The city that was largely unnoticed used to produce silk that was among the best around the globe. Today, it’s regarded as Azerbaijan’s culture and cuisine capital.
“For many, the Silk Road is synonymous with the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan,” said my guide, Habil Gudratli. “But Azerbaijan was also home to key hubs on the trade routes linking Asia with Europe; one of these was the city of Sheki, which grew from a trading post to become a leading international centre for the silk trade.”
About 300km northwest of Azerbaijan’s glitzy capital, Baku, the small city of Sheki is located close to the border between Russia and Georgia at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains. In Sheki, the oak beech, walnut, and ash forests thrive, as do the white mulberry tree, whosewhose leaves feed silkworms that create the coveted fabric.
Sheki was first noticed in the late 1700s when the rulers (khans) established it as an essential capital for their Khanate. There is evidence of sericulture (silkworm breeding and production of silk) in the area dating as far back as the 6th century; however, It was Sheki Khans who made Sheki into a lucrative business. “By the 18th and 19th Centuries, Sheki silk was considered amongst the finest in the world,” Gudratli said. Gudratli. “The wealthy elite as far away as China and Japan purchased it not only for its quality and beauty but for the hygiene and comfort, because lice don’t live in silk like they do in other materials.”
Sheki can be found in trees at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains
The Sheki Khans controlled this area of the Caucasus up to 1819, and their flourishing trading and political empire was located in a fortress complex adorned with fountains, gardens, and marble water features that are said to resemble a type of Caucasian Alhambra. The citadel’s walls are still in use; however, just one 30 or so building is left: the Unesco-inscribed Sheki Khan’s Palace, which was once a summer residence and an administrative building.
The idea was to impress dignitaries who visit The magnificent two-story palace, adorned with vibrant paintings of strutting peacocks and dragons that breathe flowers. It took two years to build (the stonework was initially held together by eggs white) and an additional eight to embellish. Gudratli introduced me to researcher Zamina Rasulava in the palace’s rose garden. She has spent over 20 years studying its extravagant decoration.
As I walked through one grand room one after the other, she emphasized the pomegranate as one of the most significant repeated motifs. “In Islam, which arrived [in Sheki] in the 8th Century, the pomegranate is the king of all paradise fruits because its calyx resembles a crown,” she explained. She explained why, to the Sheki Khans, it also represented the state. “The ruby-red seeds represent the people; the pith separates them into their different regions, cultures and ethnic groups. If they are brought together by good governance, then there is unity, which in turn bears rich fruit.”
The most striking feature of the palace is its enormous shake (decorative windows made with no nail glue or adhesive). Rasulava informed me that each square meter comprises over 5,000 parts of glass and colored wood, which were brought in via trade routes to Murano near Venice and then traded for cocoons and silkworms. “Sheki silkworms were in demand globally,” Rasulava explained. “Not only in Italy, but Lyon (France’s greatest silk centre), and even in silk’s motherland, China, because they were more resilient in cold weather than any other.”
The pools, gardens, and engravings from the Khan’s Palace are said to be similar to a Caucasian Alhambra (Credit Simon Urwin)
As Sheki prospered, the region’s artisans began trading with silk merchants such as carpet weavers, teledus ( chain stitch), embroiderers, coppersmiths, potters, shoemakers, and milliners. Sheki was renowned as a renowned center for art and craft, a status that continues to be cherished until the present. The booming caravans resulted in the construction of five caravanserais, two of which are still in use. Public squares were built, Hammams, major roads, and an iconic mosque, the Khan Mosque, the first mosque in the city on Fridays, also known as Juma. Juma. (Friday is the most holy day during the sacred week of Muslims, so they must go to a special noon prayer.)
It is believed that the Khan Mosque is open to people of all ages, and Gudratli was able to arrange one-on-one time with the present imam, Habil Khalilov, who welcomed me by anointing me with Gulab, a cleansing rosewater. “Gulab represents the Prophet Muhammed,” Khalilov said. Khalilov, and he dabbed my eyes with the strongly scent-laden liquid. “The Prophet believed the eyebrows to be special because they are among the first hairs to appear on a baby and are therefore symbolic of new life.”
Khalilov offered me the chance to join him in the prayer room and told me that non-believers were welcomed. “Even though more than 96% of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim, it remains a secular country,” Khalilov said. “You’ll find many religions here; it’s a uniquely tolerant and multicultural place.”
He described how the structure was built between 1769 and 1770 using river bricks, stones, walnut, pistachios, and plan wood. It was once home to intricate shebeke windows. It was the principal mosque in the city, where every one of the 32 historic communities had its spot for worship.
Khan Mosque is open to the public. Khan Mosque is open to visitors, and anyone can be able to see Khalilov, the imam of the moment, in the mosque
“In ancient times, Sheki was known as ‘Bala Istanbul’, or Little Istanbul, because there were so many mosques,” the man declared. “Just seven now remain; some were lost to earthquakes and mudslides, but the majority were destroyed when Russian Bolsheviks invaded and occupied Azerbaijan.” Azerbaijan was an independent republic within the USSR between 1922-1991. atheism was the only official doctrine.
As Khalilov left to prepare for the prayer at lunchtime, He embraced his heart and then lowered his head in a salute to me, telling me to study Sheki’s culinary heritage, many of which are connected to the silk trade routes of old.
To try some local dishes, Gudratli took me to Ilhama Tea House, where Shukufa Hamidova was making a fresh Compote (a beverage traditionally served at all meals) at the table with geranium leaf, blackberries, and a lot of sugar.
“Sheki people are known for their sweet tooth,” she explained. “We once used honey until sugarcane arrived from Persia. Nowadays it’s something of an addiction; we love to eat bamya (fluted doughnut fingers), mindal(caramel-coated nuts) and halva (a spiced, hazelnut baklava). All that sugar is said to sweeten our mood too; we are famous for our good sense of humour.”
Hamidova will greet visitors with fresh drinks like a compote. It is made with blackberries, geranium leaf, and sugar (Credit Simon Urwin)
Another delight that came via Persia on the Silk Road was saffron, one of the main ingredients of piti, a regional specialty that is one of the country’s most well-known food items. Chef Shahla Bashirova appeared at our table with 2 Dopu (clay pans) filled with the slow-cooked stew consisting of chickpeas, lamb, saffron, lamb’s tail fat, and saffron. Hearty and buttery, the name pit is believed to come from an ancient Turkic word meaning “the end of need to eat any more food.”
“It was perfect to serve to the manual labourers who worked for the silk merchants and the khans,” said Bashirova. “The combination of meat and carbohydrates gave them energy to work all day long on just one meal.”
After lunch, we enjoyed traditional black tea with the armudu (pear-shaped glasses). Gudratli explained to her how you can traditionally drink tea by dipping the sugar cube in a mirror and then sucking it in before swallowing it. It is a custom thought to be started by the Khans. Sweet tea is also an essential part of Azerbaijani wedding ceremonies. Gudratli informed me that in rural regions if a bride’s family serves tea without sugar to the parents of her future husband, this is a signal that they are not interested in the wedding to take place.