Of ‘maiden tower’, rugs and cats


Visitors get their photos taken with Baku’s legendary ‘Qiz Qalasi’, or ‘Maiden Tower’, in the background. — Bernama photo

IN the imaginations of Azerbaijani poets and playwrights, the Maiden Tower, or ‘Qiz Qalasi’, looms large with the famous legend of the princess who was locked in the tower, à la Rapunzel.

But rather than letting down her hair to bring up her lover, this princess would rather jump into the Caspian Sea to her death than be married to an unwanted suitor.

It is the inspiration for the ‘Maiden Tower Ballet’, the first in Azerbaijan and unusual among Muslim countries. First performed in 1940, the unwanted suitor is actually the princess’s father, Khan Jhahangir, the King. Coming back from the war, he was not happy that his wife had given birth to the princess Gulyanag, rather than the male heir whom he wanted.

He ordered her death, but a nanny managed to smuggle Gulyanag out.

Seventeen years later, she had grown into a beautiful woman and caught the eye of the Khan.

He decided to take her as his latest wife. At first, the King did not know she was his daughter, as he was just a creepy murderer, but not necessarily an incestuous one. But then he found out and decided that it was not a deal-breaker after all.


In the five days I was in Azerbaijan to attend the Sixth World Forum in Intercultural Dialogue, I was not lucky enough to attend the ballet, which was revised in 1999 to remove Soviet influences.

The new version still has Khan Jhahangir as the unwanted suitor, but it is Gulyanag who asks him to build the Maiden Tower as a way to delay the nuptials.

It ends the same way though. Gulyanag’s lover defeats the Khan and rushes to the tower to rescue her, but Gulyanag mistakes his footsteps for those of the King, and jumps to her death.

A stone statue seen along the walkway around the tower. — Bernama photo

‘The Maiden Tower’

I was lucky enough to visit the tower itself, located at the coast separated from the Caspian Sea by a major road, a park and the Baku Promenade. It stands as one of the entrances to the Icheri Sheher, the ‘Old City of Baku’, which dates to at least the 12th Century.

The Icheri Sheher is a symbol of pride for the Azerbaijan people and the ‘Maiden Tower’ especially, shown on their currency, the ‘manat’.

The Old City of Baku, including the ‘Maiden Tower’, was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in December 2000.

The building looks medieval, with a tall cylindrical tower built out of limestone and adjoining a long narrow building. There are other smaller buildings jutting out from the main tower.

Visitors are allowed through one entrance on the first floor into a circular-shaped chamber, which has a few pieces of pottery and a water well.

A winding staircase in the middle of the room takes centrestage. For a price, going up the stairs would lead visitors up to other floors, which have more information and historic items on the tower.

The stairs are a bit narrow, and somewhat claustrophobic. I looked for an elevator, but saw none – not unusual for historical buildings.

Jumping from the roof of the ‘Maiden Tower’ now – not that you would be allowed to – would not have landed one in the Caspian Sea. But perhaps the water levels were much higher hundreds of years ago, considering that Baku is currently situated 28m below sea level.

Azerbaijan historian and journalist Anar Turan told Bernama that no one really knew why the ‘Maiden Tower’ was built.

“It’s a mystery. There is no record of when it was built, why and how it got the name,” he said via WhatsApp.

Theories were abound, he added. He referred me to an article, ‘The Mystery of the Maiden Tower’ by Dr Kamil Ibrahimov, published in ‘Visions of Azerbaijan’ magazine. The article discusses the possibility of the tower being a pre-Islamic temple built by fire-worshippers, or a defensive watchtower, part of the fortress wall of Icheri Sheher.

Some researchers suspect that the tower may have been an observatory, since it provides a good view of the night sky and contains stone protuberances, possibly an ancient calendar.

The age of the tower is also unknown, although historians posit it may have been built in the fourth or the 12th century, or throughout both.

As for the ‘maiden’ moniker, it could have its roots in Zoroastrian as in ‘untouched by evil’.

Relics, in the forms of pottery pieces, on display at a section inside the ‘Maiden Tower’. — Bernama photo

‘Then and now’

Walking past the tower, there is a large courtyard with a sidewalk teahouse, where you can have tea and ‘baklava’ (flaky sweet pastry with layers filled with chopped nuts, butter and cinnamon, and soaked in honey or sugar syrup) as you balance precariously on spindly metal chairs resting on uneven old flagstones.

Next to it is a walkway that leads to a basement-level carpet store, in one of the openings of the centuries-old ‘caravanserai’, or roadside inn.

As Baku was one of the main stops along the Great Silk Road in the days past, the caravanserai no doubt provided the much-needed respite for exhausted traders, likely the hub of trade and social activities in the old city.

Not much has changed since then. The ‘Maiden Tower’ and the Old Baku are still very busy, with businesses catering to thousands of visitors daily. There are 25 towers and five gates within the fortress wall.

Walking down a narrow pathway away from the tower, past a bookstore cafe, leads to more shops on the side of the road. Signposts show various sites within the medieval city.

The caravanserai, or roadside inn, which has been providing respite to traders since the early period of the Great Silk Road age. — Bernama photo

I chose to follow the one leading to the ‘Palace of Shirvanshahs’.

Rugs of varying sizes lie on the ancient stones, trying to entice shoppers into buying one.

I might have been tempted, except the thought of lugging a large rolled-up piece through the airport quickly disabused me of the notion.

Alas, I had to make do with refrigerator magnets proclaiming heartily that I had visited Baku, Azerbaijan. I tried to haggle but the seller, whom I was sure was sick to death of us cheap tourists, was firm. In the end, nine ‘manat’ (RM25) for three magnets.

According to Turan, Icheri Sheher is still inhabited and people own or rent the historic houses, shops and apartments.

“Like the days of yore, there are still hotels, restaurants, cafes and mosques, even embassies in the Old City.

“The area (on which) Icheri-Shekher (is located) has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. In the eighth century, trade and craft flourished here,” he said.

I did not see many cars, except in certain areas – Baku is primarily a walking city.

I did not mind for the most part as the spring weather was cool and dry.

Rugs being laid out on top of the caravanserai, in the walled-up section of Icheri Sheher. — Bernama photo

‘The feline connection’

It was on the walkway leading to the palace, outside some souvenir shops when I saw my first cat in Baku, but that was it for an hour or so.

I had read that Baku was like Istanbul, that cats were very popular and considered communal pets, and for that, I had been looking forward to seeing them.

At the Gosha Gala Square, way off the route to the palace, I stopped by a roadside bakery and got a piece of cheese bread for five ‘manat’.

“Where are the cats?” I asked via Google Translate. The baker-seller shrugged and shook her head.

I could see one of the gates leading into Icheri Sheher and from there, I knew that I had wandered too far. I had to backtrack if I wanted to see the palace before the sky turned dark.

This was where the walk became challenging.

One thing I have noticed in centuries-old cities in earthquake-prone regions is that they tend to be on a hill. It makes sense, defensive-wise. Even if you lived in a walled-city, you would want to be in the highest spot in the city so you could see your enemies approaching and take appropriate measures.

Turan confirmed this, saying that the ‘Palace of the Shirvanshahs’ was built atop the city’s highest point.

Lovely old buildings and picturesque balconies sandwich the narrow lanes, and there are some surprises in the shops available. A saffron shop and traditional teahouses vied side-by-side with fashionable boutiques.

In between, are houses where many locals would sit out front, watching tourists take photos and Instagrammers ham it up for their followers.

As I turned into a side street, the uphill battle began. It felt like walking up a sheer cliff wall at times, and I had to take a few moments every few feet to catch my breath.

In the meantime, some nimble locals skipped along the route – I might have given them the evil eye.

That was when I started seeing cats – beautiful, fluffy and friendly ones. The higher I climbed, the more cats I saw. Residents and visitors alike would pet the cats and take photos.

The felines were obviously used to the attention, and truly milked it for all its worth.

So perhaps when the travel blogs on Baku said it was a city of cats, they meant the old city?

I finally reached the palace, but there was no time to explore it. Luckily, the outdoors area provided plenty of sights. Across the courtyards and walkways were rugs and cats.

In a little garden opposite the palace, was a little house for cats. There was even a cat sleeping in it.

It was not exactly Istanbul-levels of cat love, but there were more cats at the palace than what I saw on the streets outside, and all of them seemed well cared for.

I asked Turan, also the chairman of the National Centre for Thought and Development, about this. He described the attitude that the Azerbaijanis had towards cats as ‘mystical’, mostly due to the fact that Azerbaijan is a Muslim nation.

In Islam, cats have a special status among Muslims because Prophet Muhammad loved cats.

“Since the Shirvanshahs are also a state ruled by Islamic Sharia, they may have a special attitude towards cats as pets, which may also originate from here,” said Turan.

While the visit might have started with a downer – a girl had to commit suicide to avoid marrying her creepy father – it definitely ended on an upbeat note, thanks to the adorable and friendly felines of Icheri Sheher.

Just make sure that you have at least one full day to explore everything that the old city has to offer – and just maybe, find a way to ‘fly with a carpet’ in tow. — Bernama