Azerbaijan International

Summer 1998 (6.2)
Pages 28-35

Paradise in the Caucasus Foothills

by Azad Sharifov

Shaki - AzerbaijanKnown for its beauty and charm, Shaki is a "must-see" for any tourist traveling through the countryside in Azerbaijan.

Shaki is one of Azerbaijan's most beautiful cities. View is taken from the city administration building.

Shaki is one of the most ancient towns in the Caucasus. It dates back to the Late Bronze Age and played a vital role in the development of Azerbaijani culture throughout the ages. The designation of a "Silk Road" connecting the West to the East directly applies to Shaki, for it was once a great silk center.

Merchants passing through the town stayed at one of its five "caravanserais." In these two-storied "hotels for camel caravans," the goods, horses and camels were kept downstairs, while the merchants stayed in rooms upstairs. Many travelers used to stay there since Shaki was a transit town between east and west as well as between north and south.

After a devastating flood in 1772, mud flows destroyed much of the city. Unfortunately, it seems no evidence is available about the architecture of the old town before it was rebuilt to include a fortress wall. The fortress, which now can be seen in the northern part of the city, was built during the reign of the first Shaki Khan Haji Chelebi (1743-1755).

Shaki grew to become one of the largest towns in Azerbaijan. Today, it has a population of approximately 90,000.

Shaki "Must-Sees"

The five-hour trip from Baku to Shaki is well worth the effort. There are many places to see. The ideal time to visit is during any season except for winter. Situated like an amphitheater surrounded by mountains and forests of oak trees, Shaki rises above fertile yaylags (pastures) and fields. In town, you'll see brick houses, weeping willow trees and canals carrying spring water.

The Palace of the Khans is an absolute must-see for any visitor. Tour guides will gladly show you around, although they may not know English.

Left: Inner Courtyard of the Upper Caravanserai which was reconstructed and converted into a modern hotel. Photo: Blair

Right: View of the Shaki Palace of the Khans. The ornamental work on the first floor is of brick and stone. Photo: Khanlou

Shaki - Azerbaijan
Shaki - Azerbaijan

One of the most striking architectural features of the residence is its wooden framed stained glass windows known as "shabaka." Shabaka is a combination of hundreds of hand-crafted pieces of wood (platino

and poplar trees) so carefully crafted that they fit together firmly without the use of a single nail. (See our back cover.) For a closer look at how shabaka is made, there is a local workshop adjacent to the palace. The craftsman or one of his apprentices may be there to show you around.


 Shaki - Azerbaijan

Left: Shaki Palace of the Khans. Photo: Khanlou.
Right: Shabaka windows in the Shaki Palace of the Khans. Photo: Blair

Inside the Palace of the Khans, you'll find murals painted on the walls. Some depict romantic, pastoral scenes of gazelle hunting, as well as pictures based on stories told by the 12th century Middle Eastern poet Nizami. In the wife's quarters, the walls are painted with flowers; in the khan's rooms, depictions of battle cover the walls.

Left: Entrance gate to the Shaki Palace grounds. Right: Typical home in Shaki.

Shaki - Azerbaijan


The ground floor rooms were used in the winter for living and were furnished with fireplaces-bukhary. The upper floor is completely ceremonial and corresponds to the ground floor in plan. In 1952, under the supervision of one of the leading architects of the republic, Niyazi Rezayev, the Shaki Khans' Palace was, for the first time, measured and studied. The restoration work was completed in 1967 and the monument was given a second birth. Unfortunately, the palace today is in great need of repair, and some of the murals are in great danger of being lost.

Shaki Crafts
People used to say, "The Swiss are known for their watches, but Shakis are known for their silk." In European markets, especially in Venice, Shaki silk was valued as highly as Japanese and Chinese silk. At one time, about 14,000 families in Shaki were engaged in silkworm breeding and produced approximately 15,000 poods (240 tons) of raw silk each year. Part of the silk thread was exported, and part of it was processed in local factories.

Photo: Shabaka windows are still being made in Shaki. The pieces of the wooden fram holding the glass are fit together so tightly that no nails are required. Photo: Oleg Litvin.

Shaki is also known for its fine needlework. As early as 200 years ago, shoes, pillowcases, and other decorated items were sold in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and even Western Europe.

During a visit to Shaki, French novelist Alexandre Dumas was fascinated by the decorative needlework. He wrote, "The charm of this needlework is in the way it is carried out: a dark, monotone background (usually velvet or broadcloth), a special awl and colorful silken threads. The masters demonstrated extraordinary skills imprinting designs on the fabric."

Shaki is famous for its embroidered needle work.

 Shaki - Azerbaijan

 Shaki - Azerbaijan

The biggest employer in town is the silk factory, where the whole process is carried out, from the cocoon to the weaving and dyeing of material. During the Soviet period, as many as 7,000 employees worked shifts around the clock. It may not be possible to visit the factory as a general tourist, but if you are with some Azerbaijanis, you may be able to get in. Silk making is extremely labor-intensive. The work conditions are extremely difficult. For example, the noise of the looms is unbelievably deafening and workers are extremely low-paid (less than $10 per month).

This type of needlework is still produced today by a few women in the community. But, in general, it seems to be dying out. It is possible to inquire about the whereabouts of the craftswomen who do this work and visit them in their homes and even purchase some of the needlework.

As you walk down the shaded streets of Shaki, you are likely to hear the tap-tap-tap of hammers. That's the sound of tin being worked into the shape of water containers, trays and lamps. "Misgars," or coppersmiths, have passed down their trade from generation to generation for several centuries. Their skills have been in great demand by both the townspeople and outlying cattle-breeding households, who need tin products for everyday use.

Photo: Pottery Maker in Shaki. Photo: Litvin



Above Left: Novruz celebration in Shaki. Right: Attaching lids to teapots. Chest in background is typical of Shaki handcraft. Photos: Litvin.

A window shopper in late 19th century Paris or St. Petersburg would have been likely to see Shaki jewelry, such as earrings, bracelets, and broaches, on display. At the time, at least 30 Shaki workshops were producing women's jewelry as well as silver belt buckles, pendants, tableware and decorations for daggers and sabers. Chromium-plated silver items, such as women's belts and bracelets, were especially popular. The use of enamel made these items more durable.



Photos: Left: silk mill looms. Right: Preparing the spools for the silk looms. Photos: Blair

You can still find a shop or two where men's hats are hand-sewn. They look similar to, but larger than, French berets. Archive documents from the 19th century show that there were as many as 235 hatters at that time. Today, you'll also find shops that make tars (a Middle Eastern stringed instrument) and furniture such as chests and cradles.

Left: Samples of silk design on display at the Shaki History Museum.

Don't forget to visit the bazaar, especially on weekends. The bazaar in Shaki is one of the largest in the countryside. Besides the usual fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese, you'll find locally made pottery, hand-knitted stockings for children and hand woven carpets.

Tips For Your Stay
In the 18th and 19th centuries there were five large caravanserais in Shaki: the Isfahan, Tabriz, Lezgi, Ermeni and Taze. At present, two caravanserais have been preserved-the Upper and Lower caravanserais. The Upper one is open for tourists. Plan to stay overnight in Shaki at the reconstructed carvanserai. Don't count on having hot water, but the stay is still extremely worthwhile and memorable. The rooms are sizable and the surroundings are very attractive. You'll feel like you're living in a different century.

While you're there, treat yourself to some steaming hot "piti." Piti is a stew made with lamb, which simmers over low heat in little clay pots, separately for each person. People living in Shaki are particularly fond of this Middle Eastern dish. Shishlik, lamb kabobs, are also a favorite. For dessert, try some sweet halva with some hot tea. Local honey, served with freshly baked bread in the morning for breakfast, is extraordinarily delicious as well.

From Azerbaijan International (6.2) Summer 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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