Doors of Baku

Doors of Ichari Shahar: Historic narrative

In Azerbaijan, doors (s. qapı, pl. qapılar) made historical resonance as strongholds are Demiqapi Derbend (Iron Gate – currently part of Russian Federation) in the north and Gəncə Qapıları (the Doors of Ganja – Currently stands as built in wall of Gelati Monastery, Georgia) in the west protected polities in current-day Azerbaijan. Located in a geographic region where the troops of Romans to British empires put their feet on the ground, Baku has never been a folkloric narrative of stronghold door. On the contrary Baku was a door susceptible to the influences with different essence and form. Thus, what kind of a door does Baku portray?

Geographic complexity of Azerbaijan such as drastic change of massive deserts into impassable mountains made it nearly impossible to communicate between trade centres in the north-eastern regions of Shirvan. Baku, on the shore of the Caspian Sea, occupied a location in between of those centres: Derbend in the north, Shamakhi (Capital city of the Shirvanshah Dynasty) and Ganja in the west, Salyan in the south, and Central Asia via the Caspian Sea to the east. They all were connected with one another via Baku as stop en route. These trade centres would also dictate their names to entry gates of Baku: i.e. Shamakhi gate, because it opens up in the direction to Shamakhi, or Salyan Gates as it also opens up towards Salyan city.

View of the Outer Wall and Shamakhi Gate (aka Zulfugar Khan’s Gate) and Door, 1886.

Based on recollection, Baku’s historic core, Ichari Shahar (Inner City or Old Town) is reported to have five entry points in fortress walls that built in the XII century. Two of them survived to our time: Shamakhi gates (aka Qosha Qala Qapilari – Double Gates) to the west; and Salyan gate to the south.  The other three of them, which we do not have them anymore, were opening to the Caspian Sea to the south. We do not have a historical account about doors blocking these gates. The earliest image of Shamakhi gates is form 1880s. It seems that gates, as a structure, were much more valuable than doors. It was Zulfugar Khan’s Gate which was preserved, not the door when the outer fortification wall was demolished in 1886.

Architectural spatial structures, labyrinthine narrow streets, congested, flat-roof dwelling houses, tiny-yards of Ichari Shahar came down to us from the XV century when Shirvanshahs’ Dynasty moved to Baku after the devastating earthquake in Shamakhi. Only after this, the ensemble of Shirvanshahs’ Palace, one of the pearls of Baku medieval architecture, was completed. All these set a path for Baku to depend on centuries to come.

When Ichari Shahar with Maiden Tower and Shirvanshahs’ Palace was nominated to become UNESCO World Heritage site, all restoration and rehabilitation works were aimed to keep the qualities of a medieval town which are specific to Baku and Shirvan. Even today an attentive traveller can observe a certain sort of uniform architectural and spatial continuity in Ichari Shahar.

We may not have images and details about how specific Baku’s historic doors have been, but we do have centuries-old structures and portals would give us a rough idea of what forms those might have.  And we still have few hundred-year doors that would shed some light on to possible design elements of doors.

One of the oldest surviving structures in Ichari Shahar is the Maiden Tower (the Gyz Galasy). Famous Historian, Sara Ashurbeyli links the Tower to pre-Islamic cultures. It has low and very small arched-entry point. The recreation of the door is vernacular, but two panels, rails, knocker and lock designed with a medieval and oriental touch.

Door to Maiden Tower

Ichari Shahar is crowned with the Shirvanshahs’ Palace putting best of its creative artistic work in place. The portals of Shah’s Tomb and Divan-khana in the palace are lavishly the most ornate and decorative works of XV century. In addition to the aesthetic aspect, memorial of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi draws attention to symbolism and ritualistic elements in designs and shapes of the portal of various height and width with pointed-arches.

Residential dwelling houses show much of vernacular aspects about how the doors envisioned by everyday populations of Ichari Shahar. They are vertically rectangular and primarily functional. They would also be low doors and thus you have to bow down with the first step upon entry before the host.

Door in Ichari Shahar
Door in Ichari Shahar

Door in Ichari Shahar

Doors of Baku as Metaphor

A strong fortification for a city with an important trade role is as much crucial as to keep open doors. Baku had to have an open-door policy to encourage regional trades to keep its role during most of the medieval ages. Towards the XX century Baku became one of the oil centers with global influences. It was producing 50% of worlds’ oil output in 1901. During Soviet Time, Baku reinvented itself as the “Oil Academy”. Baku was exporting technologies and expertise that played a crucial role in the West Siberian Oil and many other regions.  Thus Doors of the trade city must be welcoming for merchants, curious travelers and ideas rather than repelling them.

Baku had also been a centre of the Sufi teaching of Khalvati order. Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, the second pir of Khalvatiyya, settled in the Shirvanshahs’ Palace in the XV century. He made it one the most influential Sufi orders by helping to spread Khalvatiyya to much larger geography of the Middle East, Minor Asia and Balkans. Supported by the Shah of the time residing in Baku, the Shirvanshah Khalilullah I (1417 – 1465), Seyid Yahya Bakuvi, opened doors of Baku to export philosophical teaching offer a unity in human and dive relationships. 

Baku used its doors to promote trade and communication, but also allow transmission of ideas, values and norms along axes of the Globe. Here doors of Baku are connecting medium not dismissive and preventive in nature. This would help us to understand kind of metaphoric door that Baku portrays.

Doors of Modernity

The uniform architectural and spatial continuity ceased to exist when Baku experienced an influx of emigration of various peoples, businesses with vast capital and technologies of the world of the time as a result of oil boom during late 19th century early 20th century. With this came investment capital, Saint Petersburg centred European influence of urban planning, change in Baku’s human geography and thus varying cultural, religious and social milieu with unstoppable force to transform Baku into a European metropolis.

A metropolis would no longer fit into boundaries of fortress walls of Ichari Shahar. Transformation of Baku from Ichari Shahar to a Metropolis did not bind itself with rules and norms of the former but with the customs and traditions of a world that Baku has not been familiar.

A Muslim town also got introduced to various Islamic architecture influences such as Moorish from the Maghreb and North Africa. Moorish architecture mostly had its reflection on the doors of Mosques which were built later in the XIX century, and few residential buildings.

Azerbaijan Turkish Commerce Chamber
Architects Union Door
Institute of Manuscripts

In a society where Islamic doctrine forbids the depiction of human and animal imagery, Oil Barons of this time altered their conception of traditional values in favour for personal fame and glory by raising possibly the most beautiful and embellished palace designed by the skilful architects of Imperial Russia in Neoclassic, Baroque, Gothic and Art-Nouveau styles.

Door with Monogram of “TA”
Grand Art Nouveau Door
Gothic Door

Strolling from the old Jewish quarter (Cuhud məhəlləsi) to Sovietsky, then to German, and then to Polish neighbourhood also reveals the joy of rich cultural diversity that hide behind the doors. This a heritage that celebrated proudly in the XXI century by many people.  

Art Nouveau Door with a Mascaron (Hermes and His Staff)
Art Nouveau Door with a Mascaron (Beautiful Woman)
Art Nouveau Door with a Mascaron (Gotesque)

Then communism arrived in Baku. It was a global force that promised to eradicate inequality and social classes. All social and communal effort and organization had to serve to portray, equality, friendship and union of socialists. Architecture, too, has adopted new goals and objectives to achieve in this socialist system. Baku was an oriental city with predominantly Turkic speaking Muslim populations and it had a background history of socialist development with influences to Persia and Turkey. Already succeeded establishing socialism as a form of organizing the society in 1920, Baku rolled-up sleeves to play the role of a door to export socialist and communist ideologies to Middle Eastern nations.  

Some of the doors resemble the shapes and details of classical Greek and Roman Architecture, many represent Art-Nouveau art, some remain loyal to the patterns in Ichari Shahar, some are century-old, some just year-old, some are eloquent, some are mysterious, some are elaborate, some are simply ordinary. In essence, those doors and their architectural decorative elements tell us a story of its kind.

There quite a number of doors that give you the exact idea about historical or current use of the building right at the entry point. Most of these doors are from the Soviet time.

Door to National Library
Door to Music School
Door to Composers’ Union

I believe that those doors would allow us an imaginary, possibly a stereotypical, look at owners as an idea about individual subjects shapes this city identity. Perhaps those doors in the streets of Baku will tell you something about this country and people as a detail that you’d get otherwise with any other means. Ichari Shahar portrays Baku as the orient; Downtown Baku and Nizami Street is the showcase of compatibility with the occident; Microraions are the socials projections of the soviet past and in the middle of these there Baku opens the doors towards all of them.

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