TOURS The fabulous scenic variety of the Baku-Shamakha-Qabala-Shaki road makes it the finest way to cross Azerbaijan progressing from lifeless deserts to grasslands, and Alpine meadows to full-blown mountains. The main road is paved with just a very few potholes so driving flat out from Baku to Shamakha is possible in 2 hours, Qabala in 3,5-hrs, Shaki in about 6hrs. But it's best to take your time and look around.
Soon after you leave Baku heading west, the stark environment loses all vegetation except the roughest of scrub and one solitary tree after km43. The landscape appears to have been painted in by a divine hand suffering from too severe hangover to bother with much detail. And hills undulate in stark shades of lifeless dun mellowing only slightly as you approach Maraza. The main attraction is the post-holocaust bleakness of the scenery, but there are a couple of points of passing interest en route
Diri Baba ('living granddad') was a Sufi mystic whose body, entombed here in 1402, mysteriously refused to decompose, leading to a posthumous declaration of his sanctity. The domed, stone Diri Baba Mausoleum is built into a cliff 1,lkm off the main road, and accessed from above by a precipitous stone staircase. Across a rocky gully to the south, gnarled old Arabic-inscribed graves are photogenic at sunset against a desert honzon pimpled with mud volcanoes. The atmosphere is at its best when the old muezzin calls forlornly from the mausoleum roof, though unruly mobs of pesky kids can spoil the charm.
Shamakha, for so long the capital and trade centre of north-western Azerbaijan, is now a surprisingly small town with little to show for its historical prowess. The distinctive double hill around which the old town was dramatically set is still there, but the remains of the impenetrable Gulustan Castle have finally been defeated by time and are quietly crumbling into memories along with the scars of endless invaders and earthquakes. The low-rise homes are pleasant enough when viewed from Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum across the valley, but the grand central mosque is the only architectural attraction in the town itself.
When Baku was still in nappies, Shamakha was already an incontinent grandparent. Possibly the Kmakhia described in Ptolemy's Geography, it spent most of its history as the capital and major commercial centre of Shirvan/western Azerbaijan.
The Shirvanshahs ruled from the 7th to the 16th century over varying-sized portions of the Shamakha-Derbent-Baku region and are said to have controlled a network of 360 fortresses. Their long survival was down to a relative lack of expansionist ambition and a preparedness, when necessary, to accept reduced status as mere governors in the empires of others. The Shirvanshahs were finally toppled during the Safavid Azen-Persian era, and their main strongholds (Gulustan and Qalabugurt) were destroyed. Shamakha town was wiped off the map in 1734 by Persia's Nadir Shah. It was only just re-emerging when the Russians arrived first in 1795, then again in 1806.
A victory of diplomacy
In the 8th century Shamakha survived the Arab caliphate's invasion led by Ibn Mervan The cunning Shirvanshahs, far from adopting the customary chivalric practice of fighting unwinnable odds and having your cities burnt in retribution, tried a novel approach They simply let the invaders march in Over a few drinks, the Shirvanshah seems to have alerted Ibn Mervan to the dangers of the Dagestan horde on Shirvan's northern border which might at any time invade this new colony Why not make a deal, suggested the wily Shirvanshah if you don't demand the 400,000 Dihram financial tribute to the Caliph, I'll keep my armies to defend your northern borders for you It seems Mervan agreed and went off, satisfied, to conquer elsewhere The Arabs renamed Shamakha as Maziabiya but otherwise things stayed much the same The Shirvanshah's army stayed where it had been all along and everyone was happy.
The independent last ruler, Khan Mustafa fled to his mountain retreats at Fit Dag/Niyal. The Russians initially used Shamakha as their regional administration centre but after the massive 1859 earthquake, Baku seemed a safer option.
Shamakha was famed for its Quba-style carpets throughout much of the
millennium though today there s little being made. Shamakha was also famed for wine: there are dramatic claims that France received its first vines from Shamakha cuttings. In the 1980s the region's annual harvest averaged 160,000 tons of grapes. This has dwindled to barely a tenth and the curious balloon-shaped 'cloud-zapper' buildings now sit idle on local hill-tops. They were designed to protect the vines from hail by pre-emptive cloud attacks.
A kilometre from the centre the active 1902 Grand Mosque is a very large, attractive if simple cuboidal stone structure. It was built in 1902 on the foundations of a 10th-century predecessor, itself founded on the site of an ancient pagan sunworshippers' temple. The 'new' mosque was burnt in April 1918 along with many people who had hidden inside during inter-ethnic conflict. A group of Armenians fired on the mosque with cannons, but that the 2m-thick stone walls held out. The mosque ruin was left as a shell until the late 1970s, restoration in the 1990s was undermined by floods in 2000. Some excavations of the older mosque complex can be seen in the forecourt. The pumping mechanism that scars the excavation site is not a bizarre oil strike, but produces the water for worshippers to perform their pre-prayer ablutions. Two blocks from the mosque is a museum dedicated to Shamakha's favourite son, the poet Sabir.
More on Shemakha here
Gulustan Fortress, also known inaccurately as Qiz Qalasi (Maiden's Tower), formerly enclosed the residence of the Shirvanshahs and later the Shemakha khans. The first recorded fortifications here were the iron gates erected between 1043 and 1049 by Shirvanshah Gubad. Though many of the walls have collapsed and stones have been removed for house building, one can still sense the impregnability of the hilltop position. The views are lovely. Beneath the tallest remnant chunk of tower at the fortress's western end is a small hole, the now blocked entrance to a tunnel which led to a subterranean labyrinth. Locals remember playing in these tunnels as children, one of the tunnels was said to lead almost a kilometre down to the small ravine where a stream cuts the castle hill from the neighbouring Pir Derekos mount. The tunnel entrance at that end is still open though it takes a short but steep scramble to find it. With a torch you can crawl some 40m inside before claustrophobia and cave-ins block further progress.
The easiest wav to the top of the castle is by the fairly smooth track from near Xinishli village. It was in Xinishli that archaeologists found several important relics including the approximately life-size stone idol which stands cross-armed in Baku's Historical Museum like a giant headless Oscar. Other interesting finds include grave jewellery that dates back to the 4th century bc and a more recent Kupe amphora containing the skeleton of an apparently murdered man whose skull had been punctured by a nail.
The deep well-like hole on top of the castle hilltop was also the result of recent, albeit freelance excavations. As usual, locals believe that the diggers waltzed off with great caches of gold, though there's absolutely no proof.
The 'other' hill, directly across from Gulustan on the Shamakha side is considered holy in a way that is typical of the Azeri brand of animist-Islam. The hill was topped by a Zoroastrian fire temple and ceremonial area 2000 years ago. Today there's the small Pir Derekos hilltop mausoleum.
Barely 2km across the valley from Shamakha and with an excellent view back onto the city are the famous Yeddi Gumbaz (seven tombs); Usseinov et al suggest that seven purely meant 'many'. In fact only three of these desecrated octagonal royal tombs remain reasonably complete. They are the 18th-/early 19th-century mausolea of the khans of Shamakha. The last khan, Mustafa, had fled to his palace at Fitdag/Sulut to avoid the advancing Russians, but was finally buried here along with his ancestors. Some of the surrounding gravestones are much more ancient - as much as a millennium old.
The mostly asphalted road north out of Shamakha winds through farms and down-land to high flower-filled meadows and the popular dacha townships of Chukhuryurd (Tskhuryurt) and Kirovka (Nagarxana) before reaching the forest reserve and observatory domes of Pirguli (Pirqulu). The dnve takes 35 minutes and the best views are well before Pirguli itself.
Built in 1960, at 1935m, the observatory was a major centre for Soviet astronomers and its 90-ton telescope gained international attention for the high-quality spectra of Mars observed in 1971. A 1990s' funding crisis all but closed the place down but the equipment remains in working order and recently it has proved possible to arrange ad hoc visits to different telescopes.
The cool temperatures and open grassy hillsides make for pleasant hiking in summer In winter. Pirguli is known for skiing but it's mostly cross-country as there's no lift infrastructure Apres ski is limited to a handful of restaurants featuring caged wolves as an 'attraction'
Dramatically positioned, though very badly ruined, the little-known 11th-century castle of Qalabugurt was once the Shirvanshahs' fortified treasury, it was enlarged in the 12th century by Memuchekhr I. It is approximately 12km west of Chukhuryurd and it holds a seemingly unconquerable position amid sharp rocky pinnacles on a very steep wooded slope and was largely destroyed in the 17th century when the Safavid Emperor Takhmasid, son of Shah Ismail I, set out to crush the residual power of the Shirvanshahs.
Today one has to peer at the site fairly carefully to make out the ruined wall segments that still stand and the one minor round tower on a lower rock ledge. Nonetheless, scrambling up through the trees, there is a lot more to discover -lengths of wall up to 6m high with the odd arch, the half-collapsed vaulted treasury chamber and a fantastic view from the very top ndge if you dare to scurry up the perilous scree-covered path that leads to it. Even if you don't venture beyond the base of the complex there are some interesting walks and plenty of old discarded pottery shards to search out amongst the stones.
Increasingly popular as an expat weekend destination, the ancient village of Lahic (commonly mispronounced La Heej') has a unique charm thanks to its dozen or so copper and blacksmith workshops.
The clinking of mallet on metal resounds along narrow Huseynov Str., the cobbled main street, overhung with wooden balconies and windows at which women make carpets on traditional looms. Some of the smithies use extremely archaic-looking hand bellows and the craftsmen seem more than happy for tourists to snap photos as they work.
The traditional hospitality is just starting to get a commercial edge as salesmen realize the attraction of the copperware to passing visitors. Nonetheless, you can still buy your own jujum here for $15 - less than a third of the price you'd pay in a Baku art shop.
History and language
The Girdman-chay valley was the original heartland of the first Albanian kingdom, 2000 years ago. However, Lahic was founded by the entourage of the Persian Shah Kaikoroso who chose the valley and its medicinal cold springs as a retirement retreat. Its pre-eminence as a copper craft centre developed thanks to Persian artisans and the source of high-quality ore in the nearby mountains -the very visible unfinished bridge across the Girdmanchay river would have carried a new road to the mines had the USSR not collapsed before funding its completion. The name Lahic is thought to be derived from Lahijan, an Iranian town from which many settlers hailed.
The cobbled streets and old homes are a delight to wander round with half a dozen old mosques and the partly-ruined Haji Qurban mansion whose interior courtyard was once a traders' market. However, the main attractions are the village workshops, smithies and craft shops. They make/display a large variety of copperwork and these displays are replicated in the charming if slightly chaotic museum.
More on Lahij is here
SHAKI (Sheki, Nukha)
With its lushly-wooded mountain backdrop, its attractive royal palace, its sea of old tiled roofs, and its famous confectionery shops, Shaki is Azerbaijan's main tourist draw. Yet it's a remarkably quiet, relaxed place whose citizens are renowned for their laconic sense of humour: ask anyone to tell you a few Haji Dayi jokes. There's a gaggle of internet clubs, a theatre, an Olympic centre with big pool and plenty of tempting excursions. And best of all you can stay in an extremely atmospheric old caravanserai hotel. Especially in spring and early summer, Shaki makes a perfect weekend getaway from Baku, or an ideal base to visit the surrounding region
Shaki has had a swashbuckling history. It grew rich as a market centre linking Dagestan mountain traders with the main east-west Caucasian commercial route. Then in the 1740s under upstart leader Haji Chelabi, Shaki thumbed its nose at the ruling Persians and braced itself for retribution. Legend says that the Shah sent a battalion demanding to know who was foolhardy enough to deny Persian sovereignty and Chelabi's answer was 'gelersen gorasen' (come and see for yourself), a name thereafter given to his mountain fortress which miraculously survived the Persian onslaught. The town itself was not so lucky - 30 years later most of the homes were washed away by a disastrous flood of the river Kish and the town centre moved to its present position around Chelabi's second fortress, Nukha. As a khanate, Shaki retained its independent status into the 1820s although the town was known as Nukha up until 1968.
The mosaic-fronted Khan's Palace (Xan Saray) is complete if unfurnished and surprisingly small Legend has it that the right-hand balcony (as viewed from below) was the khan's 'amnesty window on which he would stand to announce the sentences passed upon assorted foes and criminals and where, at a whim, he might decide to let them off altogether. The other balcony was for his wives. The interior is decorated with colourful murals which guides will happily interpret in interminable detail. The palace sits quaintly amid sheep-nibbled lawns and tumbledown fortress walls along with several small but pretty dull museums, one in an old church. More interesting is the workshop where craftsmen create the intneate shebeke windows that you see on the palace itself. They're made from fragments of coloured glass and a jigsaw of hand-shaped wooden cross-pieces. Below the fortress walls is a trio of caravansarais, the most atmospheric of which is now used as a hotel. The intervening back streets wind appealingly between traditional houses with views into the forested valley beyond. There are half a dozen old mosques, some rather hidden away such as the 18th-century Chelabi Mechid in the yard of which a severely damaged white stone is said to be the tomb marker of Chelabi Khan. A more complete one is that of his son Salim Khan.
After Chelabi Khan, Shaki's most famous son is the 'Muslim Moliere', Misr-Fatih Axundov who also wrote under the pseudonym Sabukhi. Seldom visited these days, his house museum is surpasingly small but furnished, carpeted and interesting. A little fireplace has niches for valuables on either side and the beautiful old mirror was Axundov's mother's wedding dowry.
The once-important silk industry has recently found new investors but the one operating silk factory ('Kombinat', the former Lenin Silk Mill) runs well below capacity.
More on Sheki
The original site of Shaki was somewhere near Kish, the road to which is heavily buttressed against the river's destructive moods. Kish village sprawls attractively up the Kishchay valley and its central knoll is graced by a simple but uniquely intact church.
An unproven theory suggests that this church was first founded in AD 78 by Yelisey, a disciple of Jesus's brother. Extensive excavations and intensive research in recent years have failed to provide any evidence of this, though have revealed that there was probably a pre-Christian place of worship at the site. The present structure is probably 12th century and has been very lovingly restored - too much so for some tastes.
What little remains of the Gelersen Gorasen castle (Chelabi's 'come and see') castle is hidden in woodland on a small knoll about 3km beyond Kish near a small isolated Pensionate used as a kids summer camp-hous.e Getting there is a pleasant one-hour walk.
Travelling the direct road between Qax and Shaki in 1889, 19th-century tourist John Abercromby halted at Geinuk [Ashagi Koynuk] where it was 'absolutely necessary to load the guns and prepare for action' against 'bad characters' (ie robbers) along the 'horrible road'. The road was unusable for a different reason in the 1990s its bridges were washed away by floods. A new bridge at Qax means that the road is passable once more by strong vehicle. However, the main sight en route, the Georgitsminda #2 church, is easily seen from Qax, and drivers who value their vertebrae still detour via the main A16. This long route' is particularly attractive on clear days To the north the added distance from the mountains gives a good perspective of the wooded foothills and some glimpses of the higher ridges which are snow-capped much of the year To the south of the road the landscape of arid hillsides comes briefly to grassy life in spring.
West of km post 76, a poorly-signed road to the north offers a 1,5 km excursion to the supposed grave of Haji Murad. The hero's grey stone grave-slab has an Arabic inscription and slightly singed photo-oval clearly anachronistic! It's with a few other memorials in a small glade of old trees at the point where the asphalt ends. Deputy of Imam Shamil, Haji Murad was immortalized as the rough-cut hero of an eponymous Tolstoy novel. Having finally and brutally escaped his Russian captors, he got bogged down in his desperate dash out of Shaki, though Tolstoy places his demise a little further north, 'near Belarjik minaret' (possibly Ikinci Bilacik on the upper Qax road).
A large proportion of the population is Georgian and at the nearby Qaxbash school there is said to be a very rare surviving statue of Stalin. Sturdy remains of the 'Russian Castle' (aka Hasan Qala) lie on the far northern edge of town, with walls up to 6m high and a hollow, round tower which is now used as a summer dining area for the pleasant Qala Restauran.t Qax is known for its mineral water. The most popular free source of this is beside the road to Zaqatala, 6km west of town, just beyond the Shafa Pensionate.