Looking for an East meets West experience? Look no further than Baku, the capital city of the ancient state of the Shirvanshahs. We recently spent three days exploring the Azeri city. I was surprised to find just how European it was – although the Middle Eastern/Continental Asian influence is obvious. My favorite destination in the city was undoubtedly Baku’s Old Town – Icheri Sheher (İçәrişәhәr).
HISTORY OF ICHERI SHEHER
In ancient times, Baku was one of the most densely populated cities in the Middle East. It had a favourable (but windy!) climate, good natural resources, and was located in a useful position for East-West trade.
The name ‘Icheri Sheher’ actually means inner city. The entire city of Baku once existed between these walls. Built on a hill for defensive reasons, it is also home to the famed Maiden Tower. The streets, which appear a jumbled labyrinth, existed for strategic purposes, and helped residents defend the city from plunder. For hundreds of years, carts, cavalcades, camels and caravans made their way into the city of Baku via its main gate.
During the 19th century, the city began to expand beyond the fortress walls. This was largely due to a massive boom in growth after the discovery of oil. At one stage in the 19th century, growth in Baku rivaled that of London and New York.
In 1806 there were around 7,000 people living there, and around 700 shops. Merchants would gather in the city to sell and exchange goods from the Silk Road trading routes. Ships carried goods between Baku and Iran, Central Asia and Russia. Hammans (bathhouses) abounded, along with teahouses and shisha smoke. There was even a zorkhana – a traditional wresting ring – where the great Azeri tradition took place.
WHAT IS ICHERI SHEHER LIKE TODAY?
In early 2000, the historical center of Baku was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, the walled city is home to around 3500 residents of Baku. Full of (mainly) 18th century buildings on narrow streets, it’s a haven for street cats and neighbourhood hide-and-seek games. Residents look bemusedly at you as you wander through the back alleys, but didn’t seemed worried by our presence. There is a mixture of old, crumbly apartments and new mansions. The state of the car parked outside – a Lada or a BMW – is often the only hint of what is contained within.
While there have been claims of dubious restoration methods used, I didn’t notice any type of ‘Disney’ feel to the town. It felt fairly authentic. Some buildings, like any old town, were in a better state than others. It is extremely easy to get lost, with very few markers and street signs. We didn’t realise we had walked right past one of the famed Caravanserail until we had left the area.
To me, this was the only place in Baku where we found many tourists. A few touts hassled us, but we were mainly left to explore the city in peace. There are a number of market stalls to purchase souvenirs, and though we didn’t explore them, bathhouses to visit. However, you can have a wonderful time just wandering the back alleys.
SIGHTS OF ICHERI SHEHER
The Shirvanshahs’ Palace complex
This was the last home of the rulers of the Shirvan State, lasting about a thousand years. The first capital of the Shirvanshahs was the city of Shamakha, 100kms west of Baku. However, after a devastating earthquake there in 1197, the capital was moved to Baku.
The palace is not a grand or luxurious complex. It is relatively small. It’s mainly stone, and given its age, there isn’t a huge amount to see. However, for the small amount it costs to visit, it is worth a visit. Let’s put this into perspective. The palace was built in the early 1400s. Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand in 1642. The complex includes a 15th-century mosque, the Diwan-khan’s inner courtyard and a royal burial vault. (10AZN/22AED)
The Maiden Tower
The Maiden Tower is a beloved symbol of Baku. It’s even featured on Azeri currency. Some researchers suggest that the tower was originally built by fire worshipers, dating some of its construction to the pre-Islamic era. We climbed the tower, and you get a fabulous view from the top. A narrow spiral staircase leads up to a landing about 90 ft above ground level. Its walls are 16 ft thick at the base and 13 ft thick towards the top. You can stop and view various exhibits on each floor, so it’s not a terribly tiring climb.
There are various theories about the name ‘Maiden Tower’, but the most popular relates to the following legend:
Once upon a time, Baku was under siege. The enemy Shah gave an ultimatum to Baku’s ruler: I will not attack Baku if I can marry your beautiful daughter. After a long deliberation, the Shah’s daughter agreed to the marriage, but with the condition that she should be allowed to perform a last dance for her people on top of the tower. Her terms were accepted and that day all of Baku gathered to watch. After the dance, the Shah’s daughter threw herself from the tower. The young Shah was so shocked that he declared: If the women of this nation have such courage, I will never be able to conquer it. So he decided to withdraw.
Restoration efforts have taken place in recent years to make sure the tower is safe for tourists, and will remain standing. Part of this was the removal of some hundreds of swift nests. Enterprising swifts had taken up residence in some of the gaps where bricks had fallen out of the tower. Following the restoration effort, hundreds of additional swift nesting boxes (in the shape of a swift, no less!) were installed on a nearby building. (10AZN/22AED)
TRADITIONAL AZERI CUISINE
The traditional food of Azerbaijan is similar to that in Georgia – heavy, laden with dairy and fatty meat. There is a slightly more Turkish or Middle Eastern feel with pilafs and saffron rice making an appearance on the menu. Sumac is used to accompany a number of dishes. We tried a range of traditional Azeri delicacies – and would recommend the following:
Sabzi govurma – herbed lamb stew with garlic chives
Lyulya Kebab – barbecued skewered lamb
Qutab – savory crepes filled with lamb, spinach or cheese. The cheese ones are amazing – something like a thin cheese naan!
Pakhlava – like the Turkish sweet, only better – more layers and much tastier
Thyme tea – a local tea delicacy
Tandir Chorek – a local flatbread, made in a tandoor style oven
Icheri Sheher contains the majority of the cities traditional style restaurants. I’d assumed they were targetted to tourists, but there were mainly locals eating in them. The restaurants were clustered around Kichek Qala Street. We ate at Qaynana and Manqal, both were fine and of a similar cost, and great for people watching. If you want to try some delicious, but sweet, Pakhlava, the Pakhlava House (just round the corner on Sabir Street) has it for 2AZN a piece. The chocolate Pakhlava is incredible.
HOW TO GET TO ICHERI SHEHER
We entered Icheri Sheher from the gates adjacent to the İçәrişәhәr metro station. You can also enter near the Maiden Tower, or along various points adjacent to Neftçilər Prospekti.