I first visited Shaki in the winter of 1991. The red roofs of houses in Shaki, located in a valley between mountains, were covered with snow, while smoke was miraculously billowing from their chimneys. I felt as if I were in the times of the 18th century khanate. Shaki is like a fairly-tale. For some reason I was sure that I would be coming here often. And I did. Years later, as a TV journalist, I was lucky enough to see every inch of Shaki and feel its life from within. I recommend Shaki as one of Azerbaijan’s most beautiful and rare places.
Located on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus, covering an area of 2,432.7 sq. km. and noted for its mineral water springs, timber and building materials, Shaki has 63 residential settlements. It is 370 km from Baku. Two mountain rivers, the Kis and Qurcana, pass through the town. It is 675 m above sea level. On three sides, it is surrounded by high mountains: Khan summer residence (1800 m), Qizil Qaya (3000 m) and Bazar Duzu (4466 m).
Shaki and its residents
Everyone who has visited Shaki will smile at the only mention of its name because of its quick-witted, humorous and very positive people. It is impossible to mistake residents of Shaki for those of any other part of Azerbaijan. As is the case with Scottish accent in English, Shaki also has a special sweet accent.
Residents of Shaki have earned a reputation for having a good sense of humor. In Soviet times, Shaki was often described as Azerbaijan’s Gabrovo. Everyone here – men, women and children – will tell you jokes. If you happen to be in Shaki, don’t feel offended at the words you may hear and try to answer to humor with humor.
Residents of Shaki like joking about themselves and others. They have even compiled a semi-humorous dictionary of Shaki-Azerbaijani languages, which is displayed at the Local History Museum. You can’t stop laughing as you read it.
Anyone in Azerbaijan will tell you at least one joke about Shaki. The jokes are about the Shaki accent, local people being stingy or their calculating skills. The biggest source of laugh is the highly contagious Shaki accent. I have noticed that I start speaking with the local accent shortly after coming here and put prefix “ha” before many words. Here is a small joke about that.
“A resident of Shaki who wanted to have his son learn Russian sent him to a remote part of Russia. A year later he decided to visit his son to find out how he was doing. When he knocked on his door, he heard a Russian woman saying “Ha who is this?”
Shaki is home to a number of prominent personalities. The founder of Azerbaijan’s national drama, Mirza Fatali Axundov, people’s poet Baxtiyar Vahabzada, playwright Sabit Rahman, composer Emin Sabitoglu and others all come from Shaki.
Shaki was originally established on the left bank of the Kis river. In 1772, the Kis burst its banks following torrential rains and the town was completely flooded. Caucasus newspaper wrote on 15 July 1846 about the incident:
“The terrible floods brought about by the Kis river ruined Shaki, razing all its houses to the ground… Thousands were killed in the flood… This made local people seek refuge at foothills on the eastern bank of the river. This is how the present-day town of Nukha emerged.”
Following the calamity, the town was called Nukha for some time due to the vicinity of the Nukha village. This name was used for a long time. In 1968, following an official decision, the town was named Shaki again.
The original appearance of the town set up in the 18th century was preserved until the mid-19th century. Afterwards, modern structures which required less time, effort and expenditure to build replaced older ones.
The Shaki fortress, or the Fine Fortress, is located in the upper part of Shaki. It was built in the time of Shaki’s first khan, Haji Chalabi, in 1743-1755 and was first restored in 1958-1963.
Besides a beautiful mountain panorama, what makes Shaki special is the town-planning which harmoniously fits into the surrounding nature. Every house has a garden. Separated from each other with fences, all houses have red roofs. In addition to nice aesthetic appearance, this keeps the houses warm in winter and cool in summer.
Another interesting feature about Shaki houses is their wooden gates. In order not to open and close the heavy gates every time, there are smaller doors in them. Above the gates there are two doorbells. The bigger bells are higher up, while smaller ones, intended for kids, are slightly lower. The number of iron gates has rapidly increased lately. Residents of Shaki even have a joke about this: “The iron gate will one day ask wooden one for help.”
Splashing water onto streets
Shaki streets are quite specific. The old town is fully covered with stone. The point is that it often rains in Shaki. Even minor rainfalls are viewed as downpours here. Therefore, to protect the roads, local people have covered the whole town with corrosion-resistant stone. This adds charm to Shaki and prevents street dust from rising into the air. Although Shaki has a high rate of precipitation, its population has a shortage of drinking water. The water here has low iodine content. Therefore, those planning on a long stay in Shaki should consider taking iodine drops.
It is worthy of note that despite universal changes of place-names in Soviet times, many old neighborhoods in Shaki have retained their names. Gancali, Dirrax, Mankara, Qumbaralar, Dodu are just a few of them. Each of them is known for something special. Dodu is famous for its Piti (name of a local dish) and pottery. Gancali was a neighborhood where residents of Ganja lived in the khanate times, while Qumbaralar is said to have been named in the wake of a hand-grenade blast here.
Since most of Shaki’s historical and architectural monuments are located in the upper part of the town, the area has been declared a reserve. It is prohibited to pull down historical sites in this part of Shaki, which is described by local people as the Old Fortress.
There are 11 historical bathhouses in the Old Fortress. Only one of them, a 19th century bathhouse, is still in operation. Men and women visit it on certain days of the week. Bathhouses were part of the local culture. As was the case in other feudal states of the East, bathhouses in Azerbaijan carried not only a hygienic function but also served as a place where local people gathered to exchange news and have rest. Old Shaki is surrounded by the walls of the Fine Fortress built by Haji Calabi in the 18th century. Most of the historical monuments attributed to different periods are in this part of the town, including the 5th century Albanian temple and barracks built in the time of Czar. One of these is truly fascinating because of its elegance.
ShakiPalace of Shaki Khans
As is evident from its name, it was the residence of Shaki khans. Its construction started in 1762 in the time of Khan Huseyn. Its foundation was laid by Shamakhy architect Abasqulu. The interior decoration of the palace, located inside the Shaki fortress, was done by local craftsmen and reflects the best traditions of Azerbaijani architecture. Considered the most beautiful architectural monument of medieval Azerbaijan, the Palace of Shaki Khans is truly unique. Thousands of pieces of small glass make up its colorful mosaic. Not a single nail or glue was used to bind them together. According to a legend, amazed at the beauty of the palace, khan ordered to cut off the hands of the builder so that this work of art can never be repeated.
In 1950, well-known Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet moved to the USSR and visited Shaki. On seeing the palace, he expressed his impressions in one sentence: “If Azerbaijan was offered to show one of its buildings to the world, the Palace of Shaki Khans would be the one.”
Next to the ornamentally miraculous palace, there is a workshop of craftsmen who make this work of art live. They work all year round. This is where subtle ornamental patterns appear. Tracery is a field of decorative applied arts requiring great skill. The key element of tracery is that neither nails nor glue is used in the mosaic. The basement of patters consists of geometrical ornaments, mostly circular, multi-angular and star-shaped forms. One can also place a private order with the tracery workshop in Shaki’s Old Fortress. But since it is handwork, it is quite expensive. A medium-sized window would take two months to complete and cost at least AZN 800. You can also pick up a small souvenir. Shaki craftsmen will fulfill all your requests with the jeweler’s precision. Main customers are foreigners and local organizations. Craftsmanship is passed on from one generation to another and is a source of pride in Shaki. One of the modern examples of tracery in Shaki is the Shaki Palace, the town’s first five-star hotel with prices starting from AZN 80.
If you visit Shaki in mid-July, you shouldn’t miss the local craftsmen’s fair. During the two- or three-day event craftsmen display their works in the town square. One can buy different household items and souvenirs here, e.g. leather hats of different models. Prices vary depending on the model and quality of leather. The price of a cylinder-shaped woolen hat is AZN 80.
In the first millennium B.C., Shaki, located at the center of trade arteries, was the main stopover for merchants. It was part of the ancient Silk Way. Development of trade in Shaki was largely due to silk weaving. Travelers would come here for rest and to visit Shaki bazaars. Shaki has been famous for its silk since ancient times. The local silk carpets have paved the way to Middle Eastern, European and Indian markets. Silk carpets are very elegant, soft and beautiful. It takes twice longer to weave a silk carpet than a same-sized woolen one, which is why silk carpets are more expensive. As you touch it, you can’t let go of it. Although it is a sign of good taste to have a silk carpet at home, not many people can afford it. One of the main presents to be bought in Shaki is the silk kerchief, a traditional women’s garment in Azerbaijan since ancient times. It was very popular in places with developed silkworm breeding. The standard 140×140 cm kerchief is woven on a loom called Sarbaf. Earlier it was mainly men who were engaged in silk weaving. After being woven, a silk product was passed on for dying. Since dyes are made of different plants, even worn-out silk kerchiefs retain brightness of their color. After dying, kerchiefs are dried and decorated using different forms. Shaki was a USSR silk industry center, as products of the local silk factory were exported to Italy, Japan and Switzerland. Today all silk products are manufactured by the Shaki silk factory and are available at a local shop.
The 19th flour mill on the Kis river is the only operating historical monument. Barley, wheat and rice are ground here. The main customers are halva bakeries. Everyone likes halva, but not many people will know that it is made of rice flour, while its stuffing consists of hazel-nuts. There are halva shops is all Shaki neighborhoods, most of which bake halva themselves. Some have even become recognized brands. Halvaci Mahmud and Ali Ahmad’s halva have been in the business for over a century. You can also try the halva you are buying. The shops also have other sweets served alongside halva to tea, e.g. fruit drops, candies of different colors, almonds, sugar with nuts, milk almonds, saffron almonds, fried almonds, etc. Local shops take orders for special functions. Shaki holds a special place in traditional Azerbaijani cuisine, while its central dish is Piti.
Piti is cooked in special earthenware pots called the Dopu. One Dopu is equal to a portion of the dish. Shaki cooks believe that Piti should not be made of beef. Its eating method is also quite interesting – Piti is served with stale bread, onion and sumac. It takes eight to nine hours to cook it. Since it is a calorific dish, it is best eaten at lunch. In fact, one can’t find ready Piti in the afternoon. It is the only dish to be cooked a day earlier because of the time it takes to prepare it. Here is a recipe of the Shaki Piti:
100 grams of moistened peas,
80-120 grams of chopped lamb,
a pinch of salt,
a scoop of water,
half of a thinly sliced onion,
50-60 gram fat tail is placed as a cover over the Dopu and a pinch of saffron added. Then the dish is put on the stove.
In winter, plums and chestnuts can be added. That’s it. Afterwards, the Dopus are put into the oven and the next day are ready to serve. The meal proper consists of several stages. First, stale bread is crumbled on a plate and some sumac scattered over it. Then the soup is poured out of the Dopu. A whole onion is then cut in four pieces. The first stage of the meal is followed by the second, as peas and meat are put onto a plate, salted, peppered, mashed and then eaten with bread and onion. This is the tradition and local residents always say “this is not Piti” if you don’t follow it. Of course, if you are in Shaki, Piti is definitely worth trying.
“I am in a camp two crossings away from Shaki, the capital of Shaki khanate. This place is fascinating – our camp is in a forest full of pomegranates, tamarisks and plane-trees. Shaki is beautiful. It is a big Bakhchisarai. It has a population of 14,000 people, while its 3,000 houses are located at the foot of Dagestan mountains.”
Russian General Nikolay Rayevski, 1826 (from a letter to Pushkin)
Residents of Shaki are used to the compliments about their town. Everyone likes and praises Shaki.
Shaki is a tourism paradise. Local people call tourists “guests”. Don’t be surprised if people salute you in the street – local people are simply very friendly.
Shaki’s fascinating nature has led the USSR tourism committee to set up a branch office here. People came here for rest from different parts of the USSR through the Soyuqbulaq travel agency established in 1980. The tradition is still observed, as Shaki has become the tourism center of Azerbaijan’s north-western zone. It is also a popular travel destination for foreign visitors to Azerbaijan. Here are some of Shaki’s must-see sights.
This is considered to be the most popular recreation center. Gaining popularity in the 1980s, Marxal is a must-see for domestic and foreign tourists. In summer, people from Shaki and adjacent districts visit Marxal to have rest. The twin-decks launched at an artificial lake here attract many visitors. The place stays beautiful throughout the year. Even if you don’t plan on spending a night here, you can visit Marxal to enjoy its nature and food in one of its panoramic restaurants.
Khan’s summer residence
As is obvious from its name, this used to be the summer residence of Shaki khans. When the weather grew hot, khan would move here with his family, servants and livestock and stay here until winter. It is also said that a glass duct was built from here to the khan’s palace to send the milk produced by the cattle directly to the palace. It is located at a high altitude, so there are no trees here. However, there are many plants, while the smell of thyme is very enticing. In fine weather the place commands a great view of the surroundings. If you decide to come here, beware of sheep-dogs. By approaching the shepherd, not the herd, you will also be treated to some bread and cheese, and tea with thyme. Some bring tents and food and spend a night here.
While in these mountains, one can’t help thinking what hectic city life is depriving us of. As fresh air fills your lungs and as you look at the shepherd, you realize why wise khans preferred to rest in this paradise.
Khan’s summer residence is 15-20 km north of Shaki. This virgin place can only be accessed on horseback or by jeep. Since the only road here passes through Marxal, a vehicle can be found in Marxal proper. If you have no vehicle, a local guide can take give you a lift in his own car, while you can enjoy the untouched nature, see a frightened bear cub or a squirrel. It is definitely worth experiencing this adventure.
Local guides recommend visiting khan’s summer residence in summer when there is little precipitation. After rain, downward torrents may hamper your journey by blocking road with rocks and trees. Therefore, the road stays closed until cleared by a tractor. Shaki residents hope a cable way from Marxal to khan’s summer residence may attract tourists.
While the journey to Soyuqbulaq area ends at that, the adventure doesn’t because on the way back there is another adrenalin-filled experience on the other bank of the Kis river. We will talk about that later. Meanwhile, here is another must-see.
Mustafa Bay’s place
Residents of Shaki also call it Mustafa Bay’s camp. Who was he? Everyone asks this question. Mustafa Bay, who was a Shaki khan in the early 20th century, had a property here where he came to rest with his family every summer. After the Bolshevik invasion in 1920, the place functioned as a well-known Soviet pioneer camp for many years. It is now a privately-owned resort. Its prices are lower than elsewhere in Shaki – bed-and-breakfast here costs AZN 6-8 (2007). For those seeking to get away from busy city life, have a breath of fresh air in an astonishingly thick forest should come to this natural park.
The Yuxaribas-Gilahli neighborhood in which Mustafa Bay’s place is located was Shaki’s first settlement. It is noted for several sights. Besides the house of the founder of Azerbaijani drama, writer and translator Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878), it is also home to the 15th century Gilahli mosque. Only its minaret has survived to the present day.
It is impossible to see all of Shaki in one day. It takes at least three to four days to have a good rest here. Where to stay in Shaki? There are several options. There are modern hotels and cottages in and around the town. One can also stay at a local house near the Old Fortress or enjoy the antique surroundings of the Caravansary hotel. Renovated in 2002, it is quite popular with visitors. Without a reservation, it is difficult to find a room in the 75-room hotel in summer.
On the banks of the Gurcanchay river flowing through the center of Shaki, there is Shaki’s main trade and business center. Since Shaki was known for trade and craftsmanship in ancient times, there are many bazaars and caravansaries here. Caravansaries were very popular in the feudal East. All travelers visiting Shaki would mention caravansaries because they were an important part of medieval town-planning. In the 18-19th centuries, there were five caravansaries in Shaki: Isfahan, Tabriz, Lezghin, Armenian and Taza. Merchants could comfortably rest and keep their goods in safety here. All merchandise was stored in the cellar, the shop proper would be on the first floor, while living premises on the second. Only two of the caravansaries have survived to the present day. Known as the Lower and Upper Caravansaries, both belong to the 18th century. They were built by local masters. The inside is very comfortable and is intended to favor the conclusion of major deals. The Upper Caravansary is used as a hotel now. The dome over its entrance is one of the biggest in the Near East.
The tea-house in the Upper Caravansary is a perfect tea serving place. The tea is served in armudu (pear-shaped) glasses and accompanied by the Shaki halva, different jams, sweets and a lemon, which is intended to keep the blood pressure low. Add to this the waiters speaking English, albeit with the Shaki accent, and you can feel a very special atmosphere.
The place is very popular with foreigners. Eating at the caravansary restaurant in a quiet natural setting is truly enjoyable. If you like rain, you should see it raining in caravansary – it is very romantic. Just try it.
Horse riding and hunting
What can one do in Shaki? Those fond of horses and sports can visit the horseracing club. There are different horses at the center. In fact, one can even ride a horse. Shaki is noted for its good hunting base. Those interested in hunting can apply to the hunting club under the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources for registration and hunt boars, mountain goats and other animals allowed by the ministry.
Shaki was one of the biggest towns in the Caucasian Albania in the 1st century. The name of a north-western Albanian province comprising 11 districts was Shaki. There are many surviving historical and cultural monuments attributed to that period. In general, this region is rich in historical monuments attributed to the Caucasian Albania.
ShakiKis Albanian temple
One of the Caucasian Albania monuments is the Kis Albanian temple included on the UNESCO world heritage list. Attributed to the 1st-5th centuries, the temple in the Kis village was one of the first churches in the Caucasus. Kis is located 6-7 km from Shaki, on the banks of same-named river. Local people say the temple may be pulled down due to its dilapidated condition. It is said to have been a holy place, which is why people used to come here for pilgrimage.
The Kis temple is visited practically by all domestic and foreign guests. Although the museum doors are closed, its watchman is a local villager whose working hours are not limited. You can knock on his door to ask for a tour of the museum.
Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Yuli Solin have written about Kis. 7th century Albanian historian Musa Kalankaytuklu mentions Kis village in connection with the events of 70 B.C., linking Kis to the word “kaos” from Avesta, a holy place where sacrifices were made. Kis is a place-name related to the Qas tribe described as kashu in Assyrian and Babylon sources. Those fond of historical excursions will find Shaki very interesting as it has many historical traces of the Caucasian Albania. According to archeologist Nasim Muxtarov, almost all foothill settlements bear the signs of that period. Therefore, the Zayzid-Kuncut-Fazil-Bideyis route is the most interesting. The 6-7th century monuments in the said villages hold a special place in the architecture of Caucasian Albania.
The temple is 8-10 km from the Bideyis village, and is surrounded by trees and mountains. It is covered with large shaved stone squares and is attributed to the 7-8th centuries. The area is absolutely beautiful. Surrounded by forests and mountains, the temple sits on a meadow. Our guide says large earthenware pitchers were found during excavations here. There is extensive research ongoing on the territory.
Archeological excavations in the Fazil village in the 1990s discovered an antique Tapabashi Necropolis. Scientists established that this place was inhabited in the 3rd millennium B.C., in the bronze age. The discovery suggests that ancient voodoo rituals were conducted here. Due to a power-cut in the village, we had to light candles to enter a labyrinth-like burial mound. Although it is summer, it is cold inside. Different human and animal bones all around us resemble a horror film. The Tapabashi Necropolis is the only labyrinth museum in Azerbaijan.
Ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy mentions a settlement called Niga among Alban cities. If we look at his maps, we can see that he was talking about Shaki. In the middle ages, the place was referred to as Saki, Shaki, Shakki and Nukha.
The name relates to the name of the northern tribe Sak. Following a 1840 reform, it entered official documents as Nukha. Nuh was a place inhabited by Turkic Magi tribes. The Magis lived in north-west of Azerbaijan and east of Georgia. In Farsi, Nukha means a new place because this is where the town was established after a flood.
Claudius Ptolemy (70-147)
He was one of the antique people who wrote about Caucasian Albania and a prominent geographer and astronomer of the 2nd millennium. His maps show the boundaries of Albania and coordinates of 29 towns and villages, mountain passes, etc. He is considered an authoritative source on antique Azerbaijani geography.
The name of Shaki is linked to the name of the Sak tribe which, in the 7th century B.C., moved from the northern coast of the Black Sea via the Derbent crossing to the Caucasus and Smaller Asia. After occupying the best lands of the southern Caucasus, they gave them the name of Sakasena. Shaki, one of the places settled by the Saks, became known for several prominent personalities. One of them deserves special mention.
Haji Chalabi Khan
The man all residents of Shaki are proud of was a prominent Azerbaijani statesman of the 18th century and a leader of the national liberation movement against Nadir Shah. In 1739-1755, he was the khan of Shaki and founder of the independent Shaki khanate. In 1743, after killing one of Nadir Shah’s assistants, Malik Najafqulu, he declared Shaki an independent state, thus refusing to bow to the shah. In response to Nadir Shah’s harshly-worded ultimatum, he told him “come and see” and retired to a fortress in the vicinity of the Kis village together with leading figures of the town, elders, women and children. The fortress is still called “come and see”.
It is located on a steep rock on the western bank of the Kis river 8 km from Shaki. It was built in a strategic location on the Qaratapa summit. The foundation of the fortress was established by Shaki ruler Alijan in the 15th century. Historian Karim Aga Fateh wrote in his “Brief history of Shaki khans”: “Come-and-see was too tall and strong to be seized by anyone”.
Although the road to the fortress is not very long, it is tiring. One gets completely out of breath on reaching here. The place commands a magnificent view of the surroundings. Only here can one realize why Haji Chalabi was so confident in talking to shah. Although Nadir Shah’s brother Ibrahim rolled 20,000-strong troops on Shaki twice, in 1744 and 1745, to put down rebellions, he could never seize the fortress. Two years later, however, Haji Chalabi gave up resistance and abandoned the fortress. He is said to have done that because he thought resistance was meaningless. Impressed with Haji Chalabi’s determination, Nadir Shah did not deprive him of his Shaki khan title. Since then local people say “Haji Chalabi was a great man”.
House of cinematographers
Although the small Soviet-style building at the foot of the mountain on which the Come-and-see fortress is located was originally intended as a recreation center for cinematographers, it is now open to all. A wonderful panoramic view, fresh air and excellent food make this an indispensable place for those climbing the mountain. People always stop here to have some tea. Here is a tip for those planning to spend a night here: the sound of jackals at night may be frightening.