Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Introducing Azerbaijan.

One of the gates of Icherisheher (Old City) of Baku.
Photo by Khortan.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Yay!! I have finally wrapped planning the Thailand/Myanmar trip so I can now return my attention to the Caucusus trip. Much has happened since I last posted up anything on this trip.

I managed to find a reasonably priced hotel for our stay in Baku.  For our visa, we have to get a hotel voucher, printed on hotel letterhead.  I reached out to the hotel and got an email back this morning informing me that they are having issues with their printer and I can expect to get the voucher in two days.  Of course, I am anxiously awaiting for that day to come around.  I just hope they don't forget!  In anticipation that our names might have to appear on the voucher, I replied back to let them know that there are two travelers and what are names are.  Fingers crossed that I will see something in my email inbox on Wednesday, Thursday at the latest.

I also managed to book us into an Airbnb apartment in Yerevan and I am still debating on which Airbnb apartments to rent in Tblisi.   Slowly but surely, we are moving forward on the planning bits and pieces for this trip as well.  Come January, I will reach out to the local guides to inform them of our final plans.

But back to Azerbaijan.  The country, which is officially known as the Republic of Azerbaijan, is situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.  It is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia's Daghestan region to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia and Turkey to the southwest, and Iran to the south. Azerbaijan is a home to diverse ethnicities, majority of which are Azeris, an ethnic group which numbers close to 10 million in the independent Republic of Azerbaijan.

The country was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920 as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic but proclaimed its independence on 30 August 1991, before the official dissolution of the USSR.

Azerbaijan is a unitary constitutional presidential republic that has diplomatic relations with 158 countries and holds membership in 38 international organizations including the United Nations.

While the Constitution of Azerbaijan does not declare an official religion and all major political forces in the country are secularist, the majority of people adhere to Shia Islam i.e., they are Shiite Muslims.

The heritage, culture, and civilization of Azerbaijan has both ancient and modern roots reflecting the country's indigenous Caucasian Albanian tribal roots, evolution under Iranian and Turkic cultures and its former status as a Soviet republic.

We have allotted 10 days for Azerbaijan and we want to see and experience as much of the country as we can in that short time.  For our trip, I put together our itinerary based on several packaged tours that I had seen on the web.  Basically, we are starting with the typical tourist route.

Our Trip Map

With a starting itinerary in hand, I reached out to several local guides to see if they would be willing to take us around and at what cost.  I received a couple of responses back.  After quite a bit of thought, I settled on Gobustan Private Tours. Although they offer a pre-packaged tour that would cover 90% of the places I have on my route and also includes accommodation, we are opting to do a custom tour as well as to find our own accommodation in Baku and the guide, Yalchin, will assist with finding places to stay outside of the big city.  While I have indicated in our itinerary the exact route of our path, the truth is we will have to be a little flexible - we'll work out the final itinerary with Yalchin when we meet up with him in Baku.  However, I do want to make sure we hit the following places as they are the tourist spots.  Of course, if there are off the beaten path places that are nicer, we would definitely be willing to consider scrapping going to a tourist hot spot to see something more local.

Our will start and end in Baku.  I'm going to read up on Baku later though I already know we'll be spending a lot of time exploring the Old City.  For now, I will focus on the other places on our trip.

Gala Open Air Ethnographic Museum.
(Photo from advantour.com)

Gala (also spelled Qala) is a settlement and municipality located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Baku. It will be a day trip from Baku to visit Gala.  So what's here?  The answer is a a well-known open-air historical and ethnographic museum.  I enjoy visits to open air ethnographic museums.  The one in Gala was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to the history of the Absheron Peninsula from the 3rd century BC to the 19th century AD.  Here, we will be able to see how the ancient Azerbaijani lived, what they ate and drank and how they managed a household during that time.

The museum is home to 215 architectural and archaeological monuments -  several ancient Azerbaijani homes (portable tents made of animal skins that were subsequently replaced by stone structures), 5 mosques, 3 bathhouses, 4 water houses (ovdan), houses, agricultural buildings, tombs, barrows, and remnants of an ancient castle.  Of course, no ancient town would be complete without livestock and there are a few that live on the museum grounds.  The museum also exhibits ancient household items, glassware, jewelry and other items used in daily Azerbaijani life.  All the monuments exhibits, including the buildings, were brought to the museum from various locations in the Absheron Peninusla and have either been fully renovated or fully reconstructed.

Petroglyphs at Gobustan National Park.
(Photo by Azeri. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.)
Gobustan National Park officially known as the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape and unofficially simply as Gobustan is a hill and mountain site located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Baku on the west bank of the Caspian Sea.

The park has more than 6,000 petroglyphs dating back between 5,000 - 40,000 years.  Most of the rock engravings depict primitive men, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, pictures of sun and stars.

The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

Yeddy-Gumbez Mausoleum or “Seven Domes" where members of the Shirvan Empire
are buried. (Photo by Walter Callens.  Licensed under CC BY 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Shamakhi is an ancient Azerbaijan city that dates back to the 5th century BC.  From the 9th to the 16th centuries it was the capital city of Shirvan Dynasty.  By the middle of the 18th century,k it was the center of the Shamakhi Khanate.

The main landmark of the city is Gulistan fortress.  Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, the fortress was the last refuge of the Shirvan Dynasty.  Located nearby the fortress are the mausoleum of Yeddy-Gyumbez (“The Seven Domes”), Djuma cathedral mosque (butilt in 10th century, reconstructed in the 19th century), and numerous ruins of the structures dating from the 10th to the 17th centuries.



Copperware in Lahij.
(Photo by Nick Taylor.  Licensed under stream CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Lahij (also spelled Lahic) is a village and municipality on the southern slopes of Greater Caucasus that is noted for its traditional handicrafts, especially copper works.  Leather crafts are also big in Lahij.

It was during the Medieval Period that Lahij became an important center of craftsmen in Azerbaijan. Lahij master craftsmen included jewelers, blacksmiths, carpenters, carpet makers, engravers, painters, tanners, and shoemakers.  Many of the works created by the skilled craftsmen of Lahij are exhibited in famous museums and collections in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia and Europe.

I'm thinking that this might be a place for Pat and I to do a bit of souvenir shopping.  For this trip, I think I will try and buy one small item from each country.  Nothing big as my house is already cluttered up with stuff from around the world but I must also give into my weakness to have things around me to remind me of my wonderful times globetrotting!

Ruins at Gabala.
(Photo by Emin Bashirov.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)



Gabala (also spelled Qabala) is the ancient capital of Caucasian Albania. Archeological evidence indicates that the city functioned as the capital of Caucasian Albania as early as 4th century BC. The ruins of the ancient town are situated 15 km (9 miles) from the the modern town center.  The most renown ruins are those of an ancient walled city, Chukhur Gabala which date back to the 4th century BC.

The city is also home to a large war memorial, the Historical Ethnography Museum of Gabala, and the Rashidbek monument, which is shaped as a huge book.




Church of Kish, Sheki.
(Photo by Franzfoto. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)


Sheki (also spelled Shaki) is located in northern Azerbaijan, on the southern part of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, 325 kilometers (202 miles) from Baku.  Shaki is surrounded by snowy peaks of the Greater Caucasus, some peaks reaching 3000–3600 meters in height.

The history of the region around Sheki dates back to more than 2700 years but unfortunately, it was repeatedly devastated by both man and Mother Nature.  As a result, the oldest historic and architectural monuments currently preserved date back to only the 16th-19th centuries.

For many centuries, Shaki has been famous for being the center of silkworm-breeding.

Doesn't sound like there's much to see here but I think we'll very much enjoy simply being in the snow capped mountains!  The current plan is actually spend a night here which I think will be a very interesting experience!





Shah Abbas Mosque, built in 15th century to mark the liberation of Ganja
from the Ottoman Empire.
(Photo by By Urek Meniashvili .  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Ganja  is Azerbaijan's second-largest city and is one of the oldest cities in the Caucasus.  There are quite a few historic landmarks to see in the city including the Tomb of Nizami.  The tomb is located just outside the city and commemorates Nizami Ganjavi, one of the most  influential Central Asian poets to have ever lived.

Ganja is primarily known for its Azerbaijani and Islamic architecture, but its buildings reflect the various peoples and empires that have previously ruled the city. Among the oldest surviving examples of Islamic architecture in Ganja are the Nizami Mausoleum and Shah Abbas Caravanserai.




Goygol.  (Photo by Steve Hollier from Azerbaijan Days.)
Goygol, also known as Khanlar, is located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Ganja.  The town is the capital of the rayon (district) of the same name and is named after the nearby Lake Goygol.  This region is one of the most picturesque parts of the country.

The area is also unusual because it was originally settled by German colonists in 1819.  Back then the town was called Helenendorf.  The colony was founded under the orders of Tsar Alexander I to help settle the region that had just been acquired from the Safavid dynasty under the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813.

The district has about 30 historical and architectural monuments of art that reflect its German heritage.   



Juma Mosque, Quba.
(Photo by Xoncha. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Quba (also spelled Kuba) is home to the country's largest community of Mountain Jews and one of the largest Jewish populations in the former Soviet Union.  In a country that is predominantly a Muslim population, it will be interesting to visit a Jewish enclave and learn more about their history.

Despite their minuscule numbers, 6,400 in 2010 out of a population of 8 million, their presence is acknowledged, especially the Jews of Quba. These Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in this area for a very long time, perhaps 2,500 years. They consider themselves to be the descendants of the Jews who were exiled to Babylon following the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC. Most have remained in what is modern day Iran. In the 8th century AD, when the Muslims from the Arab Peninsula conquered the area, they brought the Jewish tribe, an ally, to the area of Baku to serve as a barrier against the Kazakhs to the north. In 1730, they were officially allowed to put down roots and own property in the Quba province.

So far, I've not come across any description of the town's historic Jewish landmarks though I hope we do get to visit them. Otherwise, ancient Guba contains at least 134 historical and archaeological monuments. These include the temple of fire-worshippers near the village of Khynalyg, tombs of Aghbil village dating back to the 16th century, several mosques (Juma, Sakina- Khanum, and Hadjy Djafar), Gumbezli bath house, and Chuhur hamam.

Khinaliq.
(Photo by Gulustan.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Khinaliq is an ancient Caucasian village going back to the Caucasian Albanian period. The small village is located high up in the Cacucusus and is considered to be the most remote and isolated village in Azerbaijan and therefore, an excellent place for hiking. There's nothing to see or do here other than to admire the scenery. According to my itinerary, Khinaliq is the last place we visit before returning to the big city, Baku. I think it will be a nice place to relax. Perhaps we can spend the night here.

It's going to be a bit of a whirlwind tour of Azerbaijan but I'm very much looking forward to it!