Blood, Tears, and Oil: The Bloody History of the Walled City of Baku
Today Baku is most well known for being the capital of the Azerbaijan Republic. Thousands of tourists every year flock to Baku to visit the Walled City of Baku and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and its Maiden Tower. As tourists walk the ancient streets today and take in the sights they’re probably unaware that from the 12th century BC until well into the 20th century, Baku was in a near-constant state of bloody turmoil. Few cities have been put through the wringer as many times as the Walled City of Baku.
The Walled City of Baku’s Ancient Origins
When we talk about the Walled City of Baku, what we’re referring to is the very center of modern Baku, its historic core. The Walled City is the oldest part of Baku and is surrounded by the walls that have been used to protect it for hundreds of years. The Walled City has been around for almost a thousand years and has survived many, many regime changes and several foreign invasions . This makes the city's survival record incredibly impressive.
Most historians interested in the area agree that the Walled City of Baku as we know it today dates back to around the 12th century AD. It was around this time that the process of heavily fortifying the city began. It was around this time that the Maiden Tower, the Ramana, Nardaran, Shagan, Mardakan, and Sabayil castles were built.
Why all the fortification? Because Baku had a habit of coming under assault. Prior to the 10th century, Baku was repeatedly attacked by the Khazars (a semi-nomadic Turkic people dating back to the 6th century AD). From the 10th century, the Rus (another medieval people) began raids on Baku as well. These attacks were put to an end when Shirvanshah I built a huge navy in the Baku harbor and repelled one last massive Rus assault in 1170.
After a huge earthquake struck Shamaky in 1191, Shirvanshah’s court moved to Baku in 1191. Shirvanshah was all too aware of Baku’s history of being invaded by its neighbors. He soon got to work fortifying the city and building a mint. This work continued long after his death and between the 12th and 14th centuries, Baku saw a massive increase in fortifications.
This was somewhat of a golden period for the Walled City of Baku. By the 14th century, Muhammad Oljeitu was in charge. He lowered the heavy taxes that the city had previously been under, and this led to prosperity and growth. Baku had soon made a name for itself as a major port of trade. Even Marco Polo wrote of Baku oil exports. During this period the city was known to trade with the Golden Horde , the Moscow Princedom, and European countries.
The Shirvan era greatly influenced Baku with massive fortifications including legendary Sabayil Castle, The Maiden Tower, and the city walls were rebuilt and strengthened. Relics found among the ruins of Sabayil Castle. (Walter Callens / CC BY 2.0 )
As would become a common theme in regard to the Walled City of Baku, it soon became a victim of its own success. The city had become famous for its wealth and strategic position on the Caspian Sea. Baku soon caught the eye of King Ismail I, the leader of the newly formed Safavid dynasty (based in modern-day Iran) and In 1501 he and his army laid siege. After nearly three hundred years of relative peace, Baku was back to being invaded.
Of course, Baku’s inhabitants resisted. They’d spent over 200 years fortifying the city and believed their mighty walls would protect them. They were wrong. Their plan worked until Ismail ordered his men to undermine the walls, and the city’s defenses soon fell. The city soon followed suit and many of its inhabitants were put to the sword by Ismail and his men.
Ismail initially allowed the Shirvanshahs to stay in Baku under his watchful eye and Safavid rule. His successor Tahmasp I wasn’t so generous, however. He altogether removed the Shirvanshahs from power permanently. In doing so the House of Shirvan was effectively destroyed and never recovered.
During the 1578-1590 Ottoman-Safavid War, depicted here from a Palace of the Shirvanshahs painting, the Ottomans were the victors and one of their prizes was Baku. This victory was somewhat short-lived and by 1607 Baku was back under Iranian control. (Rita Willaert / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Back and Forth: Russia and Persia Fight For Baku
For the most part, Baku remained under the rule of successive Iranian dynasties until the Russian Empire officially took over in 1813 with the Treaty of Gulistan. However, this was not a peaceful period for Baku, the Persians would repeatedly lose control over Baku in the coming years. Baku’s population would never get a chance to grow beyond a tiny 5,000 and constant warfare took a huge toll on the once-bustling economy.
War returned to Baku during the 1578-1590 Ottoman-Safavid War. The Ottomans were the victors and one of their prizes was Baku. This victory was somewhat short-lived and by 1607 Baku was back under Iranian control.
Then in 1722, the Safavids lost power back home in Iran. Peter the Great in Russia saw his chance and went in and invaded. The Safavids, who were in total disarray, didn’t stand a chance and ceded Baku to the Russian Empire. This was also a short-lived victory. Peter had over-reached and by 1730 Russia was struggling. On the 10th of March 1735, Russia signed the Treaty of Ganja, giving Iran back basically every territory they’d lost to Russia, including The Walled City of Baku.
The Russians returned once again in 1796 under Catherine II. The Russians sent in 13,000 men and the city was quickly overwhelmed and taken with little resistance. This is probably Baku’s shortest occupation, lasting only a year. In 1797 Russia's new Emperor Paul I ordered an end to the Russian-Persian hostilities and the Russians abandoned Baku, gifting it back to the Persians.
Sadly, this wasn’t the end of Baku’s turmoil. Russia and Persia were soon back at war and the result of the 1804-1813 Russo-Persian war was the Treaty of Gulistan, within which the Persians handed Baku back to the Russians.
Shockingly this isn’t the end of the story. There was another brief Russo-Persian war between 1826 and 1828. During this war the Iranians briefly recaptured Baku. However once again they ended up losing to Russia and the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay officially made Baku a permanent part of Russia.
Baku City’s prosperous Neftchiler Avenue circa 1920 shows how the Walled City of Baku took to modern European architecture, paid for by oil wealth from the 1830s onward. (Ariel Varges / Public domain )
The Walled City of Baku Under Russian Rule
One can only think that for several hundred years it must have been hard for the residents of Baku to know if they were coming or going with their rulers seemingly changing every five minutes. From 1828 onward Baku entered a period of peace and relative stability.
In 1828 the population reached around 7000 and the walled city was home to around 700 homes and 700 shops. Between 1807 and 1811 the new Russian rulers worked on repairing and extending the city's fortifications. Furthermore, dozens of cannons were placed on the walls, sending the message that the Russians were there to stay.
As the constant warfare finally came to an end prosperity also returned and the people of Baku could finally focus once again on what they were good at, trade. The port was reopened and in 1809 a customs office was built. Baku was back in business!
Soon the walled city outgrew its walls and new neighborhoods were built outside its storied walls. It is around this time Baku was split into the Inner City and Outer City . Those who lived in the inner city considered themselves true natives of Baku and tended to look down on those who dwelled outside the walls.
Evidence of Baku’s change in fortunes soon began to show. As money came into the city the architecture began to change. Some of the traditional Persian architecture was replaced with European architecture of the Gothic and Baroque styles. As you wander the streets of the Walled City of Baku today its history is clearly evident in its architecture.
Oil workers digging an oil well by hand in the Bibi-Heybat suburb of Baku City in 1846. ( Public domain )
Baku’s Black Gold: Petroleum Wells Dug By Hand!
Baku’s growth kicked into overdrive during the 19th century with the discovery of oil in Baku. The digging for petroleum began with hand-dug wells in the 1830s and 1840s and by 1946 Baku had its first mechanical oil well. In 1972 Russian authorities started selling off pieces of oil-rich Baku land to private investors. Big names soon began to appear. The Nobel Brothers started an operation in Baku in 1873 which was soon followed by the infamous Rothschilds in 1882.
It turned out Baku was swimming in black gold. As the 18th century rolled into the 20th, half of all oil sold internationally came from Baku oil wells. Oil brought money and money brought massive expansion. Whilst the walled city couldn’t grow, the outer city's population grew at a faster rate than that of London, Paris, or New York.
This newfound prosperity does not mean Baku was safe from bloodshed, however. Baku’s bloodiest period yet was just around the corner. Violence would come to Baku several more times before the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In 1905 Russia was hit with massive political unrest as working-class Russians rose up against the Tsar, nobility, and the Russian ruling class in general. This uprising had enormous repercussions across the Russian Empire. In February of the same year, violence erupted in Baku between the local Armenian population and Tatars (modern-day Azerbaijanis). There are conflicting accounts of who actually started the violence.
As is so common with massacres of this nature, reliable sources are hard to find and both sides blame each other. The British historian Christopher Walker amongst others argues that Tatars sparked the fighting by killing unarmed Armenian civilians which led to a strong Armenian response. The argument for this side is that with the Russians distracted by the revolution the Tatars took their chance to take out the Armenians and plunder their properties.
On the other side, it is claimed that the Armenians were responsible for a series of terrorist attacks that led to a swift and brutal Tatar response. No solid official figures are available, but we know that thousands of Armenians and Tatars lost their lives in the ensuing violence. It is also likely that this violence and the long-lasting bad blood it caused later led to much worse bloodshed.
An Iranian postcard showing the Iranian consul M. S. Vezare-Maragai standing in front of a few of Baku’s many Muslim victims from the March Days of 1918. (. ublic domain )
World War I and Baku’s Bloody Fight For Independence
During World War I Baku became a major German target. Baku was responsible for supplying huge amounts of oil each year to the Allies. Not trusting its Turkish allies to get the job done, Germany sent troops to Georgia in order to enter Baku. Britain responded in kind and sent in its own troops to halt the German advance. The Germans were desperate to get their hands on the Baku oil and the Brits couldn’t afford to lose it.
In 1917 the Russian revolution once again brought bloodshed to the streets of Baku. The power vacuum created by the fall of the Russian Empire once again led to bloody massacres in Baku called The March Days in 1918. The Bolsheviks and Dashnaks (Armenians) sought to take over Baku and the local Azerbaijanis resisted. Sadly, this did not go well for the Baku natives, and it is estimated that anywhere between three to twelve thousand people lost their lives in the ensuing massacre.
The result of all this bloodshed was the creation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (the ADR). The ADR just had one small problem; they couldn’t defend themselves without a proper army. This was a major problem for a country with such a long-standing history of being invaded. The ADR turned to the Ottomans for help and began their march on Baku, capturing it on September 15th, 1918, this was known as The Battle of Baku .
Sadly, this led to yet another massacre. This time it was Baku’s Armenian citizens who were the victims. As the ADR and Ottoman forces flooded into Baku, the local Armenians fled to the harbor in a desperate escape attempt. Rather than an avenue of escape, the harbor became a choke point. Over the next few days, Ottoman and Azerbaijani troops massacred up to 30,000 Armenians. This massacre is known as the September Days . Thankfully it was the last massacre of WWI and the last massacre in the bloody history of Baku.
The ADR’s victory was short-lived. The end of WWI was also the end of the Ottoman Empire. Without its greatest ally, the ADR was left vulnerable, and the Russian Bolsheviks were eager to regain what they had lost. On April 28th, 1920, the Red Army invaded Baku and reinstalled the Bolsheviks to power.
Under the USSR Baku once again prospered. The USSR was heavily reliant on Baku oil and the city of Baku became a crown jewel of the Soviets. The Russians went on to invest heavily in the Baku oil fields and the face of Baku itself changed as the Soviets built up the area. Whilst the Axis powers were desperate to get their hands on Baku during WWII the city, for once, never saw any violence.
Today, the Walled City of Baku beckons visitors with its dazzling skyline of skyscrapers and ancient Islamic structures from more than a thousand years ago! (. urkaimmortal / Adobe Stock)
With the fall of the USSR Baku and Azerbaijan finally gained independence for good in 1991. For the first time in almost a thousand years, the Walled City of Baku is under Azerbaijani rule, and it continues to prosper.
The city is proud of its relatively newfound independence. Azerbaijan has worked hard to return the Walled City of Baku to its former glory. Many of the ugly utilitarian buildings of the Soviet area have been demolished and replaced with green belts.
The Walled City of Baku has been invaded countless times but it would seem that has finally come to an end. In 2000 the Walled City of Baku along with the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and Maiden Tower became UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Now the only foreign invaders to be found in Baku are tourists wielding their wallets and cameras.
Top image: Azerbaijan's Walled City of Baku holds centuries of bloody history and early oil wealth, and now its skyline is a mixture of ancient, modern and contemporary architecture. Source: Boris Stroujko / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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