Masalli

When one heads southwards, the monotonous nature of the surroundings is rather dull. The wasteland called Sorsulu, stretching from Salyan to Bilasuvar, is just too long. Almost falling asleep with boredom, we approach the gates of Masalli and everything changes. The place is very colorful. For those who don’t know, Masalli is a place in the south, while for those aware this is a subtropical paradise ideal for spending a week-end.

Note

The distance between Baku and Masalli is 232 km. It has been an administrative district since 1930. Until the 19th century it was part of Lankaran. Its territory is divided into two parts: the Talysh mountains and Lankaran lowland. It is surrounded by the Caspian Sea on one side and mountains on the other.

Once in a southern town

Masalli is located at the foothills of the Talysh mountains. It has many mountain rivers. To use the rivers more effectively, the Vilascay water reservoir was established in 1979. People love coming here from Baku to get away from hectic city life and to spend some time fishing. On hot summer days many Masalli residents come to the Vilascay water reservoir.

This is one of Masalli’s most picturesque locations. Those looking for rest in a cool and quiet place should definitely come here: it is surrounded by the Vilascay water reservoir, forest and mountains. One needs to enter the Isi village on the way to Istisu and pass several houses. There is a small restaurant among trees at the end of the village. It operates only in summer. It is one of a handful of places in Masalli which stays cool even in summer. One can take off one’ shoes and lie in the grass here.

The Vilascay river

115-km long, Vilas is the longest mountain river of the subtropical zone. It runs through the center of Masalli, dividing it into two parts. It also serves as the border between Lerik and Masalli. The other bank of the river, passing through Istisu, is considered part of Lerik. Those fond of hiking in the mountains can go from here to Lerik on foot. The name of the Vilascay river is mentioned in sources attributed to millennia B.C. While drawing a map of the Caspian Sea, Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote that the Vilascay flowed into the Gizilagach gulf.

Claudius Ptolemy (70-147)

He was one of the antique authors who wrote about the Caucasus Albania. Ptolemy was a well-known geographer and astronomer of the 2nd century. His works show the boundaries of Albania and provide coordinates of 29 towns and villages, rivers, mountain passes, etc. He is considered the most valuable source on Azerbaijan’s antique geography.

Statistics

Life in Masalli, an integral part of Azerbaijan’s southern region, is hectic. According to statistics, Masalli is one of the most densely-populated areas – there are 285 homes per square kilometer. This is seven times higher than the average global indicator and three times higher than elsewhere in Azerbaijan.

Green pharmacy

Generous Sun, water and fresh air are making Masalli a subtropical paradise. One of the district’s most exotic places is the green pharmacy. Established in the early 1980s, it was the first botanical pharmacy in the USSR. It was here that treatment with different healing herbs was started. Plants are gathered both from mountains and the nearby botanical garden. The founder of the garden is a Masalli resident Rauf Rahimov, also known as Korol (the king). He has earned this nickname for his expert knowledge of plants and botany.

Masalli hotel

It is located in the center and is the only hotel operating throughout the year. Although it was built in Soviet times, it has good renovation. Its garden is admirable. The fir-trees and decorative plants growing at the entrance have an enticing smell. The owner is also a florist. One can buy magnolia, eucalyptus, white cedar, jasmine, lemon, acacia, deodar cedar and other trees growing in different climatic zones of the world. If the owner likes you, you may receive a wonderful flower-pot as a gift.

Southerners

One of the most notable features about Masalli is the kindness and sincerely of its people. Most southerners are hard-working and diligent, while the place resembles an ant-hill. People living here are very attached to land. Even when tired, the local people never refuse to help.

Speaking about southerners, I recall a Masalli elder Haci Cavansir. He has made history by going on pilgrimage by bike. Haci has a famous fishery in the Qaribler village. Those partial to fish can take part in fishing here. One can buy different-sized Black Sea roach, goldfish, pike perch, carp, mullet, etc. at a cheaper price than in the city. You can walk into any restaurant in Istisu with fish of your own catch and you are sure to be served an unforgettable dinner.

Place-name

There are different theories about the origin of Masalli. It is said that when talking the local people cite many examples, hence the name “masalli yer” (place of examples). Another theory suggests that the place received its present name after residents of the Iraqi town of Mosul were resettled here. Masalli was first mentioned in medieval Azerbaijani compositions. An order issued by the Safavid Shah (Sultan Huseyn) in the early 17th century refers to the Sixlar village and Masalli (“Axbarname”, Mirza Ahmad Mirza Xudaverdi oulu, 1882). The author says that the area was owned by someone named Masal. It is believed that Masalli was established in the 11-12th centuries.

Istisu

Istisu is a hydrogen-sulfide treatment center. The local people call the water a “miracle”. Hot water of 69o C comes from under the ground here, hence the place-name Istisu (hot water). This water is used to treat problems with joints and muscles, skin, gynecological and other diseases. The local sanatorium has mineral water baths as well.

The water coming from rocks at Istisu is ice cold. Rich in hydrogen-sulfide, it smells like rotten eggs. It is poured into a glass and drunk in one gulp. There are “kidney water” and “stomach water” signs above the springs. Spring water can heal ulcer and kidney stones.

The curative properties of the Istisu water were studied in the 1950s. A Masallli-native geologist Mir Kazim Aslanli even defended a thesis on the subject in 1955. The local treatment center received the status of a sanatorium in 2007. Due to its subtropical climate, the rate of precipitation in Masalli is higher than elsewhere in the region. Frequent rains make the Talysh forests even more romantic. Istisu forests are 12 km from the center.

Istisu is beautiful at any time of the year. In autumn, one can see all colors of nature here. There are not many hotels working in this season. To witness the entire beauty of Istisu, it is worth visiting in spring, autumn and winter. There are fewer people and the relatively cool weather makes the local baths very pleasant.

Whereas it is difficult to spend more than three to five minutes in the bathtub in the summer, one can swim for hours when the heat is not oppressive. The feeling after an Istisu bath is one of relaxation. If you have wounds or gashes on your body, you can see what wonders the water can work.

In the summer the forest looks different as scores of people come here for treatment in July and August.

Istisu is also famous for its waterfalls. They make the place even more gorgeous. Hiding deep inside forests, waterfalls make their surroundings a little cooler, which attracts people to picnics.

Yanardag (burning mountain)

The miracles of Istisu are not over yet. The Yanardag rest center on the road to Yardimli is another must-see. This name was not given to it by chance – springs and mountains here have been burning for centuries.

The burning spring is near the Vilascay river. At first sight it looks like boiling water but when you apply a match, it catches fire. Judging by the smell, the water is sulfurous. There are several similar springs along the river. Local people dip their feet in it and sit for hours. In addition to being a form of rest, this procedure also helps get rid of different health problems. The tradition is not over at that, as people then climb the burning mountain. The upper section of it emits gas. The gas burns, which produces the impression of the mountain burning. Therefore, superstitious people consider the mountain holy and have turned it into a pilgrimage site.

Damiragac (ironwood)

There is a tree growing in Istisu forests which is unique for Azerbaijan. It is the only tree to sink in water like iron. Used in agriculture, the tree is almost as strong as iron. Its thin bark cannot be broken with hand. Talysh forests are largely made up of ironwood.

The tourism sector in Istisu is rapidly developing. In order not to destroy the forests, more than 40 rest centers, including restaurants, cottages and their gates, are made of wood.

Masalli villages

Some must-see places in Masalli are located in villages. Let’s familiarize ourselves with some of them.

Sixlar village

This is a mountain village with a wonderful panoramic view. It commands a great view of the Vilascay water reservoir and Masalli. Many local families are engaged in bee-keeping. It is also noted for its quinces which ripen in autumn. Masalli receives all of its drinking water from Sixlar. In general, the local people are quite lucky in terms of water. It is said here that if you dig a 3-meter well anywhere, you will come across water. Earlier the village was called Nazarkand after Sheikh Nazar who lived here. There is a Pirzada shrine here as well.

Note

Azerbaijan’s south is rich in mosques and shrines. Descendants of prophet Muhammad are held in high esteem here as people believe that they are special. We will speak about mosques and shrines in more detail in the Lerik section.

Boradigah village

This is one of Masalli’s biggest villages. It has the status of a settlement. Boradigah is considered old Masalli because it used to be the center of the district. Subsequently the center was shifted. There is an interesting legend about Boradigah.

It is said that when lame Teymur seized Azerbaijan, it was the turn of Astara’s Digah village. Teymur’s envoys came to the village and took over contributions villagers. Unwilling to come to terms with this, brave villagers followed the envoys, recaptured the precious items and left the robbers empty-handed. The brave men then started looking for a safe place to hide. While wandering along the Caspian coast, they eventually found an area full of thorny bushes. They called the place “bira”, which means a thorn in Talysh. News of their bravery reached the village and villagers decided to reward them by allowing them to have the contributions. Years later the village established by the daring men was called Boradigah, i.e. a thorny stop.

Residents of Boradigah are well-versed in commerce. Free trade developed quite well here in Soviet times. Even when shop counters were empty, it was possible to find anything in the village market. For this reason, Boradigah is often compared to Baku’s Kubinka.

Between Boradigah and Masalli, there is a rest center called “Baba ojagi”. Southern ethnic motifs are present in the design of the facility. Customers are served delicious national dishes here. The artificial lake at “Baba ojagi” attracts many visitors who can feed local swans and fish.

Hiskadara village

The Masalli ethnographic museum with its collection of over 8,000 exponents is based here. Materials and items discovered in Masalli, as well as the local fortresses and burial mounds, are attributed to the stone, bronze and iron ages. French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan examined up to 250 tombstones in the Talysh zone in 1850. Some of them are now stored at the St. Germaine museum in Paris.

Bandalan village

It is located on the Masalli-Boradigah road 10 km south of Masalli. Bandalan is one of Masalli’s biggest mountain villages. It was established at an altitude of 1500-1600 meters and commands a magnificent view. Bandalan means “to brew”. Since the top of the mountain on which the village is located is usually foggy, it always looks like a brewing pot. Another theory suggests that the place-name relates to a tribe which used to live here. The best sumac of the Talysh mountains grows in Bandalan. Sumac is picked in May and August. It is a shrub-like plant. To be picked are its fruits. It is powdered using special tools, sieved and dried. Then it becomes usable. Local residents say their sumac is good for 10 years.

Digah village

The previous name of the village was Ciyacilar. “Ciya” means a thread or rope. It is a traditional knitted product used around the house. The village has been noted for knitting since ancient times. It is said that the small village knits enough thread to supply the whole country. Most of the ropes and threads used in Azerbaijan on board ships and in industry are made in Digah.

Matting

This is one of the best known handicrafts in Masalli. Hats, baskets and bedding made of matting are key attributes in the south. Matting has been used as bedding for centuries. The fact that this handicraft has survived to the present day shows that it is still necessary and popular.

Matting items are made of a plant called Piza, a reed growing at sea. First it is gathered and laid out on an open and sunny area. After drying, it is twisted. Then some of it is taken into a hand and squeezed to make it softer. Then it is run through a tool to make rugs of different size. Piza is also used to make long straps which subsequently serve as material in making baskets and Talysh hats resembling Mexican sombrero. Items made of matting are extensively used around the house. They are moist-resistant and remain dry and cool in any weather. For instance, matting hats will protect your head from heat and prevent sweating in the summer. Vegetables stored in matting baskets will not spoil for a long time. All matting work is traditionally done by women.

When asked “What do your men do?”, local women answer jokingly “There are no men here”. The craftsmanship is passed on from one generation to another. It is also important that matting items are a source of subsistence for many families. Knitted items are stored at home awaiting customers. People dealing with matting items occasionally come to the village for merchandise. The biggest market is in Boradigah. Exhibitions of matting products are organized here every Sunday.

Southern woman

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the heavy burden of household affairs in the south mainly rests on the shoulders of women. I can’t say for sure whether this is women’s conscious choice. The women I met here start working at 6 by milking the cattle. Additionally, they do everything around the house. But apparently they have got used to it – I haven’t met anyone complaining. Local people are quite pleasant to speak to. Speaking with a strong Talysh accent, they address their interlocutor as “qiza”.

Newcomers may be surprised with some Talysh traditions. Women walking with a stack of matting baskets on their heads are a common sight. Behind their backs the women also carry a baby wrapped in a shawl and tied to their shoulders. One can also see pregnant women carrying heavy loads on their heads. This is mainly brushwood gathered in the forest for use around the house. It is put in a basin and then onto the head. To protect the head from the weight of the metal, a towel is placed underneath.

After kindly turning down my offer of help, a woman took a short break and carefully put the load down on the floor. I tried to lift the basin onto my head, but it proved so heavy that I could not even move it. That reminded me of Nizami Ganjavi’s fairy-tale “Fitna” where a bull was made to go 40 steps up and down every day and eventually got used to that. Since this is part of local people’s lives, women don’t see it as hard work. Once at home, the same hands, swollen with physical work, can cook delicious dishes.

Southern cuisine

Southern diversity can also be traced in local cuisine. Dishes change from one season to another. For instance, a dill pilaf is cooked from the beans gathered in May, while lettuce, always on the table until the end of spring, is served with a sauce of apple vinegar and thyme. It is quite common in Masalli to come across contrasting tastes in one dish, e.g. smoked fish with pilaf or with watermelon. Azerbaijan’s south is a place where alternative tastes merge in one.

Masalli is also described as a paradise of greens. All greens used in the national cuisine grow here and are exported to Baku, other cities and even Russia. While walking about the district, we could see a number of houses with small counters outside selling environmentally clean greens and radish. Prices are much cheaper than in the city. Red radish and especially red onions from Masalli are absolutely irresistible. These onions are not bitter at all. Their stems are plaited into special bouquet-like baskets. This is not only a decoration but also a measure to preserve them for a long time. Indeed, southern onions don’t spoil for months.

Southerners aren’t very fond of salt. Instead, there is mint on the table. Fresh mint and salt are thoroughly powdered in the mortar and pestle and used instead of salt in dishes. It is also added to cherry-plum and cucumbers in Masalli and is said to be “excellent appetizer”. There are many more delicacies you can never see elsewhere.

Starting from September and until the end of spring, the Lavangi, the centerpiece of southern cuisine, is widely cooked. Southerners like wild fowl, therefore, it is worth trying game cooked on barbecue and on the stove. I recommend those who haven’t tried the duck pilaf with pomegranates and onions to do so whenever they go south. This is a recipe of one of them.

Masalli-style beans pilaf

Beans are very popular here. The most popular dinner in May is the spring pilaf with dill and beans. A basin of beans should be gathered, a colander of dill washed, cleaned and finely cut. A kilo of long rice is soaked in cold water at least an hour earlier. Meanwhile, smoked fish should be allowed to soften on steam. Half a kilo of butter should be melted. One egg, one glass of sour clotted milk and butter are mixed up to make a rice crust.

Then rice is slightly heated, filtered and mixed with cleaned beans. Some of this mixture is separated for the crust and laid at the bottom of the pot. Then the rest of the rice is mixed with dill and poured into a copper pot. The pot is then left to brew on the stove. After 45-60 minutes, the pilaf with dill and beans is ready. The melted butter is then added to rice to taste.

Local people like eating pilaf with smoked fish. Also served with pilaf is the Kuku made of sour clotted milk, greens and eggs or the Dolma (meat balls wrapped in vine leaves). This may seem a little strange for those not very fond of mixing up different dishes, but it is quite tasty.

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