Architectural Wonders in Baku, Copper in Lahij, Caravanserai in Sheki

Flame Towers Baku

Futuristic architecture is redefining Baku’s skyline

Baku is a metropolis that I can only describe as grand. Its buildings are grand, and its ambitions are even grander. A meticulously restored medieval citadel – a warren of quiet cobbled alleyways enclosed by stone walls – is surrounded by a stunning urban landscape of impressive neo-classical buildings, wide boulevards and a multitude of fountains, all dating from the end of the 19th century, when Baku experienced its first oil boom. Here too, every brick and cornice has been painstakingly restored to its full splendour. And beyond and above all this neo-classical elegance rise awesome and highly futuristic new structures of steel and glass – the fruits of the current oil boom.

Some of them, such as the Flame Towers and the Crystal Hall, are at the very cutting edge of contemporary architecture, rivalling the ultramodern hyperboles of Dubai and Shanghai. (Check out this enlightening list of the noteworthy architecture that is changing Baku’s skyline.) This construction spree, along with dramatic improvements in public infrastructure evident all over Baku and elsewhere in Azerbaijan, goes to show what you can do when you’re awash in oil money and you don’t embezzle it. Not all of it.

Marshrutka

What it’s like inside a marshrutka

But I have left the grandeur of Baku behind me and travelled inland and north into the mountains, in the least grand forms of transportation you can imagine – the marshrutka. A ubiquitous, cheap and efficient form of intercity transport common all over the Caucasus, the marshrutka is both unavoidable and legendary. A rickety minivan packed with as many souls as can be squeezed in and still breathe (16 adults and half a dozen kids in my case), it is every bit as harrowing as a rural bus in India, minus the smells perhaps. On the marshrutka from Baku to Ismailly I was the star attraction, with the men discussing my Italian nationality (all I could tell is that they were fans of both Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Celentano), the women and the kids staring, and the young man next to me trying very hard to make conversation using Google Translate on his mobile phone. When they found out I was bound for the mountain village of Lahij, I was cheerfully dumped at a deserted intersection, with assurances that a local bus would pick me up within a few minutes. Miraculously, it did just that.

Lahij street

There’s little going on in Lahij in November…

Lahij is a quaint village of cobbled streets and stone houses nestled in a broad valley. Its population is ethnically distinct from other Azeris and speaks a dialect closer to Persian than Azeri. It is famed for coppersmiths and carpet weavers, hence my interest. It is also becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists and hikers in summer (it now boasts five hotels and guesthouses!), but in November I was the only foreigner in town. I quickly befriended a local school teacher who also doubles as tourism liaison, guide, interpreter, organiser and host (I stayed in his home for two nights). He also seems to be related to almost everyone in the village, which is helpful.

Long ago, before World War II, Lahij boasted a much larger population and 200 copper workers. Now that number has dwindled to less than a dozen. But they still produce some excellent work, including the water jars that are so typical of mountainous Azerbaijan, elaborate engraved ewers, bulky samovars, and finely decorated copper trays. I spent much time (and much haggling) in various workshops, trying to obey Nisha’s core instruction for such situations – buy, buy, buy.

Ilqar Ismailov

Artisan in his workshop fixing a samovar

Lahij copper

Simple but elegant copper water jars made in Lahij

Dazed by all the negotiations and worried about how much of Nisha’s money I had just doled out, I wandered into the early evening, climbing the upper reaches of the village and into the surrounding hillsides. Walking swiftly on a rutted dirt track occasionally travelled by flocks of sheep and their silent keepers, I stumbled into an unguarded apple orchard, where in the inky twilight I gorged myself, shamelessly, on wonderfully crunchy and juicy apples, both sweet and tart.

The next day it was on to Sheki, a pleasant provincial town at the foot of densely forested hills. It proved to be a bust in terms of both the handicrafts produced there and the tourist attractions, which amounted to just one small 18th-century palace, its interior extravagantly decorated with rough frescoes and latticed stained-glass windows. I did, however, manage to spend the night in a genuine Silk Road-era caravanserai, also built in the 18th century, now restored and turned into a government-run hotel. My room, despite its potentially charming vaulted ceilings of brick and stone, was dingy and rather like a prison cell. The inner courtyard was deserted, the restaurant gloomy. I wondered how much more could be done with such a charming heritage property.

Sheki caravanserai

The caravanserai in Sheki as it appears on a quiet November day–note the bored usher on the bench!

As I lay freezing in my cot (no heating!), unable to sleep due to the hissing of a dripping tap in the bathroom and the loud intonations of the muezzin blaring (on tape, probably) from a mosque just across the street, I tried to imagine what staying here in centuries past might have been like. Perhaps I would have stopped here with my train of mules or camels while travelling westward on the Silk Road, bearing my goods home (if I had come this far along the foothills of the Greater Caucasus, then I was probably headed for a port on the Black Sea). I would have rented some space in the caravanserai, including a stable area in the downstairs gallery for my pack animals, where my helpers and mule drivers would sleep in order to watch over the merchandise. I would retire to a room just off the upstairs gallery, separated from others by ragged curtains. There I could unroll my bedding and wearily settle in for some buttermilk and hot food. Or I could wonder into nearby partitions to seek the company of other travellers, either trying to glean some valuable information about the road ahead (were there treacherous fords or landslides? warnings about brigands? extortionate tolls? brothels worth recommending?), or hoping to make a quick and rewarding trade on the side. Or I could stroll down into the central yard to perform my ablutions at the main fountain. There I could also observe the usual cabal of makeshift eateries and peddlers of cheap liquor, interpreters and local guides offering their services, fortune tellers and whores, beggars and petty thieves, gamblers and drunken camel drivers.

Caravanserai 19th-century engraving

A caravanserai as it might have appeared
in olden times
(19th-century engraving courtesy www.ancestryimages.com)

Eventually I would climb back up to my rooms and fall into a fitful sleep, consumed with the usual worries… Will my goods be safe downstairs? What will I find on the road tomorrow? Will I be able to reach home safely with all my wares from Cathay and Turkestan? Will I be able to sell them to the Venetian merchants for a decent profit? Will I be plying the Silk Road again next year?

 

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