Shahdag Resort – winter madness in Azerbaijan

If you’re looking for refreshing alternatives to crowded European ski resorts, look no further. In the shadow of Shahdag mountain, one of the highest peaks in Azerbaijan, enthusiasts of winter sports will find everything they need.

gusar shahdag ski resort skyscrapercity

Source: skyscrapercity

Why ski in Azerbaijan?

Shahdag Mountain Resort offers anything an amateur of winter fun could wish for – the latest equipment, experienced instructors, variety of wide and exciting pistes, picturesque landscapes, lots of snow (artificial if needed), good food and comfortable accommodation. As the country is still fairly new to the winter sports madness, the resort is always full of visitors but only a few of them actually ski or snowboard, which means you will be able to make the most of your time on the slope. In addition, the ski resort is situated only about  200km ride from Baku, most of it by highway, thus it makes a perfect day trip for those short of time.

pik palace hotel

Pik Palace hotel. Source: Pik Palace Hotel’s website

The resort

Currently, there are 5 km of pistes available for skiing, 1 km of easy pistes for beginners and 4 km for intermediate skiers. They are situated between 1300m and 1800m above sea level and are serviced by 4 ski lifts. More will be created in the nearest future, including piste for advanced skiers, which will be located as high as 2500m above sea level. Visitors can stay in one of the hotels located next to the piste, Zirve (80-120 AZN/night) by the main entrance or the luxury Pik Hotel on top of the hill (from 223 AZN/night). Those on the budget will find cheaper accommodation farther away from the resort.

margriet

Author: Margriet van der Woerd

Getting there

The ski station is located about 3 hours drive from Baku. To get there you have to follow the Quba highway. Once in Quba, continue towards Qusar where you will find clear indications for the ski station.

Some advice

If you go to Shahdag on a weekend, make sure to get there early as the place fills up with visitors very quickly and you may find it time-consuming to collect the equipment. The staff is friendly and competent but remember that it’s a new resort (2nd season operating) and it may take longer than usual to get them up to speed, especially on the busiest Sundays.

If the main ski rental point near the parking runs out of equipment, go to the one situated next to the Pik Hotel. You may as well go there straight away as overall it’s usually much less busy than the one next to the main entrance.

Example prices

Parking about 7AZN/day

Day ski pass for an adult 22AZN

Rental of ski, shoes & poles 30AZN

Useful links:

FB page of Shahdag Resort

Shahdag Mountain Resort official website

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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

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

Baku Ballet and Opera Theatre – what happens when a capricious diva meets an oil baron

opera

Source: wikimedia

Azerbaijan State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre  is certainly one of the most remarkable buildings in Baku. This eclectic construction with original and richly decorated façade was designed and built between 1910-1911 by an architect and civil engineer, Nikolai Bayev. The circumstances of its construction are surrounded by an urban legend, according to which a famous soprano singer, Antonina Nezhdanova, came to perform in Baku in 1910 but refused to sing after she realized that the city doesn’t have an opera house. Her decision sparked a response from one of her great admirers, a local oil baron Daniel Mailov,  who asked her to promise that she would return to Baku the following year if the city built an appropriate venue. Of course, the diva agreed.

bayev

Pictured Nikolai Bayev.

The millionaire ordered Bayev to build an opera theatre that would resemble the one in Tbilisi – just more impressive. Many expressed doubts that such a building could be constructed within a year. Among them was Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, a legendary Azerbaijani oil baron and philanthropist, who  made a bet that if Mailov succeeded within the deadline, he would cover all of the expenses related to the construction. Less than 10 months later the opera house was ready, and Taghiyev’s wallet much lighter. Daniel Mailov notified Nezhdanova of the ceremony by telegram and the renowned soprano became the first singer to perform at the new venue (Manaf Suleymanov, The Past Days).

Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the fact remains that the opera house was completed in record time. The grand opening took place on the 28th of February 1911 with the performance of the Mussorrgski’s opera “Boris Godunov”. The only problem was the deplorable condition of theatre’s poor neighborhood. Surrounded by shacks and unpaved roads, on rainy days the area would turn into a mud lake forcing prominent guests to reach the entrance by a piggyback ride from their servants. However, this had been improved over the years and today the area where the theatre is situated is one of the most elegant in the city.

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Interior of the opera. Source: alpina.it

The Azerbaijan State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre remains the most beautiful music hall in the country. After the opening it had been active until 1983, when it was closed for renovation. By 1985 the building was ready for use again, but burned down under mysterious circumstances (Source: Azerbaijan International), and the reopening had been postponed till  January 3, 1988. Today visitors to Baku can choose from a rich repertoire of both Azerbaijani and internationally renowned operas and ballets.

Useful links:

Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Azerbaijan International: Curtain call. Opera and Ballet Theatre

Program  of the performances. Official website of the  State Academic Ballet and Opera Theatre – only in Azerbaijani language but it’s possible to understand which performances  are coming up.

The land of jazz. Waiting for the 2013 Baku International Jazz Festival.

Jazz is arguably one of the most loved and celebrated music genres in Azerbaijan, and for the last 11 years every autumn many acclaimed local and foreign artists have come to Baku to participate in the music fete, Baku International Jazz Festival (this year between 23 October-3 November). However, the history of this music style in Azerbaijan has been much longer and not always trouble-free.

The beginnings

tofiq akhmedov

Tofiq Akhmedov in 1940s. Image source: Wikipedia.

Jazz in the country emerged sometime in the early 1900s and had been gradually gaining in popularity until the Soviets banned it in 1945 claiming it was the ”music of the capitalists”. This restriction didn’t come as a surprise as in totalitarian regimes any artistic performance based on egalitarian improvisation wasn’t welcomed by the authorities.  Therefore, not only jazz but also music played on saxophone was prohibited. During the ban musicians performed mainly in clubs and each others’ homes. This lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Despite the limitations, people continued playing in secret, which led to development of some of the most original music styles, including jazz mugham (or mugham jazz). 

Jazz mugham

During late 1960s and early 1970s Vagif Mustafazadeh, a famous Azerbaijani pianist and composer, incorporated mugham, a traditional improvisational modal music, into jazz and created a new music style labelled jazz mugham. Jazz mugham differs from ordinary jazz in that the rhythm and scales are improvised. The artist died in 1979 at the young age of 39 during a performance in Uzbekistan but fortunately the musical tradition survived him. Today jazz mugham continues to be played in Azerbaijan while it’s popularity is also growing worldwide.

aziza

Vagif and Aziza Mustafazade

Azerbaijani jazz today

The music legacy of Vagif Mustafazadeh has survived also thanks to his daughter, Aziza Mustafazadeh, a world-famous singer, pianist and composer who plays a fusion of jazz and mugham combined with classical and avantgarde influences. Among other renowned Azerbaijani jazz players are also Sevda Alakperzade, Salman Gambarov, Sahin Novresli and Israf Sarabski, who won the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Useful links:

All Eyes on Aziza, Azerbaijan International

Mugham Jazz: Vagif Mustafazade, Azerbaijan International

Sahin Novrasli official website

Interview with Isfar Sarabski in Visions Azerbaijan magazine

Baku Jazz Center

Jazz in Azerbaijan – videos

History of jazz in Azerbaijan

International Jazz Festival to happen in Baku by Today.az

King of Jazz by Nasrin Babanly

Mugham – the sound from the Land of Fire

What is it?

Mugham is a  term used to describe the Azerbaijani folk music that draws on Iranian-Arabic-Turkish Maqam. Mugham performances are a fusion of traditional poetry and musical improvisation. In 2003 the uniqueness of mugham was appreciated by UNESCO, which declared it the Masterpiece of Oral & Intangible Heritage of the World. Nowadays this music style is popular all over the Caucasus but Azerbaijan remains the main founder and carrier of mugham in the region.

Mugham over the centuries

The origins

The development of mugham in the territories of today’s Azerbaijan began in the pre-Islamic times. Between the 1st and 4th centuries there were two states present in the area: Atropatena in the south and Albania in the north. The practiced religion in Atropaena was Zoroastrianism while Albanians practiced both Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Zoroastrian priests were called Maq (or mug, mugh – which translates as Magus, wizard) and it is believed that the name might have given the origin to the word mugham. In addition, the religious rituals of Zoroastrians were accompanied by music and singing, and the analysis of some music samples showed that in terms of their melodic and rhythm peculiarities they are very close to the contemporary mugham (Source: Mugham Radio).

atropatena

Source: wikipedia

The influence of Islam

Islam arrived in Azerbaijan in the 7th century and gradually pushed out Christianity and the pagan cults, including Zoroastrianism. In that time the Arabic music culture was less developed than the Azerbaijani one thus it didn’t have any destructive influence on the local mugham. What’s more, the presence of Islam, and especially the tradition of singing verses from Quran, only enriched mugham music and had a key effect on its final form.

Sufism

Some experts believe that Arabian makam and Azerbaijani art of mugham originated from the notion of “magam” of Sufis, the Islamic mystics, who performed their religious ceremonies with accompaniment of music.

Mugham in the modern times

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Mugham artists. Image by Aynur Kazim

In the 19th Century mugham performances were held all over Azerbaijan. The events were attended by singers, called khanendes, from Karabakh (at the moment occupied by Armenia), Baku and Tabriz (today part of Iran’s territory), which contributed significantly to blending of the singing traditions from different regions. One of such events in Shamakhi was attended by the famous French writer, Alexandre Dumas, who described his positive impression from the event in his memories from the trip.

In the 20th Century mugham music has undergone sort of revolution – first thanks to a prominent Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, who brought its elements into opera, and later in 1960s by Vagif Mustafazade, the creator of jazz mugham movement that combined mugham with jazz.

Mugham in Baku

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International Mugham Center, Baku. Image by sherqmirvarisi.com

Visitors to the city should check the calendar of the International Mugham Center of Azerbaijan, a concert hall located on the boulevard (near the Four Seasons Hotel) focused on preservation and promotion of mugham, for performances. In addition, every spring the city organizes the International Mugham Festival http://mugam.az/Programm.html, during which you can listen to the best local and international artists in the field.  However, for those who prefer a bit more informal setting – head to the Old Town restaurant, Mangal, https://www.facebook.com/restoranmanqal?rf=528101960573365 where you can enjoy delicious local food accompanied by the sounds of mugham.

Useful links:

Mugam – Azerbaijan National Music

To listen to the music go to the Mugham Radio website

Azerbaijani mugham – Ministry of Culture and Tourism , Republic of Azerbaijan