Every traveler 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 traveler 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 the behalf every single adventurer out there. I can speak on the behalf of my own experience and dozens of European tourists that I catered to during their stay in my country. May be you are reading this article as one of those people who were thinking about that very trip 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 our Baku will bring you a delight.
On the other hand, almost intuitively I bet all my cards on Shaki. This 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 “tray of emotions” and delivered to you “at a walking distance.”
Shaki is a unique cross-road of people, history, food, nature and art. You will see many places in 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:
Shaki is a city for 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 north-west of our country. It is 4 to 5 hours of ride from Baku. (Bus or car) There is no direct train to this place.
People of this city
People of Nukha are as unique as Navajo people for the United States of America. If you remember Navajo tribes, you know that they played a vital role during World War 2 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 Shaki 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 majority of us who live in Azerbaijan. People of Shaki are positive and hard-working. You can feel the vibe of never-ending labor in this 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 visited places in this country.
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 Duma took a Caucasus tour which resulted in 9-month journey. He visited many places within Azerbaijan. There is a striking part in his memoirs saying that “Shaki was the place that gave the ambiance of that fulfillment. 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 our regions as well. As soon as they get to see the overall Azerbaijan there is one city that hits their cord.
My story about Shaki begins with two gates of Ashagi Karvansaray. (Guesthouse).
As I wrote about them 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 microscopic gate is for guests. Guests pay respect by bending while entering the guesthouse.”
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 enter 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 naïve interest. The bus had to stop. They rushed to 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 spilled 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 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 funny solution. He entered the residence backwards. Colonel had to see his bums first. This story is also very popular amongst our 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 Shaki people. They always fought for their freedom with a 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 Shaki 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
Every tourist has this moment when they sit and relax by some picturesque river. They have soft wind traveling all over their faces. They have some decent mountain view that delights their eyes. What about the delight that our stomachs crave for? 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 Shaki 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 travelers by the people of Nukha.
Shaki is famous for its bread, piti and halva. Bread is made inside tandir. (Oval shaped, high temperature oven which bakes the bread and the rest is music for those who try this bread.
I do not know about your childhood but my childhood has some very long hours of waiting in lines just to be able to buy this bread for my family. People of capital city would literally fight for the chance to take extra bread if possible. Every breakfast would be special if you managed to buy that very Shaki style tandir bread.
At this point it is important to go back to my fellow German travelers 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 flavor and color, 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.
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 laborer. That is why it is cooked with an intense labor and that is why it requires labor to get over piti.
Germans were having 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 Shaki people expect Halva. (Local Baklava)
I remember our bus being flooded with sweets that were getting ready to enjoy their flight overseas.
People of Shaki 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 Shaki. 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 Shaki
This location hosts multiple temples and castles. They vary in ethnic background and cultural story. You may end up in Albanian church and next thing you know will be some historical mosque of Khan Haci Chalabi era. Ultimately all roads take us to that very place, which is Shaki Khan Palace.
On 7 July 2019, the Historic Centre of Shaki with the Khan’s Palace was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this very moment I go back to my German travelers again. They enter this palace with great pride because Germany took a very 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 this palace, you see two identical oaks which can easily be called giant-twins. These giant twins have 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 Shaki Culture which caters oriental philosophy and European integration in design. What you notice first is the pieces of glass that windows have. These colorful 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 a semi-tired voice of local guide retelling the story and details of this place. You can see amused faces looking at ornamental ceilings and impatient ambiance of children that want to taste some ice-cream outside the palace.
A guide will tell you that 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 artifacts. Guide will continue his speech with 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 next group of enthusiastic travelers 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 Shaki is about to be covered. (Not entirely but emotionally.)
We have mix of feelings. I am about to go to military service. This is my last touristic guidance experience before the 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 Shaki in an office of Social Innovations Lab. I am not alone. There are there locals from Nukha who drag me about specific things I ought to mention. They have flood of stories that meet with my flood of memories.
I am originally from Baku. Shaki 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, tourist from Philippines, family from Dubai and 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 miserably state due to memories that sparked this writing in the first place.
Writing. This is the key word that I intend to concentrate. When we speak about Shaki there is one name that means a lot for every man or woman that cares about literature. Shaki is a home to a dramatist Mirza Fatali Akhundov. This name means nothing to you at the moment. May be it will not make sense even after reading the whole piece. Mirza Fatali is considered as a Moliere of 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 Shaki 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. By his comedies and dramas Akhundov established realism as the leading trend in Azerbaijani literature.
I feel the urge to wiki-describe what Mirza Fatali managed to do for our alphabet:
Well ahead of his time, Akhundzade 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 Akhundzade's third version.
So what is the point of this part in my article?
Great cities produce great people. When you live in the cross-road between 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 coming to this city be prepared to have the 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 Shaki was this year. We were group of 40 people that came together for 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 happy with Munavvar who is a source of inspiration for hundreds of pieces of things I penned.
I wanted them to see Shaki and love it the way I did. They enjoyed every moment of it. As we were walking towards the 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 home owners. 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 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. Truth is I still favor 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 team for visa arrangements and then prepare your luggage for the 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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