Asian Art Newspaper explores the Silk Road town of Sheki, in Azerbaijan’s Greater Caucasus
Azerbaijan is not on the well-worn tourist path, but things are beginning to change and it is becoming one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. The wealth of Baku, the capital, is based on oil, but its heritage stretches far beyond its first discovery in 1846. The caravan routes of the Silk Road invariably crossed Azerbaijan, serving as one of the gateways to Europe. In the Islamic world, the area has a complicated history and has been ruled by Persians, Arabs, and Muslim Turks, before becoming part of the influence of the Czarist Russian Empire and finally becoming part of the Soviet Union (USSR). Azerbaijan finally became a democratic republic in 2018. In 2019, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee confirmed the inscription of the historic city of Sheki on the World Heritage list, as an important city along the historic Silk Roads.
By the 18th century, Sheki, in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus in northwest Azerbaijan, was already an international centre for silk production. Much of the town’s wealth came from sericulture and the trading of cocoons. It had an ideal climate for growing mulberry trees, which silk worms need to develop and these trees can still be seen around the town. The town also became famous for a distinctive embroidery style, tekelduz, featuring the flora and fauna of the area The silk industry continued to grow throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with silk production finally nationalised in 1928 and a large silk factory opening in 1931 that replaced the smaller-scale production previously managed by local families. During this period, Sheki was one of the major silk suppliers in the USSR. The industry began to decline by the end of the 20th-century with the break-up of the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. The industry has only survived due to a renewed interest in silk crafts domestically and the rise of the tourist industry, which has allowed local, small-scale, enterprises using traditional methods to reappear in the town to feed demand. In 2014, UNESCO recognised the kelaghayi (traditional large square head scarf), also known as a ‘chargat’ in the western part of the country, as intangible cultural heritage. The colours and patterns of kelaghayi often have meaning and importance for events such as weddings, engagements, mourning periods, and daily life.
Today, the Silk Road links are most visible in and around Sheki. The history of the area dates back at least two millennia, the surviving historic buildings date to the last quarter of the 18th century and relate to the town’s rise in importance after Haji Chalabi Khan (1703-1755) revolted against the ruler of the Safavid dynasty, Nadir Shah, and Shah of Persia (1736-47).
About 30 years after the establishment of the khanate, all the earlier structures from the original settlement were destroyed by fatal floods and landslides. However with its new-found wealth, the town was rebuilt, in a safer location, on higher ground by the Gurjana River. It is for this reason that the city today appears homogenous in design, using the architectural language of Safavid and Qajar styles with later features relating to traditions and architecture from territories under Russian rule in the 19th/20th century. This is the town that visitors see today, characterised by traditional architecture – tiled-roof houses with high gables. Today, the town is one of Azerbaijan’s most picturesque and relaxed, filled with cobbled streets and medieval architecture, a green, country retreat – a complete contrast to the oil wells of Baku and the more arid, desert-like, plains of the south.
Haji Chalabi Khan, the ruler and founder of the Sheki Khanate hailed from the same tribe as Nadir Shah, the Afsharid dynasty, from the northern territories of modern-day Azerbaijan and Iran. At its height, the khanate was considered one of the most powerful feudal states in Caucasus, helped by their links to the Qajars, of Turkic origin. The town managed to survive the various wars and power struggles, as the Sheki khans turned sides and sought military assistance from the Russian Empire after growing tensions with the Qajars, of Turkic origin and from the same area of Azerbaijan. Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, finally re-established Persian suzerainty over all former Safavid and Afsharid dependencies in the Caucasus around the time as his reconquest of Georgia. Sheki was also finally added to this protectorate. However, in 1805, Mustafa Salim Khan signed a treaty with Alexander I of Russia effectively making Sheki Khanate a Russian vassal state. This reign in the palace was short lived, as a mere 18 years after the construction of palace, the khanate was abolished and became a Russian province. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Sheki remained a feudal trade town with its management transferred by the Russian government to a military commandant. In 1819, the khanate was officially abolished and transformed into a Russian province subordinate to the Russian military administration. It was incorporated into the Azerbaijan SSR in May 1920.
Today, this turbulent past is mainly forgotten and the historic centre that comprises the citadel was started by Muhammad Hasan, the fifth khan, in 1761. Inside the citadel’s walls is the gem of the Khan’s Palace, built circa 1762-9, and designed by the Persian architect Haji Zainal Abdul. It is a beautiful building to behold – a two-storey structure with an imposing façade, decorated with colourful geometrical patterns and a mirrored muqarnas, ornamented vaulting over the entrance. The palace is considered the best example of 18th-century architecture in Azerbaijan, showing the height of taste and skills in artistic decoration of the period that also incorporated local influences into the Qajar style. Within the citadel complex there are also the remains of a mosque, bath house, and domestic buildings such as pantries, stables, barns and other service buildings.
As Sheki was at the heart of trade routes to and from Asia, the best materials for the palace were imported from a variety of sources, including Russia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe to create the lavish decoration that reflected the power and influence of the khanate. The six rooms that comprise the palace are covered with elaborate frescoes in the Qajar style, depicting flowers, fauna, mythical battles, as well as hunting scenes. While the upstairs rooms front walls are covered, in large part, by an intricate mosaic of multicoloured glass set in a wooden lattice – this technique is called shebeke, where the forms are constructed without nails or glue. It is highly laborious work and the best examples can be found within the palace This craft has now been revived and a workshop near the palace shows how these complicated geometric wood frames are designed and created to hold the coloured glass.
Adding to the charm of area, clustered around the citadel and nearby areas, are a number of old merchant houses in vernacular architecture that give further proof of the past wealth of the town. Now mainly in a state of genteel decay, they will no doubt be restored in the coming years as tourism and money come back into the area. Apart from the citadel area, there are also two 18th-century caravanserais to explore, yukhary and ashaghy (lower and upper), linked to the citadel by Sheki’s ancient commercial road. The larger, upper, caravanserai has returned to its roots, as since 1988 part of the restored building now houses a hotel. The other rooms, formerly used as storage and accommodation for merchants, are mainly craft shops. In the days of Silk Road trade, the upper rooms traditionally would have been used for merchants’ accommodation and offices, with storage and their animals sheltered below.
The recently restored Winter Palace from the same era, just a few kilometres further out of town towards Kish, should not be missed. It is a smaller, less ostentatious version of the Khan’s Summer Palace. The lower rooms have been left essentially plain, but the well-preserved painted walls in the main upper room are a revelation, where a visitor can imagine the wealth and luxury that surrounded the Khan and his court. The murals date to circa 1765, and depict scenes from the works of the 12th-century Persian poet, Nizami.
And at Kish, there is one more site to explore – the Church of Kish. Completed in the first century and used most recently as a Caucasian Albanian church, it is one of Azerbaijan’s oldest remaining churches. In the past it functioned as a meeting place for many ancient Christian religions – Caucasian Albanian Apostolic Church, a Chalcedonian church with the Georgian Orthodox Church and later as an Armenian Apostolic Church – reflecting the complicated role of Christianity in the region.
Sheki’s long history and connection to sericulture, trade, and the Silk Road has allowed the town to keep its distinctive culture and has enabled restoration of its historic buildings. This allows the town to flourish, rediscover its lost crafts, and to develop tourism in a sustainable way. Rather than forget its past, the residents cherish their heritage and have made it part of their future.