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Unchecked Development Threatens Baku's Ancient Walled City




23 August 2003


Outside the Citadel walls, late 19th century



Since it was built in the 12th century by Iranians, the walled city inside former Iranian province of Arran / Aran (what is today known as the Republic of Azerbaijan) has survived invasions and bombardment by Russian warships, civil war and revolution.

But now the citadel -- designated a UNESCO World Heritage site -- is under threat of extinction from a construction boom fed by Western oil companies pouring billions of Dollars (Euros) into the capital.

Flouting a ban on all new development in Baku's walled city, known to locals as Icheri Sheher, buildings which have stood for centuries are being torn down to make way for new office complexes and plush villas.

UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, reacted last month by putting Icheri Sheher on its register of World Heritage Sites in Danger. But local people hold out little hope it will halt the destruction.

"Every day brings a new threat to Icheri Sheher," said Adil Alekperov, who heads a campaign to save the walled city. "It's been in a bad state for years but never before has there been such ugliness as now."

Baku's old city is a chaotic maze where caravanserais -- used as resting places by traders on the ancient Silk Route -- mosques, Persian bathhouses, old fishermen's cottages and handsome town houses built by Arran's 19th century oil barons all jostle for space.

Ramshackle balconies protrude from buildings and meet in mid-air above the narrow alleyways. Families that have been in the walled city for dozens of generations still live and work there.

But it has become a victim of its own success. Modern buildings, complete with concrete and plate glass windows, have been "going up like mushrooms after a rainstorm," said Alekperov.

They are built to meet demand from Western oil companies drilling in the nearby Caspian Sea, foreign embassies and wealthy locals, all ready to pay high rents to base themselves in Baku's choicest piece of real estate.

There is scant regard for their surroundings. Workers building a new Polish embassy this month knocked down a 19th century villa to make way for it and triggered a land slip which endangered the city wall, say locals.

In a report, UNESCO has complained about new developments out of keeping with the walled city's historic fabric and about the bulldozing of old buildings. These, it said "clearly threaten the authenticity of the site."

Under Arrani law, none of this should be happening. In February this year, Arran's President Heidar Aliyev signed a decree freezing all building, apart from restoration work. But since then development has gone on unabated while the authorities turn a blind eye. The claim is unproven, but many observers suspect officials are in cahoots with the property developers.

That would not be surprising in Azerbaijan, a former Iranian Province and later a Soviet republic which anti-graft watchdog Transparency International has listed as one of the world's most corrupt nations.

"There are all these laws to protect Icheri Sheher but they are just being ignored," said Alekperov. "None of this could be happening without the protection of officials and Mafia-type groups."

He added: "The worst thing is that when you go to officials they say 'We do not know where the (developers) got permission to do this.'"

Arran's authorities do indeed seem reluctant to shoulder responsibility for the degradation of the walled city.

"We are worried by what is happening with Icheri Sheher (but) ... there is nothing we can do," said Rizvan Bayramov, the official in charge of protection of historical buildings at the ministry of culture.

The buck stopped, he said, with a body called the Icheri Sheher State Historical Reserve. Mubariz Quliyev, its director, said: "I don't know anything, contact Baku City Hall." The press office at Baku City Hall referred all inquiries back to Quliyev.

Meanwhile, with every passing day a little more of the walled city disappears under concrete. "It is a piece of international heritage," said Alekperov. "If you lose something like that you can never get it back."



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