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Nakhchivan: a hidden treasure of global architecture heritage

By Peter Tase

In early October 2014, I embarked in my first trip to the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan where I had the opportunity to visit the Momuna Khatun Tomb and the Khan Palace, both located in the city of Nakhchivan, Republic of Azerbaijan.  These two stylish buildings are perhaps the most important sites that exemplify the great accomplishments of Azerbaijan’s architecture and although unknown by many, they are great contributions for the world cultural heritage. The Momuna Khatun Tomb is a grandiose historical monument, one of the pearls of the Eastern Architecture which identify Azerbaijan’s national architecture from other countries.  It was built in 1186 (in the western part of the city of Nakhchivan) by Shamsaddin Eldaniz who is the founder of the dynasty of Eldiguzids (Atabegs of Azerbaijan.)

The Atabay (Atabeg) state decided to erect a tomb for the grave of his wife Momuna Khatun and Mahammad Jahan Pahlavan, who is the son of Shamsaddin Eldaniz.  This monument is known by the locals as the “Atabay Tomb”.  On the top part span is written in Cufic dialect the following: “The wind stays behind us.  Beyond our death our work remains in the present.”  The height of the monument was originally 34 meters but later on its outer cover of 8 meters in height was destroyed.  This cultural monument has an underground floor in which, according to some researchers, it is believed that Shamsaddin Eldaniz, his wife Momuna Khatun and son Mahammad Jahan Pahlavan were buried in the underground.

Momuna Khatun tomb in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan
Momuna Khatun tomb in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan

Unfortunately the headstones of these three sepulchers have recently been robbed.  In 2003 the government of Azerbaijan led a restoration project in the Momuna Khatun Tomb with a special emphasis in revitalizing the precious stones that are found in its façade.  Its underground vault has an original arrangement and the central column is joined with each corner by a decagon shape.  The structure of the underground structure was later implemented in Western Europe, especially in buildings characterized by gothic architecture.  The above ground part of the tomb is surrounded with Cufic inscriptions on either side and inside is round shaped dome.  The corner projections of the tomb are covered with the inscriptions written in Cufic.  The length of these inscriptions reaches more than 500 meters long.

The western part of the tomb has different design features.  In this section the surface has been separated into two parts: the down part has the entrance door and the upper part has been completed with ornamental designs.  The name of the architect and the date when the tomb was constructed are engraved in the upper part of the head span.

The surface inside the tomb is plastered with clay and inside the dome is decorated with designs of 4 medallions.  The perfect construction, composition and cultural values, make this architectural monument as one of the great assets of the Middle Ages.  According to M. V. Alpatov, a recognized art historian and a former full member of the USSR Academy of Arts: “The tomb of Momuna Khatun was erected in the XII century in Nakhchivan by the architectural masters of Azerbaijan.  It is characterized by a high level of orderliness and beauty.  The Momuna Khatun Tomb is eternal as the most magnificent classic work of the East.  Even in this period, it was impossible for Middle Europe architecture to build a similar monument that contains the artistic features of this tomb.  Together with its architectural values and cultural wealth, this monument demonstrates the old history of Azerbaijan, its mighty statecraft in government, high level of culture and a showcase of the great progressive school of architecture in Azerbaijan.”

In my tour in the city of Nakhchivan, another historic monument that draw my attention was the Khan Palace built in the XVIII century.  This monument, built in eastern architectural style, was the settlement house of the Khans of Nakhchivan until the beginning of the XX century.  The palace was built by Kalbali Khan Kangarli, father of Ehsan Khan who was the Khan of Nakhchivan at the end of XVIII century.  This palace was built in the western part of the complex reaching a size of 3600 sq. meters, facing the sun rise direction of the city.

This large two story mansion has a number of subsidiary buildings, gardens, a newly built pond and many decorative and rare trees.  In its earlier days the palace was divided into two sections.  The south department was destined for administrative affairs, to receive the senior level guests and the northern section was designed as the home of the Khan.   The corridors situated in the frontal façade of the building and stairs decorated with red sand stones provide a special beauty and a compelling architectural style to this historic structure.

The stairs inside the building are built by bricks and strengthened by wooden lattices.  The walls of the building are made of burned bricks, they reach a thickness of 60 cm to 1.1 meters, in all rooms there are installed recesses of different sizes which are a tradition for Nakhchivan houses.  There are three rooms on the ground floor, eight rooms on the first floor; there is also an entrance to the open balcony over the corridors.  The southern hall of the Khan palace is very luxurious; the guest rooms are furnished with large windows that are latticed from floor to ceiling.  At the present the northern section of the palace is transformed into a museum and hosts thousands of foreign guests every year.  The total area of the Khan Palace is 382 square meters.

In the south wall there is a fire place decorated with mirror pieces, geometric forms which make the hall very suitable to receive dignitaries.  Since 1998 the Khan Palace was the Nakhchivan State Carpet Museum.  It consisted of eight halls, one of them was dedicated to the Khans of Nakhchivan.  In its early days the museum had only 359 expositions and by 2008 there were more than 2000 expositions.  This museum was the house of a large collection of carpets which belonged to Ganja-Gazakh, Guba-Shirvan, Garabagh, Tabriz-Nakhchivan carpet schooling are kept in the museum.  One of the symbolic works in the museum was the carpet with the portrait of Heydar Aliyev.  Inside the palace there are artifacts of copper smith samples, pottery, clay table ware, old men and woman clothes exhibited.  This palace is perhaps the most important destination for those visitors and scholars who are interested to know more about the history and architectural treasures of the region of Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan.

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Peter Tase

Peter Tase is a contributor, freelance journalist and a research scholar of International Affairs, Paraguayan Studies, Middle East Studies and Latin American Affairs, located in the United States. Educated at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Marquette University Les Aspin Center for Government; Tase is the author of “Simultaneous Dictionary in Five Languages: Guarani, English, Italian, Albanian and Spanish” and “El Dr. FEDERICO FRANCO y Su Mandato Presidencial en la Historia del Paraguay.” He’s a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy News. His personal website is www.petertase.com

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