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Azerbaijan: Urban Development Threatens Baku's Ancient Inner City

Since it was built in the 12th century, the walled city inside Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, has survived invasions by Persian armies, bombardment by Russian warships, civil war, revolution, and the 2000 earthquake. But the site is now increasingly threatened by urban development and the absence of conservation policies.

Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Baku's Inner City, or Ichari Shahar, is a chaotic labyrinth where the 15th-century Shirvanshahs' Palace and the 12th-century Maiden's Tower jostle for space with mosques, bathhouses, and fishermen's cottages.

But the construction of modern buildings is threatening the authenticity of the site.

Painter Mir-Teymur told RFE/RL that the new buildings, with their concrete and glass, do not fit the historical image of the Inner City and violate its 12th-century system of streets, dead ends, and alleys. "They are building hotels with five to six floors in the old town,” he said. “There have never been buildings higher than 11 meters [there], even under tsarist rule, [when] there were strict instructions -- no building with more than three floors. Even in times of wars and when people were killing each other, nobody dared to destroy the old town. Even the Mongols didn't destroy it the way we are doing it."
"They are constructing new buildings in Ichari Shahar, and they are destroying [it]. We have to prevent this [because] if we continue this way, there will be only high buildings in the old town." -- young resident

Mir-Teymur initiated an appeal to officials to be more sensitive to the history of the city. The appeal notes that construction operations are carried out using bulldozers, trucks, and excavators, and that foundations for buildings are laid using piles. Ancient underground water pipes, sewage systems, and wells are covered with concrete.

The document urges Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to make sure that archaeologists, cartographers, seismologists, architects, and other specialists are consulted before construction work begins.

A young resident from the Inner City also urged that such measures be taken. "They are constructing new buildings in Ichari Shahar, and they are destroying [it]. We have to prevent this [because] if we continue this way, there will be only high buildings in the old town."

A 2003 presidential decree froze all construction work, apart from restoration efforts, but residents say it has had little or no effect. In theory, permission is required from both the Ministry of Culture and Baku's executive office before destroying or constructing a building in the Inner City. But Malik Fatulaev, deputy director of protection of historical buildings at the Ministry of Culture, said it is not the case in practice.

"They take the old frames from windows, doors, and balconies to replace them with concrete. We don't allow anybody to do so, but they don't even ask us. We have complained to the government, Baku's executive office, and the Ministry of Finance almost every day, but nothing is being done," Fatulaev said.

Khaleddin Abbasov, chief engineer for the Inner City in Baku's executive office, said no permission is being granted for new projects. "The construction cannot be stopped in one or two months. Work is going on only in places where Baku's executive office has permitted construction. Work is continuing now on half-finished constructions. However, there is no permission being given for new projects," Abbasov said.

Last year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) registered the area on its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Fumiko Ohinata from UNESCO's World Heritage Center in Paris explained, "[We have] three main concerns for this site -- the damage caused by the earthquake of November 2000, urban development pressure, and, most of all, the lack of conservation policies or capacities within the country."

In 2000, UNESCO added the Inner City to its World Heritage List because it illustrates significant stages in human history. UNESCO says it reveals evidence of Zoroastrian, Sassanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian cultures. Ohinata said the World Heritage Center and Azerbaijani authorities are developing a plan of action destined to raise awareness of the importance of this site and to carry out conservation projects and capacity building.

With every passing day, a little more of the walled city disappears. It is a piece of history, which, once lost, can never be retrieved.

Elnare Dadashova is a teacher at the Baku Music Academy. She laments that much of the atmosphere of the old town has already disappeared. "The new buildings force out the ancient atmosphere created by the old buildings," she said. "I was raised in the atmosphere of the old constructions, with music that suited the architecture. Now, as these old buildings disappear, so does the old music. I remember in the old days when we could hear from open windows the Mughamat [Azeri classical music] at 2 or 3 p.m. Everybody was listening. Now, it would be strange to identify Ichari Shahar with any music."

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)