There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sheki (or Şǝki): Part 4 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

We had expected our rooms to be overwarm, but we had not realised that the wooden floors of the room above would make any footfall sound like a hammer striking an anvil, nor that we would hear every word of the not entirely sober monologue of its Russian woman occupant - her husband was either dead or asleep. If only I spoke the language I would have ample ammunition for blackmail. And then there were the youth of Sheki, some of whom thought it a good idea to drive their Ladas up and down the main drag with windows open and music blaring. 'They think they're cute,' Yassim said with contempt when we mentioned it. I found it hard to forgive their taste for the most anodyne europop.

So where is Sheki?
Breakfast, a most disorganised affair, did not start until 9 but was redeemed by the quality of the local honey. Afterwards we set off towards the walled fortress that covers much of the north end of town.

Khan's Palace, Sheki

The original Sheki was even further north but was destroyed by floods in 1716. The local ruler, Haji Chalabi Khan (for whom last night's restaurant was named) rebuilt the fort and in the 1740s declared himself leader of an independent Khanate. After even more calamitous floods in 1772, he moved down the hill to his reserve fortress at a place then called Nukha and renamed it Sheki. The kilometre long walls of that fortress surround, among other things, the palace he built in 1740. The palace stands behind two huge plane trees so old that they were mature before building started. It is not large, being constructed for administration rather than as living quarters. The reception room is lavishly decorated, the secretary’s room less so as he should not be distracted from his work while upstairs the ladies’ room, well separated so the waiting ladies should hear nothing of the men's deliberations, is sumptuous. The Khan's private room is filled with artwork reminding him of the dangers of neglecting his duties. No photographs are allowed inside, but below are scans of two of the postcards we purchased in the gift shop (the only postcards we saw in Azerbaijan).

Inside the Khan's Palace, Sheki
(postcard bought at the palace)

The palace windows are mostly of Şǝbǝkǝ the local version of stained glass.
Inside the Khan's Palace, Sheki
(postcard bought at the palace)
Inside the walled fortress we visited the workshop of Sheki’s sole remaining master of this craft. Standing below a picture of his grandfather (the family resemblance was remarkable) the latest generation of the family showed us how the windows are put together, the glass fitting into a framework of grooved wood without nails or glue. The frames are often large and the designs intricate, involving tiny pieces of glass and wood – as many as a thousand per square metre. Each window is designed by the master craftsman – our demonstrator’s father - who supervises the immensely skilful business of cutting the glass and wood.

Putting together a Şǝbǝkǝ window
 The handicraft centre within the fort did not detain us long, but at the entrance there was a sweet stall. Sweets are a local specialty, particularly 'halvasi', a variation on baklava. A line of shops specialising in these sweets stood below our caravansary, but we choose to buy ours here - in sealed packages we hoped the halvasi and mindal (nuts in a caramel or sugar coating) would keep until we reached home.

 Also in the grounds is a circular tower, which Yassim described as an Albanian Temple to the sun god, adding that the Russians had added the extra towers to give it a basilica shape and turned it into a church. The 'Caucasian Albanians' - of whom more later - became Christians in the fourth century and the building, though old, did not look quite that old, so I am unsure about this information.


'Albanian' Temple, Sheki
The old town of Sheki climbs the west side of a narrow valley from the modern town to the fortress. Half way down the valley, on the higher eastern side is the war memorial. Being part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan became involved in the Second World War in 1941 when the Nazis attacked Soviet Russia with the oil fields of Baku among their main objectives. Several hundred thousand Azeris died during the four years of war, a huge sacrifice for a small country.

 
War Memorial, Sheki
The site of the memorial also gives a good view over the modern town.

Sheki from the War Memorial
We left the memorial and drove down to the Friday Mosque in the town centre beside the park where we had eaten last night. Young men played football in the courtyard as children were streaming in to attend the madrassa. The Qur'an is the word of God and God spoke in Arabic, so children must learn Arabic to read and understand the Qur'an. Our entrance disrupted a lesson going on in one corner, but dotted around the rest of the mosque boys were kneeling before books on low lecterns, rocking backwards and forwards as they read the Holy Scripture aloud. The building is functional rather than an architectural masterpiece and no photographs were allowed inside..

 
The Friday Mosque, Sheki

 The more secular surroundings of Sheki market are a short drive away. We wandered round, saw more halvasi,…..

Trays of Halvasi, Sheki market
….. admired the quality of the meat, the carcasses hanging outside the butchers' shops, and purchased some sumac, a spice it is often hard to find at home but here is widespread and cheap.

Butchers, Sheki market - not a good place for vegetarians
Kiş is a village 10km into the hills from Sheki and we went there next to see the ‘Albanian’ church.

The 'Albanians' are a somewhat mysterious people who once inhabited much of northwestern Azerbaijan – they have no connection with modern Albania - and converted to Christianity in the fourth century. They have now disappeared but are generally thought to have been assimilated into the Armenian and Azeri populations.

Most of Kiş lies off the road and we struggled up through narrow cobbled lanes. It was not only us who were struggling, we followed a man working hard to get his turkey dinner home, the turkey kept looking up at him and blinking.

Following a man with a turkey through Kis
The Albanian church is at the top of the narrow lanes. Outside is a bust of Thor Heyerdahl who contributed to the restoration of the ancient building. The church is old, but the site has been of religious significance since long before the church was built. In the churchyard, in glass topped tombs, are the bronze-age skeletons of a man well over two metres tall and woman of 1.9m.
Thor Hayerdahl, Kiş
 Thor Heyerdahl saw the size of these skeletons, knew that Albus is the Latin for white, observed the boats depicted in the Qobustan petroglyphs and postulated that the Albanians migrated north and become the Vikings. Nobody questions Heyerdahl’s integrity as an adventurer, but his qualifications in anthropology are more problematic. This was not the only time he came up with a theory and then went looking for evidence to ‘prove’ it, which is not the scientific way. The story that the Albanians were blond and blue-eyed may have been a yarn spun by an over-obliging local, and ‘Albanian’ is more likely to derive from the Armenian for ‘affable’ – the soubriquet of an early Albanian leader - than the Latin for ‘white’.

The Albanian Church, Kiş
Three-quarters of the way back to Sheki, Togrul pulled into a restaurant in a garden behind a large house. Earlier Yassim had said that he and Togrul would treat us to lunch today, maybe as a response to me paying for the barbecue yesterday or, more likely, as goodwill gesture from the travel company. Yassim had been on the phone earlier and this was obviously what he had been booking.

We were shown to a table on a balcony overlooking the garden. Water melon and assorted salads were already on the table, but we did not have to wait long before the sac (pronounced ‘sadj’) arrived. Slices of beef, aubergine, potato and flatbread, with tomatoes, onions and tasty little button mushrooms jostled together in a shallow wok perched on its own charcoal brazier. The appealing individual favours mingled to make a whole that was more than the not inconsiderable sum of their parts and the juices collected in the bottom in a tomato/aubergine mush that was toe-curlingly wonderful.

Lynne and sac, near Sheki - this quantity is for four, not two!
Lunch had started late and gone on long, so it was mid-afternoon before we were back at the caravansary.

It seemed a good moment to write the postcards we had bought in the fort. Ten minutes stroll down the hill, just past the conveniently placed post office, was a restaurant and bar. There was nobody else at the tables in the small, rather unkempt garden, but there was a young man who was happy to pour us a beer.

At lunch we had drunk water and the fresh cherry drink Yassim called compote, but the lure of cold beer was irresistible on a stunningly hot afternoon so we ordered two glasses of Aysberq. The Titanic Brewery of Burslem produces an excellent beer also call Iceberg. Apart from logos featuring a large ship, the only thing Titanic Iceberg has in common with Azerbaijani Aysberq is that they are both beer. That said, the cold, fizzy Aysberq hit a dry spot within us and sorted it. Two were required to finish the post cards, but they cost pence and it was money well spent. We took the cards to the post office where an obliging man applied his glue stick to the back of eighteen individual stamps and we wished the cards bon voyage.

Walking down the hill for an Aysberq
 In the evening we returned to the Chalabi Khan Restaurant. Studying the menu, we wondered why some dishes were so much more expensive than others. Fortunately we spotted Yassim and Togrul at a nearby table and sought advice. Some dishes, they told us, were for individuals, some for two, others for four, but there was no indication in otherwise exemplary English language menu, and had they not been there we would have been unable to discuss this with the waiters.

The fried chicken and potatoes, they told us were for two. ‘We have eaten it recently,’ Togrul told us. ‘They use intensively farmed chickens and they are very scrawny.’ Perhaps we should have taken heed of his warning, but we ordered it anyway. Someone somewhere in Azerbaijan, we learned, has found a way of breeding meat-free chickens. After three world class meals in a row we were brought down to earth with a bump.

Later, men started arriving in twos and threes and filling up the tables. For a group of men to come out at half past nine, sit outside restaurant and order a pot of tea, a dish of jam and sweets seems odd to us, but one should not knock such sobriety.

Evening in Sheki - some have tea and jam, other just sit on the park benches and talk
(but where are all the women?)
Back in our caravansary we had a better night. The baby upstairs may have cried, but its parents were trying hard to get it to sleep and it was infinitely preferable to a drunken Russian. There may have been fewer youths in noisy cars, and it may have been cooler (or I had grown used to the temperature), but either way, I slept well.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea

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