A Fiery Maiden Guards Her Secrets
“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-colored fires burning in honor of the pantheon of gods of Ahura Mazda or Mithra”. - Professor Davud Akhundov.
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.
The Maiden's Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan. (Ken Douglas/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
Legends of the Maiden’s Tower
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. Was it 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.
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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 strong was his desire that he promised to give the girl whatever she wished if she would marry him.
Azerbaijani "Maiden Tower" Ballet. K. Batashov and Q. Almaszade as Gukyanaq. ( Public Domain )
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 stronger, she climbed up to its topmost pinnacle and threw herself into the sea, her virginity still intact.
Architectural Features of the Maiden’s Tower
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 meters (98.43 ft.) high and 17 meters (55.77 ft.) 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 meters (16.40 ft.) 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 defense.
Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan. (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA ) Nine narrow windows of the tower face outwards towards the Caspian Sea.
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 stabilizing buttress, and it was no use for defensive purposes.
An Important Tower in the Land of Fire
For many years, the Gyz Galasy was presumed to date from the 12th Century AD. This was mostly based 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.
Baku's Holy Fire Temple- Tower (Maiden Tower), reconstruction by Davud Akhundov, The Architecture of Ancient and Early Medieval Azerbaijan, book, in Russian, Baku, 1986. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Pilgrims travelled 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 erupted spontaneously out of vents in the earth and ignited to create spectacular fountains of perpetual fire: a marvelous 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.
Maiden Tower, painting, Tahir salahov. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
To Whom was the Tower Dedicated?
Some Iranian historians, like Bastani Parisi, 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 (6.1 meters) into the rock, still yields water today. The tower could have been built to announce and celebrate the well’s holy presence.
Far more colorful 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-colored holy fire. The fires were fed by currents of natural gas conducted to the altars via a 30 cm (11.81 inch) 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 honor 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 behind it?
Zoroastrian Eternal Flame at the Fire Temple in Yazd, Central Iran. (Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Was the Tower an Observatory or Mausoleum?
Other historians attempt to distance themselves from Dr. Akhunov’s evident romanticism, but their own interpretations are no less colorful. 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.
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A soberer 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 dishonored 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”.
Engraving of Tower of Silence, Mumbai. ( Public Domain )
The Tower’s Possible Creators
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 defenses. 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 thousands 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 center of Baku, the Maiden’s Tower emerged untouched, her head raised proudly above the rubble of more modern buildings that had succumbed.
The Maiden Tower (Azerbaijani: Qız Qalası), also known locally as Giz Galasi, located in the Old City, Baku, in Azerbaijan. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
It seems this remarkable monument 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.
Top Image: The Maiden Tower is the most recognized structure in the Old City of Baku, Azerbaijan. Source: Public Domain