovdan  (cistern).  The palace is built on the highest point of one of the hills within Icherisheher. Extending over three  superimposed  terraces,  it  is  clearly visible  from  the  sea  and  from  the  heights surrounding the city. Mohammed Mosque, another historical monument is  one  of Baku’s  most  significant  examples  of  the architecture of the Islamic period. It was built in 471. The variously-decorated one-room prayer hall  is  connected  to  a  small  vestibule  on the  north  side  of  the  mosque.  The   cylindrical minaret attached to the mosque ends on the top with a tracery muezzin balcony set on a stalactite cornice. Spiral stone staircases built within the minaret start from the floor of the prayer hall. A  Quran aya is inscribed in Arabic with Cufic writing along the stalactite belt on the upper part of theminaret. During Peter the Great’s marine expedition to  Baku,  by  order  of  the  Russian  Fleet’s Admiral Matyushkin, artillery bombardment of  the  Palace  from  the  sea  caused  serious damage  to  the  monument.  The  top  of  the minaret  was  shattered,  which  is  why  the mosque is also called Siniqqala, broken tower.


Management of the Walled City of Baku

Icherisheher  and  its  buffer  zone,  as designated by Presidential Decree No. 725 of 13 June 1998, are protected by the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on the Preservation of  Historical  and  Cultural  Monuments, which  among  other  clauses,  forbids  the destruction  or  alteration  of  registered monuments,  regardless  of  whether  they are in public or private ownership, without permission from a designated authority. In 2007, the Administration of State Historical-Architectural  Reserve  ‘Icherisheher’  was established  as  an  institution  responsible for  the  management  and  conservation  for future generations of the monuments within Icherisheher  and  the  entire  architectural and urban complex. The Administration of Icherisheher is independent and funded by the Government.  An Integrated Area Management Action Plan  (IAMAP)  and  Conservation  Master Plan  of  Icherisheher  was  developed  in 2007.  The  Conservation  Master  Plan  has been  reviewed  and  formally  approved by  all  stakeholders,  and  integrated  with the  IAMAP  and  adopted  in  the  urban planning  system  of  the  City  of  Baku.  The Administration  implemented  the  actions undertaken  under  the  IAMAP:  the  state of  conservation  of  the  property  has  been documented  and  monitored;  standards and  procedures  related  to  the  regulation of  rehabilitation  of  existing  buildings  are formulated; maintenance and improvement of  public  spaces  are  carried  out;  strategic interventions to improve the quality of life in Icherisheher are developed; and community outreach  and  scientific  programmes  are organized and successfully managed.


Restoration and repurposing historical buildings into cultural centers

Icherisheher is home to numerous historical buildings of universal, national and local value. Since inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the City Administration has successfully completed the conservation and   restoration   of   several   historical monuments  such  as  the  Maiden  Tower, Palace  of  the  Shirvanshahs,  Mohammed Mosque, Beyler Mosque and others and brought them to life. The Administration managed to restore not only the architecture but also the social values associated with the historical buildings.

The  conservation  of  the  Maiden  Tower was  launched  in  2009  according  to  the ‘Detailed  Conservation  Master  Plan  of  the Historic Center of Baku’. It was carried out under  the  supervision  of  the  Erich  Pumper Atelier,   an   internationally   renowned Austrian company specialized in restoration and  conservation,  with  the  involvement  of local  and  foreign  specialists.  In  addition, a  new  permanent  exhibition  was  installed after  the  conservation  works,  presenting the  Maiden  Tower  as  a  historic  cultural monument of global value and addressing a very wide audience, encompassing local and international  visitors  and  both  adults  and children. The most up-to-date technologies and  media,  indispensable  for  a  modern museum, are widely used in the exhibition. Traditional  and  electronic  media  together create a rich and multidimensional experience of  the  monument.  The  new  museum exhibition  gives  visitors  the  opportunity  to discover a wide range of information on the history of the monument, its functions and the  legends  surrounding  it.  Conservation work was also undertaken on  the  Palace  of  Shirvanshahs. The most urgent conservation tasks   pertained   to   the   Shirvanshahs’ mausoleum and Divankhana court square. Both  feature  particularly  fine  examples of  stonemasonry  on  the  portals  and  their stalactite  arches.

All  preservation  work was carried out based on the principles of authenticity and unaltered reproduction of historical information, and with respect for features  caused  by  aging,  and  therefore in compliance with the 1964 international Venice  Charter  for  the  Conservation  and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. Once conservation works  were  completed,  a  new  museum exhibition  was  created  at  the  Palace  of the  Shirvanshahs  complex.  Along  with rich museum exhibits,   the  exhibition makes  extensive  use  of  video  projection, multimedia animation and audio and video presentations. In addition, at the Palace of the Shirvanshahs complex, visitors can use the services of a multimedia guide for the first time. The depiction of the palace throne room, the exhibits and video presentations recreate the decor and atmosphere of the Shirvanshah  era,  and  the  3D  animated model  of  the  history  of  the  Shirvanshahs further enhances visitors’ experience.The  Icherisheher  complex  of  historical and architectural monuments is the greatest cultural  inheritance  of  the  Azerbaijan nation.  It  represents  a  constant  source of  interest  for  both  local  inhabitants  and visitors to Baku.

Another conservation work, which is currently underway is in the Baku Khans’ Palace. Upon the completion of the conservation works, “Baku History” Museum will be created in the Palace, which will display the medieval life via interactive panels.