Winter 2006 (14.4)
Novruz at Maiden Tower
Spring Equinox (March
20-21), traditionally celebrated as "Novruz" in Azerbaijan,
is the most cherished holiday of the calendrical year. This Novruz,
I hope that people living in Baku can visit the Maiden Tower
and witness the spectacular view of the sun rising in the eastern
sky over the Gunashli headland out across the bay. (Note that
the word "Gunashli" itself means "sunny").
Hopefully, the Maiden Tower monument authorities will permit
early risers to witness this event at 6:45 am on those mornings,
and, hopefully, the weather will also cooperate.
Left: Mysterious doorway facing the sea, halfway up
Maiden Tower through which the sunrise shines on Winter Solstice.
Photo: Betty Blair
Just as the phenomenon
of the sunrise on Winter Solstice (December 21-23) appears to
have been carefully incorporated into the construction of the
Maiden Tower, it seems the architects were also conscious of
Spring Equinox. At Winter Solstice, the sunrise can be observed
through that mysterious doorway on the side of the Maiden Tower
that faces the sea.
But at Spring Equinox, observers must climb to the top of the
tower. On the roof, the inner buttress wall serves as a direct
pointer to the eastern sunrise of Spring Equinox. With the Tower's
secondary alignment to the East, it most likely also served as
a marker to identify the onset of this most important event in
the agricultural calendar - the time to start planting crops.
While we may continue to speculate on the function of Maiden
Tower, it is very reasonable to assume that one of its purposes
related to observing special sunrises coming up over the horizon,
with alignments to the southeast and east respectively. [Zero
degrees indicates due north.]
I would suggest that anyone privileged enough to observe the
sunrise at Maiden Tower
on these dates today should feel privileged to be a witness of
what likely was an age-old tradition commemorated over hundreds,
if not thousands, of years. Unfortunately, because of cultural
and political reversals in history, many of these traditions
seem to have passed into oblivion. [See "Novruz...Celebration
That Would Not Die," Azerbaijan International, AI 2.2 (Summer
1994). Search at AZER.com]. In many parts of the world, Winter
Solstice and Spring Equinox are observable and integrated into
the architectural feature of ancient monuments. The most famous
example in the news these days is Stonehenge in England where
people queue up by the thousands to witness these solar phenomena.
Plan view that shows alignment
of monument through the mysterious doorway to southeast (Winter
Solstice) and to the buttress, which faces east (Spring Equinox).
Photo: Maiden Tower Museum
(8): View from the roof of Maiden Tower
showing aignment of the monument's buttress to the East. Photo:
Of greater relevance, however, and significantly closer to Azerbaijan
in terms of geography and archaeological substance is the fact
that scientists have identified many "ridge barrows"
(burial mounds) all orientated in an easterly and southeasterly
direction. In the past two decades, Russian archaeologists have
identified about 300 such structures extending over quite a vast
area eastward from Central Asia. Again, their findings highlight
the cultural importance of solar observation in the region. [See
"Astronomical Practices and Ritual Calendar of Euro-Asian
Nomads" by Nyssanbay M. Bekbassar, Vol 31, on the Estonian
Web site:www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol31/ bekbassar.pdf.
Given the importance of Novruz to Azerbaijan, and the likelihood
that astronomical phenomena were an integral part of the Maiden
Tower design, I can hope that with further study and confirmation,
the Tower will be properly recognized as an ancient wonder and
its lost status as center stage will be re-established during
Baku's springtime festivities at Novruz.
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