“At the beginning of the
1st millennium BC, there was raised an 8-storied towered temple
(Maiden’s Tower) devoted to seven gods, grandiose for those
day….[possessing] seven sacred levels, [and] wall-recessed altars with
seven-coloured fires burning in honour of the pantheon of gods of Ahura
Mazda or Mithra”
The former Soviet republic
of Azerbaijan possesses no shortage of ancient Persian monuments. None,
however, is as enigmatic as the Kyz Galasy (or “Maiden’s Tower”), the
oldest and most famous building in the country’s capital, Baku.
Legend and mystery surround
this ancient structure. No-one knows how old it is, or who built it, or
why it was constructed. Estimates for its age vary from eight hundred to
two thousand six hundred years. A defensive structure, a lighthouse, a
Zoroastrian temple, an observatory, a dakhma (place for disposing of the
dead)? The experts cannot seem to make up their minds.
Folk memory in Baku speaks
of a “fiery maiden” who delivered the city from a desperate siege in the
distant past. The oldest legend, however, (almost certainly pre-Islamic)
tells of a mighty ruler who developed an incestuous love for his own
daughter. So great was his desire that he promised to give the girl
whatever she wished if she would marry him. Although she feared his
advances, the young maiden did not dare to disobey her royal father, so
she asked him to build her a tower on the edge of the sea, greater than
any that had ever been built. The king readily agreed, and construction
began immediately. To play for time, the daughter visited the structure
regularly and suggested improvements and additions. Finally, when the
tower was finished, and it was impossible to build it any higher or any
more strongly, she climbed up to its topmost pinnacle and threw herself
into the sea, her virginity still intact.
Nothing about this ancient
edifice is really known for certain, except its physical characteristics.
The “Maiden’s Tower” is a massive stone cylindrical building almost 30
metres high and 17 metres in diameter. It sits anchored to a rock on the
edge of the Caspian Sea in the Ichari Shahar, or ancient quarter of Baku.
The great quantity of stone needed to construct it would have been
sufficient to build a defensive wall around the whole of the ancient city.
Its walls, five metre thick, contain seven spiral staircases leading to
seven floors. Each floor has curious recesses set into its walls. Nine
narrow windows face outwards towards the Caspian Sea and could not,
therefore, have been used for defence.
The most curious and
puzzling aspect of the tower, however, is the strange trapezoidal
projection that points away eastwards towards the rising sun. From the
air, it gives the whole building the appearance of a colossal key, or a
gigantic tadpole stranded forever on the Caspian shoreline. When the
tower first came under serious scientific scrutiny early last century, the
Soviet scientists who examined it could find no function for this
anomalous projection. It was not a breakwater, or a stabilising buttress,
and it was no use for defensive purposes.
For many years, the Gyz
Galasy was presumed to date from the 12th Century AD, mostly on
the evidence of an Arabic inscription set high in the wall which reads:
“The vault of Masud ibn Davud”. Not long ago, however, the Azeri
historian Sara Ashurbeyli convincingly demonstrated that this inscription
was merely a piece of broken tombstone used to repair the tower during the
Middle Ages. Since then, speculation has grown concerning the real age
and function of the building.
Within the last two
decades, the Maiden’s Tower has begun to reveal some of its secrets.
Recent evidence suggests that the structure predates the advent of Islam
by many centuries, and is far older than anyone had hitherto imagined
For thousands of years the
Absheron peninsula - upon which Baku stands - was a holy land sacred to
those who revered fire as a living symbol of divinity. Pilgrims traveled
from far afield in order to worship there. Scores of shrines and temples
once covered its windy promontory, lighting up the skies with innumerable
natural fires; for Baku sits on one of the largest oilfields in the Middle
East. The earth here is saturated with black naphtha and natural gas. In
ancient times it would have oozed up under the feet of its inhabitants.
At times it would have irrupted spontaneously out of vents in the earth
and ignited to create spectacular fountains of perpetual fire: a
marvellous sight for anyone approaching Baku by sea!
For most of its history,
Azerbaijan - or Odlar Yourdu, “The Land of Fire” - lay within the
cultural influence of Persia. And it is to Persia with its Zoroastrian
past that most historians look when attempting to decipher the function of
the Maiden’s Tower.
Some Iranian historians,
like Bastani Parizi, believe it to have been a temple to the goddess
Anahita, the virgin deity presiding over waters and fertility. She was
the “fiery maiden” of the legends. A deep well within the tower, cut
twenty feet into the rock, still yields water today. The tower could have
been built to announce and celebrate the well’s holy presence.
Far more colourful is the
interpretation of Professor Davud Akhundov, an expert on the architecture
of Caucasian Albania, and a native of Baku. He dates the tower back all
the way to the 6th century BC. For him it was a magnificent
towered sanctuary dedicated to the seven Zoroastrian “archangels” or
Amesha Spentas. Each floor of the tower - he maintains - was once
dedicated to a particular hypostasis of Ahura Mazda. Each possessed its
own altar and its own uniquely-coloured holy fire. The fires were fed by
currents of natural gas conducted to the altars via a 30 cms-wide pottery
pipe, which can still be seen today by visitors to the tower. The gas kept
the seven fires on the altars perpetually alight “in honour of the
pantheon of Gods of Ahura Mazda”.
If the building was indeed
a Zoroastrian temple, however, it is unlike any that we know. Gas-fed
altars of the sort described by Dr. Akhundov are certainly known to have
existed. But the little that we know of early Zoroastrian agiaries
suggests that they were invariably rectangular in plan, and not circular.
In addition, a more conventional fire altar (called by Akhundov “the
temple of fire in the water”) has recently been discovered at the foot of
the Maiden’s Tower near the water’s edge. If this smaller structure was
the real temple, then what could have been the function of the tower
Other historians attempt to
distance themselves from Dr. Akhunov’s evident romanticism, but their own
interpretations are no less colourful. V. Aleksperov and Gala Akhmadov
believe the Tower to have been a Zoroastrian observatory, with each of its
nine windows angled to a particular heavenly body. The ancient Persians,
after all, were famous for their knowledge of Astrology.
A more sober explanation is
given M. Nabiyev who sees the structure as a mausoleum. Zoroastrian burial
customs required that corpses be exposed on circular, well-shaped, stone
structures called Dakhmas (or “Towers of Silence”). To bury bodies in the
ground dishonoured the earth, which was sacred to Zoroastrians. The
proponents of this theory explain the Tower’s curious tail-like projection
as an “astadan”: a place where the bones of priests and important
Zoroastrians were kept for posterity, the bones of lesser mortals being
gathered into the dakhma’s central “well”.
No-one, it must be
admitted, really knows anything for certain about the Gyz Galasy. The only
sure facts are that it is a building of very great antiquity, constructed
either by the indigenous Albanian peoples, or by priests of the
Zoroastrians faith. In the 12th century AD it was repaired and
incorporated into the city walls as part of Baku’s defences. In the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it became a lighthouse. Its light was
finally extinguished in 1858; and the tower was opened to the public in
1964 as a museum.
Today, this most famous
landmark in Baku draws thousand upon thousands of visitors. Many of them
come from Iran, tourists hard on the trail of their nation’s cultural
history. In the year 2000 when a mighty earthquake rocked the centre of
Baku, the Maiden’s Tower emerged untouched, her head raised proudly above
the rubble of more modern buildings that had succumbed.
This remarkable monument it
seems, is likely to remain standing on its rock for many more centuries to
come, igniting the passions and lighting up the imaginations of all who
gaze upon it.
 This article
was posted on vohuman.org on February 5, 2005.