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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Eyesores in Old Town Stir Suicidal Thoughts

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- It's a running joke in Baku that no one can find their way from the Maiden's Tower to the Shirvanshahs' Palace without getting lost at least once. I tried it again last week.

I was doing well until I reached the Mohammed Mosque, whose minarets are so narrow that legend has it a portly muezzin once got stuck halfway up the spiral staircase and failed to make his morning call to prayer. And then I got lost in a labyrinth of cobbled cul-de-sacs and ended up back where I'd started.

Baku's Old City, or Icheri Sheher, is a warren of forgotten mosques, old caravanserais and overhanging balconies. There are miniature piazzas with lopsided fountains and tumbledown houses hidden behind gnarled vines. It's a unique place that's barely been touched by modern life.

And that's the problem. Since the Soviet Union folded, foreign oil companies and local businessmen have set up shop here, drawn by Icheri Sheher's charm. In recent years, medieval dwellings have been bulldozed to make way for garish villas and plush new offices with underground car parks.

I was sitting in the shade of a pistachio tree in Adil Alekperov's tiny courtyard, sipping peppermint tea. A year ago, Adil set up a community pressure group to try to combat the unprecedented amount of construction work going on in the Old City. Officials here are notoriously corrupt and it only takes a few hundred dollars to bribe them to give planning permission for even the most out-of-keeping structures.

Adil took me on a tour of Icheri Sheher, pointing out a pink Hollywood-style mansion that belongs to the president's official photographer and a grim, gray edifice built by the last mayor of Baku.

And then we rounded a bend and there, in front of the Old City hamam, where residents have enjoyed steam baths and vigorous massages for centuries, was a yawning hole in the ground. Workers had been digging the foundations for a luxury new foreign embassy. But their excavation has caused the original city walls to crack.

We arrived at the Maiden's Tower, a windowless, eight-story fortress that's the only one of its kind in the world. The story goes that long ago a ruler fell in love with his beautiful daughter and demanded that she marry him. Torn between horror at the thought of incest and loyalty to her father, the girl climbed to the top of the tower and threw herself to her death.

"What d'you think bygone rulers of Icheri Sheher would have made of what's happening here today?" I asked Adil. He shook his head. "They would probably have jumped off the Maiden's Tower, just like in the legend," he said.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.