Khash – the Caucasian cure for a late night out

khash news.az

Khash. Image: news.az

Peruvians have their cuy colorado, Brits have black pudding, Japanese have shirako and people of Azerbaijan have khash.  Khash (written xaş in Azerbaijani) is a traditional winter soup eaten all over the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia. The key ingredients vary from country to country but in the Land of Fire the dish is usually prepared from sheep’s entire head (yes, including brain, eyes and tongue) as well as hooves and stomach, which are boiled overnight and eaten for breakfast. Thanks to its high fat content and the timing of serving (early morning), the dish is said to be a perfect hangover cure.

Preparation

Khash is not a quick dish to prepare. First it is necessary to flame sear the head and hooves, then chop them and mix with the stomach. Afterwards all of this has to be boiled and chilled to remove any possible impurities. Now the real cooking begins! The ingredients are simmered in water with some carrots and onions, usually overnight to separate the meat from the bone and to change the water into a jelly-like liquid. Only then the dish is seasoned with spices, including cinnamon and lemon.  This is, of course, only one of the recipes – some cooks don’t add vegetables at all while others throw in some garlic and hot peppers similar to jalapeno. The soup is usually accompanied by lavash, Azerbaijani thin flat bread, which is often torn into small bits and threw into it.

Serving

Due to the time-consuming preparation followed by hours of cooking, the dish is rarely cooked at home. However, if someone makes the effort to prepare it, it will surely be shared with friends or extended family. Otherwise there are restaurants that specialize in khash and they are often opened at night or in early morning hours. In the past it used to be common to invite guests for khash the morning after the weeding and this tradition prevails in some villages of the country. Typically, khash is consumed by men and accompanied by vodka, which is believed to help digestion.

Anecdotes

As the story goes, sometime in the 1970s the famous Baku-born cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, on the way to a performance in Azerbaijan informed a friend of his that he’ll be arriving from Moscow around 6am. When asked why he chose such an early flight, he replied that he wanted to have a bowl of khash as soon as he gets to the city. And so he did.

Useful links:

A song of sheep-face stew. Road & Kingdoms.

His majesty Khash. visions of Azerbaijan. 

Khash recipe. News.az

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Baku’s Museum of Miniature Books – all the world’s literature on your thumb!

The exciting, little museum was set up in April 2002 by Ms. Zarifa Salahova, a dedicated collector of tiny publications who hoped to inspire a passion for reading in young people.  Ms. Salahova got hooked up on minuscule books some 30 years ago during a trip to Moscow when in a local bookstore she came across Ivan Krilov’s miniature edition of animal tales in Russian. Since then she has built up a respectable collection of 5,240 miniature books from 71 countries.

Minis

Miniature books usually don’t exceed 3 inches  (1inch = 2.54cm) in height, width or thickness. Image source: The Prism

Apart from famous Azerbaijani authors, among displayed exhibits visitors will find “The language of flowers,  Stones of the month”, and “The signs of the Zodiac”, published in 1978 in Tokyo, which are possible to read only with the use of magnifying glass and special tweezers. Other miniatures include “The History of England”  published in London in 1815. There is also a set of five volumes in French entitled “The Adventure of Young Lavilas in Greece” published  in 1817, and a copy of La Fontaine’s ”Fables” from 1850. The oldest volume in the collection is a copy of the Koran dating back to the 17th century.

Azer.com books

Miniatures became especially popular in the 19th century mainly due to their ease of carry and concealment. Image source: Azerbaijan International

How to find it:

The museum is located in Icheri Sheher, just next to the UNESCO listed Shirvanshahs’ Palace. See the map for exact direction. The admission is free.

Useful links:

Around Baku. Bautiful Mysterious  World Blogspot. 

Baku’s Miniature Book Museum. Great Ideas in Small Packages. Azerbaijan International. 

Rossotrudnichestvo awards Baku Miniature Books Museum’s head. AzerNews

Experience literature in miniature in Baku. The Prisma

More images – today.az

Krasnaya Sloboda – the all-Jewish town in mainly Muslim Azerbaijan

Krasnaya Sloboda is a small town situated in north-west Azerbaijan on the northern bank of the Kudyal river, just across of Quba city. This unique settlement is inhabited almost exclusively by Mountain Jews (also known as Juhuro), the remnants of an obscure Jewish community that managed to survive unharmed through 2,000 years of Persian, Turkish, Russian and Soviet rule.

Mountain Jews

Juhuro originated from Persia around the 5th century AD and their language, Juhuri, is a Persian dialect, which contains many elements of Ancient Hebrew. There are various theories about the emergence of Mountain Jews in this part of the Caucasus, including one, which claims they might be descendants of Israel’s Lost Tribes that began wandering the world around the 8th Century BC. Another theory says that in the mid-18th century a local khan established the settlement as a place for Jews to live safe from any attack. As the story goes, his son and successor decreed that if anyone came to attack the town, the Jews should light fires and he would send help. Whichever theory is correct, there is no doubt that over the centuries Mountain Jews have become an integral part of the local multiethnic society.

Krasnaya Sloboda

Pictured is one of two active synagogues in Krasnaya Sloboda. The town used to be called Yevraiskaya Sloboda (Jewish settlement) but was renamed to Krasnaya (Red) after the arrival of the Soviet Red Army. image from flickr.

Juhuro in Quba

During the height of the communist era Krasnaya Sloboda was inhabited by approximately 18,000 Mountain Jews, of which today are left only 2000-5000, depending on the sources. The numbers had shrunken during the Soviet times as most of the Jews migrated to Russia or Israel in search of a better life. Today many of them send remittances, re-migrate or invest in  Krasnaya Sloboda making it one of the most prosperous cities in the country.

joes trippin

Image from Joe’s Trippin blog

After centuries of living in such close vicinity, there is no surprise that Quba’s Mountain Jews have picked up a few habits from the local Muslim population – Juhuro women often wear head scarves, don’t shake hands with men and are usually not allowed to work. Furthermore, according to an article in Azerbaijan International, ”when a 19th-century Russian historian visited the area, he found that the Mountain Jews (…) also revered guests in the ways of Muslim Caucasians, and washed the feet of visitors”. Also, like the local Muslims, the Mountain Jews always decorated their synagogues with carpets and removed their shoes before entering.

Why visit?

This unique settlement with Greater Caucasus mountains in the background is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also a remarkable illustration of peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Muslim communities in Azerbaijan. An excellent example of intertwining of different religious and cultural traditions, its great location near Baku (only 2 hours’ drive) makes it a perfect destination for a day trip away from the capital, or a culture trip during trekking or skiing holidays in the Caucasus mountains.

Useful links

Mountain Jews. Azerbaijan International

Into the Caucasus. Joe’s Trippin blog

 Krasnaya Sloboda. Azerb.com

Krasnaya Sloboda by Atlas Obscura

Krasnaya Sloboda. Pulitzer Center

Judeo-Tat language. Wikipedia

Duzdag, Nakhchivan – home to the oldest salt mine in the world

Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, the landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan, is famous in the region for its pristine nature, spectacular mountain vistas, fascinating culture, and the ancient salt mines, which are said to be the oldest in the world. Every year the salt mines attract thousands of visitors from all over Azerbaijan not only because of their historical value but also due to their health improving qualities. Many people claim that breathing in of the salt air helps improve even the most acute respiratory problems.

Nakhchivan nature

Nakhchivan. 2012 Nakhchivan blogspot

Ancient salt mines

Between 2006-2011, a joint Azerbaijani-French archeological expedition conducted research in Nakhchivan and concluded that the Duzdag mines (Duz Dag = salt mountain) are, most likely, the oldest in the world. Based on the gathered evidence, the scientists argued that the mines were set up by the ancient Kur-Araz culture that originated in today’s Nakhchivan (V-IV millennium BC) and spread to Eastern Anatolia and Syria.

Salt treatment 

Records of health improvement from breathing of salt air come already from Roman times and Middle Ages. A Polish physician, Feliks Boczkowski, who worked at the salt mine in Wieliczka noticed that miners working there didn’t have any lung diseases and, based on this observations, his successor decided to set up a salt spa.  Similar facilities were opened in Ukraine, Slovakia, Germany and, of course, Azerbaijan. The Duzdag physiotherapy center is located at an altitude of 1173 meters above the sea level, about a ten-minute drive away from the center of Nakhchivan. The cave is 300 meters long and 110 meters deep, and it has a stable microclimate with temperature of about 18-20° C, humidity usually below 50%, and the Oxygen rate of 20%. In addition, the quantity of the microbes is 8-10 times less than in the air from the ground level, which makes it an excellent environment for people with asthma, allergies, pollinosis, and chronic obstructive bronchitis and chronic pneumonia of 1-2 degrees in remission phase. Patients undergoing a therapy prescribed by the doctor usually spend their day in the mine, and after the daily salt treatment retreat to the hotel.

duzdag mine 2 duzdag mine 3 duzdag mine 4 duzdag main

For more information click on the links below:

SW Travel tour offer to Duzdag

Duzdag Hotel Nakhchivan

Oldest salt mine worldwide located in Nakhchivan. News.az

The road less travelled: Nakhchivan, Steve Hollier’s blog

Nakhchivan 2012 blogspot.

Wonders of Baku Architecture: Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall

Social revolution

In the 19th and early 20th Century Baku’s cityscape had undergone a rapid development. During the first centuries of its existence, the city was contained within fortress walls but the inflow of money and people during the First Oil Boom changed it dramatically. A new city center was created in the area just outside of the Icherisheher where impressive public-use buildings and private mansions started popping up like mushrooms. The new opportunities created by ”black gold” attracted to the city thousands of talented people (entrepreneurs, engineers, architects, artists etc.) from various countries turning it into a vibrant cosmopolitan hub. This tremendous change brought as well a revolution in people’s lifestyle as the new rich began traveling the world and started bringing to their new beautiful city the best of what they experienced abroad. Construction of theatres and music halls was among the Baku’s key transformations in that period.

Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall on a postcard from 1962 Source postcards

Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall 

What we know today as the State Philharmonic Hall was originally constructed as the Public Assembly building, which served as a sort of a business club for the local elite who used it for banquets and entertainment. It was built throughout 1910-1912 as a replacement of a summer club, which was destroyed in a fire. The hall was constructed by the St Petersburg-educated architect, Gabriel Ter-Mikelov, and its design was inspired by the buildings within Monte Carlo Casino, and L’Opera de Monte-Carlo in particular. The eclectic construction combined different architectonic styles including German Rococo (interior) and Italian Renaissance (exterior), and was finished off with an impressive dome and two small towers, which were thought to resemble minarets of a mosque.

Philharmonic Hall throughout the century

ermak travel guide

State Philharmonic Hall today. Source: ermak travel guide

In 1936 the club was reorganized into the residence of the local philharmonic society aimed at promoting Azerbaijani music, and it was renamed after an Azerbaijani composer, Muslim Magomayev.  Since the original building was primarily built of wood and was not adjusted to such modern standards as heating, AC or sound systems, it had to be reconstructed. A major renovation of the Philharmonic Hall started in 1997 and it had taken 8 years to complete it . The grand opening took place on the 30th of January 2004 with the performance of the Baku-born, Mstislav Rostropovich. Today the building is home to 7 performing groups, including the Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra Azerbaijan State Chamber Orchestra, Azerbaijan State Orchestra of Folk Instruments, Azerbaijan State Choir and the String Quartet, and features regular concerts of local and international classical musicians.

Useful links:

The Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall by avciya.az

Architecture of the Oil Baron period. Azerbaijan International

Reconstruction of Baku’s Premier Music Hall. Azerbaijan International

Philharmonic Reopens. Azerbaijan International. 

The Philharmonia park: Baku’s Green Oasis. Visions.az

Wonders of Baku architecture: The Palace of Happiness

palace of hap

Palace of Happiness. Source: pinterest

Palace of Happiness is another awe-inspiring architectural gem of Baku. As in the case of most private mansions constructed during Azerbaijan’s First Oil Boom (1850-1920), also this marvelous palace was not spared from the impact of brutal history and from personal tragedies of the people who used to lived there.

Creation

Palace of Happiness was commissioned  in 1911 by an Azerbaijani Oil Baron, Murtuza Mukhtarov, for his wife Liza. Despite his poor childhood and the lack of formal education, Mukhtarov managed to become a self-taught, highly qualified oil drilling expert. Thanks to his knowledge and experience he succeeded in setting up his own business specializing in drilling oil wells, which turned out to be enormously profitable. At the peak of his success, Mukhtaharov employed 2,500 workers.

Murtuza and his wife were avid travelers, and during one of their fancy tours around Europe they came across a beautiful French Gothic manor, which Lisa instantly fell in love with. Mukhtaharov, in secret from his wife, decided to recreate the mansion in Baku and make it a surprise gift to her. He sent his people to France to purchase the building’s blueprints and hired a famous Polish architect, Jozef Ploszko, to create it. In 1912, within 9 months of starting the construction work, a nearly identical copy of the mansion was raised in the center of the city. As the story goes, after the completion Mukhtarov drove his wife to the site and announced that this is her new residence.

Interior of Palace of Happiness

Elements of Interior Design. Source: azer.com

Tragedies

There are a several grim stories surrounding both the construction of the building and its subsequent history. First tragic event occurred when the palace was still under construction. According to sources, one of the contractors, Imran Gasimov, went up to the roof to adjust a statue of a mediaeval knight when he accidentally slipped and fell down to his death. He and his wife had no children and were very close to one another, and shortly after Gasimov’s death she committed suicide.

Another tragic event involved Mukhtaharovs themselves and was politically motivated. When in April 1920 the Bolshevik Army entered to Baku, Mukhtaharov said that he won’t let the barbarians in the military boots to ever set foot in his wive’s house. However, they not only entered the mansion but also raided the building on horses. The Oil Baron, helpless and humiliated, first shot dead three of the soldiers and then took his own life. After this, his wife was initially forced to live in the palace’s basement but later managed to escape to Istanbul with a diplomat.

Today

During the existence of Azerbaijan SSR, the mansion functioned as the Palace of Marriage Registrations. Since August 2001, by a resolution issued by the Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan, the building has been protected as a monument of Azerbaijani culture. You can visit the building every day, except Mondays and Thursdays and when there’s no wedding ceremony taking place, from 10am-5pm.

wikimapia

Palace today. Source: wikimapia

Useful links:

Interiors: Wedding Palace. Murtuza Mukhtarov Residence.

The Palace of Happiness or the beggining of a happy life. Azernews

Palace of Happiness. Hg2 Baku. 

Diri-Baba Mausoleum – the masterpiece of Shirvan architecture

Diri-Baba Mausoleum, located in the village of Maraza on the way from Baku to Shamakhi, is one of the most impressive tombs ever built in Azerbaijan. According to the inscription medallion found in the mausoleum, the structure was erected in the year 1402 during the reign of Sheikh Ibrahim Khan. Due to its unique setting, original architecture and various legends surrounding the monument, it is a popular destination for both pilgrims and tourists. Thanks to the vicinity to the capital, it makes a perfect day trip outside of Baku.

diri

Diri-Baba Mausoleum. source: wikimedia

Architecture

The two-storeyed mausoleum is a masterpiece of Shrivan architecture school. Unfortunately, over the centuries the architect’s name on the inscription table has faded, and today only his father’s name is still readable: .. .bin Üstad Hacı, which means ”the son of Ustad Haji”. The tomb, situated on a hill overlooking the valley with a cemetery, stands on a small square carved into a cliff, which gives the whole structure an impression of suspension in the air. The surrounding area is rich in caves and it is believed that it used to be inhabited by dervishes. On the first floor there is a domed hall with pendentives and a pair of rooms. The upper storey, on the other hand, contains a cavern chamber carved out of the rockThe mausoleum is directly connected by a narrow passage in the wall to the artificial grotto behind, and this is where the actual burial place is located. On the outside, the two levels are separated by a decorative inscription. This plain but sound building with simple lines and double-arch window is beautifully complimented by the rough rocks behind it. Over the centuries, the tomb’s structure suffered a great deal of damage but thanks to a restoration project undertaken in 1955, it was brought back to its splendour.

Diri baba bview

View from the hill where the mausoleum is located.

Useful links:

Mausoleum Diri-Baba. Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan

Gobustan. Discover Azerbaijan. 

Diri Baba Mausoleum. YouTube