Balakan

Those coming on a visit to Balakan, a junction of different ethnicities and religions, a place full of rich customs and traditions where millennia-long beliefs and faiths are still cherished, don’t want to part from here. The thick forests on the Qanix river banks are called “Tugay forests”, while the fields “Tugay steppes”. Tugay means a thick and impassible forest. The forests were impassible both because they were thick and there were many swamps here. Over 30 medicinal herbs grow in the district’s 48,000-hectare forests.

Note

The distance between Baku and Balakan is 471 km. The Yevlakh-Shaki-Tbilisi road passes through Balakan. Located 300 meters above sea level and covering 923 sq. km., the district, set up in 1930, is Azerbaijan’s last north-western stop. It sits on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus. The highest top is Quton (3648 m). Mountains make up half of the district. It has a high rate of precipitation and, therefore, many rivers. The biggest river is the borderline Qanix.

BalakanClimate

There are four climate zones here. There is a hot and semi-humid subtropical zone in foothill and plain areas. The climate in high mountain areas is cold and humid. For its subtropical climate, 65 per cent of Balakan is second only to the Talish zone.

Tanbur

It is said that the spirit of national epic hero Dada Gorgud lives here. The reason is that Dada Gorgud’s Tanbur, the most widespread pear-shaped string instrument among Turkic nations, is still preserved here. It was also widespread in medieval Azerbaijan and became known as the Shirvan Tanbur. It has a long surface with two strings. There is an image of it on a 1556 miniature painting by Mirza Ali, called “Ozan-ashig”. It is considered to be the ancestor of the Saz. It is popular with the Avars and Ingiloys living in Gakh, Zaqatala and Balakan. Described by the Ingiloys as Tanburi, Tanbur is also known as the Avar Saz.

BalakanPlace-name

Balakan means a small village. This is the initial local theory. Fifth century Georgian sources provided information about an Alban settlement called Belakan. Bel used to mean a mountain, a spirit and then a god. In mythology, beliefs associated with spirits appeared earlier than those of god.

The word Balakan relates to balak and balik, which evolved over time to become Balakan, i.e. a city. It also means a place, homeland and home. Another theory suggests that it bears the name of Oghuz commander Belakan. The archeological excavation conducted in an area of Balakan called Tapacol in the 1990s confirmed the information of antique authors as the grave of Oghuz commander Belakan was discovered in the Tapachol mound. Initially Balakan was Qelakan, which related to the Gel tribes from Qilyan. It is also said that the place-name appeared by joining the names of Bay and Leq tribes.

9-13th century Arab sources described the place as Bab Balaq. Bab meant a door and entry, while Balaq stood for a city and place. According to another source, the place was dwelt in by four Avar generations, but the place-name is not in Avar. An 18th century Georgian source spoke of a Balakan valley. Greek geographer and traveler Strabo first visited north-western Albania by boat through the Qanix river in the early A.D. and subsequently described the place in his 17-volume Geography. He said there were many hazel-nut and walnut gardens here, that bees were collecting honey from flagrant trees in the forest, that on hot summer days honey drips from tree branches and leaves. Strabo was surprised to see temples built for Moon Goddess and described the place as one having many temples. Balakan is still often called “Land of temples”.

Moon and Sun faith temples

All history sources provide extensive information about Alban temples in a settlement on the Qanix river on the border with Iberia. In ancient times, local residents worshipped the Moon and the Sun. These beliefs paved the way to numerous legends and tales. One legend describes the Sun as a girl and the Moon as a boy. The Moon always circled around the Sun, but could never approach it and grew pale.

Another legend goes that the Moon was a mischievous boy. One day, when his mother was mixing dough, she slapped him on the face because of his incessant pranks. The yellow spot on the Moon’s face is said to be the trace of a hand dipped in dough.
Even now, when the Moon and the Sun are clouded, local people get agitated and fire rifles to banish the Devil attempting to swallow them. Faith in the Moon and the Sun was one of the oldest and has left marks on Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim religions. Most of the Caucasian Albania temples existed long before heavenly religions.

BalakanHistory

Academician Ziya Bunyadov indicated that Balakan was the first to process copper in the Eneolithic Age, which means that the place was inhabited over 6-7 millennia ago. Back in 1913, following geological exploration, German company Vogau presented a report, “Reserves of non-ferrous metals in Balakan”, at a London conference. The work was interrupted by World War One.
In the 5-8th centuries, Albania was always exposed to attacks from the north. Therefore, it was necessary to take defense measures along the northern border, including the Balakan-Zaqatala region. According to Arab sources, following early wars with the Caspians, Sassanid Shah Gubad I established whole cities to prevent attacks and fortified them with walls. Arab researcher el-Balazuri said there were many crossings in the Greater Caucasus between Derbent and the Daryal valley. Another Arab author, Ibn el-Faqih, while describing the fortresses, said the Sassanid built almost 360 fortresses, including 110 around Derbent, others near Qabala, Shaki and Balakan.

Greater Caucasus Wall (5-7th century)

Besides the Chinese Wall, the Greater Caucasus Wall was also written a lot about in ancient times. Some sources call it Kala Sur (Great Wall). Starting from the 19th century, the wall, stretching from Katex to Shaki, is called the Zaqatala wall. Only fragments of it along the Balakan-Zaqatala road, in Katex, Masex, Goyam, Tala villages have survived. It is made of pebble stone. The 3-4-meter high and 140-145-cm thick wall was built in the time of Sassanid rulers Gubad (488-531) and Khosrov Anushiravan (531-579) to prevent attacks from the north. After occupying the region in the 19th century, the Russians also used it for defensive purposes.

Car-Balakan uprisings

One of the fiercest uprisings against Russian colonization occurred in the Car-Balakan region. Living on a relatively small area on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus, the Car-Balakan communities enjoyed tremendous military and political authority. The commander of Russian troops in the Caucasus, Gen Pashkevich, wrote in his report to Czar Nicolas dated 11 March 1830 that neither sultans of Ilisu nor khans of Nukha could settle down in power without the consent of the Car-Balakan communities, capable of putting out 10,000 cavalrymen at any time. In fact, the Russians could never fully suppress these communities. According to Gen Pashkevich, the hatred of the Car-Balakan communities for the Russian rule never abated.

In 1852-1853, Imam Shamil came to Balakan together with his followers. After fights near Katex, he had to retreat. Afterwards, on local people’s persistent requests, he brought a 15,000-strong unit here again. Although the Russians were afraid of losing their positions after several minor defeats, Imam Shamil could not succeed and had to retreat after several encounters.

Trying to capitalize on that, Russian commanders started a campaign to convert Car-Balakan to Christianity. They issued a decree saying that the crimes of those agreeing to become Christians would be forgiven, but to no avail as local Muslims staged further uprisings against czarism’s Christianization policy. A high-ranking Russian officer and a priest were killed at a ceremony to lay the foundation of a Christian church in the center of Balakan, forcing the Czar to revert the construction.

BalakanRussian occupation

The commander of the Russian troops in the Caucasus, Gen Sisiyanov, in a letter to Russia’s vice-chancellor earl Kochubey about the occupation of Balakan, wrote: “This occupation is worthwhile. The Car-Balakan campaign must become a lesson for the whole Caucasus, including Azerbaijan khanates, in terms of the cruelty against the enemy and the local population.”

In a battle near Balakan in 1804, Russian troops were defeated and Gen Vasiliy Semyonovich killed. Afterwards, Maj-Gen Gulyakov rolled a large punitive unit on the local population. By putting up heroic resistance to occupiers, the local population defeated the Russian army, killing Gen Gulyakov. During this fight, the Russians built several defensive fortifications some of which have survived to the present day.

Historical monuments

There are 25 registered historical and architectural monuments in the land of temples.

Fortress walls (19th century)

These are located in a private courtyard in the Mahamalar village on the left bank of the Balakan river, right inside a hazel-nut garden. The fortress, which represents five semi-circles adjacent to each other, has been used as a prison, food storage, a stable and a place to store arms. The pebble-stone walls are 1-4 meters high.

Haji Murtuz fortress (19th century)

It is located near the city park in the Mahamalar village. Haji Murtuz first served on czar’s army, then joined Sheikh Shamil and was in charge of stiff resistance to the Russian occupation. He led a 1863 uprising which went down in history as the Haji Murtuz uprising. The rebellion was brutally crushed, while Haji Murtuz was exiled to Siberia. After the exile he settled down in Uzbekistan and never returned to Balakan. The fortress has two levels. The walls are 7 meters long. The historical fortress is now home to a family.

Mosque with a minaret (18th century)

The only historical monument in the center is called the Came mosque. Its minaret is 45 meters high. For its structure and ornaments, it is considered to be an example of Muslim architecture in Azerbaijan. The minaret, built of red brick, stands separately from the main building.

Mazimchay temple (5-6th centuries)

The temple built at foothills in the Mazimchay village belongs to the early Christianity period of Caucasian Albania. Located in a politically, historically and strategically important area near the border, this monument has not been fully researched. It has a praying area and three entrances. The Georgians called it the Tamara fortress and believe that the queen used it as a shelter in danger. When she was inside, the local people carried food to the fortress. In fact, they even sent milk through special pipes. Built in the 5-6th centuries, it was refurbished in the 9-11th centuries. The portal on its surface has mysteriously disappeared lately. Mazimchay is the only place in Azerbaijan to be located on the border of two states – Georgia and Dagestan.

Tulu village

Natural gas water is coming out of the Iman spring. This is the most popular local site. There are several 14th century tombs and Moon temples in the village.

Nur church

Half of this Alban temple, located in a private yard, is destroyed. It was built on the ancient Hun road leading to Georgia along the Hunbul river. Water wells near its remains are worthy of note. Earthenware pipes used to bring water from foothill areas here. Its walls bear the signs of the Moon faith.

Tulu Zoroastrian temple

It is 200-300 meters from the Tulu Square. Only the front of the temple, the arch connecting four columns, has survived to the present day. A 2001 archeological research revealed a grave here. A human skeleton and a few household items were discovered from the grave painted in red, which suggests that the person buried was a Zoroastrian priest. This area has many graves.

Pari Fortress

Most of the monument, which used to cover a large area, has now been destroyed. Only its walls have survived. It was built on a summit north of the Hunbul river in an area called the Hun crossing. Hunbul meant a place inhabited by the Huns. Sassanid ruler Khosrov Anushiravan (531-579), taking into consideration the military and strategic importance of Azerbaijan’s northern borders, wanted to reinforce mountain crossings in the Balakan-Shaki and Derbent and built forts and walls there. The 50-meter formidable fortress built above the Garakli village is a product of that period. There is a thick layer of dust and ground on its surface, which have accumulated over centuries. The Pari Fortress remained unassailable in the attacks of Timur and Nadir Shah, which was why it served as a shelter for the people of Balakan.

Legend

While raiding these places, Timur seized a number of fortresses. Reluctant to surrender, the people of Balakan retreated to the Pari Fortress. Although Amir Timur besieged it, he could not seize it. A brave woman named Pari commanded the defense. Despite losing his best military commanders here, Timur still wanted to seize it and ordered to have the woman brought to him. When soldiers defending the fortress informed their commander that the situation was hopeless, Pari threw herself down into the Hunbul river. Her body was found in the river and taken to Timur.

Population

Plutarch, who took part in the a fight with Roman troops in the Qanix-Alazan valley in 65 B.C., wrote that local people are quiet, proud and brave. The Balakan region is noted for its diversity. The fact that it borders on Dagestan and Georgia has affected its ethnic make-up. The historical proximity of these peoples has added a special accent to the Azerbaijani language spoken in this region.

The Avars

They are considered the oldest Turkic tribe and are described as Aparapurim by ancient Turkic sources, A-ba (Abars) by Chinese and Obr by Russian. Moving from Asia, they established the Avar ethnicity in Central Europe, on the territory of present-day Hungary, in 558-803. After the demise of the khanate, they mingled with peoples inhabiting the west coast of the Black Sea and the Danube. In the 6th century, the Avars lived in the North Caucasus and were the first Turkic tribe to come to the South Caucasus after defeating the Savirs in 578. The Avars came to the North Caucasus from Asia together with the Huns.

Katex village

This is a beautiful resort-like village. The entrance to the Zaqatala reserve is in the village.

Katex waterfall

A walk-about in the reserve is very enjoyable. Everything you see is delightful. Once you are here, you must see the local waterfall. After covering a long road to reach the waterfalls, one needs to go slightly down the hill and even use a thick metal rod suspended there to get close to it. Therefore, it is quite tiring to get to the waterfall. Despite the dangers involved, the journey is certainly worth taking. The waterfall, surrounded by formidable mountains and forests, produces an impression that can hardly be expressed through words. It is not very tall. The pool and the canyon underneath create ideal conditions for body rafting.
The village has a number of historical monuments, including a 15th century mosque, two ancient Alban churches, the Katex temple (5th century) and a mosque built in 1912. Katex has four rectangular medieval fortresses. They are made of pebble-stone and brick and are all four-storey. As you go up, the fortresses become narrower. Only suspended stairs are used to go up. Almost all of the fortresses are located in private yards.

In the 18th century, Katex was a densely-populated center of public and political processes, uprisings and protests. There are many cemeteries attributed to that period here. In 1830, a major insurgency was staged here against Nadir Shah and his brother Ibrahim Khan who was appointed as ruler of the Caucasus. During the occupation by Czarist Russia, Balakan was completely burned by the Russians. Trying to escape, people found shelter in Katex. In the 19th century, Islam and religious unity of Caucasian peoples was the main ideological weapon in the fight against Russian occupation. In 1830-1863, Katex was a center of uprisings. It was in those years that Katex was turned into a place where leaders of the authoritative Naqshbandi sect emerged. Representatives of the sect led the fight against Russian occupation.

Mahamalar village

This is one of Balakan’s biggest villages which has preserved its traditions. It is rich in historical monuments, such as the 5-8th century dwelling ruins, 2nd-1st century B.C. sepulchers, a 19th century fortress and an 18th century mosque. The best-known shrine of this region, the Salban sacred place, is also located in the village. All villagers seem to know the legend associated with how it emerged:

Legend

“The Russians were heavily oppressing the Dagestani clergy. Opposed to such treatment, a religious figure named Hurulov rose to fight against it. However, Russian soldiers got hold of him, chopped his head off and threw it down the mountain. The head landed in the village and pronounced Allahu Akbar (God is Great). The villagers buried the head and made it a sacred place.”
People visit the shrine with different wishes, circle the grave of the man who died in the path of God three times, pray and offer a sacrifice. The Salban sacred place is usually open to visitors from Monday to Thursday.

Maxara

This is the most popular dish in Balakan also referred to as Avar pancakes. The dish is definitely worth trying and visitors are always treated to it.

Maxara is cooked on the Saj (large iron disk for baking bread). Its surface is greased either with a fat tail or goat fat. The Maxara dough is made of flour, milk, eggs, saffron, a pinch of salt and some sugar. The thin dough is poured over the Saj where it assumes the form of a star. It takes one to two minutes to cook it. Then the pancakes are placed on a plate and buttered. A total of 50-60 Maxaras are cooked in one go. When eating Maxara, the pancakes are dipped in honey, jam or cream. Maxara is served with tea.
Shepherd’s dance

This is a national game widespread in Avar villages. It is one of the temperamental Caucasian dances. Shepherds grazing their cattle all day long play games not to be bored. This game, as is the case with all Caucasian dances, tests shepherds’ agility. If you visit a wedding party in the village, you are sure to see what skill this dance requires, and you can help admiring it.

Horses

There are many horses in Balakan. Horses are kept almost in every house. You can see men and women, young and old people on a horseback. Believed to be better than a car, horses are held in high esteem. Horse vehicles such as phaeton, carts and the Sarabani are quite popular. The Sarabani deserves special mention.

Sarabani

This is an open vehicle for two people. It represents two wheels connected by a bench. When you lift the bench, there is a spacious box underneath, which is used to store baggage. The Sarabani is attached to a horse and painted in bright colors. Sometimes it is used at wedding parties to transport the bride. The vehicle is often used for picnics, travel and romantic dates. Unfortunately, it has become less popular lately. If you catch sight of it, do ask its owner for a ride.

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