Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)

The Ali and Nino Walking Tour
by Betty Blair and Fuad Akhundov

Shirvanshahs Palace
Kichik Gala 46/11
Built between 1435-1442

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The Shirvan shahs ruled the khanate of Shirvan in northern Azerbaijan from the 6th to the 16th centuries. In 1191, after a devastating earthquake destroyed the capital city of Shamakhi, the residence of the dynasty was moved to Baku. It was during this period in the 12th century that Shirvanshah Manuchehr III ordered that the city be surrounded with citadel walls.

The Shirvanshah Palace was built by Khalil and his son Farrokh Yassar between 1435 and 1442. The complex includes Living Quarters, the Divankhana (Royal Assembly), Family Tomb, Mosque, Mausoleum and bathhouse. Currently, it is under reconstruction. Built on the highest point of "Ichari Shahar" (literally "Inner City" or what people often refer to as Baku's "Old City"), it is one of the most striking monuments of medieval architecture.

Like so many other old buildings in Baku, the real function of the Shirvanshah complex is sill under investigation. Though commonly described as a palace, some experts question this analysis as it does not have the royal grandeur or the huge spaces normally associated with such residences. There are no grand entrances for receiving guests nor any huge royal bedrooms. [See "The Shirvanshah Complex: Splendor of the Middle Ages," in AI 8.2 (Summer 2000), pages 28 ff. Search at]

Above: (Left)The Shirvanshahs Palace today which was built in the 15th century. In the novel, Ali was able to go up on the roof of his 2nd story home and look out over the Palace. Right: Looking inside the citadel walls of the Inner City. The gate in the lower left corner is the one that Ali seemed to use most often. Photos: Blair.

The Shirvanshah palace was almost in Ali's backyard. While growing up, he often played nearby the ruined complex courtyard. He also delighted going up on the flat roof of his two-story house and looking over into the walled Shirvanshahs complex.

In the novel, the author uses the physical presence of the Shirvanshahs complex to ponder about the significance of the East in a region that served as a juncture between Eastern and Western civilizations.

Below: Photo from early 20th century from the bay looking towards the Old City of Baku. Note Shirvanshahs Palace at the top of the hill. National Photo Archives.

From "Ali & Nino", page 18.

"On my way home from school, I often strolled through the ruined palace. The Hall of Justice [Divankhana], with its immense Moorish colonnades, is empty and desolate. Citizens seeking justice are supposed to go to the Russian judge outside the wall. But hardly anybody goes to the Russian judge, and if he does, wise men despise him, and the children on the street stick out their tongues at him-not because the Russian judges are bad or unjust. On the contrary, they are mild and just, but in a manner that our people dislike. A thief is put in jail. There he sits in his clean cell, is given tea, even with sugar in it. But nobody benefits anything from this, least of all the man from whom he stole.

"People shrug their shoulders and do justice in their own way. In the afternoon, the plaintiffs come to the mosque where wise old men sit in a circle and pass sentence according to the laws of Sharia-the law of Allah: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Below: Boys playing soccer on the street where Ali allegedly lived. Photo: Blair.

"Sometimes at night, shrouded figures slip through the alleys. A dagger strikes like lightning, a little cry, and justice is done. Blood feuds are running from house to house. Sometimes a sack is carried through the alleys when the night is darkest. The muffled groaning, a soft splash in the sea, and the sack disappears. The next day a man sits on the floor of his room, his robe torn, his eyes full of tears. He has fulfilled the law of Allah: death to the adulteress.

"Our old town is full of secrets and mysteries, hidden nooks and little alleys. I love these soft night murmurs, the moon over the flat roofs, and the hot quiet afternoons in the mosque's courtyard with its atmosphere of silent meditation.

"God let me be born here, as a Muslim of the Shiite Faith in the religion of Imam Jafar. May He be merciful and let me die here, in the same street, in the same house where I was born. Me and Nino, a Christian, who eats with knife and fork, has laughing eyes, and wears filmy silk stockings."

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