Astara

This place is called the pearl of the south. The first impression of the district is its citreous fruit. The best time of the year to visit Astara, which used to have the biggest citreous farm in the USSR, is autumn. The place turns into an exotic paradise in the fruit season. Lemon, tangerine, grapefruit, orange, kiwi, kumquat and pineapple guava trees growing everywhere are truly enticing. Since Astara has the highest rate of precipitation in the country, it is often called a land of incessant rains. There is a settlement with the same name in Iran.

Information

The distance between Baku and Astara is 313 km. This southernmost settlement is on the border with Iran. The Araz river also serves the border. It is an important location on the Baku-Tehran road. The fact that a transit road connecting West European and Asian countries passes through Astara suggests that it used to be part of the Silk Way. Established in 1930, Astara is divided into two geographical parts: plain and mountainous. Looking like a plain area at first sight, Astara’s mountainous part is in its west. Surrounded by the Caspian Sea and the Talysh mountains, it has a mild and hot climate. The plain and foothill areas are part of the subtropical zone. The higher the altitude, the colder the climate.

Talysh mountains

These are a mountain range in Azerbaijan’s south located between Lesser Caucasus and Elbrus (Iran) mountains. The highest top is 2,477 m. They consist of three main mountain ranges.

Hirkan sea

This name has been given to the sea by the Hirkans who used to inhabit the south-eastern coasts of the Caspian. Pliny the Elder described the coastal areas inhabited by Caspians and Albans as the Caspian Sea and the Alban Sea respectively.

While describing Astara in his “Historical events”, Strabo said “the sea waves wash and kiss foothills” here.

Although the water, seaside and sand are quite clean in Astara, there are no official beaches. The seaside is mainly covered with black sand. Located at the edge of the 825-km coastal zone, Astara is known as a fishing paradise. There is a plethora of austere fishermen’s huts all along the coast. The aftertaste of the freshly caught and fried fish remains for a long time. Fish fried in oil and covered with onions, greens and pomegranates is absolutely irresistible.

Hirkan National Park (HNP)

Located on the Astara-Lankaran road, the park covers three districts: Lerik, Lankaran and Astara. Lying mostly in Astara, the HNP was set up in 2004. It covers an area of 21,435 hectares. Its goal is to protect the nature, preserve the endangered flora and fauna species included on the Azerbaijan Red Book AR and create conditions for the promotion of tourism. Mainly covered with forests, the park has several historical fortresses, monuments and residential settlements, as well as the Xanbulan water reservoir. There are five travel routes to the HNP. All of them are carried out on foot. The shortest last four hours, while the longest nine hours.

Tourism

Although Astara may be an attractive travel destination, its tourism infrastructure is almost nonexistent. Agkorpu is noted for its sulfuric mineral waters, Sim is known for mountains, forests and natural springs, Miki is a well-known area of natural water springs, while Istisu is famous for its mineral waters. These are some of the seven domestic travel routes.

Istisu

There are mineral water springs in the district known for their healing properties. These include Agkorpu, Istisu, Sim, Bi, Toradi, Sheikh Nasrullah, etc. There are tens of hot mineral water springs in Istisu, a mountainous, forest and resort area. Minerals add different colors to the ground here and smell like sulfur. There are no official sanatoria here and people can simply plunge their feet in the springs. Istisu forests are an ideal destination for those fond of picnics. Local restaurants are mostly self-service. Southern houses are of particular interest. One such structure will certainly be remembered from a scene in the film Ulduz when Mahammad meets Zuleyxa. This, of course, is a Lam.

Lam

This structure is typical of the southern zone. The Lams are also called summerhouses. They are more widespread in Astara and are still popular. These places are indispensible in hot summer months and are described as natural air-conditioners. There are Lams almost in every village and house in Lankaran. Similar summerhouses were quite popular on the Absheron Peninsula until the mid-20th century, and were called balconies. Due to its hot subtropical climate, the weather in Astara from May through November is hot, and people spend nights, eat and drink in the Lams. These structures, designed to protect people from heat and for recreation, are open on all four sides. They became widespread in the south in the 18-19th centuries. Their lower part is made of red bricks, while the upper one of timber. They are decorated with different handicrafts inside, which makes them even more special. Local people even receive guests in the Lams in summer.

Note

When well-known German traveler Adam Oleairus (1599-1671), who visited Astara during Nowruz holidays in 1638, wrote that the town of Astara on the Caspian coast was full of grapevines. According to Strabo, who reported the fact earlier, a small grape berry could produce a basketful of grapes in a place called Hikaniya at the time. It is said that whatever one may sow in this soil will germinate. The place is covered with orchards on all sides. Indeed, the soil here is so fertile that anything can grow here.

Tea

Tea is considered Astara’s indispensible asset. It holds a key place in the economy of the Lankaran-Astara subtropical zone. Although tea plantations established here in the Soviet times are not as prolific as before, the place is still noted for its tea. The tea-picking season is in May, as girls wearing hats take to the fields at 6 a.m. and gather tea until dark. Their hands work so fast that a layman can barely follow them. Everyone here is a tea expert. Everything required for a tea table grows here: lemon and tea, the inseparable couple in Astara. Tea-leafs are gathered in May and buds in August. The tea made of buds is more aromatic and expensive. For its chemical composition Azerbaijan’s black tea is no worse than the best foreign brands. The first tea was planted in Azerbaijan by immigrant Novoselov 12 km from Lankaran in 1896, as 2,000 bushes were grown on an area of one hectare. After 20 years of experiments it was decided that tea and other subtropical crops should be grown here. There are three tea factories in the district. Astara accounts for 99 per cent of national tea production.

Pineapple guava

It is an evergreen subtropical fruit tree. Its fruits are juicy, flagrant and tasty. It consists of water by 70 per cent. The flesh of the fruit is jelly-like and refreshing. It is loved for its unique taste which resembles that of a pineapple, banana and strawberry at the same time. Originating from America, pineapple guava was first brought to Azerbaijan in 1928. It grows only in Astara-Lankaran.

If you are in the south, you must try pineapple guava compote. Neither sweet nor sour, the juice of this fruit does not cause bloating. The more you drink, the more you want it. Jam made of pineapple guava is quite delicious as well. It is good for people suffering from high blood pressure. One teaspoon of this jam is added to a cup of tea to bring the blood pressure down.

Rice field

This is where rice is sown, or a paddy plantation. It is one of the exotic southern panoramas. Different interesting images come before eyes every season. In May, one can often see barefooted women bending over and doing something with their hands in what looks like a small pond. When one looks at the women standing in the middle of swamp-like fields and leaning forward, the impression is that they are looking for something. What they do is weeding away the area, i.e. cleaning the field from stones and wild grass. After the clean-up work, they place rice seedlings. The seedlings ripen in hot summer months. The harvesting season starts in September. Depending on the sort of the rice, ripened rice is gathered with 10-day intervals. Astara residents are very pleased with the quality and taste of the local round rice, as well as types called sadri, 1001, hasani, hashimi, etc.

Note

A book by Hungarian Orientalist and traveler Armin Vanberin (1832-1913), “Turkic hands”, published in Budapest in 1885, dedicates a large chapter to Azerbaijan, Astara in particular. The author says that the local people have wonderful folk traditions.

Halay

This is the general name of a dance created in the Lankaran-Astara region and accompanied by singing and clapping. Southern population has been engaged in rice-growing since ancient times. Looking after plantations is difficult work requiring a lot of effort. 10-16 days after sprouts emerge, the bottom of the rice shrub is cleaned from weeds. This is mainly done by women. The cleaning process is called weeding away. Due to the concordant nature of these words, the Halay song appeared. In its original version the song was purely work-related. As is the case with most songs about work, Halay is about produce and difficult, labor intensive and long work.

It is one of the oldest dances. Its melody is very simple. It is accompanied only by clapping. There is no need for musical instruments in Halay. Since recent times it is accompanied by the Daf, a percussion instrument. The person playing the Daf usually leads the dancing ring. In addition to clapping, Halay is also accompanied by singing.

History

Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria (90-160 A.D.) published the 2nd century map of the Caspian Sea and provided information about geographical names, sites and settlements on its coasts. The author mentioned a number of Albanian cities and villages, saying that Astara is written as Astarata in Greek.

English merchant Anthony Jenkinson visited the Caspian coast in 1559 in an effort to establish trade relations with Bukhara. After returning to London in 1562, he published a book called “Description of Russia-Tatarstan”. While giving the names of settlements on the Caspian coast, the author said Astara’s name in Greek was Stara.

In middle ages, Astara was the capital of the province, a cultural and trade center. Pottery and earthenware were developed. There was a mint in the town in the 13-14th centuries. Russian scientist A. Markov studied the coins made in Derbent, Samaxi, Tabriz and Astara, saying that the coins with the name of Astara on them symbolize the present town of Astara. The Hulakis, Jalayirs and Teymuris minted coins in Astara. Sixteen coin samples with the words Zarbe Astara (minted in Astara) written on them, minted in the times of Amir Teymur, are currently kept at the History Institute of the Tajikistan National Academy of Sciences.

Place-name

Astara means a low area in Persian. In Talysh it is called Ostoro. The place-name is linked to someone named Asta, which means a road. In Turkish, ast means low. This word appeared in the place-name due to its location below the River Araz. The name is mentioned by Ptolemy as Astrabene, by Strabo as Azar, Astara and Astrabad. The inscriptions attributed to the time of Assyrian ruler Sargon II (721-705 B.C.) dwell on fighting valor and provide information about the conquest of the Telusena province on the Caspian coast. Telusena is an ancient province in the north of modern Iran inhabited by the Talysh. It is the original form of the word Talysh. According to another theory, the word Talysh was not encountered in any sources before the Arabs came here. Historian Ahmed el-Balazuri (820-892) used the word as Taylasan and spoke about Arab conquest of the place.

The Talysh

This is the indigenous population of southern Caspian. They call themselves the Tolysh or Tolosh. The Talysh language belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. These people are very sincere, hard-working and quick-tempered. In Arab, Talysh means simple, pure and clean. The local people lead a chaste and quiet life. They stay away from conflicts and theft. Kazimbay Boradigahi wrote in his “Javahirnameyi-Lankaran” in 1869 that the word Talysh is derived from the word “tayalis”. These places were called Talis in ancient times. It is also said that the word Talysh is related to the word “tulush”, which means mud. Due to torrential rains, the place has always been very muddy. Although in Talysh Tiyulish means a swampy and muddy area, this theory is not quite popular for obvious reasons. Iranian scientist Said Nafisi considered the Talysh to be of Turkic race, adding that their ancestors were among the troops brought to Iran by Genghis Khan.

The Kaddusis

They are considered to be the ancestors of the Talysh. The first information about them is provided by Ktesi and Ksenofont (430-355 B.C.). The Kaddusis were the most ancient and biggest tribe that ever inhabited Azerbaijan. They were the first inhabitants of the present Astara. According to Iranian historian Hasan Pirnir, the word “kadus” is derived from the Greek form of the contemporary Talysh word.

Arcivan village

It is one of the biggest and most ancient villages of Astara. There are interesting stories about Shah Ismayil Khatai. It is said that after his father was overthrown, the future ruler of the Safavids was faced with the death threat and was hidden in the Arcivan village by his benefactors who tied his cradle to a tree. After ascending to the throne, Ismayil always came to the Archivan village before starting his military marches and performed Salah at an ancient local mosque – the Mahammad Hanafiyya mosque established in 1499. The glorious Safavid ruler, who was an active Shiite, did not attempt to change the villagers’ creed because they had once saved his life. Surrounded by Shiites on all sides, Arcivan thus retained its Sunni faith. There are also 19th century Karbalayi Hamid Abdulla bathhouse, the Mashadi Abutalib bathhouse, the Haciteymur and Hacicahanbakhish mosques in the village. The shrine at the old village cemetery is the best known place here.

Yanar bulaq (burning water spring)

This is one of the best known and most popular travel destinations in Archivan. The water is sulfurous but potable. There are always people at the spring who stop by to fill their bottles and carry on their journeys. As is clear from its name, the water burns. Suffice it to strike a match and see. It is said that a large kettle can start boiling from this fire in 45 minutes.

Miki village

This one of Astara’s must-see mountain villages. It derives its name from an ancient tribe which was noted for its belligerence. The place-name emerged from the words “miyo” and “ku”, i.e. middle of a mountain. The village is located on a high slope of the Talysh mountains. Numerous cemeteries and mosques are evidence of the village’s age. North of Miki there is a place called Monkalla where battles with the Mongols are said to have been held. Many Mongols killed in the battles are buried here (Monkalla translates as Mongol heads), hence the name of the place. Since the village is situated on a steep slope, it is difficult and expensive to deliver construction materials here. For this reason, houses in Miki are made of timber, not stone, while a mixture of grass and straw is used as cement. Such houses remain cool in summer and warm in winter.

Bee-keeping

Bee-keeping is highly developed in Miki. Lemons, honey and tea are key attributes of the village table. Almost all villagers are professional bee-keepers. Everyone seems to know exactly how much honey every flower has, how much every bee can work and the quality of different honeys. Women make doshab (juice made of grapes, mulberry, etc.) out of wild persimmons growing in Miki forests, while bees make honey out of persimmon nectar. The most prolific honey tree is wild persimmon, as every bee gathers around 1.5-2 kg of honey from it. A total of 25-30 kg of honey is made from a box of persimmons. It is impossible to remember all Miki residents have to say about bees and honey. Here are some of the well-known sayings.

Aphorisms

A bee tells the prophet:
“Please let me fetch some gold, sting and kill a man.”
The prophet answers:
“No, fetch some honey, sting a man and then die yourself.”

Indeed, these bees don’t sting, but if they do they die themselves. The ceremony of honeycomb cutting is very interesting. Everyone observes the sampling process. Pure honey has a sharp taste and is very sticky. It is hard to swallow it because it sears its way down the throat.

The Miki honey is also a good remedy for numerous diseases. It doesn’t get crystallized in the comb. After being poured into a container, it may get solid over time but remains as yellow as butter and grainy. The locals say it won’t spoil even in 100 years. Only tea can be drunk after honey, not water.

The second must-see place is the Simdir village. It would be a wonderful eco-tourism destination. Its ironwood forests and water springs along the river are great for recreation. There are ancient water mills, ditches and a stone palace here. One can also walk to wild date and walnut forests.

Sim village (40 km)

As mentioned above, this is a must-see ancient village high in the mountains. The road is very tiring. To be more exact, there is no road at all. So the 40-km distance is covered only in four hours. However, the nature is so mesmerizing that no-one complains. There are people on horseback here and there. Curious, they can’t help asking who we are and where we are going. We were told that since the village is remote, there are not too many visitors here. There is no electricity, gas, mobile phones and roads in Sim. In short, there is no sign of modern civilization. There are 50 mineral water springs and two 25-30-meter waterfalls here. The local honey is of exquisite taste.

Described as a land of museums, Sim has about 20 ancient cemeteries. Archeological researches suggest that Sim was inhabited B.C. Benches and tables, pools, palaces, engravings, prison, caves and ice-boxes, all made of stone, suggest that there was life here 2-3 millennia ago.

Sim is also known for rocks. There are gigantic rocks in the center of the village and outside every house. There are numerous rocks with engravings around the village too. There are ancient stone-made pools, remains of an ancient minaret and other historical monuments here. If it hadn’t been for so many trees, this place could be called the second Gobustan. Attributed to the 9-10th centuries, the Sim settlement is an archeological monument of national importance.

Padishah stone

Different ceremonies were in the Utey square of the village. A huge stone was cut so that three people could sit on it. The Padishah stone resembles an arm-chair. Different competitions, horse races and even trials were held in the square. Those committing a crime had to stand trial here. Those sentenced to death were thrown into a nearby abyss. Despite the date engraved on the stone, the Sim settlement can be attributed to the Atropatene period.

Place-name

There are several theories.
1. Sam – name of an ancient Turkic tribe.
2. Sam – name of Prophet Nuh’s son.
3. Sim – “si” is the base of a word meaning stone.
4. Sim – means red.
5. Sim – is derived from the word “Simba”, i.e. a rod.
6. Sim also means a strange place, which is linked to its geographical location.

Pillakan village

The real name of the village on the way to Sim is Palikas. There are interesting legends about Vilipard and Pijena Pard bridges attributed to the 6-13th centuries.
One day Padishah Anusiravan led his troops on a march. The ruler and his army had extremely difficult time crossing a rapid river. Seeing this, an old woman from the village wanted to put the Padishah to shame and built a bridge with her own hands. On his way back, the ruler was very surprised to see the bridge. Livid with wrath, he says “I won’t be myself if I get on this bridge”, and crosses the river by swimming. This is how the bridge became famous.
In addition to the bridge, there is a ropeway for crossing the river. It is fun. The ropeway is mainly used in floods. The 2.5-m waterfall is a local sight. The Alicapan rocky area is also of interest. There is a pedestrian road here as well. A plant called Gilamarza, which has many healing properties, can be gathered in the local forest. It is also called wild mint. Local villagers dry and store it. It is added to the pineapple guava compote to lend it red color.

Historical monuments

The district has 102 registered cultural monuments. The Silk Way used to pass through Astara, which is confirmed by remnants of a 7th century caravansary discovered in the Qapicimahalla village on the banks of the Astara river. Monuments include the Stone Necropolis attributed to the late 2nd and early 1st centuries B.C. in the Azarrud village, the Miki Dolmen Necropolis in the Miki village, the Xolobin Necropolis of the 5th-1st centuries B.C. in the Ruadila village, the residence of Siyaku I and II in the Siyaku village attributed to the bronze and antique ages, the bronze-age Baba Cabbar, Tangarud, Seyidcamal, Vaqo, Baba Hummat, Bi yaylagi burial mounds, the iron age Karaoba necropolis, etc. The most magnificent monument of these is the Sindan fortress.

Sindan fortress

It is located at an altitude of 2,000 meters, at the top of Sindan mountain on the border with Iran. One of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in historically Azerbaijani town of Namin, it relates to a pre-Islamic period. Babak, fighting against Arab occupation, saw this as a strategic location. There is an ancient cemetery in the fortress. Those heading different medieval rebellions found shelter in the fortress. Made of stone and brick, the fortress has only one road – from the north. Observation places for watchmen and commanders are quite interesting. It takes one full day to tour the fortress which was originally built for defense purposes.

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