In written sources and in folk language the notion of "castle," first of all, signifies a complex of fortified palaces and mansions. The defensive systems of the castles in comparison with the city and mountain fortresses were more compact in construction and, to some extent, similar to inner fortresses. Though a ruler's residence, feudal palaces or dwelling houses composed the main composition of castles, a great attention was paid to their defense as well. The castles had to be furnished with all the conveniences peculiar to the fashionable palace life as well as providing security. Therefore, most of the castles were built in beautiful picturesque and, at the same time, in impassable places.
Except the dwelling houses and the palace, there were also religious and household buildings included in the castle complexes. Depending on location (a plain, a bank of the river, a hill, etc.) and purpose of construction, the castles were surrounded with firm walls and towers. More often there were deep moats around the walls. The palace complexes such as Ajunnatepe (B.C. X-IX centuries) near Khasanlu Hill and Sarytepe complex (B.C. V-VI centuries) in Gazakh District can be considered as beautiful samples of ancient castles. In contrast with audacious planning of Ajunnetepe, the Sarytepe Castle has a symmetrical, clear-cut composition. The main building of the complex was the large palace.
The traditions of the ancient Middle East constructions are clearly seen in the volumetric proportions of Sarytepe Castle.
The process of building castles continually gained in scope in the Middle Ages. The painters of that period (e.g. Dost Muhammed in XVIth century) had left a great many paintings and miniatures of the inner decorations and general views of the castles and military fortifications.
According to ancient writings, in times of reign of the Seljuks, Elkhanies, and Sefevi, solid fashionable castles were built in different parts of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, a complete specimen of this type of architecture had not been preserved in our times. The monuments have remained in relatively good condition and are known as castles of the Absheron Peninsula, a part of a whole complex of castles.
Absheron castle complex as a rule included a palace of the ruler, khan or commander, a mosque and a fortress. In contrast to other places where all buildings grouped on the inner side of the defensive works, the Absheron castles stood separately from all the buildings.
"There are a great many villages near Baku, and each of the villages has its own fortress with the firm walls,"-Abdurrashid Bakuvi wrote, taking castles for fortresses. Up to now there are remains of these castles in the Absheron villages with the great history. You can see huge and high towers in the villages of Mardakan, Nardaran, Ramana, Shagan, etc.
"Fortress," a defensive work of the castle, was usually built separately from all other constructions and was peculiar to the Absheron castles. It was built both as a passive defensive work and as a short-term shelter. It was not suitable for a permanent living. The few functions performed by fortresses were due to the character of settlement in Azerbaijan, its type of climate, relief and socioeconomic conditions. Despite the fact that the fortresses functioned only as defenses, taking into account that they were included into a complex of castles, they can be included into the category of "castles".
According to inscriptions, dating from the twelfth century, the building of Absheron castles had been developing more intensively. Apparently, in the twelfth century an increase of political and administrative position of Baku in Shirvanshahs' state demanded a strengthening of the defensive system throughout the Absheron Peninsula.
The main reason why the defense of Absheron in the twelfth century was paid so much attention to was the assaults of Russian sea pirates coming to the Absheron Peninsula from north. In 1175, according to the great Azerbaijan poet Khagani, "seventy three ships of the pirates were destroyed by Shirvanshah Akhsitan the Second," Apparently, soon after these events the ruler of Shirvan ordered to strengthen defense of the northern borders of Absheron Peninsula.
Three castles near the village of Mardakan were erected next to each other and during a short period of time. They are located on strategically important places,thus, forming the main fortification line of the Peninsula. The huge, five-storeyed Mardakan Castle with square-shaped tower is the most ancient of them. According to the stone inscription on its wall, it was erected in 1187. Next to it is located the Mardakan Fortress with circle-shaped tower. Its stone inscription says that it was built in 1204. Both inscriptions note the regional importance of these constructions.
The castles and towers (Mardakan, Shuvelan, Buzovna, Bilgah, Pirallahy, etc.), towering along the northern seacoast, were scattered in the villages of Abshe-ron (Gala, Mashtaga, Ramana, Zabrat, Fatmayi, Balajari, Amirjan, Keshla, etc.). According to calculations, there were more than thirty defenses in the Absheron Peninsula in total.
Every castle, depending on its scale and functions, was closely connected with neighboring country fortresses.
According to the observers from the seaside regions of Azerbaijan in the XVII-XVIII centuries, the inhabitants of the Peninsula used to burn an oil so that its smoke could be seen by their neighbors, who in their own turn burned giant bonfires as a signal for the army warning about oncoming enemy. A system of towers located at the most important strategic points was able to spread warnings about oncoming danger throughout the Peninsula in a very short period of time. Thus, the fortification system of castles and towers in the Absheron Peninsula substituted a system of mountain fortresses that was used to protect northern borders of the country.
Stone inscriptions with the names of architects have been found on the walls of two castles. The inscription "Architect Abdulmejid Mas'ud Oglu" carved on the wall of Mardakan Gastle and the inscription " Work ofMahmud Saad Oglu" on the wall of Nardaran Castle acquaints us with the authors of these beautiful monuments.
Four-storeyed Ramana Castle, towering at the top of monolithic hill is closely connected with a rocky landscape of Absheron and may be considered as an apex of monumental military architecture. The process of development of Absheron castles reached its summit in that magnificent monument.
A great many wells had been dug in rocks inside the yards of the castles. For example, in the yard of the Mardakan Castle were found more than thirty wells. Such system of wells was a considered decision of a food supply for defensive works under existing conditions of Absheron Peninsula. Some of those wells, according to rumors and legends, wear outlets from the castle to the outer world. The dry well in Nardaran Castle had the underground passage, connecting the palace of khan, the mosque and other defensive constructions.
In different sources a monument located at an islet, near Bayil promontory is known, however, under various names ("Submerged city," "Bayil stones," "Sabayil," "Caravanserai," "Khanegakh," "Komriik-khana," etc.). In science literature, it is more known as "Bayil Castle." The construction of Bayil Castle had been finished during very troubled times - both in the political and military sense - when Mongols had conquered all the Near East (1234-1235). Life of this monumental castle built on the islet did not last long. Scientists assume, in 1306, it sank as a result of a strong earthquake.
Arif Ardebili, a poet of the Middle Ages, noted in his well-known dastan (epic poem) "Farkhad-name" the view he had seen:
There is a fortress in the sea near Baku,
This new fortress went down in flood.
No doubt, the poet meant the Bayil Castle. He saw Bayil Castle after nearly a century it was built. So, for him and his contemporaries the castle was still "new".
Apparently in the times of Arif Ardebili the towers and walls of Bayil Castle were still seen over the water. Though, during a couple of the following centuries it disappeared under the water completely. Bayil Castle came in sight again after a very long time because of intense lowering of the Caspian Sea level, and gave to historians a food for thought. Who knows, maybe Bayil ' Castle would be ruined as the other fortresses of Azerbaijan, if it was not flooded.
Between 1939-1963, during the archaeological excavations conducted on a territory of the castle, more than 700 stone slabs with inscriptions were found under the ruined walls of castle and at the bottom of the sea. They helped very much to clarify the purpose and the date of building of Bayil Castle.
The names of fifteen Shirvanshahs and other valuable information were found on these stone slabs by historians.
Stone inscriptions with the names of Architect Abdul-mejid Mas 'ud Oglu and Mahmud Saad Oglu familiar to us from Mardakan Castle also were found on the slabs.
At first, Bayil Castle was used as harbour fortress, but then it also served as the summer residence oh the Shirvanshahs. Up to now there is a legend of a city called Shah's Orchard, which sank in the sea. In fact, the word "orchard" also means Shah's "palace" or "castle."
The inner rectangular ground of Bayil Castle (15 x 9,6 meters) was paved by pebbles. Quite possible, Shah's marquee had been constructed here each summer.
As a solid castle and fortress-port, Bayil Castle was built from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries and took a leading position in guarding Baku along its sea border. It was probably erected on the foundations of more ancient complex of buildings.
In the case of large defensive works (Derbent, Shamakhy, Baku, Gulustan and Beygurd fortresses), artistic stone reliefs, and ashlar figures were used in architectural design of Bayil Castle.
Because of recent raising of the Caspian Sea level the remains of Bayil Castle disappeared again under the waters, concealing its unopened secrets.
The only monument with a typical rectilinear type of tower similar in construction to such Absheron castles as the towers of Boyuk Mardakan and Ramana castles, is situated in Sheki region, near the village of Aidynbulag. The half-ruined Aidynbulag Tower is the last sign of the important watch-tower. It was built on a wide plain and the purpose was to control the caravan way.
Tribal communities which remained up until the last century, the specific socio-political conditions of Zagatala-Balakan region, furthered wide spreading of special type of fighting tower. These towers were built mainly of river stones (one can see them in other regions of Caucuses as well) were usually square-shaped and consisted of 4-5, and sometimes 7 floors. On each of the floors there were loop-holes, that looked to all directions. They were constructed so that it would be possible to defend each of the floors. From the XVIIth century all these towers were reconstructed in accordance with application of firearms.
Most of the towers looked like huge bludgeons. One of the samples of this type of towers is Jingis (or Jingoz) Tower and Sheytan Tower (XVI-XVIII centuries). Such types of towers are known to exist in the villages of Kebeloba and Masekh, Zagatala; in the village of Katekh, Balakan, and in other villages as well.
Sumug Tower in the village of Ilisu, Gakh, differs from the others by its original plastic forms. It was perpetuated in memory of the people as the last fighting fortress of Daniyal bek, a companion-in-arms of Sheikh Shamil, the last Sultan of Ilisu.
There is one more tower, which is located on the mountain road behind the village of Sumug. It is called Galaja (Small Tower) and was built in the 19th century. There is more wide view from here than from Sumug Tower. It is ring-shaped with inner diameter - 6,30 meters, and outer diameter - 9,20 meters. It has double walls and was adapted to defense with the use of firearms.
Local types of ring-shaped towers were built also in Ganjabasar. Similar towers remaining in the villages of Musagoy and Gyragkesemenli (Gazakh District), in the village of Ashagy Seyfali (Shamkhor District) are the monuments dating back from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries. The planning of construction of defensive tower in the village of Yukhary Askipara, Gazakh was nearly square-shaped, in accordance with architectural and spatial demands.
Though there was a great amount of castles during the Khanates, only a few of them remained till our days. One of them is the Shahbulag Castle (18th century) which was built on the top of a hill in Agdam region. The architectural forms of the castle are identical to those of the Askeran and Shusha castles. During the Khanates, the Shahbulag Castle was also well-known for its "sky-scraping towers, iron walls, bronze gates and ample palaces."
Defensive walls, city and mountain fortresses, castles, towers - these monuments of Azerbaijan military architecture differ only slightly one from another, and sometimes the difference between them is rather relative.
Guarding one of the regions of the country, they all were interconnected with each other, and thus forming a general defensive network throughout the country.
The fortresses were sentinels of the country freedom. Ceaseless blows of enemy forces inflicted deep wounds on them. There is a popular bayaty (verse):
You need a fortress,
You need a tower,
You need firm iron gates.
So that the enemy,
To break the country door,
Would break his head.
Most of the fortresses fell in act of defending freedom. The rest were taken in cries and pains of ceaseless battles. The sacred spirits of those who watched the gates of the country soar over them.
Having been built once as a shelter and defense, fortresses now are precious relics of cultural heritage of people and, therefore, need to be guarded and protected.