After landing in Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport (Thank you Azerbaijan for introducing the Evisa!), I headed to my hotel.
Usually, I am all about budget travelling and accommodation. But since I had left Dubai with a heavy flu, I wanted to stay in a nice hotel which allowed me to rest for the first couple of days. So, I ended up staying at the Baku Palace hotel.
No, no. The ‘Palace’ is only in the name, as it was a mid-range hotel and frequented mostly by Arab tourists who came to Azerbaijan to fulfil certain vices. It was still more expensive than my usual sleeping spots. But what made it especially interesting to me was that Baku Palace hotel was just a short walk from the Old City of Baku.
The Icheri Seher. (Come to think of it, Seher means ‘city’ in Hindi also!)
The Old city is also a Walled city
The next day, I started early morning and walked from the Baku Palace hotel towards the old city of Icheri Seher.
Baku is fascinating, filled with wondrous and futuristic buildings almost at par with Dubai and Singapore. (Most of these modern, architectural wonders are outside of the old city, and I will write a separate post about them later). But it still retains its culture and history through Icheri Seher, the historic core of Baku, which is carefully tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city through the vast Baku fortress wall. And the fortress wall – which surrounds the whole of Icheri Seher – makes it a small city within a city!
Further Reading: In a way, Icheri Seher is similar to another walled city in the Philippines. Have you heard of Intra Muros, the walled city of Manila?
I entered Icheri Seher from the north side, walking past the sprawling Sabir Bagi park. A giant gate materialized in the middle of the wall that surrounded Icheri Seher, with an open side door. And upon entering it, I was transported back to an age when caravans and silk route traders filled this stretch.
The path was neatly laid with cobblestones, and on both sides of it stood elegant buildings – almost like a page out of history. There were a few boutique hotels and hostels too, just to let this curious visitor know that this place was not entirely off the tourist map either.
Deciding not to get lost (I would. Eventually), I started walking along the inner wall, towards the west side. Icheri Seher may be a historic site acknowledged by UNESCO, but there still are plenty of families living here. They carried on their daily chores, not bothered with the sight of a backpacker walking amongst them, taking pictures. Many of the other Russian tourists also stopped and took pictures of a pharmacy named ‘Brilliant café’ (what a name?!), and I was told that it was prominently featured in some Russian literature or movie.
As I kept walking, I found out that Icheri Seher was also home to many embassies. By the end of the day, I had walked past the embassies of Italy, Switzerland and Hungary within the walled city. If you know of any others, let me know in the comments.
It was just after the Italian embassy that I came across something which would have been really cool to enter. The museum of miniature books, which was the world’s largest collection of miniature books, with small books collected from over 60 countries. But I had not researched about the opening days of the Museum, as it was closed for Monday.
By this time, I had already reached the western gates of the Baku fortress wall. So, I decided to go out and come back in again. You know, just for the fun of it? And it was there that I ran into the colourful pink taxis of Baku. (I don’t think the taxis are pink only in the old city, as the rest of Baku had normal-coloured taxis).
Icheri Seher is the ideal place for the shopping tourist. Carpets and artworks were everywhere, and almost every second building was an art gallery. The first building was, of course, a café. I stopped at cafes from time to time, to have a local Kampote.
If you haven’t had a Kampote (Kompot in Russia), you totally must! It’s a sweet syrup made from varied fruits, and added to sparkling water. In this scorching Azerbaijani heat, it was the Kampote that saved me many-a-times.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs – A pearl of Azerbaijan
Walking towards the center of the Icheri Seher, I finally came across the entrance to what UNESCO called, “the pearl of Azerbaijan’s architecture” – the palace of the Shirvanshahs.
Back in the 15th century, this region of the Caucasus was known as Shirvan, and it was ruled by the Shirvanshahs – who were the longest-ruling dynasty in the Islamic world. The Shirvanshahs were famous for promoting culture, poetry, architecture and all the romantic things of a beautiful life. And they left behind their most famous legacy in the center of Icheri seher, in the form of a palace compound that also consisted of mosques, burial vaults and bath houses.
There were a few key aspects to the Palace compounds – apart from the palace itself. The entire palace was converted into a museum, so there were exhibits from the historical times of Shirvan everywhere. For those with a keen interest in silk route history, be prepared to spend quite a bit of time here!
Of particular aesthetic beauty is the Divankhana, the closed compound which served as a venue for legal procedures and other religious functions. There is the mausoleum of a 15th century Azerbaijani scholar named Seyyid Yahya Bakuvi. There were couple of mosques whose minarets still stand proudly. And towards the end of the palace compound, lies the remains of a once-grand bath house of the Shirvanshahs.
Further Reading: If you love visiting places with Islamic history, do make a note to check out the glorious architecture of Jerash, in Jordan.
The Mysteries of the Maiden Tower
After the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, I walked towards the southern end of the old city of Icheri Seher to view the other UNESCO heritage site here. The Maiden tower.
The eccentrically shaped Maiden tower (It’s cylindrical, but also has a buttress at the back) is equally famous for the mystery of its purpose. There are countless stories and legends about the origin and history of this tower, that I could write an entire blogpost about it. The tower most probably gets it name because it has never been captured by an enemy force. Or it could also be named after the Zoroastrian water goddess Anahita.
The most popular story related to the Maiden tower is said in a famous ballet – which is also named ‘maiden tower’ – which was the first Azerbaijani ballet and the first ballet in the Middle East. According to the ballet, one of the Shahs was furious to find out that he had a daughter instead of son, so he ordered the daughter to be killed. The daughter grew up in secret, and found a lover in her teens. Now fully an adult, the Shah saw her and decided to marry her, unbeknownst to the fact that she was his own daughter. He locked her away in the Maiden Tower to ensure the marriage happened. But the girl’s lover managed to kill the king, and rush to the Maiden tower. The girl heard footsteps approaching the tower, mistook it to be that of the king, and tragically jumped to her death from the tower.
It is difficult to believe that such a beautiful structure holds the secret of such a tragic tale. But once you get to the top of the Maiden tower, the tragedy gave away to wonder for me – as I gazed out towards the city of Baku and its amazingly futuristic architecture.
- Keep atleast 4 hours of time to walk through the Icheri Seher. Preferably a full day to appreciate it well.
- It can be ridiculously hot in the summers. Keep water handy. There are cafes everywhere (serving those delicious Kampotes), but being a touristy place, the prices are on the higher side.
- The Icheri Seher itself is free to enter. But to enter the Shirvanshahs palace complex and the Maidan Tower, foreigners have to pay 10 AZN each.
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This post is part of my travel stories about Azerbaijan. Click here to check out my other Azerbaijan Stories.
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