Towers of Absheron, vicinity of Baku

The Towers of Absheron near Baku are a string of castles in Azerbaijan which served to protect the medieval city from attack. Today, these fortresses offer invaluable glimpses into the region’s past and are among the most popular historical touristic sites in the area.

Absheron Peninsula, on which Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku is located, has been inhabited for over a thousand years. In the 11th-12th centuries, when Baku gradually began to transform into a major commercial port, the need for large-scale construction of defensive structures arose. Three protective walls were built along the coastline, a deep ditch was dug, and watchtowers erected on the surrounding mountains from which it would be easy to see the approaching enemy.

The towers of these fortress walls, now known as the Towers of Absheron, combined with mountain towers to form an integral defensive system which included Maiden Tower, Sabayil Castle, Mardakan Castle, Ramana Fortress and Shih Fortress. They were inhabited by troops who were entrusted with the task of keeping vigilance and defending the city in the event of danger.

The construction of these fortresses and towers proved timely, for the city was subjected to numerous attacks from the Mongols, Russians and Seljuk Turks from the 11th to 14th centuries. In 1175, 73 ships manned by Russian troops docked near the Towers of Absheron. They tried in vain to capture Baku as Shirvanshah Akhsitan successfully defended the city through long and arduous battles.

The numerous fortress turrets additionally served as signal towers. On their upper platforms oil was ignited, and the resulting flare would be sent up from tower to tower. In this manner information would reach the city, which allowed the army to be mobilized in a timely manner.

One of the most fascinating monuments of that distant time is Sabayil Castle, also known as Bayil Castle. Built in the 13th century, it disappeared underwater after an earthquake led to an increase in the level of the Caspian Sea waters. Sabayil Castle was not excavated until the 20th century, when it was established that the castle had 15 towers that were destroyed from centuries of being submerged in water.

Maiden Tower, located in the center of Old Baku (Icheri Sheher), was also likely a part of the city’s defense system. However, the non-standard shape of the tower calls into question the possibility of its use as a lookout, and one theory suggests that at the time of construction it was actually used for ritual purposes. Medieval manuscripts, however, strongly indicate that at one time there had been an underground passage between Maiden Tower and Ramana Fortress.

In the village of Mardakan, the remains of a defensive system have survived at Mardakan Castle, also counted among the Towers of Absheron near Baku. Built in the 14th century by order of Shirvanshah Akhsitan, the fortress was truly impregnable, with walls up to 22 meters in height, a garrison and an observation post. Shikh Fortress or Ishig Galasy (Fortress of Light), whose height reached up to 16 meters, was similarly used as an observation deck and has been preserved in Mardakan up to this day.