A Tale of Two Gates in Shaki

Joshgun Karimov 15 November 2019 1109 views 11 min. read

Every traveller has tons of memories and experiences that are the byproducts of their trips. Some memories and experiences are so precious that the whole journey makes sense in terms of the investment and effort that was put. Every traveller will tell you that most of the time, it is almost impossible to predict that very moment or spot. What about that very location? One location that will matter during the whole journey as a hit song of an album. I cannot speak on behalf of every single adventurer out there. I can speak on behalf of my own experience and dozens of European tourists that I catered to during their stay in this country. Maybe you arere wondering, "where is Azerbaijan?" or "what is Azerbaijan known for" or reading this article as one of those people who were thinking about that very travel to Azerbaijan. My intention is to clarify for you the outcome of this trip in advance. I am sure that you will have many 'aha' moments, and the capital of Azerbaijan - Baku will bring you delight. lovely town in the high caucasus On the other hand, almost intuitively, I bet all my cards on Sheki Azerbaijan. Sheki city is the very reason that will make you say "it was worth it." This location is a combination of many things that are put onto a "tray of emotions" and delivered to you "at a walking distance." Sheki is a unique crossroad of people, history, food, nature and art. You will see many beautiful places while you travel to Azerbaijan. None of these places will give you the same intensity of experience that I mentioned above. What lies in the core of this fascination? Let's break it all down for those that may find time to consider this part: Sheki is a city of 66.000 people that covers 200 miles of territory. You can hear Nukha at times. This is an alternative name that is common as well. If you look at GPS, it will show the northwest of our country. It is a 4 to 5 hour of ride from the capital of AzerbaijanBaku. (Bus or car) There is also a Baku Sheki train to this place.

People of this city

summer residence for the shaki khansThe people of Nukha

are as unique as the Navajo people of the United States of America. If you remember Navajo tribes, you know that they played a vital role during World War II in the battle against Japanese forces. They helped with "decoding the messages that were sent back-and-forth by the American troops. To be exact Navajo language was the code itself. When I think about the way people of Sheki speak, I see the same pattern. Sometimes it is almost impossible to understand what they say. They have their own language which is sweet and enigmatic for the majority of us who live in Azerbaijan. People of Sheki are positive and hard-working. You can feel the vibe of never-ending labour in this Sheki city. As the tourists flow to see "da spots", locals carry on with an ease that was cultivated with years of experience. The kind of experience you get when your city is one of the most beautiful places in Azerbaijan. This city has many stories to tell. It inspires many artists and poets. Among them was a man who carried responsibility for masterpieces such as Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. In 1858, Alexander Dumas took a Caucasus tour which resulted in the 9-month journey. He visited many places within Azerbaijan. There is a striking part in his memoirs, saying that "Sheki was the place that gave the ambience of that fulfilment." An author felt that this place would be the overall hit of his Azerbaijani tour. This is true for many German people that I guided to these regions as well. As soon as they get to see overall Azerbaijan, there is one city that hits their cord. My story about Sheki begins with two gates of Ashagi Karvansaray. (Guesthouse). As I wrote about the memories of Anne-Marie looking from the bus window splash into my brain. I see her eyes that lit like a Christmas tree when passing by the huge gates of one private house. She saw these gates and asked about the little gate that was installed into the huge one: "It is interesting, why these people installed two gates? (One huge, one almost microscopic.)." I remember looking at Anne-Marie and trying to fabricate some story about these gates. "Huge gate is for owners, and the microscopic gate is for guests. Guests pay respect by bending while entering the guesthouse." wooden gate and stone road village This was what I uttered to her and other 20+ tourists who were listening with great interest and were ready to hear me continue this "story of two gates." Homeowners enter from the main gate. Those who will be guests for the first time entries from the small gate. This small gate symbolizes the respect that must be paid to homeowners. As I was uttering this nonsense, tourists were nodding with naive interest. The bus had to stop. They rushed to the gates and started taking photos. I looked at these happy anthropologists who majored in Azerbaijani regional traditions and people. They had some great material to investigate. At that time, I was a young student who tried to impress foreigners with anything that comes to a young student's mind. Although eventually some of what I spilt out was true for most of the Caucasus regions. Small gates were used to belittle Sheikh Shamil at times. He was a warrior who did not want to kneel down in front of the Tsar Regime. People were influenced by his courage. One of Tsar's colonels wanted to put him into shame by inviting him to enter his residence from that very little gate. Sheikh Shamil did not hesitate to come up with a funny solution. He entered the residence backwards. The colonel had to see his bums first. This story is also very popular among Azerbaijani people. Although something tells me that it can be a product of some other "student's mind." There is one thing that cannot be fabricated. It is never lasting courage of Sheki people. They always fought for their freedom with the shier will. They always defended what was precious to them. Family and values were put on the pedestal at all costs. This place is famous for people like Khan Haji Chalabi. He freed his people from the Persian rule at times when it seemed to be almost impossible. His resistance to tyranny and his major contribution to Sheki still lingers in these turfs. As I wrap this section of the article, German tourists get ready to experience food-fest some miles away from these two gates.

Food of this city

sheki piti soup

Every tourist has this moment when they sit and relax by some picturesque river. They have soft wind travelling all over their faces. They have some decent mountain view that delights their eyes. What about the delight that our stomachs crave? If you visit Baku you will hear many restaurant names and this list will be huge. But if you ask any local, they will give the Sheki Restaurant a confident seat in the top 10. Now imagine what happens in the original kitchens? Imagine what is being served to tired and hungry travellers by the people of Nukha. Sheki is famous for its bread, piti and halva. Bread is made inside tandir. (Oval shaped, a high-temperature oven which bakes the bread and the rest is music for those who try this bread.) People of Baku would literally fight for the chance to take extra bread if possible. Every breakfast would be special if you managed to buy that very Sheki style tandir bread. At this point, it is important to go back to my fellow German travellers who slice bread with their hands and enjoy it with local food which is called piti. If you try it for the first time you will go one full day without feeling hunger. It is a very strong meal with meat which is served in special pots. To neutralize your feelings towards this meal I need to put a wiki description which says: "Piti is made with mutton and vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, chickpeas), infused with saffron water to add flavour and colour, all covered by a lump of fat, and cooked in a sealed crock. Piti is served in the crock, usually accompanied by an additional plate for "disassembling" the meat and the liquid part with vegetables, which may be eaten separately as the first (soup with vegs) and second (meat) course meal." sheki halva To be short, this meal requires a special ceremony before you start and it requires a whole day to be forgotten. It is said that during the Khannate times those who worked in the construction field had this meal once and carried on working the entire day. Piti is a meal of a labourer. That is why it is cooked with intense labour and that is why it requires labour to get over piti. Germans were having a hard time after half of this meal. But you could see their eyes shining. Anne-Marie was busy thinking about the gates and soon she joined others for her portion of piti. For every city, you visit there is a postcard that you can send. If you come back from Sheki people expect Halva. (Local Baklava) I remember our bus being flooded with sweets that were getting ready to enjoy their flight overseas. People of Sheki city are always busy because guests demand tandir bread, piti and halva all the time. We are so demanding that locals have a funny statement which says: "Halva does not grow on trees." This statement is the peak of the emotional state that each local has when returning to Baku or any other region from Sheki. People's eyes search for the packages in the luggage. It is impossible to resist bamiye as well. That is another sweet which looks like a caramelized orange cigar.

History of Sheki

ancient albanian church

This location hosts multiple temples and castles. They vary in ethnic background and cultural story. You may end up in an Albanian church, and the next thing you know, will be some historical mosque of the Khan Haci Chalabi era. Ultimately all roads take us to that very place, which is Sheki Khan Palace. On 7 July 2019, the Historic centre of Sheki with the Khan's palace, Azerbaijan, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this very moment, I go back to my German travellers again. They enter this palace with great pride because Germany took an essential part in the final restoration of this magnificent piece of architecture. The last total and complete restoration from 2002 - 2004 supported by the World Bank and executed under leading of a German restoration team (Uwe Henschel, Dietrich Wellmer, Elisabeth Wellmer, Andreas Lessmeister) from company "Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg GmbH" (today "Neumühler Bauhütte GmbH"). When entering the garden of Sheki Khan palace, you see two identical oaks, which can easily be called giant twins. These giant twins have a 500-year-old life. They outlived many floods, kings and winds of change. Today they welcome new visitors who desire to taste the very essence of Sheki culture which caters to Oriental philosophy and European integration in design. What you notice first is the pieces of glass that windows have. These colourful mosaic windows are coming a long way from Venice. Yes, you heard it. Some adventurers ordered these window glasses to be brought from Venice. (When there was no FedEx or DHL.) But he was so right on his guess about the result. When you enter the building you can hear the semi-tired voice of a local guide retelling the story and details of this place. You can see amused faces looking at ornamental ceilings and the impatient ambience of children that want to taste some ice cream outside the palace. old palace of sheki khans A guide will tell you that the floors had carpets on them once. These hand-made carpets matched the pictures on ceilings. Then the wars broke in, and soldiers of Tsar simply stole these artefacts. The guide will continue his speech with a separate room for Khan and his wife. He will tell about the symbols on the walls that depict those times. There will be a time when you will travel back to 200 hundred years and be present in that window for 2-3 minutes. Then you will be invited back to reality so that the next group of enthusiastic travellers hear about this palace from the guide. As we exit from the garden, my tourists notice the gates again. They discuss the owner-guest dilemma. As they carry on a conversation, I interrupt and give them some other food for thought. We are happy because 200 miles of Sheki Azerbaijan is about to be covered. (Not entirely, but emotionally.) We have a mix of feelings. I am about to go to military service. This is my last touristic guidance experience before systematic boredom prevails. I got used to Anne-Marie and her questions about food, people, history, details and her aspiring interest in two gates that make this trip unforgettable. She would rush to log new info into her Moleskine. Years later, I write about Sheki in an office of Social Innovations Lab. I am not alone. There are locals from Nukha who drag me about specific things I should mention. They have a flood of stories that meet with my flood of memories. I am originally from Baku. Sheki is the only city I visited more than 10 times. Every time I go there, some new things bring me back for more. For me, it is a city of ambitions. To be exact, it is a city of literary ambitions. This is a city where you can see a Buddhist from Nepal, a tourist from the Philippines, a family from Dubai and a group from Japan stand next to each other enjoying the same scenery. You do not expect me to finish this article with tandir, piti and halva or my miserable state due to memories that sparked this writing in the first place. albanian church Writing. This is the keyword that I intend to concentrate on. When we speak about Sheki there is one name that means a lot for every man or woman that cares about literature. Sheki is home to a dramatist Mirza Fatali Akhundov. This name means nothing to you at the moment. Maybe it will not make sense even after reading the whole piece. Mirza Fatali Akhundov is considered a Moliere of the Caucasus. These two brains have the same intensity of ambition and the same level of bitterness in their satire. Mirza Fatali has a house museum in Sheki which is not fancy but still carries the enigmatic energy of this genius. He published his short but famous novel The Deceived Stars. In this novel he laid the foundation of Azerbaijani realistic historical prose, giving the models of a new genre in Azerbaijani literature. Through his comedies and dramas, Mirza Fatali Akhundov established realism as the leading trend in Azerbaijani literature. I feel the urge to wiki-describe what Mirza Fatali managed to do for Azerbaijani alphabet: Well ahead of his time, Akhundov was a keen advocate for alphabet reform, recognizing deficiencies of Perso-Arabic script with regards to Turkic sounds. He began his work regarding alphabet reform in 1850. His first efforts focused on modifying the Perso-Arabic script so that it would more adequately satisfy the phonetic requirements of the Azerbaijani language. First, he insisted that each sound be represented by a separate symbol – no duplications or omissions. The Perso-Arabic script expresses only three vowel sounds, whereas Azeri needs to identify nine vowels. Later, he openly advocated the change from Perso-Arabic to a modified Latin alphabet. The Latin script which was used in Azerbaijan between 1922 and 1939, and the Latin script, which is used now, were based on Akhundov's third version.

So what is the point of this part in my article?

fortress like stone wall

Great cities produce great people. When you live at a crossroad between the Oriental and Western world, it is impossible to remain mediocre. You will produce something outstanding. You will innovate, and you will leave a great legacy. This is what he did. I guess every journey requires an end. No matter how thirsty we are for more action and emotions there is a moment when you realize that enough is enough. That is why when you plan to come to this city be prepared to have moments of complete immersion. You will dance with nature, food, culture, history and your own moments that will bring that very spice into the experience we call travelling. The last time I was in Sheki was this year. We were a group of 40 people that came together for the Business Simulation Game for School Children. I took my family to this place for the first time. My son Muhammad and daughter Maryam enjoyed the sound of heavy rain inside the wooden cottage and we were dripping happily with Munavvar who is a source of inspiration for hundreds of pieces of things I penned. I wanted them to see Sheki and love it the way I did. They enjoyed every moment of it. As we were walking towards the Sheki Khan Palace we passed by the two gates. I could almost hear Anne-Marie asking me that very question about the huge gate and the microscopic one. I could almost hear myself bluff the story about guests and homeowners. I could almost see her eyes light up as she heard me speak. She was with her children in Boston when God took her to the heavens. I felt that my article could be an answer that she never had a chance to get. The thing is, we are always too late to say the truth. But it is never late to say what you are supposed to say. The truth. Truth is that I still do not know why people installed these two gates together. I searched for an answer and never got a logical one. The truth is I still favour my own version. It is a sweet memory from the times that were spent with great people in a great city. This is the truth. Extra note for those who plan to see this city: You may want to consider coming in May. This period is the perfect time for all the above-mentioned experiences. You can contact the Pickvisa.com team for Azerbaijan visa arrangements and then prepare your luggage for the Sheki city tour. I can already see you guys standing in front of Ashagi Karvansaray and taking the photo in front of these gates. Enjoy this city. Like we did.

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