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History of the City of Baku. Part I.

The history of the city of Baku goes back to the great antiquity, though the exact date of its rise is not known up to now. The territory of the Apsheron Peninsula where the city is situated enjoys a favourable geographical position, a convenient bay, a warm, dry climate, a fertile soil, natural minerals, and therefore the emergence of the ancient settlements here is quite natural. The district of Gobustan is to the southwest of modern Baku by the Caspian Sea. Here in the vast space were pastured numerous herds of animals the images of which are fixed on the rocks of the neighbouring mountains. The pictures dating back to 8 milleniums reflect different hunting scenes, ceremonial and ritual processes of the ancient dwellers of these places.

Noteworthy is the Latin inscription of the 80s-90s of our era found at the foot of the mountain of Boyukdash in Gobustan which runs, “The time of Emperor Domitianus Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Lucius Julius Maxim, Centurion XII of the Lightning Legion”. And the name of the settlement of Ramana or Romana in the vicinity of Baku perhaps also speaks of the Roman troops’ stay in Apsheron in the I century. The Roman troops’ distribution in Gobustan indicates the presence of a large settlement or city in the vicinity, which might have been Baku at that time towards which the Roman troops must have made for.

The archeological excavations carried out in the city of Baku and its vicinities prove the existence of the settlement here before our era. The archaic pre-Zoroastrian burial places found in 1888 during the digging of the foundation pit of the base of the former Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the place of an old Muslim cemetery speak of the city’s ancient origin too. In the foundation pit were found ancient burials in the form of stone boxes in several rows one above another, also a tomb in the shape of a big tendir (fireplace) the contents of which were six or seven human skeletons in half-seated position. There were clay bowls of an irregular shape in front of the skeletons. This was a family tomb going to the times of the tribal system of the society.

Since olden days Baku, its oil, “a burning soil” have been known far beyond its borders. The Medieval written sources related to Baku invariably refer to “the eternal flames” in its vicinities. One of the first to report about them at the beginning of the V century was Byzantine Prisk Paniyski who, while describing the cities of Caucasian Albania, mentioned the place where “the flame rises out of the reef”. The Arabian historian al-Balazuri also informs of oil and salt in Shirvan in 754. With the spread of Islam in the region beginning from the IX century Baku is mentioned in the written sources of Arabian geographers and historians as a small, but a developed feudal city. Invariably there are sources of white and dark gray oil in Baku. Caravans came here for oil from all parts of the Middle East. Slavonic, Khazar, Byzantine, Chinese, Iraqi, Syrian, Kenyan, Venetian, Iranian, and Indian tradesmen arrived in Baku. Being located in the intersection of trade routes Baku was always in the focus of attention of foreign invaders fighting for the influence in the region.

In the second half of the IX century the decline of Abbas’ caliphate and the reinforcement of the tendency of decentralization in the countries under the caliphate led to the formation of a number of independent states. The state of the Shirvanshahs was one of such states. Medieval Baku, along with Shamakhy turned into one of the main cities of Shirvan. The city started its real development in the XI century when the state of the Shirvanshahs gradually found itself in the centre of developments in the region.

It was at this time that they first started to wall Baku. The evidence of this is the stone inscription discovered during the restoration of the walls, which runs that the walls were erected by Shirvanshah Manuchuhr II (1120-1160).

The further development of the Shirvanshahs’ state was achieved under Akhsitan I, Manuchuhr II’s son. He successfully repelled the assaults of Saljuks and nomadic Kypchaks. During his reign a strong fleet was created in the Baku port. So in 1175 he managed to repel the Russians’ assault that had attacked the vicinity of Baku on 73 vessels. In 1191 Shirvanshah Akhsitan transferred his residence from Shamakhy to Baku. For the first time Baku became the main city of the Shirvanshahs.

With the consolidation of the Shirvanshahs an enormous construction was carried out in the territory of the Apsheron Peninsula. Many castles and minarets, madrasas (islamic religious schools) and towers, caravansaries and bathhouses, reservoirs, mosques and dwelling houses were built at that time. The earliest construction of that period remaining up to our days is Mahammad’s Mosque, erected within the Baku fortress in 1078-1079. Towers and castles hold a special place among the constructions of that period - they served as a reliable stronghold of feudal lords in their intestine struggle as well as a refuge and shelter during the assaults. Much attention was paid to fortify the fortress walls and the Baku fortress. To defend Baku from the coastal side a fortress - the Sabail castle, which is presently under water, was built in the Baku bay in 1232-1235.

In the XIII century the entire country found itself under the Mongolian yoke. In 1230s after a long siege Baku also surrendered to the Mongols. The city was ruthlessly destroyed and plundered “as a punishment” for its resistance. Oil extraction and trade came to decline. The local rulers tried to revive the city’s life. This is testified particularly by Soltan Mahammad Oljite’s edict (1304-1316) carved in the wall of Juma Mosque within the old fortress. Some taxes were abolished by the edict in order to stimulate the trade and to restore the economy.

At the beginning of XIV century trade, particularly marine trade revived. The ships belonging to the Italian merchants from Genoa and Venice arrived in the Baku port. Baku traded with the Golden Horde, the Moscow princedom, European countries. Oil, carpets and other goods were exported from here. Goods were also exported to Astrakhan, Middle Asia. The Caspian Sea was often referred to as Baku in connection with the growing economic and political role of Baku in the II half of the XIV century. In particular it was so referred in an atlas of 1375. The surviving architectural monuments in the Baku fortress – the Bukhara caravansary (XIV century), the Multani caravansary (XV century) and others testify to the wide links of Baku with Middle Asia and India.

Following the rise of Baku’s economic and political importance in XV century, Shirvanshah Khalilullah I (1417-62) moved the Shirvanshahs’ residence from Shamakhy to Baku. A large construction was developed in the city. At this time there was constructed a complex of the Shirvanshahs’ palace – the largest monument of the Shirvan – Apsheron branch of the Azerbaijani architecture. Trade, art, handicraft were developed. Diplomatic relations were established with the Moscow princedom.

In 1501 Shah Ismail Khatai of the Safavis’ dynasty invaded Shirvan and lay a siege to Baku. At this time the city was enclosed with the lines of strong walls, which were washed by sea on one side and protected by a wide trench on land. The besieged inhabitants of Baku fought with fortitude, relying on the impregnability of their fortification. In the absence of the city’s ruler Gazi-bay his wife led the city’s defence. She ordered to execute Shah Ismail’s messengers who had come to her with the proposal to lay down their arms. Having seen the reluctance of the besieged to surrender Ismail ordered to undermine and explode the big stone in the wall. The inhabitants resisted 3 more days, but then the fortress’s defense was broken by the Safavis’ troops who annihilated lots of inhabitants. Realizing the uselessness of further resistance 70 noble citizens of Baku with the Koran in their hands, the swords round their necks and shrouds on their backs turned to Ismail and declared their obedience to him. Ismail occupied the fortress without delay. Plenty of gold and jewelry were taken away from the occupied treasury of the Shirvanshahs. Though this campaign of Ismail against Shirvan inflicted a heavy blow on the Shirvanshahs’ state, it still managed to survive till 1538. In 1538 Shah Tahmasib, the Safavis’ ruler put an end to the Shirvanshahs’ reign and united the entire Shirvan including Baku under the Safavis’ state.