Gabala

This is the heart of north-western Azerbaijan. The country’s most beautiful district is known as a tourism paradise. If it hadn’t been for the Qabala radar station, which affects the local beauty and nature, the place would be ideal from both environmental and health standpoints…

Note

The distance to Baku is 225 km. Qabala is located in the Haftaran-Alazan valley and surrounded by the Greater Caucasus. It sits on the right bank of the Damiraparan river 900 meters above sea level. Touching Lahic mountains on one side, Qabala is situated in the country’s north-west at the foot of the Shahdag mountain. All villages in the district’s north are part of the Shahdag National Mark. Flowing from the Greater Caucasus, the Damiraparan, Vandam, Bum, Tikanli and other rivers supply the valley with water and converge with the Kura.

Bucket Bazaar

The market at the entry to the district is known as the Bucket Bazaar. One can find all types of jams, compotes, fruit, agricultural produce, marinades and plants here. The local merchandise is sold only by villagers who cultivate everything themselves. Their hands are evidence of the hard work they have to do. These hospitable people are pleasant to speak to.

Economy

A favorable geographical location has facilitated economic and cultural development here since ancient times. The gardens stretching from foothill areas have enabled grape-growing, while the plains are used for wheat plantations. Strabo wrote about the Kura-Araz valley: “No-one looks after the land, but everything grows on its own… Lands sown once yield two or three times. All the plains are watered with river-water better than in Babylon and Egypt, retain their green color and serve as abundant pastures. The weather is better here.” Qabala has become known for its fruit, nuts and chestnuts.

Chestnuts

The best chestnuts in Azerbaijan grow in Qabala. There is a famous chestnut forest on mountain slopes 1000 meters above sea level. Trees here are very old. Their average age is 500 years. Some are protected by the state and listed as natural monuments. Qabala chestnuts are usually quite large. In autumn and winter, chestnuts become an irresistible local delicacy. Chestnuts are roasted or scalded in water. Wherever you go in the chestnut season, you are sure to be treated to chestnuts. Besides, chestnuts are also part of dishes. They are generously added to stuffed cabbage, fried meat and the popular Doshama Pilaf.

Qutqashen

This was the name of the district in 1930-1991. The name was made up of qut + qas + shen, words relating to quti, qus and qas tribes. Quti tribes are the Udis still living in the district. Considering that quti and qus tribes were spread in Azerbaijan in the 2nd millennium B.C., the place-name is said to be 4000 years old. Another theory suggests that the place-name relates to the word qurd (wolf), which used to be a holy totem in the entire Turkic world. Qutqashen is also said to mean a happy place. There is a same-named neighborhood in Qabala now.

The place-name started spreading in the mid-18th century. There was a small feudal Qutqashen sultanate in Azerbaijan which subsequently entered the Shaki khanate as Qutqashen district. The last sultan of the Qabala rule was I. B. Qutqashenli’s father Sultan Naib Nasrullah.

Ismayil Bay Qutqashenli (1806-1869)

One of the most prominent people bearing Qutqashen’s name was the first Muslim general of the Russian army, Ismayil Bay Qutqashenli. Having served the Russian army for 30 years, Ismayil Bay Qutqashenli became major-general in 1850. Besides his public, political and economic activities, the general also founded Azerbaijani prose. He wrote in French and his first story was “Rashid Bay and Saadat Khanim”.

History

Starting from the 4th century B.C., Qabala, Albania’s first capital in the 1st century A.D., played an important part in the country’s economic, political and cultural life. The headquarters of Alban rulers were based in Qabala as well. It was on a par with the world’s strategic political and economic cities such as Babylon, Troy and Carthage. Although Roman troops attacked Albania in 60 B.C., they failed to occupy Qabala. In Sassanid times, Qabala was a major commercial and craftsmanship center and retained this status in caliphate times. Plunging into a recession after the 13th century Mongol attacks, Qabala subsequently revived. By the mid-18th century Qabala started losing its magnificence, while its population gradually moved elsewhere.

Ancient Qabala

Most of the ancient city is now underground. Its only visible parts are the southern gates of the fortress. Ancient Qabala was the capital of the Caucasian Albania until the 9th century. It was 20 km north-east of the present district center, in the vicinity of the Cuxur Qabala village. The ruins of the ancient city are located 15 km from the center, on an area between the Qarachay and Covurluchay rivers. Although the Sassanid dynasty moved the capital to Barda in 461, Qabala remained an important city. It was then that the walls of Qabala’s magnificent fortress were built. The materials discovered by archeologists suggest that ancient Qabala, which existed from the 4th-3rd millennia B.C. to the 18th century, was one of the largest and most developed administrative, commercial and craftsmanship centers in the Caucasus.

Fortress walls (5th century)

It differs from other medieval Azerbaijani defense systems and belongs to the Sassanid architecture. Although certain medieval authors have said the town was built by Sassanid king Gubad I, researchers believe that he only carried out restoration work here. Brick was mixed with straw and shaved pebble stone. The diameter of the surviving tower is three meters. The defense walls of the 35-meter high, 1-meter tall and 2.4-meter thick fortress have retained their original form. The main gate of the fortress was in the south. All four surviving towers of the southern walls are semicircular. The walls are 10-14-meter high, 6-8-meter in diameter and 4-meter thick. Archeological excavations in the fortress discovered several graves.

Buried treasures

Buried treasures have repeated been discovered in and around Qabala. Most of it is attributed to 226-551. In 1964, during plowing work in the field 2-3 km south-west of ancient city ruins, local people discovered silver drachmas coined by Sassanid King Bahram II (276-293). Other discovered treasures contained coins minted by the Roman emperor, which is evidence that Qabala contributed a lot to Albania’s commercial relations with Iran and the Roman Empire.

Qabala State Historical and Cultural Reserve

In was established in 1985. Covering an area of 480 hectares, the reserve is located in the district’s south-west 25-30 km from the center near the Cuxur Qabala village. It consists of three parts – Caqqalli, Salbir and Qala. The local ruins of the ancient city are protected.

Place-name

First written evidence of the place-name was provided by Roman scientist Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century A.D. In his “Natural History” encyclopedia, he wrote that Albania’s main city was Kabalaka. In the early middle ages, it was also referred to as Kapalak, Kapaqa, Khuala, etc. Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy (2nd century) described Qabala, a city with a history of 2500 years located on the ancient Silk Way, as Khabala, while Arab historian Balazuri (9th century) called it Khazar. Azerbaijani scientist A. Bakikhanov (19th century), in his “Gulustani-Iram” book, said Kabala or Khabala were Qabala.

Christianity in Albania

Albania was a state of many religions – idolatry, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Although Christianity started spreading here in the 1st century B.C., it was announced the state religion only in the early 4th century. The first to spread Christianity was Czar Urnayr. According to Alban historian M. Kalankatli, there were 12 episcopates in Albania in the 5-8th centuries. Although Qabala was a Christian center in the 1st century, Sassanid rulers were promoting Zoroastrianism. Christianity was promoted in Albania by Apostle Elisha sent here from Jerusalem. When Christianity started to be oppressed in the Sassanid rule in the 3rd-4th centuries, Christian communities found shelter in foothill and mountain areas of Shaki and Balakan. Therefore, there are many 5-9th century Christian temples in the region. Therefore, the Kish church in Shaki and churches in the Nic village are considered the main Christian churches in the entire Caucasus. To see them, one must visit the Nic village.

Nic village (40 km)

This is Qabala’s biggest village located 40 km south-west of the district center. It is inhabited by the Udis, an ethnic minority and has a population of 4,000 people. The village has cultivated land plots, gardens, pretty houses and private estates. The 100 sq. km. gardens are noted for their fruit and nuts. There is even a joke that local people can afford to buy a car every season. The village consists of Cotaari, Ag dallakli, Qoca bayim and other neighborhoods. Every neighborhood used to have its own church, two of which have survived to the present day.

Cotaari church (17th century)

The pride of villagers, this church is the last Alban Christian temple. There are four plane-trees as old as the temple itself here. Nic villagers say that residents of every neighborhood planted plane-trees here and local people still see them as a memory of their ancestors. The 17th century Alban church in the Cotaari neighborhood was officially opened on 19 May 2006, allowing Nic residents the opportunity to reunite with the church after 170 years of separation.

Historical note:

Although the Arabs imposed Islam on most of the occupied Azerbaijan’s population, including the Udis, in the 7th century, some retained their previous beliefs. Udis living in Qabala and Oguz managed to preserve their traditions and language. In 1836, the Russian orthodox church abolished the throne and office of the Alban Catholicos. Thus, Christian Udis fell under the influence of the Armenian church. The Udis, protesting at the Czar’s decision to pass Alban Christian churches to the Armenian church, stopped going to church and started conducting all their religious rituals at home. Taking advantage of the Udis not visiting the church, Armenians attempted to portray Alban history and language as Gregorian and to assimilate the Udis. However, this proud ethnicity managed to preserve its identity, traditions and language.

Udis

First written evidence of the Udis was provided by Greek author Herodotus in his book “History”. They lived in Uti, Utiq and Otena provinces located on the right bank of the Kura, on the territory of Qarabag, the present-day Barda-Imishli region. More detailed information about the Udis, one of 26 Alban tribes which contributed a lot to the establishment of the Alban kingdom, was provided by 9th century researcher Moses Kalankatlu, who attributed himself to the Udis too, in his book “Alban history”. He wrote that Udis led a sedentary lifestyle, were engaged in land-farming, handicrafts and livestock breeding. Farming, silkworm breeding, fishing and gardening were widespread among the Udis in the 19th century.

The Udis have round faces and fair or brown hair. They usually live long. The Udis are very hospitable and respectful of the elderly. In the past, they would typically have large families. They mainly married their next of kin but starting from the 19th century, their families became smaller. Their national attire is similar to that of other ethnicities in the Caucasus. Previously, Udi women would wear kerchiefs, not sit at the same table with men, not intervene when men talked and not leave the house without permission. Udi girls were wedded at 13 and boys at 16. They consider Friday a holiday and believe that anything started on this day will eventually succeed. The Udi folklore is very diverse. They have different games, lyrical and heroic songs, dances, legends and stories relating to domestic life. Some of their old beliefs and faith in the moon are still in evidence.

Udi language

They get angry when called the Udins. At best, they politely explain that they should be called Udis, not Udins. They speak their language among themselves. Udi belongs to the family of Caucasian languages. The Udi alphabet has been designed by philologist Kechaari Grigoriy (Zhora).

Udi cuisine

The most popular dish is Firlama, which is also called Firrama. A turkey or a pig are cleaned, run on a spit and roasted in the Tandir oven. The Udi bread baked in the Tandir is extremely tasty, looks like pita and doesn’t become brown when baked. Besides the typical meat porridge (rice with meat) and Siftiliq (sauce made of chestnuts and walnuts), Xarisa deserves special mention. Wheat is cooked until it dissolves in water, buttered and mixed with meat. Xarisa is a traditional dish of farmers. On holidays and funeral wakes, the Udis drink cherry plum vodka and wine. On holidays, the pitchers buried outside are opened and wine poured out. Wine is made only by men, while women are not allowed to contribute. The explanation provided by local people is: “Women have clean hands, while men have clean feet.”

Only men handle the whole process from the collection of grapes to bottling. Wine-making is usually a holiday-like process as men take off their shoes to press tons of grapes with their feet.

Historical monuments

Azerbaijan’s north-west is considered a leader from the standpoint of protection of Albanian architectural monuments. Qabala’s long history is confirmed by over 90 historical, ethnographic and cultural monuments protected by the state. There is an Imam Baba tomb (18th century) and a medieval Juma mosque in the district center. Others are located in different villages and are certainly well worth visiting.

Juma mosque (1896)

Islam started spreading in the 8th century. It was then that the construction of mosques on this territory was launched. The Juma mosque in Kamaltapa is one of these. It functioned as a mosque until 1921, but was subsequently used as a culture club, a court and a conference center. Since 1985, it has been a regional history museum.
Octagonal mosque (18th century)

It was built of pebble stone and brick, while its roof of expanded clay. The mosque has a curious shape. In the Soviet times, it was used as a cheese factory, while in 1985 it became a mosque again.

Hazra village (4 km)

It is 900 meters above sea level. The correct way of pronouncing it is Hazar, not Hazra. The place-name relates to the Khazar tribe. There is a 15-16th century Hazra sepulcher in the ancient forest. There were seven mausoleums here in the 19th century, of which four have survived to the present day. Buried here are prominent scientists, philosophers and doctors: Sheikh Badraddin (1446), Sheikh Mansur (16th century), Sheikh Mahammad (17th century). There are engravings on the grave of Sheikh Mansur, who lived in the time of Sheikh Ibrahim Shirvanshah (1382-1412). The local population sees the graves as holy and comes here on pilgrimage. People suffering from psychological stress also come to the tombs to find some relief by lying on the tombs for several hours.

Sacred place of Sheikh Mansur

The engraving on the gravestone says:

“Don’t think that those who have died in the path of Allah are dead. They are receiving a share from Allah. The greatest ruler, Sultan Sheikh Ibrahim is perpetuated by Allah with this monument. This is the mausoleum of magnanimous Sheikh Mansur. May Allah enlighten his grave.” Other tombs are of his son and followers.

Komrat Baba tomb (5-7th centuries)

West of Cuxur Qabala above the Dizaxli village, there is a 5th century Komrat temple. Currently a shrine for both Christians and Muslims, Komrat Baba is one of Qabala’s most important religious monuments and sacred places. There is little information about its history and name. There is, however, one legend.

Murad shrine

It is said that Esteemed Ali came to Qabala in the mid-7th century to promote Islam. When reaching Cuxur Qabala, he saw a girl filling a jar with water. The place was surrounded by water on all sides and Esteemed Ali asked the girl how to get to the city. He liked the girl so much that he decided to marry her. Some time later he presented his pregnant wife with a golden bracelet to be worn by their future child. Having to continue his mission, Ali soon left the town, while his wife gave birth to a boy and named him Murad. Years later Esteemed Ali came to the town again. On entry, he saw several boys aged 10-12 playing outside and was surprised at the cruelty of one of them. He was stronger than others, beat them in wrestling and then threw them down from the mountain one by one. Angered by such behavior, Ali came up to the boy and threw him down too. He noticed a bracelet on the boy’s hand but didn’t pay attention to that. Then he found the woman he had married years ago and understood from a conversation with her that he had just killed his own son. Frustrated, he found the boy’s body, buried it and built a gravestone over it. Since then the place has been a shrine.

Bum village

This village with a funny name is 7 km from the district center and 1200 meters above sea level. It has historical monuments such as an ancient mosque, Sixmammad’s house, the Govur fortress and an underground room. Bum is also known for its folklore.

Zop-zopu

This is a local folk game accompanied by the sound of drums and pipes. People put on woolen socks and a shepherd’s hat and don a camel’s suit on two people. The most amusing part of the game is when one person bends over, while others jump over him crying out Anzali.

Hamzalli village

Located near Bum, this village is known for its halva. This halva can only be found in Qabala. There are only a few people in Hamzalli knowing its recipe and its secrets are not given away. This halva is the main dish on the table in Qabala. The Hamzalli halva contains walnuts or sesames. The halva juice is made of water and sugar and, after cooling down, mixed with eggs and put on the stove. While cooking, it must be stirred. When it is hot, walnuts or sesames are added and the juice is bottled. It can be used instead of sugar.

Vandam village

This is one of Azerbaijan’s biggest villages located 11 km from Qabala. Local people joke that Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme comes from here. The village was set up on ancient cemeteries. Vandam is full of orchards, while the Qizilahmadi apple trees hold a special place. This apple grows only in Ismayilli-Qabala region. There is a carpet-weaving workshop in the village as well. One can buy wooden souvenirs made by craftsman Sahin. It is also possible to rent a horse at the Duyma resort uphill from the village and enjoy the magnificent views of the surroundings.

Seven beauties waterfall

6 km from Vandam and 3 km from the main road, it is located in the upper part of the Puskan neighborhood. As a result of the water falling from seven different mountains, there is a seven-storey waterfall. It is possible to see only two waterfalls that are at the bottom, while to see others one has to climb a steep slope, which is rather unsafe. There is a seasonal restaurant here. There is little sunlight trees, which is why it is always dark and cool here. This is one of Qabala’s most popular travel destinations.

Nohurgol

This is another popular resort in the center of Qabala. It has a lake with a magnificent view of the surroundings and a pleasure boat. Its water is cold and full of algae, which is why swimming here is frowned upon.

Xanlar’s place yeri

This is Qabala’s most popular recreation zone located in the forest on the Damiraparan river and covering 15 hectares. Providing tourists with excellent service and delicious dishes since 1983, Xanlar and his team have earned universal respect. What makes Xanlar’s place special is that everything served here is cultivated locally. Fruits and vegetables are gathered here, while the fish are kept in an artificial lake. In winter customers are served local game. Even marinades are made locally. In other words, this resembles a factory. Fried eggs with chicken, kebabs and, most importantly, the Doshama pilaf with ample chestnuts, greens and chicken are among Qabala’s irresistible dishes. Another interesting observation is the waiters zipping past with trays in their hands. They are always on the run to prevent dishes from cooling down. When bidding farewell to customers, they always wish a good journey and even throw a glass of water into your path as a symbol of luck.

Durca village

This is one of Qabala’s resort villages popular with employees of the Qabala radar station. Its panoramic views and air are ideal. The surrounding forest is a real hunting paradise. Due to severe winter conditions, villagers use their homes as summer-houses. It is also very enjoyable to come here in summer. By April, all roads and roofs are covered with a thick layer of snow, which creates the atmosphere of a fairy-tale.

Qamarvan village

This village in the north of Qabala is a must-see because of its nature. There was no road here until 2005. Work on the creation of a tourism infrastructure started several years ago. Qamarvan, located 14 km from the center and 1380 meters above sea level, is rich in water springs, rivers and waterfalls and is entirely included in the Sahdag National Park. There is a thermal water deposit 600 meters north of the village, where healing water of 39 degrees comes from under the ground. There is a mineral water cooperative here.

Comcali water spring

This is one of the most popular locations for picnics. There is an interesting legend about the name of the spring. A man on a horseback is said to have passed through the village and was very thirsty. When he approached the spring, he grabbed a tree branch and tried to use it as a scoop without having to get off the horse. Hence the name Comcali (scoop).

Kusnat village – Laza village – Micix waterfall

These are part of a local travel route and are well worth visiting.

Kusnat village

Located in the district’s north 1000 meters above sea level, the village used to be Ismayil Bay Qutqashenli’s summer residence. Most of the local population are potters. One can buy a few souvenirs and watch potters work here. The earthenware pots are marketed in neighboring districts.

Laza village

It is 10 km from the center and 1700 meters above sea level. There are two same-named villages. In fact, one village is divided into two parts. One is in Qusar, while the other, on a summit, is in Qabala. Laza is located on the right bank of the Damiraparan valley 100-120 meters above river on a conic mountain. In the summer, some of its population lives in the summer pastures of the Greater Caucasus, Shahdag and Tufandag range 3000 meters high. Not too many stay in the village in winter. Since many villagers have livestock, they move to winter pastures. In winter it gets more difficult to travel to he village. The local nature stays beautiful throughout the year.

Miciq waterfall

North of the Laza village and on a terrace on the left bank of the Damiraparan river, there are Miciq ruins. In the past, the village was built under a huge rock. The stones coming down from the rock have caused a serious damage to the village. Since it was difficult to travel to and fro Miciq, people have left it. North-east of the Miciq ruins there are large and rapid waterfalls.

The waterfalls are 7 km from Laza. It takes an hour and a half to get here on horseback. There is no road. The place can be accessed by old Soviet hardware as well, while the last 2 km can only be passed on foot. For those not riding horse, the journey is extremely difficult and dangerous. Even on horseback one spends a lot of energy. In the end, we reach a waterfall. However, it is too early to celebrate because it is only a baby waterfall. Finally, after three hours, we reach the Micix waterfall. It is necessary to have a local guide to come here.

It is certainly worth going through these extremes to see this magnificent 54-meter tall waterfall located 20 km from the district center, upwards from the Durca village at the foot of the Caucasus mountain range. To approach it is extremely enjoyable. It takes some time though, as we have to jump over two huge rocks each the size of a truck. Then, between rocks, there is a narrow tunnel which takes you to an enormous pool. The sound of the waterfall is deafening. Since the water falls from a big height, it splashes about. Soaked to the skin, we part from the place full of unforgettable impressions.

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