Baku in Azerbaijan is the largest and best-preserved medieval walled city in the Caucasus region. Thanks in large part to its strategic yet out-of-the-way position on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, and a lot of good fortune, the city of Baku survived the ravages of the Middle Ages reasonably intact. Because of this, and because of of exceptional restoration efforts made during the Russian Empire and Soviet periods, the city walls of Baku are arguably the best to be found between Syria and Uzbekistan. The walls of Baku are part of the Old City of Baku UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The small peninsula upon which Baku now stands has been inhabited since ancient times. Long an outpost of the various Islamic caliphates, the region probably broke away in the 10th century. Baku itself remained something of a backwater, though important in shipbuilding on the Caspian Sea, until it was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the late 12th century.
In 1191, after an earthquake laid destroyed the nearby city of Shamakhy, Baku was chosen as the site for a new capital of the small kingdom of Shirvan. The city grew very quickly, becoming the largest and most important port on the Caspian Sea. Over the course of several centuries, massive fortifications were constructed around the city and peninsula, including city walls, fortresses and watch towers.
Despite these great defenses, some of the strongest in the world at the time, the city fell to numerous invaders. Fortunately for Baku, these conquests were not always as destructive as could have happened. After the arrival of the Mongols in the 1230s the city not only survived but prospered as a royal city under the Ilhkanids. The arrival of the Safavids in the 16th century was not as gentle, but again the city prospered as one of the world’s earliest sources of oil.
After the collapse of the Safavid dynasty, Baku underwent a difficult period of transition, but ultimately coming under the dominion of the Russian Empire. Under the Russians the city’s defenses were rebuilt and expanded on an even more massive scale than before, making Baku Russia’s most important frontier city with the Middle East. The city’s walls as they currently stand date from this time. The walls and other surviving fortifications were maintained throughout the Russian and Soviet periods, and are now kept up by the government of Azerbaijan as one of the country’s premier tourist sites.
The Old City of Baku was once completely enclosed by a great inner wall, with a shorter outer wall to defend the peninsular side. While the walls facing the sea have largely been torn down, the landward walls are in excellent condition. Although obscured in areas by the buildings of the new city, it is still easy to find excellent vantages of the daunting, sandy-colored stone walls. Of particular note are the unusual, rounded crenelations on the battlements.
The cities towers are magnificent, if somewhat unconventional. Most of the towers are rounded only in the front, while the backs are flattened and even against the walls. The result is that from the side, the towers look as if they have literally been sliced in half. The Maiden Tower dates back to the 1100s. To this day the old city is accessible only by two gates which pierce the main wall.
The Old City of Baku and its walls are an open site. However, as of this writing no information was available on accessibility to the top of the wall or to the towers. There is no charge of admission to the Old City. Web: http://azerbaijan.travel (official website).
Azerbaijan has relatively few surviving major pre-colonial fortifications. One of the best standing is Nardaran Castle, an advance defensive fort located just west of Baku.
Leave a Reply