Azerbaijan International

Winter 2006 (14.4)
Page 11

Reader's Forum
Maiden Tower Phenomenon
Novruz at Maiden Tower

Spring Equinox (March 20-21), traditionally celebrated as "Novruz" in Azerbaijan, is the most cherished holiday of the calendrical year. This Novruz, I hope that people living in Baku can visit the Maiden Tower and witness the spectacular view of the sun rising in the eastern sky over the Gunashli headland out across the bay. (Note that the word "Gunashli" itself means "sunny"). Hopefully, the Maiden Tower monument authorities will permit early risers to witness this event at 6:45 am on those mornings, and, hopefully, the weather will also cooperate.

Left: Mysterious doorway facing the sea, halfway up Maiden Tower through which the sunrise shines on Winter Solstice. Photo: Betty Blair

Just as the phenomenon of the sunrise on Winter Solstice (December 21-23) appears to have been carefully incorporated into the construction of the Maiden Tower, it seems the architects were also conscious of Spring Equinox. At Winter Solstice, the sunrise can be observed through that mysterious doorway on the side of the Maiden Tower that faces the sea.

But at Spring Equinox, observers must climb to the top of the tower. On the roof, the inner buttress wall serves as a direct pointer to the eastern sunrise of Spring Equinox. With the Tower's secondary alignment to the East, it most likely also served as a marker to identify the onset of this most important event in the agricultural calendar - the time to start planting crops.

While we may continue to speculate on the function of Maiden Tower, it is very reasonable to assume that one of its purposes related to observing special sunrises coming up over the horizon, with alignments to the southeast and east respectively. [Zero degrees indicates due north.]

I would suggest that anyone privileged enough to observe the sunrise at Maiden Tower on these dates today should feel privileged to be a witness of what likely was an age-old tradition commemorated over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Unfortunately, because of cultural and political reversals in history, many of these traditions seem to have passed into oblivion. [See "Novruz...Celebration That Would Not Die," Azerbaijan International, AI 2.2 (Summer 1994). Search at]. In many parts of the world, Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox are observable and integrated into the architectural feature of ancient monuments. The most famous example in the news these days is Stonehenge in England where people queue up by the thousands to witness these solar phenomena.


Above (7): Plan view that shows alignment of monument through the mysterious doorway to southeast (Winter Solstice) and to the buttress, which faces east (Spring Equinox). Photo: Maiden Tower Museum

(8): View from the roof of Maiden Tower showing aignment of the monument's buttress to the East. Photo: Ronnie Gallagher

Of greater relevance, however, and significantly closer to Azerbaijan in terms of geography and archaeological substance is the fact that scientists have identified many "ridge barrows" (burial mounds) all orientated in an easterly and southeasterly direction. In the past two decades, Russian archaeologists have identified about 300 such structures extending over quite a vast area eastward from Central Asia. Again, their findings highlight the cultural importance of solar observation in the region. [See "Astronomical Practices and Ritual Calendar of Euro-Asian Nomads" by Nyssanbay M. Bekbassar, Vol 31, on the Estonian Web bekbassar.pdf.

Given the importance of Novruz to Azerbaijan, and the likelihood that astronomical phenomena were an integral part of the Maiden Tower design, I can hope that with further study and confirmation, the Tower will be properly recognized as an ancient wonder and its lost status as center stage will be re-established during Baku's springtime festivities at Novruz.

Ronnie Gallagher

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