the Citadel walls, late 19th century
it was built in the 12th century by Iranians, the walled
city inside former Iranian province of Arran
(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