Baku is a city of superlatives. Surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls, ultramodern civic buildings and the Bulvar – soon to be the world’s largest public park – the Old City, Icherisheher, is the relatively humble heart of Baku.
Icherisheher is separated from the rest of Baku by a curved wall and almost touches the Caspian coast at its southern boundary. Layered with religious, political and cultural significance, the Old City was first place in Azerbaijan to be listed by Unesco in 2000. With formal recognition and a corresponding influx of international visitors, the state has doubled down on its efforts to preserve the Old City’s historic sandstone buildings.
Despite ongoing reconstruction works and efforts to boost tourist infrastructure within Icherisheher’s walls, families still live inside the Old City. Early on a Sunday morning, you’ll see mothers hanging out laundry and children playing. It’s a lovely time to wander the cobbled streets.
Baku’s Old City has always been a locus of community, and it’s this element of Icherisheher that really fascinates me. The romanticised story of Icherisheher’s ghir-pourers – which I found on a placard inside the Old City – sums this up perfectly. Ghir is a black tar that was slapped onto Icherisheher’s roofs to weather-proof the buildings.
“Their job had a secret symbolic meaning: The hot mixture not only made the roof invulnerable to different weather phenomena, but also fastened the friendship between the houses.”
Apparently ghir-pourers were quite the men about town, striking up conversations with tenants and entertaining the neighbourhood’s children.
Icherisheher has changed a lot since the days of the ghir-pourers, who no longer tread the Old City’s streets. New residents have moved in, opening expensive restaurants and boutique hotels to cater for Russian and Eastern European tourists. Plenty of carpet and antique merchants now call the Old City home too.
In Icherisheher’s changing landscape, a few important historical structures have been protected – including the Maiden Tower and the 12th century Shirvanshah Palace. Domed bath houses lay empty; sandstone caravanserais have been transformed into taverns. Icherisheher is a city of courtyards and secret passageways; sunken gardens and hammams. Relics of Zoroastrianism which once thrived in oil-rich Baku were replaced first with chapels then with mosques, madrasses and mausoleums.
Religious ritual is part of the Old City’s living history. Walking through on a Sunday morning, we witnessed a sheep being sacrificed right behind the baklava shop.
The best way to see and experience Icherisheher is by simply wandering the cobbled back alleys with no particular destination in mind. If it weren’t for glimpses of the Flame Towers and Soviet apartment blocks beyond the Old City’s walls, Icherisheher would feel just like a time capsule.