No tour of Baku’s Icheri Sheher (Inner City) would be complete without a stop at the 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs complex.
The Shirvanshahs ruled the state of Shirvan in northern Azerbaijan from the 6th to the 16th centuries. Their attention first shifted to Baku in the 12th century, when Shirvanshah Manuchehr III ordered that the city be surrounded with walls.
In 1191, after a devastating earthquake destroyed the capital city of Shamakhi, the residence of the Shirvanshahs was moved to Baku, and the foundation of the Shirvanshah complex.
The buildings that belong to the complex of Shirvanshahs’ Palace include what may have been living quarters, a mosque, the octagonal-shaped Divankhana (Royal Assembly), a tomb for royal family members, the mausoleum of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi (a famous astronomer of the time) and a bathhouse.
All of these buildings except for the living premises and bathhouse are fairly well preserved. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs complex itself is currently under reconstruction. It has 27 rooms on the first floor and 25 on the second.
Like so many other old buildings in Baku, the real function of the Palace of the Shirvanshahs is still under investigation. Though commonly described as a palace, some experts question this. The complex simply doesn’t have the royal grandeur and huge spaces normally associated with a palace; for instance, there are no grand entrances for receiving guests or huge royal bedrooms. Most of the rooms seem more suitable for small offices or monks’ living quarters.
DIVANKHANA This unique building, located on the upper level of the grounds, takes on the shape of an octagonal pavilion. The filigree portal entrance is elaborately worked in limestone. The central inscription with the date of the Assembly’s construction and the name of the architect may have been removed after Shah Ismayil Khatai (famous king from Southern Azerbaijan) conquered Baku in 1501. However, there are two very interesting hexagonal medallions on either side of the entrance. Each consists of six rhombuses with very unusual patterns carved in stone. Each elaborate design includes the fundamental tenets of the Shiite faith: “There is no other God but God. Mohammad is his prophet. Ali is the head of the believers.” In several rhombuses, the word “Allah” (God) is hewn in reverse so that it can be read in a mirror. It seems looking-glass reflection carvings were quite common in the Oriental world at that
THE ROYAL TOMB This building is located in the lower level of the grounds and is known as the Turba (burial vault). An inscription dates the vault to 1435-1436 and says that Khalilullah I built it for his mother Bika khanim and his son Farrukh Yamin. His mother died in 1435 and his son died in 1442, at the age of seven. Ten more tombs were discovered later on; these may have belonged to other members of the Shah’s family, including two more sons who died during his own lifetime. The entrance to the tomb is decorated with stalactite carvings in limestone. One of the most interesting features of this portal is the two drop-shaped medallions on either side of the Koranic inscription. At first, they seem to be only decorative.
REMNANTS OF HISTORY Another important section of the grounds is the mosque. According to complicated inscriptions on its minaret, Khalilullah I ordered its construction in 1441. This minaret is 22 meters in height (approximately 66 feet). Key Gubad Mosque, which is just a few meters outside the complex, was built in the 13th century. It was destroyed in 1918 in a fire; only the bases of its walls and columns remain. Nearby is the 15th-century Mausoleum, which is said to be the burial place of court astronomer Seyid Yahya Bakuvi.
Murad’s Gate was a later addition to the complex. An inscription on the gate tells that it was built by a Baku citizen named Baba Rajab during the rule of Turkish sultan Murad III in 1586. It apparently served as a gateway to a building, but it is not known what kind of building it was or even if it ever existed.
In the 19th century, the complex was used as an arms depot. Walls were added around its perimeter, with narrow slits hewn out of the rock so that weapons could be fired from them. These anachronistic details don’t bear much connection to the Shirvanshahs, but they do hint at how the buidings have managed to survive the political vicissitudes brought on by history.
Visitors to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs complex can also see some of the carved stones from the friezes that were brought up from the ruined Sabayil fortress that lies submerged underwater off Baku’s shore. The stones, which now rest in the courtyard, have carved writing that records the genealogy of the Shirvanshahs.
Shirvanshahs palace complex was designated as a historical site in 1920, and reconstruction has continued off and on ever since that time. According to Sevda Dadashova, Director, restoration is currently progressing, though much slower than desired because of a lack of funding.
Source: Azerbaijan International Magazine