Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Pages 46-47

14th Century Baku

When Caspian Waves Lapped Maiden's Tower
by Abdurrashid Bakuvi

Abdurrashid Bakuvi was a famous Baku scholar of the 14th-15th centuries who provided a description of Baku's Inner City (Ichari Shahar) in his famous text on geography entitled, "A Short Description of the Monuments and Magical Deeds of the Almighty Lord". He describes what was known in those times about countries and settlements throughout the world, including Baku. He wrote in Arabic. The only original manuscript is housed at the Paris National Library; a copy exists in the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku.

Baku is a city of stone construction built along the coast of the Caspian, which is located in the region of Darband [city on the Caspian Sea, now in Dagestan, Russia] and Shirvan [northwest of Baku]. [Shirvan was an historical province-the mountainous region between Caspian Sea and the Kur River. The main medieval cities were Darband, Shamakhi and Baku, which was also considered part of the Shirvan region. Baku was the capital of the rulers of Shirvan-the Shirvanshahs at this time.]

Above: Early 20th century showing view in Baku's Old City (Ichari Shahar) towards the Caspian Sea. Left: Maiden's Tower, center: Friday Mosque. Postcard: courtesy of Khalida Nasirova

The city walls are enveloped by water from the sea. The water reaches most of the towers and approaches the mosque [probably a reference to Mohammad Mosque which was built in the 11th century].

The ground is rocky and most of the houses are constructed upon rock. The air is good, the water is sweet and comes from wells in rocky places. The water in the wells finds its source from underground springs.
The harvest of grains is poor here. Wheat is brought from Shirvan and Mughan. [The author is referring to wheat that was brought to Baku inland from Shirvan, located to the northwest. Mughan is located on the steppes between the Shirvan and the Talish region. During medieval times, many villages produced wheat and other grains. These days, towns such as Salyan, Neftchala, Ali-Bayramly and Haji Gabul are located there.]

There are many figs, pomegranates and grapes growing here. The gardens [meaning the summer homes which are often referred to as "dachas" these days] are quite distant from the city, and most people spend their summers there, stay for awhile and then return to the city. This happens every year.

The city has two extremely strong fortresses, which are built of stone. One of them [the Maiden's Tower] is larger and stands along the seacoast and its walls are washed by waves. It is the same fortress that the Tatars were not able to capture. [The author refers to the Mongolian Invasion of the 13th century.] The second fortress is situated at a higher location than the first. The upper part of this fortress was destroyed by Manjanigs. [It is likely that the author is referring to the Tower which still stands today and which forms part of the wall of the Ismayiliyya Building, or Presidium of the Academy of Science. Manjanigs were a tribe of Mongols].

One of peculiarities of this city is that winds blow incessantly all day long. Sometimes, when strong wind blows, one can't resist or stand up against them. During the winter, the winds are so strong that they sometimes blow horses and sheep into the sea.

Evidence of Oil

Below: In Baku's Old City (Ichari Shahar). One of the bathhouses and market centers
which are located directly behind Maiden's Tower. Currently, more archaeological excavations are being carried out at this location.

There are fields of pitch (bitumen) and springs of oil here. Every day more than 200 barrels of oil are loaded up and carried out by camels. Nearby is another spring of white oil resembling jasmine oil which continues day and night long without interruption. Its rent price is about 1,000 dirhams.

[Dirham is a silver coin, which during medieval times was spread throughout the Muslim world including Azerbaijan. The medieval dirham was a specific weight of pure silver equivalent to 3.0 grams. This oil field was leased for 1,000 dirhams-3 kg of pure silver approximately US $500. Possibly the owner was Shirvanshah-the ruler of Shirvan. However, the author doesn't write if this sum was paid monthly or annually.

Nearby these springs of oil, the ground is a deep yellow color and burns like a candle [earth that is heavily saturated with oil]. The people gather clumps of this soil and bring it to the city to be used at heating houses and bathhouses.

At a distance of one farsah (approximately 3 miles) from the city, there is a place that is always ablaze with an eternal fire. It is said that its source is sulfur. There is a village in neighborhood with a population who are Christians [Tats continued to follow Christianity since the times of Caucasian Albania (3rd and 4th century AD). According to the scholar Bakuvi even in the Middle Ages, the Tats made up a significant portion of the population in villages nearby Baku, although people in Baku had converted to Islam after the Arabic invasion].

They burn lime [slaked lime-CaCO3] and bring it by horse-drawn wagons to the city. There are salt mines of excellent quality here as well and the salt [edible salt containing iodine] is exported to other countries as well. Nearby the city, there is an island [Nargin] where people go to hunt seals. The skin is removed from seals and their fat is melted and used for lamps. People use sealskins for making leather bags which they fill with oil to transport to foreign countries.

There are so many gazelles here that it is impossible to compare them with any other place. [In the past, all the steppes and semi-desert regions around Baku were filled with herds of jeyrans (gazelles). Now, they have disappeared from the Absheron peninsula completely, but can be found in the Shirvan Preserve.]

Sometimes it is possible to see a great fire emanating from the sea, rising to a great height. Sometimes, it can be seen from a distance of two or more days' journey. This fire erupts after burning for a long time.

There are many villages around the city. Residents of some of them are Christians. The people in the city are Shafei Muslims [Shafei refers to the largest and most important "mazhab"-teachings-of the Sunni branch of Islam]. May Allah be pleased!

This is the native land of my father Saleh ibn Nuri, who was a religious leader and scholar of great acclaim. He died in 1404 when he was 77 years old.

Dr. Farid Alakbarov found Bakuvi's 14th century diary at the Institute of Manuscripts where he directs the Department of Translation and Intormation. Alakbarov's own scholarly research deals primarily with Medieval Medical Manuscripts. Search at for his articles in English and Azeri.

From Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

Back to Index AI 12.3 (Autumn 2004)
AI Home
| Search | Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |