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COME FOR TRAGIC RAPUNZEL, STAY FOR HISTORY, CATS AND CARPETS

30/05/2024 11:34 AM
From Nina Muslim

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, a 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 he wanted.

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

Seventeen years later, she has grown into a beautiful woman and catches the eye of the Khan. He decides to take her as his latest wife. At first, the King does not know she is his daughter, as he is just a creepy murderer but not necessarily an incestuous one. But then he finds out and decides it is not a deal-breaker after all. Yikes.

In the five days I was in Azerbaijan to attend the 6th 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 asked 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 the King’s and jumps to her death.


An ancient statue, possibly circa 12th Century, at the base of Qiz Qalasi, the Maiden Tower, in Baku, Azerbaijan. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

 

THE MAIDEN TOWER

I was lucky enough to visit the tower itself, located 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 centre stage. For a price, going up the stairs will 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, which is not unusual for historic 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 waters were higher hundreds of years ago, considering that Baku is currently situated 28 metres below sea level.


Pots and jars found on site of the Maiden Tower, known locally as Qiz Qalasi. The tower is at least 900 years old although some historians think it may have been built in the 4th Century. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Azerbaijan historian and journalist Anar Turan told Bernama that no one really knows 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 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 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 4th Century or the 12th Century, or both.

As for the Maiden moniker, it could have its roots in Zoroastrian as in “untouched by evil.”

 

THEN AND NOW

Walking past the tower, is a large courtyard with a sidewalk teahouse, where you can have tea and baklava 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, the caravanserai no doubt provided much needed respite for dusty and exhausted traders, likely the hub of trade and social activity in the old city.


Part of the caravanserai or roadside inn situated next to Qiz Qalasi in the Old City of Baku. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

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 in 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. I chose to follow the one leading to the Palace of Shirvanshahs.

Carpets 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 rolled-up carpet through the airport quickly disabused me of the notion. As it is, I had to make do with refrigerator magnets that proclaimed heartily I had visited Baku, Azerbaijan. I tried to haggle but the lady, who I am sure was sick to death of us cheap tourists, was firm. 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. He said, 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 8th century, trade and craft flourished here,” he added.

I didn’t see many cars except in certain areas, as it is primarily a walking city. I didn’t mind for the most part as the spring weather was cool and dry.


Carpets adorn the caravanserai or roadside inn unearthed near Qiz Qalasi, or the Maiden Tower, in the Walled City of Baku. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

 

CATS AND THEIR CONNECTION TO THE OLD CITY

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 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 5 Manat.

“Where are the cats?” I asked via Google Translate. She shrugged and shook her head.

I could see one of the gates leading into Icheri Sheher and knew I had wandered too far by then. I had to backtrack if I wanted to see the palace before the sky turned dark. This is where the walk became challenging.

One thing I 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 can see your enemies approaching and take appropriate measures.

Turan confirmed it, saying the Palace of the Shirvanshahs was built at the highest point of the city.


Historic houses with picturesque balconies by narrow lanes. The buildings house businesses and homes, and the area has been inhabited continuously since the 8th Century. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

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 homes and many locals sat 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 may have given them the evil eye.

That is when I started seeing cats, beautiful, fluffy and friendly ones. The higher I climbed, the more I saw. Residents and visitors alike would pet the cats and take photos. The cats were obviously used to the attention and milked it for all its worth.

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

I had finally reached the palace, but there was no time to explore it. Luckily, the outdoors area provided plenty of sights. In the courtyards and walkways were carpets and cats. In a little garden opposite the palace, was a little house for cats. There was even a cat sleeping in it.

It is not exactly Istanbul levels of cat love, but there are more cats here at the palace than what I saw on the streets outside. All seemed well cared for. One loafed comfortably on a huge red carpet.


A tourist taking a photo of one of many cats near the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, home to the former rulers of old Baku. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

I asked Turan, who is also the Chairman of the National Centre for Thought and Development, about this. He described the attitude Azerbaijanis have towards cats as “mystical,” mostly due to the fact that Azerbaijan is a Muslim nation. 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,” he said.

While the visit may 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 in Icheri Sheher.

Just make sure you have at least one full day to explore everything the old city has to offer. And maybe find a way to fly home with a carpet in tow.

 

Edited by Salbiah Said

 

 


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