Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Pages 32-37

Baku's Old City

Preserving Our Past
by Mir Teymur

No doubt, there are many times that Mir Teymur feels like he's "a voice, crying in the wilderness"-a prophet of doom and gloom, who is not fully appreciated by those who could benefit most by heeding his dire warnings.

Mir Teymur is a socially conscious artist and long-time resident of Baku's "Ichari Shahar" ("Inner City", or what the foreigners call "Old City"). He claims that his ancestors have lived there for the past 800 years. As a result, he lives and breathes this old sector of the city. Most of his graphics and ceramics relate directly to Ichari Shahar.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Mir Teymur credits his grandmother for the passion he feels about the Old City. Nargiz Hajinsky would have been in her early 20s when Baku fell to the Bolsheviks and her parents' wealth and property, including oil wells, were confiscated. It was this woman who sensed the tremendous changes that were occurring in the political structure of the nation. It was she who suffered tremendous pain of losing so many of her family members during Stalin's purges of 1937 when they were executed. And so, today, it should come as no surprise that her grandson Mir Teymur is the driving force behind the effort to preserve Ichari Shahar historically.

Left: Baku's most distinguished landmark, Maiden Tower (Giz Galasi) believed by most to have been built as a fortress and relay signaling system in the 12th century.

There are so many things that are so dear to me about the Ichari Shahar. I feel so connected to it. My family traces its roots back to the 12th century when Baku was chosen as the residence of the Shirvan Shahs. That makes us one of the oldest families living here.

Sometimes I feel like I've studied every stone, every wall, every building in this place. It makes me stand in awe of what our forefathers knew and understood about town planning, both in their attempts to guarantee the security for the community, and in compensating for the harsh climactic conditions such as Baku's ferocious winds and the sweltering summer heat.

Take the issue of security, for example. It seems that other countries and other people have always cast a jealous eye towards Baku, not only for our oil, but also for other natural resources such as salt, silk and saffron. So we've always had to deal with issues of security.

Baku is one of the very few cities in the world, which used to be surrounded by three walls. Today, only one wall stands; the outer two have been destroyed and the stone has been used in the construction of homes. If you study the citadel wall carefully, you'll see that they were designed to provide multi-layers of defense. If the enemy succeeded in penetrating the outer walls, which were not as tall as the final wall surrounding the city, then the residents could shoot down at them from the round-shaped lookout posts. If you look carefully, you'll see that in certain segments of the wall there are holes where hot oil could be poured down upon the enemy, burning and trapping them so that they would be unable to escape back over the outer walls.

Left: Graphics: The Old City surrounded by a citadel wall as fortress by artist Mir Teymur.

If the enemy still succeeded in penetrating inside Ichari Shahar, even the street plan was designed for defense. The streets seem sufficiently wide enough for four horses to run abreast. But rather quickly, they narrow so that the enemy would have to reduce his speed and then the horses would have to follow behind each other in single file. For the residents, this made it easier for them to attack the intruder from the roofs of their homes.

And then there were the twists and turns in the lanes. Sometimes, the streets ran clockwise; sometimes, counter-clockwise. Sometimes, they led to dead-ends. It doesn't take long for people not accustomed to Ichari Shahar to lose their bearings and become totally confused and disoriented. But all these streets and alleyways were laid out according to plan, not by mere chance and all these characteristics contributed to the security of the community.

Even hostile climactic conditions were taken into consideration. Baku experiences ferocious northern winds, but since the houses were not laid out in straight grids, the intensity of the winds can be somewhat dissipated.

The residents of Ichari Shahar also learned to compensate for the sweltering summer heat by building houses with thick walls, one-meter wide, which served as a cooling system. Even the shade cast from buildings on either side of the narrow alleyways provided relief from the direct rays of the sun.

The architecture was planned as an integrated whole which consciously worked to benefit the entire community. But that's not the way things work these days. The Ichari Shahar that we once knew is disappearing right before our eyes. Already, irreparable damage has been carried out that is likely never to be undone.

I write articles. I make speeches. I'm even in the process of writing a book about the history of Ichari Shahar. I've been fighting like this for the last 30 years. Sometimes I feel like a lone prophet crying in the wilderness, because no one is heeding my message: "Stop the destruction of our Inner City. Stop the barbaric destruction of our history. This place embodies the sacred core of our civilization. Let's preserve it for future generations."
Illegal construction, the likes of which we are seeing these days, did not take place during the Soviet period. At that time, had I made a speech in the morning about the destruction that is going on in Ichari Shahar, by evening the Secretary of the District Committee would have been on the scene to investigate.

Left: Aerial view of Ichari Shahar: Soviet Period

It used to be that people were afraid to destroy any of the buildings here in Ichari Shahar. During the Soviet period, officials feared for their jobs if they granted someone permission to demolish a building. It was easy to bring accusations in the newspapers against someone for such an offense. So out of fear, Ichari Shahar retained much of its medieval character.

Of course, it would have been better if people had acted out of conscience, rather than fear, but these days, they act neither out of fear nor conscience. Any building can be sold. In addition, many people who live in Ichari Shahar who really want to continue to live here are forced by poverty to sell their homes and move away. When they leave, this, too, contributes to altering the character of the neighborhood. Their absence is felt by those of us who remain and it is a great loss to us. I don't have anything against new people moving here, but I would like them to care about Ichari Shahar and not destroy its history.

All this major construction has occurred since we gained our independence in late 1991. How ironical that at the exact moment in time when we have the best chance to safeguard our own national history, we are contributing the most to its destruction.

The greatest problem is that these new buildings are destroying the character and face of Ichari Shahar. It doesn't have to be this way. Consider Poland and the city of Warsaw. Because of extensive bombing in World War II, the city was reduced to rubble. Despite the enormous devastation, the city has been rebuilt and, today, stands as a very beautiful city and a tribute to the human desire to maintain links to the past. This restoration came because of the commitment of government officials who employed artists, historians and architects to ensure that the rebuilding effort was in accord with the old gravures and watercolor sketches, which documented what the city center, had previously looked like. Warsaw was reconstructed, thanks to their hard labor and love.

Today when you visit Warsaw, you think that these buildings were actually constructed in the 15th-16th centuries, but they are 20th century reconstructions. The face of Warsaw has been kept because the Polish people were committed to keeping their own history. Krakow was rebuilt in the same manner.





Above: Mir Teymur is known for his protest art. Here he is biting satire and critique of society are molded into clay. The artist depicts upon some of the characters familiar to him growing up in Baku's Old City. Left to right: 1. Too small for position 2. No personality 3. Empty Brain 4. The Gossip

Ichari Shahar today

But so many of our new buildings do not complement the character of Ichari Shahar. Take, for example, the British Council, a building of many stories with its façade of glass. It has no place in our Old City beside a medieval bathhouse.

And how is it that Embassies have been allowed to establish their governmental offices in this part of our city that is historically reserved for private residential quarters. Presently, Ichari Shahar is host to the embassies of Italy, Norway, Georgia, Greece and Poland. Even for the safety of diplomats in this new age, it is not a wise decision to settle there because there are only a few streets that exit Ichari Shahar.

From the early days of independence, commercial interests set their eyes on Ichari Shahar to set up offices there. BP and Statoil Alliance was the first oil company to move there. Then other oil companies followed: Amoco, AIOC (Azerbaijan International Operating Company), NAOC (North Absheron Operating Company), Pennzoil (now Devon), LUKoil, Agip, Mobil and Ramco. Now most of these companies have moved out or have been dissolved. These oil companies came to realize that their fantasy of working in the Old City was a bad management decision because it brought so much vehicular traffic to those narrow streets. Simply, the infrastructure could not effectively support their own operation.

Today, many of these major companies have relocated elsewhere; unfortunately other companies have taken their places, including major international financial institutions.

Left: Outside the Citadel walls, late 19th century

I remember when I was studying art in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad).

They had an excellent school where architects studied issues related to historical restoration. Architects involved with the design of buildings in Ichari Shahar must have a broad range of knowledge and interests. In addition to architecture, they should know the history, archaeology, ethnography and even folklore, specific to this location as well. This land is a sacred, holy place so it requires special sensitivities.

Not every person who has studied architecture should have the right to design houses in the Ichari Shahar. Let them go to the suburbs-the micro regions-where it doesn't matter as much if they don't maintain the flavor and color of the past.

I'm not saying that construction should not take place in Ichari Shahar. Not at all. There are many houses that are so old and dilapidated. Such houses should be destroyed because they are hazardous for people to live in. But the buildings which replace them should be rebuilt in such a manner that they blend in with the surrounding buildings. This is what is being done in St. Petersburg. From the outside, buildings take on the appearance and façade of the 17th or 18th century. Inside, the residents enjoy every comfort of modern life: air-conditioning, heating, lighting, design.

World Heritage Site

In December 2000, UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Committee added Baku's Ichari Shahar to its list of World Heritage Sites. At the time, this designation had been extended to 690 historical and natural sites, which they deemed, warranted protection so that they would be preserved for future generations. The Great Wall in China, the Acropolis and Yosemite National Park in California are on this list.

According to UNESCO's Web site, Baku's Walled City was chosen because it illustrated significant stages in human history: "Built on a site that has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Era, the Walled City of Baku reveals evidence of Zoroastrian, Sassanid, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian presence in cultural continuity. The Inner City (Ichari Shahar) has preserved much of its 12th-century defensive walls. The 12th-century Maiden's Tower (Giz Galasi) is built over earlier structures that date from the 7th to 6th centuries BC, and the 15th-century Shirvanshahs' Palace is one of the pearls of Azerbaijani architecture."

Azerbaijan then became eligible to apply for assistance from the World Heritage Fund and to receive help with conservation and management of the site, training, technical cooperation and assistance with educational, information and promotional activities.

Azerbaijan had already ratified UNESCO's Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage on December 16, 1993. By signing this document, the country pledged to preserve the historical sites situated on its territory. When Ichari Shahar was added to UNESCO's World Heritage, Azerbaijan specifically committed to protect the architectural integrity of this part of our city.

Then came President Heydar Aliyev's Decree on February 17, 2003, that construction within the Citadel Walls would not be allowed unless it followed strict guidelines set forth for construction there. But the decree went unheeded. Hardly two weeks had passed before construction began again, at first, during the nighttime though it is impossible to keep any secrets in Ichari Shahar.

Of course, there are a number of buildings that are between 100 to 200 years old that are collapsing. As well, there are a number of homes that were constructed during the Soviet period that were only meant to last for 10 years, but they have been standing for 60 years. All of them should be replaced but certain criteria and guidelines must be followed in the construction process.

Development for the Future

Left: Artist's rendition of Ichari Shahar, 18th century. Note that the citadel wall was separated the land from intruders attacking from the sea.

During the past few years, I have collected nearly 1,400 signatures, mostly from individuals who are living in Ichari Shahar, who are concerned about the future development in their community. Here are the major issues:

1. First of all, buildings should comply with height regulations, meaning that they should not exceed the historical limit of 11 meters-three stories. The tallest buildings in Ichari Shahar never used to exceed this height.

But today, there are quite a few buildings that rise to four or more stories. This not only affects the visual appearance of Ichari Shahar, but, in turn, it affects many other aspects of the city plan as an organic whole.

For example, climatic control is altered. Taller buildings interrupt the natural flow or channel of air and wind through the streets. The taller buildings create strong down drafts. Taller buildings mean a denser population in a section of town that already is strained by excessive vehicular traffic, and utility infrastructure related to supplies of water, electric and sewerage.

2. Experts should be consulted in a number of fields to guarantee that each building is held in compliance with the spirit of the Old City. These experts should include archaeologists, ecologists, cartographers, seismologists and geologists, all of whom should be involved early on in the design of any new construction. In the past, these experts have not been consulted. Nor have public photo or video records been kept to document each new building location before, during and after construction.

3. Construction works should not be carried out with heavy construction equipment such as excavators, bulldozers and heavy trucks. Our Constitution demands that historical sites be protected. One section of the law even prohibits the use of excavating equipment in such areas.

But these safeguards are not in place. Consideration is not being made for the layers of civilization that exist under the many layers of soil; for example, natural springs, underground tunnels and archaeological artifacts that date back centuries or even millennia. Some of the new buildings have been constructed in such a way that they are blocking natural underground water reservoirs. In earlier times, people knew where these water resources were located and they dug wells to access clean, cool water. We have an expression in Azeri that declares that it's a sin to cast anything into a well. But an even greater sin takes place when you cover a water supply with rocks or soil. It's like cursing your native land.




Above: 1&2.Inside view of the citadel walls which shows how the wall was designed so that the residents could defend themselves. 3. The Citadel wall as viewed from Vahid Park nearby the Philarmonic Hall.

Foundations and pilings are being secured by dynamic percussion works, which again affects underground settlement throughout the area. Any percussion work carried out on a specific site has the potential of harming the whole area. This is of particular concern since the area is prone to earthquakes and landslides.

4. The new buildings are incorporating plastic materials that are alien to the historical image of the Old City. The "red lines", meaning the footprints of the buildings, have not been adhered to and buildings are being expanding beyond the original building lines. This diverts the natural and historical patterns of pedestrian and car traffic. Streets that dead-end have been created where they did not exist before. Again, this affects the flow of air throughout the neighborhood.

Some buildings now have balconies that protrude beyond the building façade and thus turn the walkways below into covered passages. Again, this affects the climactic balance.

5. Archaeological evidence is being destroyed. When excavations are being done for foundations, archaeological evidence, including ceramic sewer pipes, underground galleries, tunnels and wells have been found. Even if you use a spade or shovel to dig, and if you come across an historical artifact or foundation, you are required by law to consult with archeologists. They, in turn, are supposed to judge if you will be allowed to continue your work or not.

Not only is much of the evidence broken and destroyed during the construction process, but also no archaeological records are being made. Archaeologists are not being called to investigate. Simply, any archaeological evidence that is found is quickly covered, sometimes even with concrete. Not only does this result in tremendous historical loss, but also it can affect the drainage of subsoil water. The additional weight of many of these buildings is cause for concern because of potential landslides.

6. New construction should be required to have billboards to identify the design of the new construction. Without such documentation, the works are likely to be carried out with numerous violations for construction at a World Heritage site.

7. Often the renovation of the facades of the old buildings is done with metallic brushes or with sandblasting equipment. This results in the erosion of the stone surfaces.

These are the basic concerns of our community. The house in which I live is more than 100 years old. It's a very warm, cozy place. I don't mean "warm" in the physical sense, but rather people are conscious of its comfortable, friendly atmosphere. People who stop by this house even for just 10 minutes don't want to leave. This is the secret of my house. It's the secret of Ichari Shahar, too. You come and you want to stay for a long time. That's what we are fighting so hard to preserve it.

Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
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