Pirallahi – the forgotten island



Image: news.az

A few facts 

Pirallahi, a small island situated some 45 km east of Baku, is the eastern-most point of Azerbaijan. This flat, low-lying land used to be a sacred spot for Zoroastrians (fire worshippers) who decided to build there a temple. During the times of the Russian Empire the name of the island was Svyatoy (‘’the holy one’’). Another interesting fact about Pirallahi is that an undersea booty from a 17th century battle between Persians and Cossacks still lies in the waters north of the island.


The island was among the first, if not the first, oil extraction areas in the country (petroleum was extracted in Pirallahi already in the early 19th century) and it still remains an important oil drilling zone – currently the volume of oil deposits in the northern part of the island is estimated at 1.2 million tons.


Source: panoramio

Why visit?

The island is only 11km long and 4km wide but offers some of the most unique landscapes in the peninsula, and as it might not be enough to fill a day trip, it will certainly complement any tour of Absheron. When entering Pirallahi by the bridge connecting the mainland and the island, visitors will be greeted by a small, rusty, half-sunk ship wreck that stands out from the light blue waters of the Caspian Sea. On the island there are a few houses resembling fishermen huts but majority of the buildings come from the Soviet times. Arguably, the most interesting place awaits the visitors at the end of the island, in the SOCAR-owned area (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) scattered with tens of both active and abandoned oil wells, some smallish oil platforms and rusty ships that have certainly seen better days. Mind you – taking pictures in that zone is forbidden and you might get yourself into some unpleasant conversations if you get caught breaking the rule!

Lighthouse next to Pirallahi Island. Source: gomap.az

Lighthouse next to Pirallahi Island. Source: gomap.az


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.

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.


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

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.

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.

Qala Open Air Museum – experiencing history

Qala is a historical village and archeological site located in the center of Absheron Peninsula, some 40mins drive east from Baku. Because of its high historical value, first signs of human occupation in the area date back to 3rd millennium BC, in 1988 the ancient part of the settlement was declared a historical ethnographic reserve. Today’s village is a blend of past and modern worlds. Among contemporary houses and mosques you will find ruins of buildings from time immemorial, the remains of a castle, bath houses, as well as mausoleums, vaults and storage lakes. The section of the village designated for tourists consists of three parts – the Open Air  Archeological Ethnographical Museum Complex, the castle and the museum building (each of them requires a separate ticket).


Qala fortress. image: Emre Celik

The museum

Thanks to over 215 historical and archeological exhibits gathered in the museum, visitors can learn what was the life like in the village, what were the key daily occupations of its inhabitants and how the settlement evolved  over the centuries. It’s possible to visit the pottery maker’s house, the local market, the enclosure with live animals, including camels, horses and mules, the kurgan, the kilim weaving workshop and the jewellery exhibition. Guests can explore as well the interior of the merchant’s house and taste typical Azerbaijani flat bread baked in a clay oven, tandir. In addition, the museum contains lots of other exhibits including petroglyphs and drawings, of which the oldest date back to the Bronze/Iron Age, and primitive music instruments.

qala museum 2

Qala museum.Stone carvings. Image: Galandar

Qala Fortress 

This well-preserved, picturesque building  consists of a tower (X-XIV Ct) and a stronghold (XVI-XVII Ct.). The tower is 13.8m tall and it’s possible to climb to its top to admire excellent views over the Absheron Peninsula. Within the stronghold are displayed fragments of ceramics and gold jewellery from the X-XVI Ct.


Qala Fortress. Image by Emre Celik

Useful links:

Heydar Aliyev’s Foundation: Qala Archeological Ethnographic Museum Complex

Visions of Azerbaijan: Qala, history in action