Azerbaijan International

Summer 2000 (8.2)
Pages 42-45

Mystery of the Sunken Castle Sabayil
Many Questions Still Plague Archeologists

by the late Sakina Nasirova, State Historical-Architectural Museum

"Bayil Tower - around which only legends were wandering yesterday - has become a historical truth today." - Sakina Nasirova

Sabayil Castle near Baku - Artist Rendering

Photo: Model of the Sabayil Castle near Baku Bay.

The mysterious Sabayil castle has appeared in Azerbaijani legends and stories for centuries. One legend refers to a city located on the banks of the Caspian Sea, governed by a beautiful woman named Sabayil. One day, while looking at the sea from the top of a tower, she saw a handsome man swimming toward her and fell in love with him. When this man - named Zegh - swam out to meet Sabayil, he fell in love with her at first sight as well. They met everyday, and their love made Zegh stronger and stronger.

Sabayil Castle stones

But one day Zegh met another woman and fell in love with her, too. This took away his strength. When he swam to Sabayil's tower, the waves engulfed him and separated him from her. Sabayil could not bear this sorrow, so she hurled herself into the sea. The people named the fortress Sabayil in honor of its governor.

Sabayil castle frieze

Above: Courtyard of the Shirvanshah Complex where sections of the Sabayil castle frieze are on display.

Another legend connects Alexander the Great with a city named Sabayil. Isgandar (Alexander the Great) wanted to capture a certain city on the banks of the Caspian, but the inhabitants of the city would not yield. So Isgandar asked advice from his teacher, Aristotle. The city was located below sea level, and a large stone prevented water from flowing into the city. Aristotle invented a special liquid that would transform stone into lime. With this liquid, Isgandar penetrated the stone. Water began to flow into the city and flood it. The inhabitants fled to the town of Gilan in order to save their lives. The flooded city was named Sabayil.

Sabayil Workshop Museum

Photo: Workshop near Shirvanshah Complex in the Inner City where Sabayil archeological findings are displayed.

The Real Castle

How did the original castle called Bayil Gasri disappear? According to ancient chronicles, there was a large earthquake in the Caspian Sea in 1306. Perhaps the sea level rose enough to submerge the castle and the island it was built on.

Throughout the millennia, the water level of the Caspian has fluctuated dramatically. From 1723 up until the early 20th century, the sea level was receding. Beginning in the 1930s, it became possible to see the ruins of a castle underwater. In quiet weather, people could tell that the castle had stone tablets with writing on them. Sabayil was no longer just a legend - it was a real castle, built on a small island in the Baku bay, about 300 meters offshore.

The Institute of History at the Academy of Science researched the fortress, a project that took 30 years (1939 to 1969). Researchers found that even basic questions were difficult to answer, such as: What was it for? When was it built? Who built it?

Sabayil Castle fragment
A Mighty Fortress
The 180 x 40 m castle had a trapezoidal shape that extended from north to south. Surrounding the castle were walls with semi-circular towers that probably served as watchtowers. The castle's walls were 1 1/2 to 2 meters thick, which suggests that the building may have been used as a defense tower, just like Baku's famed Maiden's Tower.

According to Sara Ashurbeyli, 95, a well-known Azerbaijani historian, Sabayil is the castle mentioned by Abdurrashid Al-Bakuvi, a 15th-century geographer who said that the castle was destroyed during the 13th-century Mongol invasion.

Al-Bakuvi, a native of Baku, wrote in 1430 in his "Kitab-talkhis el-asar ve el-melik el-gahhar": "Baku has two castles, very strong, built of stone. One of them is very large and on the shore [Maiden's Tower]. This is the castle that the Mongols could not conquer. The other is further offshore. Its upper parts have been destroyed."

Fragments of the frieze of Sabayil Castle: Photos: Khanlou.

Ashurbeyli says that the Mongols did not have a fleet of ships, so they were not able to completely conquer the Sabayil castle. But the building was considerably damaged during the attack. According to Eastern sources, the Mongols were not able to take Baku for quite a long period of time. When the town was attacked, the upper parts of the castle were destroyed by the Mongols' siege machinery.

Sabayil Castle fragment
Written in Stone
After spending centuries underwater, not much of Sabayil's original structure is left. Only the foundation remains, along with close to 700 stones that have writing carved on them. The largest of these stones measures 70 x 15 x 50 cm.

The stones circle the upper parts of the castle walls. Most of their script is in Persian, the state language at the time. The carvings record the genealogy of the Shirvanshahs, starting with Fariburz, who apparently initiated the construction of the castle. Titles like "shah" and "sultan" are carved on the stones along with the names of various towns. Ten of the stones begin with the word "bismillah" - "In the name of God" - a traditional Muslim saying.

In addition to the script, there are images of human faces, animals like oxen, dogs, camels and birds, as well as mythological images. The pictures of animals are believed to signify the years that the various Shirvanshah rulers were in power. In the medieval East, each year was associated with a specific animal. One bas - relief shows a life - size warrior sitting on his horse, a type of carving that would have typically decorated the entrance to a castle.

More Clues
One of the first indications archeologists had of the castle's age was from a coin found inside its walls. The coin was minted during the first quarter of the 13th century, during the rule of Shirvanshah Fariburz III (1225-1243).

Archeologists were able to figure out that the castle once had nine rooms, two of them with hearths. Researchers also found fragments of black and red clay vessels that had been used for cooking. The surface of the vessel fragments was typical of pottery from the 12th and 13th centuries. Also, there were fragments of pipes of various diameters, which are believed to be water pipes.

One of the bas - reliefs records a date - the year 632 hijri (on the Muslim calendar) - which corresponds to 1234-1235. This may indicate the year that the construction of the castle was completed.

Researchers are still trying to find out what purpose the Sabayil castle once served. One suggestion that the castle was a fire-worshipping temple used by the Zoroastrians doesn't seem to fit. Another hypothesis - that the structure was used as a caravanserai - doesn't work either, because the gate was too small for camels to fit through.

Many scholars believe that the castle was once used as a sea defense castle. Ashurbeyli believes it was used as a customs office in peacetime. "The castle was a military customs post in peaceful days, and merchants were received here," she says. "Possibly merchants even stayed there. Ships could moor to this castle. The entrance was so narrow that horses and camels could hardly pass through it. Probably the goods were unloaded from ships to the castle and then taken onshore on horses and camels through the straits. When the straits were submerged, the goods could have been shipped on boats."

To see for yourself what the Sabayil castle is believed to have looked like, visit Baku's Shirvanshah Complex. Outside on display in the courtyard are castle stones that were brought up from under the sea, though a considerable number of the stones that make up the frieze are still left at the bottom of the Caspian and have not been brought up yet. Lack of funds prohibit further investigation. Nearby the Shirvanshah Palace is a simple museum workshop with a model of what the mysterious Sabayil castle probably looked like.

Sabayil Castle
Fragments of the frieze are displayed in the outer court of Shirvanshah Palace in the Inner City (Ichari Shahar). Ask for the Bayil Castle Laboratory established by the State Historical Archeological Museum located adjacent to the Palace complex.

The late Sakina Nasirova was interviewed by Betty Blair in 1997. Jala Garibova also contributed to this article.

Azerbaijan International (8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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