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The Maiden Tower

The Maiden Tower is a Baku landmark, a much loved symbol of the city and of Azerbaijan. It looms dark and enigmatic, looking out to sea from the southern edge of Baku´s old, walled city, the Icheri Sheher. The origins of the tower are shrouded in mystery - no-one knows for certain when it was built or what it was built for or even how it acquired its name Maiden Tower (Qiz qalasi). 

Baku historian Sara Ashurbayli calculated that the tower must have been built in the 4th to 6th centuries AD. This was because of the tower’s unusual construction, the difference between the stone used in the tower and the stone of the medieval city surrounding it and the various legends about the Maiden Tower. Another group of researchers think that the tower was built in the 11th century. The reason is the inscription 14 metres high on the south wall of the tower which reads Qubbeye Masud ibn Davud in old Arabic script. Epigraphist Mashadikhanim Nemat studied the inscription and explained the word “qübbə” as “qüllə” or tower, so Masud ibn Davud would have been the tower’s architect. The architect of the 14th century Mardakan Tower, Abdulmajid ibn Masud, is thought to be his descendant.

However, unlike the Mardakan Tower inscription and another inscription on Sabayil Tower in Baku bay, the Maiden Tower tablet does not include the words Amale ustad or Amale memar (constructor or architect), before Qubbeye Masud ibn Davud. Therefore, the inscription does not necessarily refer to the tower’s architect. The location of the inscription stone, high up the tower, implies that it was placed there accidentally or at least not by the design of the architect. Inscriptions are usually positioned so that they can be read by passers-by, but the Maiden Tower inscription is too high to be seen easily. Historian Bretanitskiy merges both views and say that the tower was built in two stages: in the 5th to 6th centuries and the 12th century. Veliyev links the history of the tower with Zoroastrianism and fire-worship, while Azerbaijani poet Samad Vurgun wrote in his 1960s Epos of Baku that the tower was built 800 years ago.

The Maiden Tower is built in the shape of a cylinder near the shore of the Caspian Sea. A construction, rather like a buttress, sticks out from the cylindrical tower on the sea side. The tower rises to a height of 29.5 metres and has a diameter of 16.5 metres. The walls on the ground floor are five metres thick. The interior has been divided into eight floors and each floor has a cupola ceiling built of hewed stones, with a round hole in the middle of the ceiling. The holes are aligned, so if you stand on the eighth floor, you can look down through all the ceiling holes (or could if they had not been filled in). There are slits in the south and south-eastern section of the wall which allow for observation of the sea and also ventilate the tower. The only entrance to the tower is in the western side and is two metres above ground level and 1.1 metres wide. The height of the ground floor is three metres and the average height of other floors is 2.5 metres. With the exception of the ground floor, the floors are linked by a stone stairway in the south-eastern wall. The only way to reach the first floor from the ground floor is via a ladder or rope though the central ceiling hole. There used to be wells just outside the door, but now they have been filled in and asphalted to make access to the tower easier. When the tower was first built, people had to negotiate their way around the wells, climb up to the door via a ladder or rope, pass through the door to the ground floor and then climb a ladder or rope to get to the other floors.

Archaeological excavations were made from the ground floor of the tower in 1962-63. The excavations revealed that the tower was built on a huge rock, sloping towards the sea. They showed that the adjoining, buttress-like construction on the sea side served to support the tower on the slope. More recent excavations revealed great wooden girders, 14 metres high, in the tower’s foundations. There may be a secret building in the adjoining construction which served as a shock absorber to prevent earthquake damage. The walls of the tower are five metres thick at its foundation, but narrow to about 4.5 metres at the top. This indicates that the lower and upper parts of the tower were built at the same time, not at different times as some scholars assert. The secret of the survival of the Maiden Tower lies in this solid foundation.

The walls are at their widest at a depth of 12 metres. A secret underground passage is thought to have run from the tower, to the Shirvanshahs’ Palace. An underground passage was discovered in the Walled City during archaeological excavations in 1982. It ran north to south from the Shemakhi gate into the medieval city to the Salyan gate. The passage passes under the 14th century Multan Karvansaray, not far from the Maiden Tower. 

Documents and excavations show that the Maiden Tower was linked to the Baku city walls in the south and north-east. The remains of buildings to the south and west of the tower are proof of this. This wall may have been linked with Sabayil Tower, the ruins of which are now in the Caspian Sea. Research has shown that Sabayil Tower dates back to the 13th to 14th centuries. Abdurrashid Bakuvi, who lived in the late 14th -early 15th centuries, wrote: "There are two mighty towers built of stone in Baku. One of them is on the coast of the sea and the other on a high point. The top of the tower on a high point was destroyed during the Mongol attacks." The destroyed tower remembered by Bakuvi is thought to be the Maiden Tower, while the other is the fortress walls of Baku.

There are different interpretations of the term "maiden" in the name of the tower. Some scholars connect this word to legends which have no known historical basis (see the text box). Others try to date the tower to the era of the Persian Sassanid Empire (224-636 AD) or even further back and use the name as an argument. Maiden Towers exist not only in Baku and Azerbaijan but also in other Oriental countries. Excavations have shown that most of them date back to medieval times. They are thought to bear the name Maiden Tower to symbolize their impregnability by the enemy during attack. The towers were for princes and their families. The Maiden Tower in Baku and the others in Azerbaijan (in Shamakhi and Ismailly) are indeed well built and impregnable. This view is the most likely explanation for the name Maiden Tower. 

Maiden Tower was inscribed on the World Heritage List at the World Heritage Committee’s 24th session held in Cairns, Australia on 27 November - 2 December 2000.