Pirallahi – the forgotten island

 

boat

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.

Oil

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.

pirallahi

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.

Shamakhi_Juma_Mosque,

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.

Gulustan

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.

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

Backstreets of Targova – the residence of Agha Bala Guliyev

mural 2

Source: Azerbaijan International

The complicated history of Azerbaijan left Baku with plenitude of architectural gems not highlighted in typical tourist itineraries. That’s why, when visiting the city, it is worth setting aside some time to stroll through the backstreets of Targova, the area rich in beautiful mansions constructed during the first oil boom. Nowadays many of them crumble due to neglect over the last decades, nevertheless they still give an idea about their former grandeur.  Among the buildings deserving special attention is the former residence of Agha Bala Guliyev designed in 1899 by a Polish architect, Eugeniusz Skibinski. Currently the building serves as the seat of Architects’ Union.

The mansion

ABG

Source: AZerbaijan International

Located just a short walk from the Fountain Square, the former residence of Agha Bala Guliyev is among the most impressive and best preserved buildings in the area.  Guliyev owned many mills and, unlike most of the local rich of his times, made his fortune  trading flour (hence his nickname the ‘’Flour Baron’’). In contrast to the fashionable European designs used by other millionaires, he decided to build his house in Baku-Absheron architectural style and incorporated decorations from the portals of the Shrivan Shah’s Palace (Source: Azerbaijan in the Beginning of XX Century (…) see the link below). But the richly decorated villa contains not only Oriental elements – there’s also a multitude of modern artwork including colorful oil paintings and murals. Click here for more information.

staircase

Source: Azerbaijan International

Getting there:

The place is located on 24 Murtuza Muktarov Street, about 10 mins walk from the Fountain Square. You should be able to enter without any problems. Just remember to be considerate for the people working there!

Useful links:

Interiors: Architects’ Union. Agha Bala Guliyev’s Residence. Azerbaijan International

Azerbaijan in the Beginning of XX Century: Roads Leading to Independence. Dilara Seyid-zade

 

Welcoming the New Year in Azerbaijan

After the long New Year holidays we finally get back to work with lots of energy and motivation for these coming months. However, before telling you about New Year celebrations in Azerbaijan, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best in 2014 and beyond. We hope this coming year will bring you lots of happiness and success both in your personal and professional lives, and plenty of exciting travel opportunities to new, inspiring places. We also hope to see you in Azerbaijan sometime soon!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

idea-plastic-bottles-tree

Baku’s New Year tree made of plastic bottles. Source: azernews

Celebrating the New Year in the Land of Fire

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the New Year (Nowruz) was celebrated in Azerbaijan in March in accordance with the Persian tradition. However, after Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, the new authorities introduced the more widely used Georgian calendar and banned celebration of the Persian New Year. From then on, the coming of the New Year began to be celebrated on December 31. After Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, Nowruz was restored as a public holiday but the end of the calendar year continues to be celebrated on December 31.

wikispace

Ded Moroz & Snegurochka. Source: wikispace

Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

Nowadays the New Year’s Eve in Azerbaijan is very much a family holiday although often celebrated together with friends. Typically, a Christmas-like New Year tree is decorated in the house before December 31, and then removed after the Old New Year (14th of January), an Orthodox holiday. Another important tradition is the visit of the Ded Moroz (in Azerbaijani Shakhta Babah), the equivalent of Santa Claus, and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, who come on the New Year’s Eve to give presents to children. Finally, right before midnight family and friends with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine give a toast to the passing year and then at midnight another toast is given to the incoming New Year.

For more information click here

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