Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bid to Save Baku Old City from Ruin

Presidential decree designed to put a stop to building spree in walled medieval section of Azerbaijani capital
By Namik Ibragimov

For centuries, the look of the quiet narrow streets of the old city of Baku, with its medieval stone houses and mosques, has been unchanged. But over the last few years, this old walled town, parts of which date back to the 11th century, has suffered a rude shock - the construction of a rash of tall glass-and-concrete interlopers.

Ugly and looming over the small houses of the residents of the town, these new buildings are entirely illegal. And now a decree by President Heidar Aliev signed on February 17 is finally promising to put a stop to the eyesores that are threatening to ruin Azerbaijan's most famous architectural site, known in Azeri as Icheri Sheher.

The presidential decree requires all new building work in the old city to stop. It calls on the government to write a detailed report on the state of historic buildings in the old town within a month and work out a conservation strategy for the area within six months.

For residents of the old town, it is not a moment too soon. Kamal Allahverdiev, who lives in a cul-de-sac that emerges on Malaya Krepostnaya, the main street running through the old city, saw the one-storey house opposite his own pulled down to make way for a tall modern three-storey building.

"First of all it does not fit in with the general architectural ensemble," Allahverdiev said. "And everyone knows that every house, every cobblestone in the road here is an object of antiquity. And secondly, it has totally blocked daylight coming into the apartments behind, including my own."

Allahverdiev and his neighbours visited a string of government offices to complain about the new monster on their doorsteps, which contravened building regulations in the old city. They were unsuccessful. Nearby on Vidali Mamedov, the locals failed to stop the construction of three new floors on a one-storey house, whose owners had said they would do only a superficial repair job on it.

At the same time, locals say, lack of investment in the water and sewage system has weakened buildings and increased the danger of fires.

Icheri Sheher was put on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2000, following a visit from the organisation's deputy director Mounir Bouchenaki Assistant Director-General for Culture to Baku.

The walled city joined the list, on the grounds that it "represents an outstanding and rare example of a historic urban ensemble and architecture with influence from Zoroastrian, Sassanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian cultures".

UNESCO said that it had decided to add the city to the list after several delegates had voiced "concern about the authenticity and coherence of the management policy of the site".

Amongst the new buildings that have gone up in the old city over the last few years are many private houses, built by local businessmen, the headquarters of overseas companies and several foreign embassies, including those of Italy, Greece, Norway and Georgia.

The Italian embassy became embroiled in controversy after newspaper articles alleged that its building had been constructed above catacombs that had not been properly studied.

Foreign money is also helping conserve the old city. Rustam Mukhtarov, who is currently coordinating a project to support Icheri Sheher, said that the World Bank is now financing conservation work at its oldest site, the Shirvanshakh Palace.

"I don't think it's necessary to comment on the situation in Icheri Sheher but of course I will not deny that it is far from ideal," Mukhtarov said.

As for UNESCO itself, Ramiz Abutalybov, the secretary general of Azerbaijan's National Commission for the organisation, welcomed the new decree but said it was too early to say how it would respond to it.

"We have informed the leadership of UNESCO about it," Abutalybov told IWPR. "But the organisation can consider giving real expert or financial help only after the government draws up a plan of action in line with the presidential decree. And that will only happen if the cabinet of ministers officially asks us for help."

A lot of politics lies behind the new decree. It pointedly puts blame for the situation on the former mayor of Baku, Rafael Allahverdiev, who left office in 2000 after falling out with President Aliev.

Yet, Allahverdiev also tried to combat the problem. In April 1997, he issued two orders expressing concern about the building spree taking place in Icheri Sheher. He also introduced fees for traffic to enter the old city, banned construction work without the approval of the state committee responsible for the monuments. Soon afterwards, however, the committee was wound up.

The question remains whether the new decree will achieve its professed aim and the building work will stop.

Hafiz Amirkhanov, first vice-president of Azerbaijan's Union of Architects, is confident it will.

"The very next day after the document was signed, Heidar Aliev chaired a meeting with the cabinet, the Union of Architects and public organizations," Amirkhanov said in an interview.

"The first exchange of views showed that the six-month deadline given by the president might not be long enough, so great has been the neglect of this architectural monument.

"Illegal construction work began back in 1985, although it did not really take off until the Nineties. Ironically it was in 1985 that a general reconstruction plan for Icheri Sheher was adopted which included a great deal on the conservation of historic buildings, but it was never put into practice."

Leila Yunus, a prominent human rights activist and director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, is reserving judgement and blames both the former mayor of Baku and the current leadership of the country.

"Those people who deliberately reduced a monument of world culture to this state should not have their mistakes pointed out to them, but should be judged with the full force of the law," Yunus said.

"It would be naïve to suppose that the senior leadership in the country did not know about the dreadful things going inside the walls of Icheri Sheher."

Namik Ibragimov is a journalist with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku