Around Shamakhi

Etibar shamakhi

Image: Etibar Jafarov

Around Shamakhi

Shamakhi, situated just under 2-hour drive North-West from Baku, is among the most popular tourist destinations in Azerbaijan.  Thanks to its rich past this seemingly inconspicuous place offers visitors plenty of unique historical and cultural attractions, and sheds some light on Azerbaijan’s eventful past. Regionally, Shamakhi is also famous for its carpet weaving  and wine making traditions.

About Shamakhi

The beginnings of Shamakhi go as far back as the 5th Century BC.  During the Middle Ages it was an important urban center and from the 8th to 15th centuries served as the capital of the powerful Shirvan State, and later as the capital of the independent Shirvan Khanate. The city was a serious outpost on the Silk Road and, according to historians, at some point it had 130 silk winding establishments. Unfortunately, due to its seismically active location, over the centuries Shamakhi has been regularly struck by devastating earthquakes, and in the 15th century, local rulers decided to transfer the capital to safer and strategically located Baku. In the 19th century Shamakhi became one of Russian Empire’s guberniyas (Shamakhi Governorate) but after another devastating earthquake from 1859 the administrative center was transferred to Baku. In the years that followed the political and economic significance of the city has decreased and nowadays Shamakhi is a small (population of approx. 31,000) and rather quiet town.  However, it still hold the remnants of its great past, and among them the leftovers of the Gulustan Fortress and the picturesque Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum. And once you’re tired of sightseeing, try a glass of the fine local wine as Shamakhi district is the national center of wine growing.

What to see:

Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque)

The original mosque was constructed around 743-744 by Arabs and it is considered to be the second mosque in the Caucasus after the Friday Mosque in Derbent (Dagestan).  Over the centuries the mosque has undergone several major reconstructions (12th Century, 17th Century, 1860, 1909, 2009) due to the significant damages caused by numerous battles and earthquakes.


Image by Azernews

Gulustan Fortress

Gulustan Fortress, built at the foot of Murovdag hill, some 2 kilometers North of Shamakhi, used to serve as a defensive installation for the shahs of Shirvan. The first recorded fortifications here were the iron gates erected between 1043 and 1049 by Shirvanshah Gubad. However, some archeologists claim that the fortress  could have been built as early as the 9th Century. In its prime, the massive construction intimidated foreign armies but the numerous earthquakes and passing time has left a significant toll on its structure. Today all that is left of this formerly imposing construction are plenty of scattered stones, some towers and remaining of defensive walls but it’s still well worth visiting the place. From the top of the hill you will get a better idea about the original size of the fortress and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views  over the area. For detailed information about the fortress please click here.


Remaining of the Gulustan Fortress. Image: wikipedia.

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

This ancient cemetery, situated about 1.5km south of Shamakhi, was built in the 18th century for the family of the last khan of the Shirvanshah dynasty. The name, which translates as ‘’Seven Domes’’, comes from the number of gravestones in the crypt belonging to the shah’s relatives. Only three of the mausoleums survived till this day, others are either entirely or partly destroyed. 

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Shamakhi wines

Thanks to its mild climate, fertile soils and hilly terrain, Shamakhi district is the key wine grape growing and wine making area in the country. Traditionally, local wine makers produced sweet wines (result of the local taste as well as dry climate) but over the last years there have been a lot of efforts made to start production of world-class wines, and nowadays it’s possible to try some good red and white dry wines. It’s worth noting that wine tradition in the area is centuries-old and you can find here some indigenous grape varieties, such as Madrasa (spelled also Matrassa, derived from the name of a local village) used in production of popular red dry wines. Interestingly, among the first European purchasers of local wines were the Portuguese traders who worked on extending their commercial influences in Asia.

Practical information

For more information about getting there, accommodation etc. please contact us directly.


Dom Soviet – remains of Azerbaijan’s Communist past

The Government House of Baku, known as well as Dom Soviet, is one of the most striking buildings of the city. This excellent example of fusion of Soviet and traditional, local architecture was designed by architects Vladimir Munts, Lev Rudnev and K. Tkachenko, and had been built between 1936-1952, in part by German Prisoners of War, to specific orders by Stalin. Today it houses several ministries and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city.

Dom Sovet

Image by Enrique Guerrero


In 1934 The Communist Party of Azerbaijan issued a directive calling for a return to traditional style of architecture. Since then, until decree’s abolition by Khrushchev sometime in mid-1950s, many architects incorporated into the buildings of public use various elements characteristic to islamic design, such as arches, columns, inner courtyards and fountains. These influences are clearly visible in the design of Dom Soviet, the construction of which started in 1936. The House of Government was completed in 1952 but the works in the area continued into the 1970s – a large public square (then Lenin Square, now Independence Square) and a number of buildings, including the Absheron Hotel (today’s JW Marriott Absheron) were built in its vicinity.

Army day

Image from the last year’s Army Day. Parade in front of Dom Soviet and JW Marriott Absheron. Source:

The building was designed to accommodate 5,500 people and over the years housed a number of different institutions and companies. However, after the last renovation (2006 – 2010)  it has been occupied mainly by various ministries,  including the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population and Copyright Agency of Azerbaijan Republic.

Useful links:

Baku Days: Khrushchev’s Architectural Legacy. Steve Hollier’s blog

Baku’s Architecture. Identity of Architects and Financiers Revealed. Farid Alakbarov for Azerbaijan International. 

Shirvanshahs’ Palace – the architectural gem of the Middle Ages

Located in the heart of the charming Icheri Sheher, the Shirvanshah’s Palace is with no doubt one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture. The Palace was built in the 15th Century  by the shahs of Shirvan, a historical region in eastern Caucasus, after Ibrahim I of Shirvan moved the capital from Shamakhy to Baku following a devastating earthquake.  The construction, despite having been built in different periods without a single plan, forms a beautiful, harmonious whole, which was classified by UNESCO as one of the places of outstanding value to humanity.


The Palace. Image source: sheki blogspot


Originally constructed by the ruler of Shirvan, Khalilulla I, and his son, Farrukh, the palace had both religious and royal significance. Most of the construction work was done in the 15th century and it was stopped when Faruk was killed in a battle. The palace was also significantly damaged in 1806 when the shah of Shirvan, Mustafa, was forced to submit to Russian army.  However, despite Azerbaijan’s turbulent history, most of the buildings   – except the living premises and the hammam – are fairly well preserved.


The complex consists of the main two-storey residential building, a small stone pavilion called Divankhana (Royal Assembly), a tomb for royal family members, the mausoleum of Seyid Yahya Bakuvi (a famous astronomer of the time), the Palace Mosque, the bathhouse (hammam) and the Murad’s Gate (Eastern Portal).


Divankhana is arguably one of the most impressive buildings in the complex. The pavilion, which consists of an octahedral hall covered with a cupola,  is situated in the center of a small courtyard surrounded by a gallery-arcade. The portal of the main entrance is decorated with fig and wine leaf ornaments and inscriptions in Arabic. The entrance is also adorned with two medallions containing inscriptions in Kufic Arabic. It is believed that Divankhana might have been meant as a mausoleum for Khalilullah I.



Royal Tomb

The building, known as well as the Turba, was constructed in 1435-1436 by Khalilulla I for his mother and his son Farrukh. His mother died in 1435 and his son died in 1442, at the age of seven. Additional tombs were discovered later on and it is thought that they might have belonged to other members of the Shah’s family,  including two more sons who died during his own lifetime. The Turba is the only building of the complex where we know the name of the architect – “Me’mar (architect) Ali” is carved into the design, but in reverse, as if reflected in a mirror.  This was a precautionary measure as putting the architect’s name openly might have been considered arrogant and severly punished by the shah.


|Entrance to the Turba


The palace bathhouse was discovered by chance in 1939 and it dates back to the 17th Century. It consists of 26 rooms, which are semi-underground  for coolness in the summer and warmth during winter. For more detailed description of the palace’s architecture follow the links below.


Palace hammam. Image by: allposters

When to visit

The palace is open daily from 9.00 till 18.00 and the entry fee costs about 2 AZN.

Useful links:

The complex of the Shirvanshahs Palace

The Palace of the Shirvanshahs by Visions of Azerbaijan

The Shirvanshah Palace. The Splendour of the Middle Ages. Azerbaijan International.

The Ensemble of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace

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.


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:


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.


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.


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-Baba Mausoleum. source: wikimedia


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

Ismailiya Palace – the final tribute to beloved son

ismailiya wikimedia commons

Ismailiya today. Source: wikimedia commons

Situated just outside of the main entrance to Icheri Sheher (the capital’s Inner City), Ismailiya is arguably one of the most beautiful and original buildings in Baku. It was commissioned in the beginning of the 20th century by Aga-Musa Naghiyev (1849-1919), the wealthiest oil baron of Baku at the time, who dedicated it to his deceased son, Ismail. As in the case of many Baku buildings from that period, the story behind Ismailiya is rather tragic.

The oil baron


Aga-Musa Naghiyev

Like most of the self-made Azerbaijani millionaires from the pre-revolutionary Baku, Aga-Musa Taghiyev was born into a very poor family. However, thanks to his excellent business skills combined with hard work and some luck, he managed to accumulate a vast amount of wealth. Naghiyev made most of his money in oil business but later he increased the size of his fortune by investing in real estate. He was so successful that at some point, with over 200 properties owned, he became the largest landowner in Baku. Sadly, his success in business did not go hand in hand with happiness in personal life. In 1902 his only son, Ismail, died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27, which left his father devastated.

The idea

Ismailiya 2

Sketch of Ismailiya. Source: wikimedia commons

According to the sources, the idea of creating the building came from Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, another Baku millionaire who became very rich when oil was discovered in his land. Taghiyev used to organize Novruz festivities that were open to everyone. He complained, however, that there was no building available for Muslim Charity Society in Baku, and suggested that Naghiyev built one and call it ”Ismailiya” after his deceased son. This way the memory of his child would be perpetuated forever. Naghiyev agreed. He chose a talented Polish architect, Jozef Ploszko, to design and carry out the construction. The building was created in the Venetian Gothic style and it had taken six years (1908-1913) to complete it. The finished palace was an architectural masterpiece and bore striking resemblance to Palazzo Contarini in Venice. It was named Ismailiya, after Naghiyev’s beloved son, and was donated to the Muslim philanthropic association, “Jamiyyati-Kheyriyya”.


Source: wikimedia commons

The decline

The fall of the first oil barons was as sudden as their rise to wealth. Since the arrival of the Bolsheviks in the city everything had gone downhill – their wealth was confiscated by the new authorities and many of those who didn’t manage to emigrate, were left empty-handed and forced into begging. Some, like Taghiyev, in recognition of their charitable activity were allowed to keep a tiny proportion of their properties but even this was taken away from their families after their death. Moreover, plenty of magnificent  buildings were destroyed during the Battle of Baku (June-September 1918) while many others fell into disrepair in the years that followed.

The history was equally harsh to Ismailiya. The building survived in its original form only for five years until it was burned down by the Armenian Revolutionaries, Dashnaks, in 1918. When Naghiyev saw what happened to the building, he died within a year of a broken heart. Ismailiya was reconstructed in 1919 but a year later it was attacked once again, this time by Bolsheviks, but luckily they didn’t manage to destroy it.


Ismailiya after fire in 1918. Source: wikipedia commons

During the early Soviet period Bolsheviks removed all of the Koranic inscriptions from Ismailiya’s walls and replaced them with Communist slogans and Soviet stars. When the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan SSR moved into the building, its name was inscribed on the facade. Today the building serves as the Presidium of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences.

Useful links:

Inside oil baron mansions. Azerbaijan International.

Spotlight on the oil barons of the last century. Azerbaijan International.

Jozef Ploszko by Polonia in Baku (Polish, Russian and Azerbaijani language versions only)

Architecture of the Oil Baron Period. Academy of Science Presidium. Azerbaijan International.

Legacy of the oil barons. Fuad Akhundov. Azerbaijan International.

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


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.


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.


Interior of the opera. Source:

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.