Palace of the Shirvanshahs

With a few exceptions, Azerbaijan lacks any major architectural wonders from the golden age of the Silk Road. That is except for the UNESCO World Heritage listed "Walled city of Baku with Maiden's Tower and Sirvanshah's Palace.

"Shirvanshah" was the Royal title in medieval Islamic times of a Persianized dynasty of Arabic origin. The Shirvanshah established a native state in Shirvan and were rulers of this state, a historical region in present-day Azerbaijan. In the 15th century the Shirvanshah dynasty transferred his country's capital from Shemakha to Baku, and committed himself to the construction of the "palace". With prime location in the centre of the Old City, it provided the ideal place for the King to rule over his domain. The multi-building complex would have been the height of comfort, with everything from a mosque to a private hamam to large cistern.

The palace site was chosen for its five valuable wells in what was then a forbidding desert. The oldest surviving remnants are 15th century but considerable renovations have been made throughout history. Defensive slits were added to the outer walls during the Russian period.

In 1905, JD Henry reported that plans to turn the palace into a museum had been shelved. Initially it was declared that the space was needed as a hospital for wounded Russian soldiers returning from the war in Manchuria.

Ironically, following the appalling massacre within Baku itself, the hospital idea was dropped and the palace became an ammunition store. The complex was finally reconstructed in 1920 and opened to the public.

This charming if entirely unfurnished sandstone palace complex (admission/guided tour AZN2/6; 10am-6pm) was painstakingly restored in 2003 with mostly 15th century in essence now hardly present (certainly not representing the period what-so-ever with track-lighting, central radiating heating and motion sensors). After paying the admission fee, you're free to wander the small, but packed grounds. Enter via the main ceremonial courtyard, dominated by a towering (if plain) portal leading into the main palace apartments, whose renovation has almost amounted to full-scale rebuilding. A small gateway on the left leads into the courtyard of the Divan Xany, an octagonal, open-sided stone rotunda where the court of Shirvanshah Khalilullah I once assembled.

The western portal is beautifully inscribed with intricate carving and calligraphic inscriptions. Steps lead down from the ceremonial courtyard to an octagonal water cistern near which the incredibly sparse ruins of the Keyqubad Mosque (1430s)lead into the so-called Dervish's Mausoleum, probably the most ornately decorated building. This empty, pointedroof structure was the tomb of Seyyid Yahya Bakuvi, an astronomer, philosopher and mystic at Khalilullah's court. Around the tomb are many carved stone blocks inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, animal figures and human faces.

These Bayil Stones were recovered in the 1950s from the 13th-century ruins of Sabayil Qala, a castle that once stood on an island that's now submerged near Baku's southern Bayil Peninsula. Azerbaijan's Alcatraz, Sabail prison island in Baku Bay was originally built in 1235 as Bandar Gala ('port castle'). The whole structure disappeared under the rising Caspian, perhaps with the help of an earthquake, and was only rediscovered when the water level started dropping rapidly in the 1930s and '40s. It is now hidden again.

The next level down lies behind a battlement-topped stone wall. This encloses the small cubic Shah Mosque and the Mausoleum of the Shirvanshahs, which is largely unadorned within but has some carvings on the portal gateway.

A handful of photographs inside show archaeological finds from the site's 1940s excavations. Another gate leads down to the final terrace and the lumpy ruins of the Palace Hamam. That is the relatively newly discovered (1939) bath house. In and of itself a sizable complex as opposed to a "house".

And in all likelihood, due to the lack of popularity of the place, any tourist is probable to have the place all to themselves. There are a few English labels around, explaining briefly what each area would have been used for.

Palace of Shirvanshahs map

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