Central Azerbaijan tour
TOURS Most of the central region is flat and undramatically agricultural and would not be high on any tourist's itinerary. Nonetheless, on exceptional spring days when the air clears, distant glimpses of snow-topped Murovdag (to the south) and the high Caucasus (north) transform the experience especially around Geranboy. There are battered historical sites, some ancient (if utterly rebuilt) cities such as Barda and Ganja and the foothills of the lovely Lesser Caucasus mountains are worth exploring.
The pageant of autumnal colours on dramatic Mt Kyapaz reflected in Lake Goy Gol is perhaps the single most beautiful view in Azerbaijan It would be all the more delightful if you could get there. Sadly the Armenian occupation of nearby Nagorno Karabagh renders much of the surrounding area inaccessible.
Mingachevir (Mingachaur in Russian) is one of those towns that, with residual Soviet zeal, many locals describe as 'beautiful'. While there are some well-designed government buildings and plenty of parks to break up the regimented grid of concrete homes, 'liveable' would be a better description. Or 'relaxed'. Even Lenin (while his statue lasted) used to sit cross legged on a park bench rather than standing and pointing.
Today Lenin's gone to bed but some other fairly imaginative sculptures remain and there's a hypnotic charm to staring at the surreal opal-blue waters of the River Kura from one of the terrace restaurants and tea houses scattered along either bank.
The Grand Mosque is a new, sandstone edifice in lovingly-tended grounds. Its grey marble interior has an impressive giant chandelier. The twin, silvered minarets look like intercontinental balistic milk-churns.
Mingachevir's raison d'etre is its large 1949 hydro-electric dam, 3km from the town centre. It provides citizens with a supply of water/electricity which is unusually reliable for provincial Azerbaijan. The population is vocally happy about this. Killjoy experts have been warning for years that the dam faces a catastrophic collapse if not strengthened, but fortunately this was not borne out in the heavy rains of 2003.
The reservoir that the dam created is Azerbaijan's biggest lake and has submerged many rich archaeological sites, the best finds from which are displayed in Baku's Historical Museum During the ultra-dry summer of 2000 the water retreated exposing many new finds - one group of
expats stumbled upon a fossilized mammoth.
More on Mingechaur here
Barda, like Qabala and Shamakha, was a major city for over a millennium. For most of the 'Albanian' period Barda (known then as Partav) was politically subservient to Qabala, though it took at least one turn as capital after Qabala effectively collapsed during the 6th century Mekhrane dynasty. Wall fragments of the Torpaq Qala (Earthen Castle) are held to date from this era. Nonetheless, Barda was foremost a trading centre whose importance was cultural and economic more than military.
In the summer of 941 Barda was an emirate loyal to the Arab Caliph when one of the bizarrest incidents in Azen history occurred. Asmut and Svened, a pair of Viking warriors had negotiated free passage right down the Volga for them, their classic longboats and their small, private army. In a veritable Odyssey, they then traced the western shore of the Caspian and sailed up the great Kura river, finally mooring at the junction of the Tartar river.
From there they launched an audacious raid on Barda. Understandably, the locals were not exactly expecting a gang of drunk Scandinavians to roll into town and much of the town's superstitious population simply fled from what were assumed to be devils. For two months Azerbaijan was thus a nominal Norwegian colony! However, an unfamiliar surfeit of fruit soon had the invaders clinging to their medieval toilets. The Emir regrouped his forces and marched into town but the Vikings fled without a fight, apparently making it all the way home again eventually (Sources differ widely on the dates and details of these events, frequently referred to as the 'Varang Incursion'. Though ethnic 'Vikings', Svened and Asmut were probably from families that had settled initially in what is today's Ukraine).
The familiar teamwork of earthquakes, redevelopment and Genghis Khan have been cruel but Barda retains some intriguing hints of the town's former glory. Three brick arches (out of an original sixteen) show where a classic 120m ancient bridge once spanned the Tartar river diagonally. Though 'restored' in the Soviet era with an unsightly concrete conical top, the brick and blue-tiled Barda Turbasi (Akhmed Zocheibana Mausoleum) is second only to Nakhchivan's Momine Khatun tower for works of this genre. Built in 1322 by Ahmed Ibn Ayyub al Hafiz, the kufic inscriptions are sadly crumbling but the tower is attractively set in a pretty rose garden in the centre of the modest mud walls of Nushaba/Torpaq Qala (supposedly 6th century). Local whitebeards claim that it once served as a keep/watch tower controlled by Dagestani princes and that a warren of unexplored tunnels lead out from beneath it.
The nearby Imamzade is an important Muslim shrine at the supposed grave of Prince Ismail, grandson of Imam Jaffar Sadiq. It had already been a place of pilgrimage for generations when 12th-century merchant, Tajir Ibrahim, decided to sponsor the brick-domed mausoleum.
The four minarets were added in 1868 by Kerbelaji Safi Khan who also built mosques in Agdam and Shusha and lived to the ripe old age of 122. Within the shrine is a stone draped with a green flag and topped with an Arab sabre. The complex is bracketed by brick and metal prayer areas, and set within a very extensive mixed (Christian and Muslim) cemetery with several other notable tombs.
Unobtrusive with a small brick dome, the Bakhman Mirza tomb was for a nephew of the Qajar Shah of Persia who was a minor poet. A curious ring of stones is all that remains of the Agastan Baba Pir, destroyed decades ago in an earthquake: the muddy mound beside it is not a kutgan tumulus but the debris from the excavations, with plentiful fragments of blue-glazed ceramics.
Marco Polo wrote of a magical oil which made an excellent 'unguent for the cure of cutaneous distempers' - ie it helped skin diseases.
Though he never visited Azerbaijan the oil he was referring to was most probably from today's Naftalan, whose name means 'to take the oils'. Apocryphally the source was discovered when a medieval herder decided to leave behind a particularly sick, mangy camel. The beast rolled over into an oily pool and was left for dead. But when the herder returned some weeks later, he found the camel miraculously cured. Remarkably he chose to credit the oil rather than divine intervention.
With the liberalizing of the imperial Russian economy in 1874, a German chemist by the name of Jager developed Naftalan oil into a major export product. By the turn of the 20th century, jars of Naftalan ointment were so common that even the Japanese soldiers attacking Russia in the 1904-5 war were found to be carrying jars of the stuff. Enemy soldiers being protected by a Russian product was yet another embarrassing irony for the Tsar facing military defeat, revolution and the chagrin of his wife's improprieties with Rasputin.
Attractively planted with hundreds of pine trees, Naftalan village was developed as one of the USSR's most snobby sanatorium towns attracting visitors from across the Union.
The atmosphere of exclusivity evaporated during the 1990s and these days most of the sanatoria are occupied by refugees/ IDPs. However one can still undergo
the full 20-day rheumatism treatment.
Ganja is Azerbaijan's second city with a population of nearly 300,000. A 'Ganja kiss', like the Glasgow equivalent, is in fact a head-butt. But the caricature of short-tempered citizens is exaggerated. Very few people have heard enough Jamaican English to realize the funny side of the town's name nor the irony that Hash (Xash) is a local delicacy.
Ganja makes a logical base for touring the lovely mountains and forests of the Lesser Caucasus. Its pleasantly calm city centre has several mosques and churches (most now disused or converted into theatres), an imposing Stalinist city hall, the former National parliament building and the quaintly kitsch 'bottle house'.
The city derives its name from Dzhaniai (Arabic for 'Treasury/Harvest store'). Or according to some sources, from a long forgotten Gandjak tribe that once built primitive huts in the area. Like all cities of the region it has been repeatedly flattened initially by the Persians in the 7th century and by Arabs soon after.
The city's first period of pre-eminence came with the weakening of the Arab caliphate in the mid-10th century when Ganja developed its semi-independent Salarid dynasty, succeeded by the Shadadids who built fortresses, bridges and caravansarais to underline the town's importance on intercontinental trade routes.
Though partially Islamicized, Ganja remained a centre of Christianity - the seat of the Albanian Catholicos until 1054 when the city fell to the Seljuk Turks under Togrul 1. Seljuk rule did not interfere with the city's growth and in 1063 the khan's builder Ibragim Ganjavi constructed the celebrated Ganja gate. This was partially ruined in a massive 1139 earthquake. The remnants were seized by a Georgian raiding party and taken to Gelati monastery near Kutaisi where its stones now form the King David gate.
With Seljuk power weakening, the regional governor Shamsaddin Eldegyz ran the Ganja-based region ('Atabeys') as an autonomous state. Although the power centre shifted for a while to Nakhchivan, Ganja flowered as the cultural capital during an unprecedented golden age. Famed for liberal multiculturalism the city fostered Azerbaijan's greatest classical poet, Nizami Ganjavi, as well as the gifted poetess Mehseti Ganjavi. The golden age collapsed along with the state of Atabeys with the Mongol invasions. Though the first raid in 1220 failed, the city fell in 1225 to Jalaladdin, the Turkoman-Mongol ruler of the expanding Khorazem sultanate (centred on what is today's western Uzbekistan). Plucky Ganja did not give up without a fight. In 1231, a peasant-and-craftsman's revolt led by the unfortunately named 'Bender', destroyed Jalaladdin's governor's palace and killed his servants. The rebels redistributed money and jewels to the poor. Inevitably Jalaladdin was not a happy Sultan. His troops returned and gruesomely beheaded poor Bender. But no sooner had they restored 'order' than the real' Mongols arrived. The city was pillaged and left in lifeless ashes for four years before limping back into existence.
Hulugu Khan, the Mongol-Persian 'II Khan' emperor (reigned 1256-65), incorporated the region into his slice of empire ruled from Soltaniyeh in today's Iran. Ganja became a major link in the Ilkhannid defensive ring but couldn't stand up to Timur, who stormed through a century later. Timur not only sacked the city but expelled most of the native population to central Asia, replacing them with thousands of captured Syrian families.
For several subsequent centuries, the region returned to a mostly Persian orbit. Eclipsed culturally by Tabriz, Ganja nonetheless rebounded yet again as a trade and Islamic centre with an important mosque built by Shah Abbas (still standing). 'Verily tis one of the fairest cities in all Persia' gushed Polish traveller Cornelius DeBruin in 1718 admiring the 'wide streets, large caravansarais, a river through the town and all surrounded by gardens and orchards'. The positive impression reinforces Philippe Avrille's 1681 nickname 'paradise garden' for a Ganja which he found to be surprisingly bustling with foreigners.
By the 18th century, Ganja was 'the principal centre of Islam in the Caucasus , and an independent khanate despite being briefly absorbed into King Irakli's Christian Georgia. In 1795 the city fell to Aga Muhammad, founder of the ruthless Persian Qajar dynasty. British diplomacy restored the local Khan Javad to the throne but after a fierce struggle the city was grabbed for Russia by Viceroy Tsitsianov in 1804. The battle is depicted in a huge painting in Baku's Historical Museum. Russian rule was by no means popular and in 1826 Ganja opened its gates to the Persian forces of Abbas Mirza. But the Tsar's forces counter attacked and the permanent division of Azerbaijan into Russian north and Persian south was settled two years later by the Treaty of Turkmenchai.
Ganja's centre of gravity shifted several kilometres west towards the massive pentagonal star-shaped fortress (originally built in 1588 - a small fragment of wall remains in what is now the central park) around which Russian colonial buildings were built.
Re-christened Elisavetspol for Tsar Alexander I's wife, the town's population was just over 20,000 in 1905, according to Gulbenkian. In 1918, the town became Ganja again and was capital of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, until Baku was reclaimed from the Bolshevik commissars. In Soviet days the town was renamed Kirovabad and became a sprawling semi-industrial city. It regained the name Ganja in 1991 though most Azen inhabitants had never called it anything else.
The central square has a rough patch of paving where a giant Lenin once stood. It is dominated by the Stalinist arches of the grand city administrative buildings built in 1948-9 by architects Ismailov and Leontieva. The Soviet insignia over the doors at each end have been painstakingly replaced with Azeri national symbols. The rest of the facade, however, retains good old communist-era motifs - tractors, helicopters, bridges and industrial scenes topped off with flag designs.
The 17th-century Abbas (Juma) Mosque in the central square is a modest brick affair with two minarets but has an attractive domed interior. Outside an ancient hollow Chinar tree is bricked up for support. A former mosque behind the historical museum is now used as a gallery.
The Bottle House (15 Guseinli) is one of Ganja's more off-beat attractions. More impressive than its more famous relative in Rhyanon, Nevada, it's the work of Ibragim Jaffarov who used 48,000 glass bottles to decorate an existing two-storey home. Though the use of bottles was purely aesthetic, the pictures on the gables commem orate Ibragim's brother Yusif (the portrait that looks like Mao). Yusif never returned from WWII. He didn't die as the familv received a mysterious letter from him in 1957 but have received no word since. The prominently painted word '????'(Zhdeyom) means 'we wait for you'. Visitors are encouraged to buy something from the motley selection of overpriced gum, beer and Snickers bars sold from the porch of the house by Ibragim's son to finance the house's much-needed renovation.
More on Ganja here
Goy Gol and the Tears of Kyapaz lakes
The distinctive rocky beak of Mt Kyapaz opened in the 1139 earthquake and disgorged such a mass of rock that it dammed the mountain streams in several places. The result was a string of seven idyllic mountain lakes known as the 'tears of Kyapaz'.
Most famous are Goy Gol (Blue Lake) foimerly a popular sanatorium and camping retreat and the more secluded Maral Gol (Deer Lake), Lesser known Zali Gol (Leech Lake) and Sara Gol (Yellow Lake) never sounded as appealing. The area is especially magnificent in autumn when green forests are burnished yellow, auburn and red like a pointillist painting rising from Goy Gol's still blue waters to Kyapaz's dramatic crown. The best views are part way to Maral Gol.
Sadly it's far from assured that you'l1 be allowed to see these delights. There are military checkpoints before and beyond Chaykand where troops may refuse passage to anyone except registered residents. They cite the dangers of Armenian snipers. So don't count on getting through.
Even if you can't get as far as the lakes, the drive as far as the first checkpost above Chaykand still offers delightful views of weird Mt Kyapaz and its attractive forest scenery. If you can reach the lakes, this is one of the most rewarding trips in Azerbaijan.
More on Goy-Gol here