14-15 September 2018
Today is what busy travelers call a day of rest. We board a bus, greet our driver, strap into our seats, and just go along for the ride. These are days I love because I can relax, gaze at the countryside, observe village life, and see what Azerbaijan looks like outside its modern capital of Baku.
We drive northwest along “one of the most scenic routes in Azerbaijan.” (Actually, Google maps shows it is the only road.)
We pass over undulating hills and through a stark and arid landscape. In the distance and haze are low mountains. All is bone dry and brown, with the ubiquitous gas pipes snaking along our way. Sheep and goat herds are seen, cows graze on open ranges and occasionally wander across the road in front of our bus.
The road is smooth and straight and leads to what seems endless open, deserted landscape. I look for the rogue camel to wander across the plain. Dirt roads, suited more for off-road vehicles, diverge to small villages dotting the hills. Most homes are stone and tile.
This landscape reminds me of the bluffs and golden foothills of California’s Central Valley, arid and golden until the rains come, then bursting into temporary sparkling carpets of green. In California, oil derricks dot golden hills that haven’t seen water in a year; no roaming camels but harboring rattlesnakes, tarantulas and deranged rabbits, desperate air conditioners trying to keep one cool. Nature warns if you don’t water it, She won’t utilize green. Nothing appears different here in Azerbaijan.
We arrive in the village of Qobustan some 60 miles northwest of Baku, site of Heydar Park and Heydar Aliyev Boulevard. I sigh relief to see the green of Eldar trees and gardens with a hint of mountains in the distance. Not far off the main road lies Pir Diri Baba Mausoleum, built precariously into the side of a tall cliff.
This two-storey mausoleum was erected in 1402 during the reign of Sheikh Ibrahim Khan. Writing beneath the upper dome indicates the architect was “the son of ustad Haji” with the calligraphy done by “Dervish.”
The tomb is carved into the rock face overlooking the valley. Austere and simply designed, the polished stone building contrasts sharply with the natural cliff from which it is carved. The mausoleum is an example of the architectural school of Shirvan, mixing the Persian and Islamic styles which predominated in this eastern Caucasus region.
On the first floor there is a domed central hall with traditional curved triangles built into its corners as support for the spherical dome above. Delicately carved plants and ornaments decorate the vaulting and cupola. Very steep and irregular stone stairs hewn from the rock lead up to the second floor which contains a large cavern carved directly from the rock. From here, a narrow passageway leads to the mausoleum grotto and burial vault. Carved text indicates that a ruler of the Shirvanshahs, Ibrahim I of Shirvan, was entombed here. Unfortunately, as becomes a theme as we travel this region, many invaders passed this way and what the opposing Ottomans didn’t destroy, the Russians did. For entry to the Wish Room, plan to remove your shoes.
There is another narrow, deteriorating set of stone steps leading up to the roof and cliffs. The surrounding area is riddled with caves thought to be used by dervishes and pilgrims. An ancient cemetery is opposite the tomb. For centuries, pilgrims and locals believed a sacred person called Diri Baba was buried here, remaining imperishable. That has never been proven but its occupant, Ibrahim I, is considered a saint.
We reboard our bus to continue northwest into greener landscape, past small villages and farms. Much of the green growth represents small vineyards and sparse grazing for cattle and sheep. The environs become more mountainous and green valleys are seen. Mountainous is relative here but we are climbing into the Greater Caucasus range where Mount Bazar-dyuze is the highest point at 14,656 feet, a winter skiing destination. Meanwhile, the Lesser Caucasus between us and the western border with Armenia, and still too far distant to be seen, are lower, maxing at a respectable 11,483 feet.
Shortly after crossing the Pirsaat River, a narrow stream running down from the mountains, we arrive near Shemakha, a city that served for many centuries as the capital and commercial center of western Azerbaijan before being replaced by Baku in the 19th century. It is a sizable, prosperous rural city and one of the largest in the country.
In Shamakha, we visit the Juma Meschid or Friday Mosque, the town’s Grand Mosque whose 10th century foundations are part of the first mosque ever built in the Caucasus. Removing shoes are a must for mosques, but I have invariably felt welcomed and appreciated inside mosques as is a camera. I also find mosques both simply built yet tastefully ornate. Juma Meschid is no exception. It is large with at least three domes and four minarets.
Falling victim to wars, mayhem and earthquakes in the past, the mosque has been extensively rebuilt. It is of traditional Islamic design of clean white stone, cool passageways, central courtyard, gorgeous carpets, with symbols and Islamic versus decorating the walls and cupolas. As with all mosques its interior is open and inviting. The pinks, aquas, golds and creams of the interior squinches are beautiful as is the prayer wall facing Mecca which is a mix of tile and glass.
We leave our massive bus to transfer into a smaller minivan in order to drive into the mountains to explore Lahij, a small town on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus. It is notable for its handicrafts, particularly for its coppersmiths. The drive is up a well maintained but precarious road with tall, ragged cliffs on one side and a wide, rocky river bed on the other. There is little water running, but the width and geology of the river is a clear indicator of what spring runoff can be like. It is beautiful and dramatic scenery.
As if trying to understand Azeri hasn’t been challenge enough, in Lahij the 850 residents speak their own language of Tat, an endangered Iranian-based language. (There are at least 12 minority languages which are spoken in Azerbaijan.)
The populace have also developed unique construction techniques in order to combat the frequent earthquakes in the region. Techniques include the crosscutting of stone and installation of wood for stronger structures. These ancient dwellings have remained unchanged for centuries. Ground floors built in the trading streets are used as workshops. Traditional interiors are decorative and niches and shelves built into the walls are used for storage.
Cobbled streets and squares, stone structures, transport systems, and public buildings reflect early and careful urban planning. Using river stones, of which there seems to be a plethora, the subterranean sewer system dates back over a thousand years and still works fine, though I believe our guide mentioned residents weren’t quite sure where the system emptied. The decorative metal downspouts, hand carved doors and windows, fountains and flowers show a great pride in their village.
Residents are categorized according to craftsmanship. Each group (copper, leather and weaving ) has their own village square, mosque, and cemetery. The clang of working metal rings through streets little changed over the centuries.
The village is prospering as they welcome ever-growing numbers of tourists. In fact, we appear to be the main attraction for the locals sitting about smoking and gossiping. Shops offer attractive goods from colorful spices to sheep skin clothing to wonderful handmade copper pots. A horse with its load of wood passes by, destined for the local braziers. Hopefully, their cultural heritage will withstand the intrusions of iPhones and Facebookers.
We overnight in Sheki, driving through several more miles of rolling hills as we climb north into the Greater Caucasus mountain range, Mount Bazar-duzu far in the distance. We are about 200 miles but a cultural world away from modern, high-rise Baku.
Sheki is a pleasant city of about 63,000 lucky citizens. Their location and mountain views are stunning. A community has been here since the Bronze Age, settled by Iranian peoples in the 7th century BCE. A huge poster across from our hotel displays all the top local students and their achievement scores for university. Small shops and restaurants line its small but attractive main square.
We start our morning by walking through the Sheki Market amid gigantic cabbages, fruits, spices, tiny washing machines and goat heads. Like all local markets, the atmosphere is lively. Colors, smells and textures abound. The best part of the market is the local produce, some of which are entirely new to me. Our guide points to many of the vegetables, fruits, nuts and sweets that have been appearing on our dining tables the past week. The meat sellers offer mostly goat, with the heads a delicacy fit for the man of the house.
The Palace of Shaki Khans is set upon the highest hill in Sheki. Once a summer residence for the Shaki Khans who ruled these lands, it was built in 1797 by Muhammed Hasan Khan and at the time represented the epitome of Persian architectural luxury.
The summer palace and several other structures, including a winter palace and family residences, were built inside what are now dilapidated fortress walls. Only the summer palace remains intact. Reconstructions have repeatedly occurred over the centuries but in general the palace remains true to its original form.
The palace is not “palatial” (about 3000 square feet) but what it does not have in size it makes up for in its most outstanding features – the decorative stained-glass windows and floor to ceiling paintings. Lavish but not overdone.
Its exterior facade is decorated with turquoise, ochres and dark blue tiles in pleasing geometric designs. Tile mosaics are enhanced with a tempera glazing for maximum protection. A plethora of beautiful stained-glass windows are framed within wooden latticework, simple on the exterior but spectacular with the light shining through to the interior. The symmetry includes four squinches or half-domes/hoods of golden tiles and mirrored glass over entryways.
The decor gets even more lavish inside. The floor plan of two stories is the same with three rooms along a narrow passage. The windows provide lots of light and color. The ground floor was primarily for the public and two stairways give access to the top floor, reserved for the Khan’s family. But don’t let the idea that the public rooms were lesser places to hang out. The Consultation Room is stunning.
Every inch of interior walls are covered with 18th century frescoes. Many frescoes feature flowers, while a series of paintings on the first floor halls depict hunting and battle scenes, more typical of Shia Muslims in depicting figures. The rest of the residence is decorated with glass mosaics and tiles from the wooden floors to the ceilings. The guards of this palace can become overly excited if they think you might take a photo, evidenced by the agitated response to my holding my iPhone in my hands. They must be totally unaware that spectacular photos of the interio are readily available online.
I was not overly excited about visiting a local Shabaka workshop until I saw the palace windows. There, all windows were done in this ancient wood working art. Shebaka windows are created from fragments of colored glass and hand-shaped wood. They are then assembled using no nails nor glue. The result is a beautiful work of art fit for a khan.
A short walk down the street, past many local shops, brings us to the Karvansary, one of the few old caravan stops along this portion of the Silk Road. Merchants and their caravans would use these large halls as stopping stations and refuges during their arduous trek along the miles of the Silk Road through Azerbaijan. I am sure the gardens and halls are cleaner, quieter and more luxurious now than when caravans and their burdened camels stopped on their way north or south into Iran. Currently, upper rooms are boarding modern travelers.
Our highlight of the day may have been boarding little Ladas and being driven into the mountains above Sheki to the small village of Kiş. This small Russian built car is a beloved friend of the discriminating Azeri driver. There may be no air conditioning, air bags, or power steering, but it does have a clock (didn’t work), radio and booming speakers along the back. And it zips up the cobblestone streets to Kiş in record time.
The Kiş Church, also known as the Holy Mother of God Church, is a Caucasus Albanian church (or Georgian or Armenian or Chalcedonian depending upon who you ask) dating from the 1st century. Artifacts found on the site date to 3000 BCE.
According to a 7th century Armenian historian, in the 1st century AD St. Elishe slept here. While many Armenians settled here fleeing the Turko-Mongolian invasions, many more entered the region with the coming of the Russians in the early nineteenth century. In 1836, the Albanian church, along with all active churches in this region that were not Georgian or Russian, was incorporated into the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Church of Kiş was refounded to become a place of pilgrimage due to the belief that it was associated with St. Elishe.
It is a small church of white stone, narrow slits for windows and red tile roof. Its bell tower, rose gardens and mountain location are quiet and beautiful. Most walls and the cells and rooms in the gardens are in ruins. Only icons decorate the interior. A crypt dates back from the 2nd to 12th centuries. The iron chandelier, stonemasonry and dome are unadorned, again thanks to the Russians whitewashing and plastering over the original mosaics. Sadly, radiating up to the dome on all four sides of the church are large jagged cracks. One small earthquake will certainly destroy the dome and church.
After a traditional serving of tea and those incredibly sweet compotes locals so love, we climb into our sparkling blue Lada and are driven back to town by Illyama, the only female taxi driver in Sheki. She shows us photos of her children and we learn it was her guest house in which we enjoyed refreshments earlier. As she zips along in her beloved Lada, we begin to appreciate our industrious Azeri entrepreneur.