Excursions to the mountains and valleys of Shirvan, with babbling brooks and granite blocks of various and unusual shapes, which are scattered everywhere like the toys of a giant, will leave an unforgettable impression.
Every opportunity for active vacations is present in this region: from casual walks to extreme ascents of peaks and climbing frozen waterfalls.
In the area of the Maraza settlement, in one of the rocky canyons is the two-storied Diri Baba Mausoleum (1402). This monument has always attracted the attention of travelers with its strange appearance and halo of mystical secrets, is connected with numerous legends. Two little apertures in the northern wall lead to a grotto carved into the massif of rock.
Near Shamakhi, the ruins of Gulistan fortress has been preserved, on the site where the palace of the Shirvanshahs once stood, right up to its destruction in the 16th century. Strong walls with numerous round and square towers surrounded the territory of the fortress. Hacked through the rock, a long, secret passage 2 m wide and 2.5-3m in height led from the fortress to a spring, running in the depths of the canyon. Having passed around a narrow gully, the passage made several turns, rising steeply, with an incline reaching 50°. The passage is provided with stairs, carved into the rock and assembled from large stones.
Existing from the 7th century, the famous Lahyj settlement, located on the banks of the Girdimanchay River at a height of 1,200 m above sea level, is well known. This small town, lost in the mountains, is one of the most famous handicraft centers in Azerbaijan. It has been famed for its production of weapons and copper coated tableware since medieval times. The tableware and weaponry of the Lahyj masters was in high demand throughout the Caucasus. These days, in spite of the difficulties, local craftsmen – braziers, curriers, chasers, potters, blacksmiths, and papakhchi producing headdresses and engravers of metal and wood, continue the work of their ancestors.
Shirvan is the ancient name of the historical region that stretched on the territory of modern Azerbaijan, from the valley of the Kura River to the city of Derbent and encompassing the western coast of the Caspian Sea and the southeast foothills of the Greater Caucasus. People have inhabited this area since time immemorial. In the II century BC Shirvan was the cradle of the Caucasian Albania, whose capital was in the ancient city of Kabala (modern Gabala). This state flourished here for six hundred years, until it fell under the influence of Sassanid Iran, which by the beginning of the 6th century established complete dominance in these places. It was the Sasanids who gave the name of the territory of Shirvan (Sharvan). The next two centuries were marked for Shirvan by a series of seizures and bloody wars. In the VIII century Shemakha became the capital of Shirvan, and Shirvashahs began to rule here. This dynasty stayed here for a long time. It was during the reign of the Shirvanshahs, especially in the Middle Ages, that Shirvan reached its peak. People here were engaged in farming, growing cotton, extracting oil, producing silk and other fabrics. Major trade routes passed through the territory of Shirvan, which promoted the development of trade, crafts and art in the region. Even in the XII century in Shirvan was well developed poetry. However, the wars did not cease, and the Shirvan cities were more than once captured, destroyed and burned. In the middle of the 18th century, a separate Shirvan khanate was created in Shirvan. The dynamic development of the historical events of ancient Shirvan led to the fact that this part of modern Azerbaijan is inhabited by people of different nationalities, with different roots, traditions and cultures. And on this territory there are many interesting historical and archaeological sites that attract a constant flow of tourists to the ancient cities and surrounding villages. In addition, the picturesque nature of the region falls into the heart of everyone who once visited it.
The ancient town of Shemakha is located at the foothills of the Big Caucasus Mountains Chain. The general elevation of Shemakha is 800 meters over the sea level. One of the most ancient oriental trading cities, it claims to be the city of Kmakhia mentioned by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolomy in his book ‘Geography’.
For a long period Shemakha knew a very active commercial life, being one of the basic points in the region the Silk Route was going through. Once the capital of Shirvan, Shemakha attracted not only invaders that plundered it but was nearly destroyed over the centuries by repeated earthquakes (1902, 1872, 1859, 1828,1669 and 1667), the most recent shook Shemakha on November 25th, 2000 causing some material damage and a handful of injured people. In spite of all the seismic activity, some ancient buildings have survived, and are worth seeing.
The Djuma Mosque, has been rebuilt several times, but it dates back to the 10th century, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing in the town and the oldest mosque in the Caucasus, occupying the site of an ancient sun worshipers temple. The Seven Cupolas (Eddi Gyumbez) Mausoleum is the burial place for members of the royal families of the Shirvan shahs, for whom Shemakha was the capital for several centuries. The half-ruined cupolas are located across the valley from Shemakha and bear witness to the formidable earthquakes they had to withstand. For further historical details try the History Museum and the Sabir Museum.
On the hills just outside Shemakha you can visit the derelict 11-th century Gulistan fortress (near Xinishli village). High in the Pirgulu mountains, 13 km from Shemakha, 1.400m above seal level, is located the Tusi astronomic observatory, built in the 1960s named after the 13-th century Azeri astronomer, it has the biggest mirror telescope in the CIS. The locals will recommend Pirgulu mountains as a good skiing spot, and the topography is on their side, but there are no lifts, so all you can do is cross-country skiing – Scandinavian style!
Mild climate of this temperate zone, rich soil, abundant forests, alpine meadows are distinctive features of this part of Azerbaijan. The population of this district works mostly in viticulture, vine growing and wine making (Shemakha is famous for excellent wines produced both in wineries and privately at homes), cultivation of fruit and vegetables, cattle-breeding and carpet weaving. Visitors can tour carpet factories and local vineyards (which produce sweet fortified wines). The wine tradition is quite old and the area even has its own pink grape variety, Madrasa / Matrassa, indigenous to Madrasa, a village in Shamakha rayon. These grapes are used for excellent dry red wines, such as “Giz Galasi”, “Yeddi Gozal”, “Naznazi” and “Gara Gila”.
Local legend claims that the first french vines came from Shemakha! In fact the wine produced along the western Caucasus came a long way. As early as the late 15th century wines from this area were bought by some of the more demanding wine connoisseurs in western Europe: the Portuguese. Scores of traders, soldiers, priests and adventurers followed Portuguese expansion in Asia, creating a local market for the Caucasian wines. A few bottles are reported to have even reached the shores of Portugal itself.
When in Shamakhi tourists always visit it in the vicinities of historical -architectural resort Lagich built in the 5th century AD in Girdimanchaj river canyon (The Major Caucasus).
The history of the art of creating recipes in Azerbaijan goes back centuries, is based on the vast experience of hereditary cooks, which is still preserved today. No wonder our country became famous as a land of long-livers. Scientists explain this phenomenon by a favorable climate, lifestyle, organic products and principles of proper nutrition. The most sophisticated gourmets, coming to the republic from different countries of the world, have to taste the sophistication and delicate aroma of Azerbaijani cuisine.
This cuisine is original and has its own national flavor, manifested in the specifics of culinary techniques and traditions of the Azerbaijani feast. The composition and the number of dishes, it is among the extremely diverse and healthy, and is noted for its abundance of various meat, fish and vegetable delicacies, supplemented by delicate herbs and spicy spices. Traditional products of Azerbaijani cuisine are original and unique, they can not be confused with dishes of other national cuisines.
It’s no secret that the culinary art of Azerbaijan enjoys constant popularity. Exclusive Azerbaijani dishes – dolma, bozbash, bosartma, chyhyrtma, hashil, shish kebab, piti, pilov, govurma – are included in the national menu of the numerous peoples of the Caucasus.
“Nush olsun!” – “Bon appetit!”, will be told to you in any corner of Azerbaijan, cordially inviting to a plentiful meal or a real feast of taste. These good wishes you will hear constantly from a variety of people.