Discover Baku’s history through its unique architecture

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Lying at the crossroads of East and West, Azerbaijan’s capital reveals its Zoroastrian, Islamic and Soviet past – and it’s oil-rich present – through its unique design

pace and time appear to intersect in Baku. If you climb up to Highland Park and look down over the bustling city, you’ll notice how different epochs have contributed to the dense urban fabric of Azerbaijan’s capital. From the city’s medieval sandstone nucleus to the glass skyscrapers of its most recent oil boom, Baku reveals its long history at the crossroads of East and West through its architecture. 

Cultural guide and architectural researcher Gani Nasirov has been studying Baku’s design for years, analysing the subtle details that distinguish its Zoroastrian roots from its Islamic core, and its Soviet past from its modern European influences. 

“Baku’s architectural heritage is incredibly diverse. You can find buildings that draw inspiration from classical Greek and Roman shapes and others that exhibit Art Nouveau elements. Then there are grand Soviet socialist structures, which often incorporate Islamic and Oriental aesthetics,” Nasirov said.

As Baku continues to renew itself, it has become a beacon for architecture buffs. From its historical monuments to its glittering modern marvels, here are the eight structures that Nasirov says best tell the city’s story.

1. Palace of the Shirvanshahs

Archaeological evidence shows there were prehistoric human settlements near Baku, but the exact date of the capital’s founding remains uncertain. As Nasirov explained, we know that Baku experienced significant growth in the Middle Ages when the rulers of the Shirvan state (which occupied the north-eastern regions of modern-day Azerbaijan) relocated to the city. “Up to the 12th Century, the Shirvanshahs’ residence was in the city of Shamaki, 120km west of Baku,” said Nasirov. “The city was frequently struck by devastating earthquakes and, as a result, [the Shah] Shirvanshah Manuchohr III (1120-1149) ordered the construction of a formidable fortress wall around the hill overlooking Baku Bay.”

This fortress wall is still a prominent feature of the Unesco-inscribed old town, enclosing a labyrinthine network of narrow alleys connecting mosques, caravanserais, hammams, restaurants and hotels. “Baku’s importance solidified in the 15th Century. It was at this time the rulers completed the striking Palace of the Shirvanshahs, an outstanding example of medieval architecture,” said Nasirov.

The palace complex (now a museum) contained 52 rooms, the Shirvanshahs’ tombs, a mosque and the octagonal royal court. Around it, the city expanded. “The fortress city was meticulously planned, following the principles of the Oriental quarters known as mahallas,” Nasirov said. “Each mahalla was organised around a bazaar square, which served as the commercial centre and featured a mosque, baths and residential houses. As a result, the architectural layout of [the Old City] remains characterised by its intricate maze-like streets and flat-roofed houses.”

The origin of the iconic Maiden’s Tower remains a mystery (Credit: mauritius images GmbH/Alamy)

2. Maiden’s Tower (Qız Qalası) 

One of Baku’s most iconic sites, the cylindrical Maiden’s Tower soars above the Old City walls. Despite its location, its origins remain a mystery, which has fuelled quite a few myths. As Nasirov explained: “Scholars have been unable to provide definitive answers to questions regarding its construction date and original purpose. The enigma has inspired poems, cartoons and even an opera ballet, making it a symbol of the city.”

Gani Nasirov is a Baku-based tour guide and writer who specialises in the city’s architecture, history and heritage.

Some researchers believe that the original structure could have been a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian temple that was converted into a defensive tower in the 12th Century, but varying legends persist. “Myths often revolve around the name ‘maiden’,” said Nasirov. “The best-known tale tells of a young girl that had the tower built to protect herself against an unwanted suitor. Unable to escape, she committed suicide by jumping from the top of the tower into the Caspian Sea. This legend has deeply permeated popular culture and has become a recurring theme in the works of Azerbaijani artists and poets.” 

The Taza Pir Mosque draws design inspiration from across the Muslim world (Credit: Vastram/Alamy)

The Taza Pir Mosque draws design inspiration from across the Muslim world (Credit: Vastram/Alamy)

3. Taza Pir Mosque

Shia Islam became the dominant religion in Azerbaijan in the Middle Ages, and it remains so today. “Historically, the city’s religious landscape was diverse: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as mystical Sufi movements such as Hurufism and Khalwatiyya were all represented,” Nasirov said. “Islam grew to become the dominant faith, but most mosques during the Middle Ages followed the traditions of vernacular architecture, featuring relatively small box-shaped structures. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century, with the wealth of new oil barons, [that there was] the construction of grandiose mosques.” 

One such project was the Taza Pir Mosque, which was built in 1914 and replaced an old religious tomb. As Nasirov explained: “The Taza Pir Mosque stands as a remarkable architectural achievement in Baku, representing a new era in mosque design. It draws inspiration from architectural styles across the broader Muslim East, marking a fresh chapter in the evolution of religious architecture in Baku. The exterior of the mosque features porticos and two minarets rising from the sides, while the square worship hall [is] enhanced by grand domes. The interior decorations incorporate elements derived from local architectural traditions, creating a unique and aesthetically rich space.” 

Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Moorish styles all combine at Baku's Philharmonic Hall (Credit: Vastram/Alamy)

4. Philharmonic Hall 

“The expansion of Baku beyond its historic 12th-Century fortress walls was closely linked to the development of the modern oil industry, which propelled Baku to become a global hub of oil production by 1901,” said Nasirov, noting that this late-19th-Century oil boom radically transformed the city. Beyond mosques, architects erected grandiose European-inspired palaces and public buildings to show off the city’s new wealth.

According to Nasirov, prominent European families and oil conglomerates played a crucial role in revolutionising Baku’s oil industry. But there were also local entrepreneurs, some of whom became millionaires almost overnight. The best-known rags-to-riches story is that of Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, whose statue stands outside the Icherisheher metro station. Taghiyev commissioned an eclectic mansion as a residence (now a museum), but was also dedicated to philanthropic enterprises, funding the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and Baku’s first boarding school for girls, now the Institute of Manuscripts

“The oil barons played a key role as sponsors of [Baku’s] architectural transformation of the early 20th Century, hiring European architects to design their eclectic dreams. Besides Taghiyev’s private mansion designed by Polish architect Iosif Goslavsky, notable examples include the Ismailiyya Palace (housing the Muslim Philanthropic Society) designed by Iosif Ploshko, and the Philharmonic Hall designed by Gabriel Ter-Mikelov. These architectural landmarks combine features of Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, Baroque, Moorish and other styles, showcasing the diverse influences that shaped the city’s architectural landscape during the oil-boom era.”

5. Government House

When Azerbaijan became part of the USSR in 1922, Baku’s grandiose palaces began being replaced by a different collection of Soviet structures. “The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent invasion of Baku by the Red Army in 1920 had a profound impact on the economic and socio-political system of the city. This marked the beginning of Baku’s expansion and growth driven by socialist ideology throughout the 20th Century,” Nasirov said. 

“In the mid-1930s, Boris Iofan’s design for the Palace of the Soviets gained official approval, leading the way for the dominance of Stalinist architecture in the city. Under Stalin’s rule, architects adopted classical ornaments and grand archways reminiscent of Greco-Roman temples, combining them with elements of the Islamic tradition typical of Azerbaijani culture to obtain a style that was national in form and socialist in essence.” 

A hammer and sickle still looms over the entrance of the monumental, U-shaped Palace of the Soviets (now the Government House), which was completed in 1952, just a year before Stalin’s death. 

Mirarvi Cafe still stands as a shining example of Soviet Modernism (Credit: Vastram/Alamy)

6. Mirvari Cafe

Various architectural styles followed in Baku during the seven decades of the USSR’s existence. “Constructivism emerged in the 1920s, reflecting the revolutionary spirit of the era. It was overtaken in the 1930s by a return to classicism of Stalinist architecture, which lasted until Stalin’s death. The Khrushchev era witnessed the rise of Soviet Modernism, which continued until the fall of the Soviet Union,” Nasirov explained. 

Soviet modernist architecture had an unquestionable utilitarian drive, but experimentation persisted too. “Massive and austere buildings resembling [giant] matchboxes dominated the architectural landscape of Baku after 1955. New residential blocks known as microraions were constructed with functionality in mind to address housing issues in the post-war Soviet Union. But avant-garde administrative offices, sports complexes, concert halls and public buildings were built as well.”

Important projects such as the Baku metro system were completed during this period, but more subtle buildings are perhaps better examples of the epoch’s ideals. “Cafe Pearl (now Mirvari Cafe), located on the promenade, was a popular spot for Baku residents to enjoy views of the Baku Bay on hot summer days,” Nasirov said. The cafe, completed in 1959, still stands as a shining example of Soviet Modernism. While it’s one of Baku’s lesser-known architectural monuments today, when it was built, Nasirov said it “became a showpiece meant to fuel the architectural rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States”.

7. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in a new era of urban planning, ignited by the 1994 “contract of the century” between Azerbaijan’s government and multinational oil corporations, that granted foreign investors the right to exploit Azerbaijan’s natural resources. The completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in 2006 made Baku a major oil exporter. Much of the profits produced by the oil industry were invested in the modernisation of the city, adding a series of futuristic buildings to the skyline. 

The Flame Towers, located on the city’s highest point near Highland Park, serve as an architectural landmark that reflect Azerbaijan’s oil heritage while projecting a forward-looking identity,” Nasirov said. “The most famous example of contemporary architecture, however, is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre designed by Zaha Hadid.” The seemingly fluid whitewashed structure, which takes its name from former president Heydar Aliyev, won the 2014 Design of the Year Award and has become one of the new symbols of the city, housing an exhibition hall and a museum dedicated to Aliyev’s achievements.

8. Crescent Bay 

Emerging from the eastern end of Baku Boulevard, the city’s seaside promenade, this group of glitzy, glass skyscrapers may appear straight out of Dubai, but they have come to define a new stage of oil-funded urban planning in Baku. “Projects such as Port Baku, Crescent Bay and White City exemplify Baku’s embrace of contemporary urban development, while drawing inspiration from its cultural traditions,” said Nasirov. 

The soon-to-be-completed Crescent Bay development project will feature a bow-shaped, 32-storey luxury hotel, reflecting its silhouette on the waters of the Caspian Sea. “[It] takes inspiration from the crescent moon symbol that is ever-present in Azerbaijani culture, including on the national flag,” Nasirov said. Looking ahead, these projects will continue to showcase Baku’s architectural prowess and contribute to its ongoing architectural journey.” 

Source: BBC