Set in a picturesque mountain area 380 km (235 m) from Baku, Sheki is not only surrounded by beautiful scenery, it’s a beautiful village itself. The most famous sight in Sheki is the Sheki Khans Palace, featuring incredible craftsmanship and built without using a single nail.
Archaeological data show that Sheki has been inhabited for about 2,500 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the Caucasus. There are several architectural and archaeological places around the city, including the Gelersen-Gerersen Fortress (8th-9th centuries), numerous caravanserais, the Juma Mosque (18th century), the Gileilin Minaret (18th century), and medieval baths.
Sheki is a major crafts center. Here, you can buy jewelry and engravings made by local artists. Sheki has its own theater, a historical museum, and the house-museum of the famous writer and philosopher M. F. Ahundov.
Sheki was famous as a city of craftsmen and merchants. Traders from all of the countries along the Silk Road used to gather in Sheki, so great attention was paid to the construction of caravanserais. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, 5 big caravanserais were active in Sheki to house all of the travelers passing through. Only two of them have survived. The Upper and Lower Caravanserais were built in the 18th century. The craftsmen who built these caravanserais tried their best to make them as comfortable as possible, giving plenty of space so that travelers could rest, store their goods, and trade with local residents. The cellars were used for storing goods, the first floor was for trading, and the second floor was where travelers and merchants would stay.
The caravanserais were rather big: the Upper Caravanserai is 6,000 square meters, and the Lower one is 8,000 square meters. Each one had more than 200 rooms. According to traditional design, each caravanserai had two to four entrances, and when the doors closed, the caravanserais turned into fortresses. The Upper Caravanserai has been converted into a hotel, and the Lower one is currently being remodeled.
Gileili Minaret is a monument dating back to the 16th-17th centuries when it was part of the Gileili Mosque. Unfortunately, the mosque has not survived to the present day, and so only the minaret, now under state protection, remains. Built of burnt brick, the Gileili Minaret can be seen from the Kyulekhlin neighborhood in Sheki, and is the first and tallest minaret in its district.
Sheki has a very well-preserved bath, called a hamam, from the 19th century. It was constructed in the style of other traditional baths: there are two large rooms, one for undressing, and one with a heated floor, for bathing.
The Sheki khan Gadzhi Chelebi (who reigned from 1743 to 1755) built a fortified wall in the northeast of the city for defense. The overall length is about 1,300 m (4,265 ft), and it is 8 m (26 ft) tall at the southern end and 4 m (13 ft) tall at the northern end, with the thickness averaging over 2 meters (6.5 ft). There are 21 towers along the length of the wall, and the north and south, the wall is enclosed by arch gates.
Babaratma-Piri is a small mausoleum located near Sheki. It is located on the territory of an old cemetery near the village of Taza-Kent. This place is esteemed by pilgrims, who believe that it can cure illnesses. Near the mausoleum is a small mosque.
In the high-mountain village of Ilisu, not far from Sheki, is the Sumug Fortress.
According to legend, this fortress was built by the khan for executing unfaithful concubines, and later became a watchtower for Dani yal-bek, the local leader. Earlier, Dani yal-bek had been an officer in the Imperial Russian army. Later in his life, he became a revolutionary leader, and joined his sworn enemy Sheikh Shamil to fight against Russian forces. However, in August 1859, the last of Dani yal-bek’s fortifications had to be surrendered.
The most outstanding and valuable monument from the 18th century in Azerbaijan is the Sheki Khans’ Palace. It was built in 1752-1762 as the summer residence of Hussein-khan Mushtad, grandson of the great Gadzhi Chelebi. The uniquely beautiful two-storied palace features a magnificent interior and exterior. The facade of the palace is richly painted with drawings displaying scenes of hunting and war, as well as intricate geometrical and plant patterns. In the center is a huge stained-glass window made from multi-colored glass mosaics (up to 5,000 glass pieces were used in each square window). Other smaller windows in the palace are also made of pieces of colored glass and covered with openwork stone lattices.
The basic material for building the palace was raw bricks, river stones, plane trees and oaks. The most amazing is that not a single nail or glue drop was used for the construction! Everything is in place due to special craftsmanship, the secret of which was lost and is now being brought back to life by local artisans. In fact, the palace took ten years to build: two years to build the basic building, and eight years to make all of the decorations.
There are only 6 rooms, 4 corridors and 2 mirrored balconies in the Sheki Khans’ Palace. All the windows and doors of the palace were skillfully assembled from pieces of wood and colored Venetian glass. All of the light that filters in to the palace is rich in colors of the rainbow, from the red, yellow, blue purple and green colored glass.
Each room of the palace differs from one another and each is skillfully decorated. All the walls and ceilings are painted with miniatures: mythical birds in a garden of paradise, with unusual flowers and animals. The natural paints used for the pictures are admired by visitors because of their bright colors. This decorations shows that in the second half of the 18th century, the Sheki khanate was the center of well-developed wall painting. The paintings on the walls of the Sheki Khans’ Palace were all made with natural paints, and have been preserved pretty much intact since the time when they were painted.
The first room that visitors entered was a receiving room, also used for meeting with diplomats and other politicians. There was a small fountain, which could be turned on when the shah wanted to talk to his closest advisors and keep his conversations secret. The windows were made with small pieces of colored glass inlaid into an intricate wooden lattice, and even though each window weighs close to 17 kilograms (37 pounds) they can be opened for ventilation. There was a small vent at the back of the room to encourage a crosswind.
The next room was a spare study, used for when the shah needed a quiet place to think. The plain walls prevented distractions, and niches in the walls could be used to hold books, documents, and candles. The ceiling was extra thick, since the study was below the main women’s room, and the shah didn’t want to be disturbed by conversations above, or for the women to accidently hear any important secrets.
The women’s room on the second floor was richly and delicately decorated with paintings of flowers and birds, as would suit the women better. Here, the wife of the shah would meet with wives of visiting diplomats. The windows could be opened to create a breezy verandah. Since the Sheki Khans’ Palace was a summer palace, cooling was more important than heating.
A large meeting room was the center of the second floor. The walls were covered in numerous paintings, with lots of flowers and birds. A small strip around the middle of the room shows the various wars that Sheki could have fought (though the artist used more fantasy than reality as a base), featuring armies from as far away as Turkey, Russia, and Mongolia, all recognizable from their hats and flags. The ceilings were designed to perfectly mirror the carpets that would have been on the floor, but the carpets were taken by the Russians and taken to the Hermitage.
The final room on the second floor was designed to be a private study, when the shah needed inspiration for dealing with matters of state. The paintings on the walls and ceiling were meant to remind the shah of the principles of running his khanate. One painting shows a lion attacking a deer, which meant that the shah would always defeat his weaker enemies. The next painting is a lion fighting a dragon, since strong leaders would always be fighting each other. Over the door, wolves and deer running together, because the weak and the strong must live together. All around are dragons that breathe flowers instead of fire, since the khan must be benevolent and kind to those who are weaker than him and not abuse his power.
Despite all of the work put into building the Sheki Khans’ Palace, the royal family didn’t usually sleep at the palace. There were so many buildings available for the family, that they had other places to stay and didn’t have to sleep in this palace. Unfortunately, most of those buildings were destroyed in wars and shifting empires, and only the Sheki Khans’ Palace remains today. Several restorations have brought the palace back to its former glory.
In front of the palace there used to be a marvelous garden, from which only two huge branchy plane trees, which are even older than the palace, have survived. For 500 years, like devoted servants, they have been protecting this architectural treasure of Azerbaijan.
Kish is one of the oldest villages in present-day Azerbaijan, and is well-known for a church here, during the period of Caucasian Albania. The current building of the temple of Saint Elisha was built in the 10-12th centuries. According to some scholars’ opinions, the church in Kish stands on the same place where St. Elisha founded his own church. That is why the temple in Kish is often referred to as one of the oldest spiritual centers in the Caucasus, since St. Elisha was the first patriarch of the Church of Caucasian Albania and an early Christian leader in the Caucasus. Radiocarbon dating of artifacts found under the church has confirmed that this has been a holy place for even longer than the current church has existed. It is interesting that one of the initiators of archeological excavations was the famous Norwegian traveller and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl.
Elisha was one of the first leaders of Christianity in the Caucasus, and was a follower of St. Thaddeus (St. Jude). Elisha traveled throughout the region, and in the 1st century AD, founded a church on the spot of the church in Kish. Nothing remains today of this original place of worship except the current cathedral, built in honor of the first leader of the Church of Caucasian Albania.
The church in Kish is beautiful with its own spare style. The current building dates to about the 12th century, while remains found on the side date back millennia. The masonry building is finely tiled. It has exquisite marquee dome and narrow windows. The inner architecture is typical of a rather small temple and the inner yard holds an ancient cemetery (not more than 50 people). Above one grave, restorers placed a transparent plastic dome that allows visitors to see the skeleton of an unusually tall man (about 2 meters).
The temple of St. Elisha in Kish is one of the most frequently visited monuments dating back to the Caucasian Albanian era.
Another Christian temple from the Albanian period (6-7th centuries CE) is in the village of Orta-Zeyzit, near Sheki.
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