Located 12 km from Gazakh, the district was founded on lands belonging to Gazakh. There is a same-named town and river. It is worth seeing Valixanli forests, the Kotan mountain, the Gulul mountain and the Kohna Qislaq village with its beautiful nature. A huge stone with the images of a cross and angel on it is kept at a local museum and is very interesting. It is said to have been found in Qiraq Kasaman village in Middle Ages. The house of poets outside the museum is located in a popular area. Just like in Gazakh, the poetic and ashig traditions are quite strong here. The place is rich in natural monuments and ancient settlements. The caves in an area called “Holy lands” on the Georgian border are a must-see destination.
The distance to Baku is 460 km. The district was founded in 1939, eliminated and joined to with Gazakh in 1959. In 1990, it regained its status of a separate district. It is located at the foot of the Greater Caucasus on the border with Georgia and Armenia and in the Ganja-Gazakh plain. It has a moderate climate. The 3,510-hectare area on the bank of the Kura river is covered with Tugay forests. Several plants and birds included on the Red Book are protected in the Qarayazi State Reserve. There are 52 historical sites in Agstafa. Two of them monuments are of international, 36 of national and 14 of local importance. The Baku-Tbilisi railway passes through the area.
The magnificent railway bridge over the Kura river was built by the Germans. Some Germans resettled to the Caucasus in the late 19th century eventually settled down in Agstafa. Until World War Two there were two German villages with a completely different architecture. Even though are not here any longer, their constructions still exist.
The Kura, the biggest river in the Caucasus, and the Agstafachay, a Kura tributary, flow through Agstafa. It originates 3,000 meters high on the Pambak mountain in Armenia. The name Agstafa was first mentioned in medieval geographer Hamdullah Qazvini’s (1280-1349) “Amusing the hearts” composition, which was considered the most valuable Persian-language geography book of its time.
The name Agstafa was first given to the town and the post office the south of the river when the Baku-Tbilisi railway was under construction in 1881. As a residential settlement it emerged in ancient times. Its name translates is interpreted as “Oghuz hill”, “Oghuz tribe”. The first part of its name aks (oks, okuz, oguz) is linked to Oghuz tribes, while the second, tafa, to the word tapa (hill). It is supposed that tafa derives from tayfa (tribe). The word Agstafa is close to Oghuztapa, which means that ancient Turkic-Oghuz tribes lived on the river and used the area as summer pastures. In the 14th century, Isgandar Munshi recorded the name as Akhtasabad. The place-name also means “white water from mountains”. Indeed, local white water, called Agsu in Agstafa valley, flows into the Agstafa river.
Archeological researches of Toretepe, Somutepe, Qargalar hills and other ancient settlements point to the evidence of farming and cattle-breeding in area in the 4-5th millennia B.C. and that household items were made of copper. Located on the western border of Azerbaijan, Gazakh and Agstafa were also considered the western border of ancient Albania. Ancient writer Plutarch describes Albans as brave people. Strabo said they were tall and good-looking, Dionisi, Perieget and Yevstafi described them as belligerent, while Rufi Fest as passionate people. Local people have preserved these qualities to the present day.
The name of Albania should be studied in Turkic languages. Alp means a man of muscle, while An means a place. Tribes of Alban origin also live among Asian Turks, Karakalpaks, and in Iran, Siberia, Georgia and Turkey. In shaman terminology the word Albanian means a magician. In Scandinavian languages it means a frightening ghost linked to shamans. Albans are also an ancient Turkic tribe. Strabo considered Albanians local people of the Caucasus and described them as the northern population. Albanian historian Kalankatuklu Moses believed that Albanians originated from local Yafes tribes. This concept is justified by the opinion that almost all tribes who migrated to the west from Central Asia once moved there from the west. Albanians were permanent residents of Upper Azerbaijan. Alban church was part of a Christian community which closely cooperated with the Byzantine church until the arrival of the Arabs. Having lost independence, the Alban church was subordinated to the Armenian church by the Arabs. The Byzantine Empire was the enemy of the Caliphate. By a decree of Sultan Yagub in 1487, Shirvan province became Alban land. In his memoirs, Albanian religious leader prince Hasan Jalal speaks about Alban Christian families exiled to Kandahar by Amir Timur. A number of Caucasian Albania monuments still exist in Agstafa.
Tatli village (4th century)
Located at foothills, the village is 20 km from the district centre. The village is very picturesque and has a spring called Qalanca. There is a summer pasture here. There is a Paleolithic camp and the Cinlitepe settlement (Eneolithic age), Alcaqtepe settlement (Bronze age), remains of an Alban castle with a cross on it and an Alban temple, all dating back to early Middle Ages.
Tatli village is named after the Tats who adopted Islam and were resettled here from Iran in the 4th century during the Sassanid rule. The Tat does not refer to an ethnicity but to a sociological property. In Cigatay accent of Turkic, Tat means subordination. The settlement is linked to “Tatli” tribes which lived in Gazakh in the 19th century. It has no bearing to the Tat ethnicity. In Turkic, Tat also means plowman, someone leading sedentary life. Therefore, people from southern Azerbaijan who came for seasonal cattle-breeding jobs were called tats.
Kecikcidag with its unique terrain and nature is the state reserve. Located 565 km north-west of Baku, 813 meters up the hill, it is the highest location on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. There are no settlements on the 15-km area from the Boyuk Kasik border checkpoint to the monastery. Empty hills resemble Africa and Saudi Arabia and are used by farmers and shepherds. The area was used as a firing range in Soviet times and Soviet border troops were stationed here. Today there are Azerbaijani border troops here.
It is known as Kesisdag. Movement on the border is restricted. One needs to cover 5 km on foot through Ceyrancol to reach here. It takes 40 minutes to reach the top of Kesisdag. About 150 meters of the road is an almost vertical slope, so it is quite risky and tiring.
There is a magnificent view of Ceyracol from caves. According to local sayings, the place was inhabited by Alban monks the 3rd-4th centuries. Even earlier priests meditated here facing the east. The caves are cool even when it is hot outside. There is a place called “ojax” near the caves. This is both a sanctuary and a source of drinking water. Water sources are very valuable in Ceyrahcol and people consider them as holy. Caves stretch for several kilometers along the mountain. Inside the caves look like churches. Old temples and walls in the caves have engravings from the Bible. The engravings date back to the 16-17th centuries.
Georgians claim that Kesisdag was built by David Agmashanabeli (David the Builder). Strabo was the first to provide information about the complex. According to him, there is an Alban “Moon temple” near the Iberian border and its head priest is the second most respected man after the ruler. The country, which subsequently adopted Christianity, built Alban Christian churches in place of idolatry temples. According to him, the temple was built in the 2nd century B.C. The man referred to by Georgians as David the Builder of the 6th century was the head priest from Syria. Six priests, including him, built the temples.
Some historians say that the crescent on the flag of Azerbaijan and some other Turkic states was the symbol of worshipping to the moon. Following the adoption of Christianity in Albania, moon temples were turned into Christian ones. The Kesikcidag is linked to David the Builder or his granddaughter Tamara. David the Builder was the ruler of Abkhazia and Tamara’s mother was a Kipchag. Therefore, there were only 300 Georgians and 40,000 Kipchags in Detgori battle. He won the battle and was named David the Builder.
It is a hilly plain between the of Kura and Qabirri rivers. Many gazelles used to live here, hence the name. There were many Zoroastrian temples here, therefore, it is also called “Holy land”. It borders on Georgia. According to sayings, Georgians wedded their daughters to local residents, the Kipchags, to protect themselves from invasions. The area has always attracted gazelle hunters. Even though there are no gazelles here now, it is still possible to see hunters and shepherds here.
Shepherd houses at Ceyrancol are quite apart from each other. Shepherds live in mud cabins to protect from heat. It is cool inside the cabins and storehouses. Away from civilization shepherds have neither electricity nor telephones. Nothing grows here due to the shortage of water. Rain is the only hope. Artificial lakes are filled with rain water animals drink. People buy water in canisters from the district centre. There are thousands of sheep here and shepherds live here with their families. They make different dairy products and food from the lamb.
This is the most popular food. It is made of a thin piece of bread with cheese, curds and churned butter inside. Durmek is served for tea table together with sugar. Shepherd cabins are so far from the centre that you may get tired and hungry before you reach them. Therefore, a durmek at shepherd’s table seems very timely. It is interesting to observe household work and preparation for winter. There are hundreds of round items looking like tennis balls in every cabin. It also resembles a piece of chalk. It is the well-known qurut and it is very good at Ceyrancol.
Qurut is a type of curds. It is found in places with a lot of dairy products. It is widely used in the western region. Qurut is a dairy product used in Ganjabasar region and goes together with Xingal. After being churned, butter is separated from the sour milk and poured into a special cotton bag. A 20-25-kg stone is put on the bag to remove all the liquid. The remaining white substance is kneaded with salt and dried. The product does not spoil for years due to its high quality. But it is a popular dish so it finishes in one year. In summer it is impossible to find Qurut. It is made in September.
It is manually crumbled in water, turned into a thick liquid and served. The process takes several hours. You may add garlic to the liquid. Qurut replaces yoghurt when eating pasta. Local people say that Qurut can be stored for years without refrigeration and is highly nutritious for people engaged in hard physical or mental activity, those suffering from stomach problems and colds.
Folk medicine is widely used by shepherds. Since they live far from civilization, herbs are used in the treatment of many diseases. Homemade mulberry or cornelian vodka are good remedies for cold. Compress is place on the throat, body massaged and small Chinese glass-pots put on the back followed by rubbing the body with iodine, consumption of 100 g of vodka with pepper. There are no doctors here but there are solutions for everything.
Real shepherds are here. A cloak, a high cap and a shepherd’s stick are always in fashion. A good shepherd keeps a good herd. Shepherds look after animals’ weight, wool, milk and meat. If a guest comes, a ram or a sheep is killed immediately. Every part of the animal is used. A dish called Cizbiz is made of bowels. The cleaned intestines are not discarded either. After drying, they are used in making sausages. The thin membrane covering the stomach is cleaned, filled with chopped meat and barbequed. The dish is called Khan Kebab. One of the favorite dishes here is called Kalafa. It is made by boiling meat with big bones and some vegetables. The Kalla-pacha (head and legs) soup is made of calcium-rich bones. The bones are then given to sheepdogs. Various dairy products are made of milk. When meat is in abundance, it is fried, filled in pots and saved for winter. Sheepskin is widely used in the household. Various clothes and most importantly carpets are knitted from the wool. The head of an animal is a delicacy. Legs and nails are used in cooking Khash which is rich in calcium and is good for health.
It is 75 km from the district centre and the closest sheepfold to Kesisdag. You may get lost in Ceyrancol, so a guide may be necessary. There is a well-known stud farm in Salimkhan’s sheepfold. Local horses were once very popular. It is impossible to imagine a native of Gazakh without a horse. Once there were tribes who bred horses. There is even a saying: Go to Gazakh to buy a horse and to Tovuz to buy a Saz.”
One of Azerbaijan’s two horse-breeding farms in Soviet times was in Agstafa. The farm, established in 1960, stopped functioning after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about horses kept in the vast Nisey valley in Media. The world’s first horse cavalry in Mediya was very well-known. Medieval documents (2nd-12th centuries) suggest that Azerbaijani horses were of high quality. Arab sources said wonderful horses of Azerbaijan were famous in Iran, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, thus making the country a horse-breeding centre in the East.
Dilbaz or Dilboz horses are well-known. These are saddler and draft horses bred in very good conditions. Racing horses are bred in Gazakh. They are widespread in neighboring Tovuz, Shamkir, Goyca, Borcali districts, even in Shaki. Qarabag and Dilboz horses are considered the gold pool. According to sources, Qasaq was the horse named after early residents of the area. Dilbaz horses are bred by the Dilbazis family in the Khanliqlar village. They are usually of blue color and are very handsome. The horse runs well. Its height is 142.5-146.7 cm. They have been for over 300 years. In the late 19th century there were 20-25 thousand Dilbaz horses in Gazakh. The creation of Dilbaz goes back to the 18th century, the rule of Shah Nadir Afshar. According to a legend, after a successful battle Nadir shah was resting in a place which is now the Khanliqlar village. An agile and bright man Ali attracted his attention. The shah liked his quick wit, told him that he was smart and ordered to give Ali one female and one male horse. The horses multiplied very well and mingled with Arab and Qarabag horses in the 19th century.
Making a wish
There are many beliefs associated with horses. Those seeing a horse in their dreams will have their wishes come true. The horse is the best friend of man.
These are ancient games. In the Middle East and Central Asia, horse games were the symbol of courage. There are national games played on horseback, such as Covkan, Horse ball, Baharband, Yayliq, Gardak qachirmaq, etc.
The villages of Dag Kasaman and Qiraq Kasaman are around the Boz mountain on the bank of the Kura river. The house of philanthropist Israfil Aga in Qiraq Kasaman built in 1910 was once considered a symbol of village. There is also a 19th century mosque, a medieval tower and other archeological monuments here. The name is first mentioned in 18th century sources. Most researchers say the villages of Kasaman represent tribal unions which lived in Gazakh’s Kasaman village. Altay Mammadov assumes that the village of Kasaman is linked with Kese tribes. In Turkic languages it means “a ram going in front of the herd”.
“There was a tribe living between the Gulul mountain and the Kura river. It was led by a man called Shimshek. Shimshek taught his sons Dagcan and Kurcan how to ride a horse and how to use the sword. Shimshek’s enemies were afraid of him and began to plunder the area. The tribal area was quite large, so Shimshek told Dagcan to block the Gulul mountain and asking Kurcan to block the edge of the Kura river. Therefore, the area at the foot of Gulul was called Dag Kasaman and the edge of the Kura river Qiraq Kasaman.
The name comes from a Turkic tribal name. Two facilities around the village are well-known.
A 16th century Muslim cemetery is known as Peykanli. There are very high tombs here. According to old beliefs in South Caucasus, the higher a tomb, the higher the spirit of the deceased flies and the closer it is to heavens. The scene from the “I want seven sons” movie was filmed here.
The well-known Qaracop area in Ceyrancol plain stretches until the Georgian border and merges with Georgia’s Lower Kartli plain in western Agstafa. The area together with Pirili plain was known as the Qaq plain in the 12-13th centuries. Later it became known as Qarayazi. The “qaq” in old Turkic meant a “valley, grassland”. The bank of the river Kura has been known as Kankar district since the 5th century. The place-name relating to the name of “qara” and “yazi” tribes consists of riverside plains. Qara refers to a dense forest, while Qarayazi means a dense plain.
Burning water near Poylu settlement in Qarayazi plain is a rare natural phenomenon. It is 11 km from the town. The water of this spring is good for drinking. It has been burning day and night for centuries.
Land of Fire
Everywhere you go, the land is on fire. Many years before world religions emerged, local people worshipped the Sun, the Moon and the Fire. Therefore, the name of Azerbaijan is believed to be linked to fire. There are different theories:
“The name of Azerbaijan is after Azerbaz ibn Iran ibn al – Asvad ibn Sam ibn Nuh. According to other suggestions, Azer in Pahlavi language means fire, baygan means “protector” or “fire protection”. So the word means “fire temple” or “fire protection”. This is close to being true because these places are full of fire temples.”
Historian and philosopher Mirza Kazim Bay (19th century) wrote:
“The name Azerbaijan originates from the word Azer (fire). In Zand language “Atars” means “fire”. Persians made up “ozar” from that word. Persian-speakers used the word to describe fire. Azerbaijan means “the land of fire”. If we consider that in ancient Pahlavi language it was used as “arien voco”, it was divided into two parts. Azer – fire, baycan – land of plenty. Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli notes that anti-winter ceremony were practiced in the month of Azer (November) by Zoroastrians and that Mugs (Zoroastrian priests) were called Azerbaijan. Arabs used the word Azerbaijan to describe the country. This coincides with Atarvan in Avesta. Some believe that the word Azerbanqan was turned into Azerbaijan by Arabs.