Maiden Tower: An observatory, a temple or a fortress?

By Araz Azer,Azernews Staff Writer

The Maiden Tower, a 28.5 meter construction on the Caspian Sea coast in Azerbaijan, has been inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list of historical monuments since 2001.

Maiden Tower is probably one of the most mysterious monuments in Azerbaijan. Archaeologists and historians are still debating on its age, its etymology and its main purpose. Some historians charge it was used as an observatory by ancient astronomers, while others say it was a fortress and an important part of the city`s defense system against intruders. The most convincing theory, however, suggests that it was a Zoroastrian temple used for fire worshipping, sacrifice rituals and other religious ceremonies. Of course, it is possible that the tower was used for all of the above-mentioned purposes at different times, but the purpose of the construction is just one of the many questions that need to be answered.

``Virgin`` tower or tower of a virgin?

There are various legends and assumptions about the etymology of the name ``Qiz Qalasi`` (Qiz /gyz/ - Girl, Virgin; Qala /gala/ - Tower) and while some of them seem reasonable, others give the impression of being nothing but a myth.

For example, one of the stories claims that Shah (the king) came back from a battle to discover that his wife, disappointingly, gave birth to a girl. Infuriated, he ordered his men to kill the girl, but her nanny was able to escape together with the baby. Years later the baby grew up to be a beautiful lady and when Shah saw the girl, he fell in love with her and decided to marry her. When she refused, he incarcerated her in the Tower. Soon the girl`s fiancee found out about this and, in great anger, he killed Shah and ran up to the Tower to rescue her. Upon hearing the footsteps on the stairs, the girl assumed that it was Shah coming for her and she jumped off the roof to save herself from marrying her own father. The legend goes that the Tower was called Maiden Tower after her.

Other sources claim that the name Maiden Tower doesn`t refer to an actual virgin and it rather points to the fact that it has never been taken by force. Another reasonable explanation is that the tower was used as a Watch Tower - Göz Qalasi (Göz /gyoz/- Eye; Qala /gala/- Tower) - and hence the words Qiz and Göz sound very similar; over the years it became Qiz Qalasi.

3,000-year-old mystery

Scholars and historians still haven`t come to an agreement regarding the age of the Maiden Tower, which makes it kind of unique in this sense, as the interval between the assumed construction dates is thousands of years.

It was built on a solid rock foundation that according to some archaeologists may have been a Zoroastrian temple some 2,600 years ago. The construction of the Tower was apparently carried out in two stages, as there is a distinguishable difference between the bottom 13.7 meters of the construction and the top 15. Historian Bretanitskiy claims that the first part of the tower was built in the 5th-6th centuries, while the rest of it was added on in the 12th century.

An inscription in ancient Kufic script, saying ``Qubbeye Masud ibn Davud`` (The Tower of Masud, son of Davud) can be seen on the southwest part of the tower, 14 meters high on the wall. This leads some historians to believe that Masud ibn Davud, a 12th century architect, was involved in the reconstruction works on the Tower.

Seljuq observatory

Probably the most insufficient assumption about the usage of the Maiden Tower is that it was built for astronomical observations. Gara Ahmadov, an Azerbaijani historian and archaelogist, is one of the most passionate proponents of this theory. He claims that the Maiden Tower was used as an observatory in the 12th century during the rule of Seljuqs and that the 30-stone protuberances on the lower part of the tower and another 31 on the upper part are somehow related to the days of the months.

Although the Tower can be considered suitable for observations of the sky, it is highly doubtful that it was constructed solely for observational purposes.

Sassanid fortress

One of the theories regarding the function of the tower is that it was part of Baku`s defense system during the rule of Sassanians (AD 224- AD 651). There are several facts that support the idea, but still there is no actual or historical evidence to prove it.

Considering the fact that the Maiden Tower is located on the edge of Icherisheher (``Old City`` or ``Walled City``) surrounded by high defensive walls, this theory seems reasonable. Also, its resemblance of several defensive towers on the Absheron Peninsula and an underground passage from the Tower to Shirvanshahs Palace, discovered in 1982, support the assumption that the Maiden Tower was used as a fortress centuries ago.

Zoroastrian temple

Most of the researches on the Maiden Tower support the theory that it was originally built as a Zoroastrian temple. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion, presumably founded around 6th century BCE in eastern Iran and known for fire worshipping and fire temples. In fact, the word ``Azerbaijan`` is translated from Persian as ``the land of fire``. Fire temples found all around the country, especially Atashgah (in the Surakhany settlement in Baku) and many Zoroastrian traditions still retained in Azerbaijan, such as Novruz holiday, indicate that Zoroastrianism was once very popular in Azerbaijan.

There are various theories that link the Maiden Tower to Zoroastrianism and most of them are based on the shape of the Tower (if viewed from the air, it has the shape of number 6).

Buta (the name originates from the Sanskrit word ``Buddha`` - Light) is a shape widely used in Azerbaijani decorative art and considered to be one of the unofficial national symbols. The Maiden Tower`s shape, as viewed from the top, highly resembles Buta, which is believed to be a Zoroastrian symbol representing fire.

A very interesting research carried out by Ronnie Gallagher and Betty Blair revealed various Channeled Holes (holes carved on the stones with one or more channels leading into them) in Nardaran, Turkan, Shuvelan, etc., which are believed to be related to religious ceremonies. All of the channels point at northeast direction - the direction of Summer Solstice. The authors couldn`t help to notice the similarity between the shapes of the Maiden Tower and these Channeled Holes: ``It is as if the `sacred shape` has been transformed into an impressive three-dimensional structure. From the top of the tower, the buttress points almost due East across the bay towards the headland of Gunashli at the tip end of Absheron Peninsula extending out into Baku Bay. Interestingly, the word `Gunashli` in Azeri means `sunny`.``

Some scholars suggest that the shape of the tower has nothing to do with the symbolism and it is purely a matter of architectural design. Centuries ago, when the Caspian Sea was closer and washed the walls of the Tower, its buttress was functioning as a wave breaker.

There is also a theory that suggests that the Maiden Tower was used by the Zoroastrians for ``sky burials``, where they tied the dead to the roof of the tower and let the birds eat the corpses.

More research is needed

This landmark of Baku is obviously a unique monument covered up in a lot of myths and unanswered questions. According to some sources, there is even a biblical legend featuring the Maiden Tower, stating that one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, Saint Bartholomew, came to Baku around 1st century AD to preach Christianity among Zoroastrians, but his teachings were rejected and he was executed near the Tower. Apparently, the place of execution was marked by a small chapel, which can be seen in the photo of the Maiden Tower taken in 1890.

Theories and legends cited in this article are only a few of the many, and although we don`t know for sure which of them are true and which are fictitious, one thing is totally clear - the Maiden Tower begs for more attention and research. It is a monument acknowledged as one of the World Heritage Sites and considering the theory that it could be thousands of years old, answering questions regarding the Maiden Tower could reveal interesting and important information not only about Azerbaijan, but also about the early mankind.