Pirallahi – the forgotten island

 

boat

Image: news.az

A few facts 

Pirallahi, a small island situated some 45 km east of Baku, is the eastern-most point of Azerbaijan. This flat, low-lying land used to be a sacred spot for Zoroastrians (fire worshippers) who decided to build there a temple. During the times of the Russian Empire the name of the island was Svyatoy (‘’the holy one’’). Another interesting fact about Pirallahi is that an undersea booty from a 17th century battle between Persians and Cossacks still lies in the waters north of the island.

Oil

The island was among the first, if not the first, oil extraction areas in the country (petroleum was extracted in Pirallahi already in the early 19th century) and it still remains an important oil drilling zone – currently the volume of oil deposits in the northern part of the island is estimated at 1.2 million tons.

pirallahi

Source: panoramio

Why visit?

The island is only 11km long and 4km wide but offers some of the most unique landscapes in the peninsula, and as it might not be enough to fill a day trip, it will certainly complement any tour of Absheron. When entering Pirallahi by the bridge connecting the mainland and the island, visitors will be greeted by a small, rusty, half-sunk ship wreck that stands out from the light blue waters of the Caspian Sea. On the island there are a few houses resembling fishermen huts but majority of the buildings come from the Soviet times. Arguably, the most interesting place awaits the visitors at the end of the island, in the SOCAR-owned area (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) scattered with tens of both active and abandoned oil wells, some smallish oil platforms and rusty ships that have certainly seen better days. Mind you – taking pictures in that zone is forbidden and you might get yourself into some unpleasant conversations if you get caught breaking the rule!

Lighthouse next to Pirallahi Island. Source: gomap.az

Lighthouse next to Pirallahi Island. Source: gomap.az

Around Shamakhi

Etibar shamakhi

Image: Etibar Jafarov

Around Shamakhi

Shamakhi, situated just under 2-hour drive North-West from Baku, is among the most popular tourist destinations in Azerbaijan.  Thanks to its rich past this seemingly inconspicuous place offers visitors plenty of unique historical and cultural attractions, and sheds some light on Azerbaijan’s eventful past. Regionally, Shamakhi is also famous for its carpet weaving  and wine making traditions.

About Shamakhi

The beginnings of Shamakhi go as far back as the 5th Century BC.  During the Middle Ages it was an important urban center and from the 8th to 15th centuries served as the capital of the powerful Shirvan State, and later as the capital of the independent Shirvan Khanate. The city was a serious outpost on the Silk Road and, according to historians, at some point it had 130 silk winding establishments. Unfortunately, due to its seismically active location, over the centuries Shamakhi has been regularly struck by devastating earthquakes, and in the 15th century, local rulers decided to transfer the capital to safer and strategically located Baku. In the 19th century Shamakhi became one of Russian Empire’s guberniyas (Shamakhi Governorate) but after another devastating earthquake from 1859 the administrative center was transferred to Baku. In the years that followed the political and economic significance of the city has decreased and nowadays Shamakhi is a small (population of approx. 31,000) and rather quiet town.  However, it still hold the remnants of its great past, and among them the leftovers of the Gulustan Fortress and the picturesque Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum. And once you’re tired of sightseeing, try a glass of the fine local wine as Shamakhi district is the national center of wine growing.

What to see:

Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque)

The original mosque was constructed around 743-744 by Arabs and it is considered to be the second mosque in the Caucasus after the Friday Mosque in Derbent (Dagestan).  Over the centuries the mosque has undergone several major reconstructions (12th Century, 17th Century, 1860, 1909, 2009) due to the significant damages caused by numerous battles and earthquakes.

Shamakhi_Juma_Mosque,

Image by Azernews

Gulustan Fortress

Gulustan Fortress, built at the foot of Murovdag hill, some 2 kilometers North of Shamakhi, used to serve as a defensive installation for the shahs of Shirvan. The first recorded fortifications here were the iron gates erected between 1043 and 1049 by Shirvanshah Gubad. However, some archeologists claim that the fortress  could have been built as early as the 9th Century. In its prime, the massive construction intimidated foreign armies but the numerous earthquakes and passing time has left a significant toll on its structure. Today all that is left of this formerly imposing construction are plenty of scattered stones, some towers and remaining of defensive walls but it’s still well worth visiting the place. From the top of the hill you will get a better idea about the original size of the fortress and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views  over the area. For detailed information about the fortress please click here.

Gulustan

Remaining of the Gulustan Fortress. Image: wikipedia.

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

This ancient cemetery, situated about 1.5km south of Shamakhi, was built in the 18th century for the family of the last khan of the Shirvanshah dynasty. The name, which translates as ‘’Seven Domes’’, comes from the number of gravestones in the crypt belonging to the shah’s relatives. Only three of the mausoleums survived till this day, others are either entirely or partly destroyed. 

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Shamakhi wines

Thanks to its mild climate, fertile soils and hilly terrain, Shamakhi district is the key wine grape growing and wine making area in the country. Traditionally, local wine makers produced sweet wines (result of the local taste as well as dry climate) but over the last years there have been a lot of efforts made to start production of world-class wines, and nowadays it’s possible to try some good red and white dry wines. It’s worth noting that wine tradition in the area is centuries-old and you can find here some indigenous grape varieties, such as Madrasa (spelled also Matrassa, derived from the name of a local village) used in production of popular red dry wines. Interestingly, among the first European purchasers of local wines were the Portuguese traders who worked on extending their commercial influences in Asia.

Practical information

For more information about getting there, accommodation etc. please contact us directly.

Taza Pir – the central mosque of Azerbaijan

Taza Pir Mosque, the central mosque of Azerbaijan and the largest mosque of Baku, is one of the finest buildings of its kind in the country. It was commissioned by Nabat khanim Ashurbeyli, a female member of the local bourgeoise and famous philanthropist of the early 20th century, and designed by the renowned architect, Ziverbey Ahmadbeyov. The construction work, which started in 1904, was briefly interrupted by the death of Nabat khanim and was later completed by her son.

taza piri wikiemedia

Source: wikimedia commons

The making

In a detailed post about the Ashurbeyovs’ clan, Nasrin Babanly says that Nabat khanim sponsored Ziverbey Ahmadbeyov’s trip to muslim countries farther East to study the mosque architecture and for inspiration. Upon return he presented her with a project of a temple with two-tier minarets. However, as a result of the intervention by the provincial authorities, the minarets were in the end built only up to the first tier. Interestingly, the first stone for the construction of the mosque was laid by the famous oil baron, Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. Unfortunately, Nabat Khanum Ashurbeyli didn’t live to see the mosque completed but as a sign of respect her body was buried in its grounds.

taza piri 2

Author: Grettel Castro

Standing the test of time

Following the October Revolution the building had been closed for 29 years when it served, among many other purposes, as a cinema and a barn. In addition, during the massacres organized by Russians and Armenians in Baku in March 1918 many prominent buildings of the city, including Taza Pir, were burnt, raided or severely damaged. The mosque was also badly affected by the earthquake of 2000 but the reconstruction work brought it back to its finest. Today’s restored mosque is decorated with motives from Azerbaijani school of painting and rare oriental ornaments. Mihrab (a semicircular niche in the wall that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) and the dome are made of marble, the women’s chapel is made from the pistachio wood, the windows and doors are made of mahogany while the tops of the minarets are made of gold. Nowadays the area of the mosque is 1400 sq meters and includes a school, Baku Islamic University, hotels, a conference hall and six halls for funeral ceremonies.

Taza

Image: avciya.az

Where to find it

The mosque is situated about 10 mins by foot going West from the Fountain Square.

Additional info:

Azerbaijan Travel

Baku hotels – where to stay

Since a few years ago Azerbaijan has focused its efforts on developing local tourism sector, hotels in the country have sprung up like mushrooms. Today in Baku you will be spoiled for choice with a wide variety of sleepover places starting from internationally renowned brands to independent boutique hotels. In this post we will give you an idea about some of the best options, depending on your budget.

HIGH END

Fairmont - situated in one of the Flame Towers, the symbol of modern Baku. From the rooms you will get some of the best views of the capital.  It’s location provides a good starting point for the city tour but if you’re planning to visit some of the local clubs or restaurants you’ll have to take a cab.  In the hotel you will also find the only French restaurant in the city and a spa.

fairmont

Fairmont Hotel Flame Towers

Four Seasons – conveniently situated just on the outskirts of Icheri Sheher. This classically inspired yet modern hotel overlooks the Caspian Sea and the Boulevard, and is within a walking distance from most of Baku’s ”must-see”. Apart from an Italian restaurant and Bentley’s whiskey and cigar  bar, there’s also arguably the best seafood restaurant in the city (Kaspia) and a luxury spa.

4 Seasons Forbes

Four Seasons Hotel Source: Forbes

JW Marriott Absheron the hotel is overlooking the massive Azadliq Square and Dom Soviet. JW Marriott Absheron is situated in the modern, futuristic part of the city, about 30mins walk  from the Old Town and other tourist attractions. Apart from the luxury spa, there are as well two restaurants – Oronero and Fireworks. The first one serves Italian food and has spacious outdoor dining terrace, while the other offers an exciting mix of Azerbaijani, Turkish, Iranian and Punjabi food.

Marriott

Source: Panoramio

Hilton Baku – centrally located, overlooking the Boulevard and the Caspian Sea, close to all tourist attractions and the shopping area. Apart from the open terrace Sky Grill located on the 24th floor and Cilantro, a restaurant serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean inspired food, there is also Baku’s only 360° Bar offering incredible views over the sea and the city.

sky bar hilton

Hilton 360 Bar

MID RANGE

Park Inn – located next to Hilton, close to the cultural sites and business center. Very popular with corporate travellers. The top floor is occupied by Eleven, one of the most popular clubs in the city. Situated in the vicinity of bars, restaurants and the shopping area.

park inn

Park Inn. Source: Hg2

Central Park – located about 15mins walk from the Fountain Square and the Old Town, very close to the spacious, recently created Winter Park and the remains of the last century’ s oil barons’ mansions. It allows you to experience a different side of Baku without taking you away from the center. In the vicinity of bars and restaurants.

Central Park hotel_

Central Park Hotel

BOUTIQUE

Shah Palace  –  a charming boutique hotel situated in Icheri Sheher, just by the Shamakhi Gate (Double Gate), provides an excellent starting point for the city tour. Its atmospheric interior  combines the elements of classical, Azerbaijani architecture with pieces of national artwork. Apart from the outdoor terrace restaurant, there is also a wine bar serving some of the finest local and international wines.

shah palace

Shah Palace Hotel

Atropat – situated in the heart of Icheri Sheher; perfect starting point for the city sightseeing. Atropat offers an open air roof dining terrace with 24hr service.

atropat hotel

Atropat Hotel. Source: destinia

Sultan Inn – located in the center of Icheri Sheher. In their own words ”the hotel blends harmoniously with the surrounding reality and is conveniently positioned close to famous historic landmarks reached by winding old streets with mosques, carpet and handicraft shops”. The hotel offers as well an excellent open air roof terrace restaurant serving good quality Azerbaijani food.

Sultan Inn

Sultan Inn hotel

BUDGET

Noah’s Ark – situated in Icheri Sheher, very close to tourist attractions and within a walking distance from popular bars and restaurants. Apart from the standard hotel rooms, there’s also an apartment available for rent that will accommodate up to 5 people (120 sq m). On the 5th floor, there’s also an Azerbaijani restaurant with 360′ city view.

Noah's ark

Noah’s Ark Hotel

Altstad Hotel – a small hotel (8 rooms only) situated in Icheri Sheher, surrounded by  main tourist attractions of the Old Town and within a walking distance to bars, restaurants, shops and museums.

Alstadt

Altstadt Hotel. Source: Lonely Planet

Caspian Hostel – a family-run hostel located in Icheri Sheher. Rooms available: an eight-bed dorm and a double-bed in a separate room. There is also a kitchen and separate bathroom with shower.

caspian hostel

Caspian Hostel. Source: Lonely Planet

These are only some suggestions on where to stay in Baku. For more information please contact us and we will be happy to advise. In the next post we will  prepare a list of the best places to stay when traveling around Azerbaijan.

Novruz – celebrating the Zoroastrian New Year

Novruz (translation from Persian language: New Day) is celebration of the first day of the year, according to the Persian calendar, and the coming of Spring. This secular festivity derived from the Zoroastrian heritage (fire worshippers) is celebrated on the day of the astronomical Northward equinox, which usually occurs on March 21, and is preceded by weeks of traditional preparations. In old days the holiday marked the first day of calendrical year but after Azerbaijan came under the Soviet rule New Year’s Day was introduced as January 1, and Novruz celebrations were prohibited. However, after the fall of the USSR the new government put it back in the calendar and today Novruz is the most important holiday celebrated in the country. Apart from Azerbaijan, the traditions of Nowruz are also strong among people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Traditions of Novruz

In this section we include just a few of the most important Novruz customs. For more detailed information please click on the links below.

news.az

Novruz table. Image by: news.az

Symbols of Spring

Typical Novruz table is prepared with various items including: candles, fresh flowers, nuts, sweets, local pastries, dried fruits, dyed eggs, and the samani, a newly sprouted wheat. Samani symbolizes the beginning of new life, prosperity and abundance. Almost every family grows one but you can also buy them in bazar. To ensure that samani is ready for Novruz, it should be sown about 2 weeks in advance.  

Cleansing and rebirth

Novruz is also a good time to buy new clothes or clean the house and the garden. Many treat it as well as an opportunity to renew relationships. People who have had quarrels and refused to speak with each other often choose this occasion to forgive one another.

tree pruning

Tree pruning.  Source: Saturday Evening Post

Family and friends

In anticipation of Novruz, people prepare lots of food and sweets and visit each other at home. There is a certain hierarchy related to the visits –  the oldest members of the community receive guests first. In addition, gifts and food are shared with the needy, poor, and sick (Source: Azerbaijan International). On the eve of Novruz, many Azerbaijani people visit the cemetery where their parents are buried.

Children

Another important custom related to Novruz is the Halloween-like candy hunting. Children go around their neighbors’ homes, knock at their doors, and leave their cups or little baskets while hiding, waiting for treats.

DSC_0009

Source: az-dc.blogspot.com

Jumping over bonfires

Chahar Shanbe Suri or jumping over bonfires is celebrated on the night of the last Wednesday of the old year. During this night people traditionally gather and light small bonfires in the streets and jump over the flames shouting ”Zardie man az to, sorkhie to az man”, which in Persian means ”May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine”. With this phrase, the flames symbolically take away all of the unpleasant things that happened in the past year. Nowadays, due to safety issues, many people simply light the bonfire in the street and shout the special phrase without getting too close to the flames (Source: Celebrating Novruz. Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Harvard University).

Useful links:

Celebrating Nowruz. A Resource for Educators. The Outreach Center. Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Harvard University

Novruz. Celebration that would not die. Azerbaijan International.

Spirit of hospitality in Azerbaijan

Caucasian hospitality is famous worldwide and during your stay in Azerbaijan you will have plenty of opportunities to experience it for yourself. You might, for example, get invited to someone’s house for ”tea”. However, if you think that you’ll just spend a couple of hours drinking tea with your host  – think again. Azeri people are very modest and they will never admit that they had just spent a day preparing for you a small feast of delicious, home-made, traditional local dishes. You’d better show up hungry!

gift

Before the visit

Although it’s not expected, it is always in good taste to bring some gifts for the host. A small bunch of flowers for the lady, sweets for children and a bottle of liquor for the head of the family will do just fine. However, if due to religious reasons alcohol is out of the question, sweets  are a prefect alternative. Azeris love to have their tea with a candy or two so you cannot go wrong. Finally, make sure your outfit is appropriate and tidy as local people pay a lot of attention to appearance. You will find more information about Azerbaijani customs here.

The meal

Appetizers

A typical meal consists of appetizers, main courses, tea and sweets. Before the main dishes are served, the table is usually set with plenty of appetizers – fresh herbs (chives, dill, parsley, coriander etc.) and vegetable (mainly tomato and cucumber), mixed pickles and salads, cheese, olives, aubergine with nuts etc. They all look delicious but try not to indulge in them too much as they’ll be followed by a huge meal!

Main courses

The choice of main dishes varies. The hostess may prepare vine leaves, aubergine, tomatoes and/or peppers stuffed with rice, meat and spices (dolma), fish filled with nuts and served with pomegranate sauce,  lamb stew, delicious kebab or plov, which is considered a particular delicacy and served only on special occasions. Sometimes the main courses are preceded by a soup – dushbere with tiny dumplings on a cold day or dovga (yogurt soup) in the summer. If you feel full, leave some food on your plate as otherwise it’ll get refilled instantly. More information about traditional Azerbaijani food you will find here.

Table

Image: thetravelmanor.com

Tea

It is common to mix two types of tea – black and thyme. Drink will always be accompanied by dry fruit, varene, cookies or cake. To read more about the great tea drinking tradition in Azerbaijan, visit our past post.

After the meal

Once the meal is finished – don’t leave immediately. After the feast you will need to rest a while anyway, and it’ll also be a good chance to finally speak to the ladies of the house, who most likely spent the whole evening preparing and serving food. Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise of traditional singing and dancing.

Shahdag Resort – winter madness in Azerbaijan

If you’re looking for refreshing alternatives to crowded European ski resorts, look no further. In the shadow of Shahdag mountain, one of the highest peaks in Azerbaijan, enthusiasts of winter sports will find everything they need.

gusar shahdag ski resort skyscrapercity

Source: skyscrapercity

Why ski in Azerbaijan?

Shahdag Mountain Resort offers anything an amateur of winter fun could wish for – the latest equipment, experienced instructors, variety of wide and exciting pistes, picturesque landscapes, lots of snow (artificial if needed), good food and comfortable accommodation. As the country is still fairly new to the winter sports madness, the resort is always full of visitors but only a few of them actually ski or snowboard, which means you will be able to make the most of your time on the slope. In addition, the ski resort is situated only about  200km ride from Baku, most of it by highway, thus it makes a perfect day trip for those short of time.

pik palace hotel

Pik Palace hotel. Source: Pik Palace Hotel’s website

The resort

Currently, there are 5 km of pistes available for skiing, 1 km of easy pistes for beginners and 4 km for intermediate skiers. They are situated between 1300m and 1800m above sea level and are serviced by 4 ski lifts. More will be created in the nearest future, including piste for advanced skiers, which will be located as high as 2500m above sea level. Visitors can stay in one of the hotels located next to the piste, Zirve (80-120 AZN/night) by the main entrance or the luxury Pik Hotel on top of the hill (from 223 AZN/night). Those on the budget will find cheaper accommodation farther away from the resort.

margriet

Author: Margriet van der Woerd

Getting there

The ski station is located about 3 hours drive from Baku. To get there you have to follow the Quba highway. Once in Quba, continue towards Qusar where you will find clear indications for the ski station.

Some advice

If you go to Shahdag on a weekend, make sure to get there early as the place fills up with visitors very quickly and you may find it time-consuming to collect the equipment. The staff is friendly and competent but remember that it’s a new resort (2nd season operating) and it may take longer than usual to get them up to speed, especially on the busiest Sundays.

If the main ski rental point near the parking runs out of equipment, go to the one situated next to the Pik Hotel. You may as well go there straight away as overall it’s usually much less busy than the one next to the main entrance.

Example prices

Parking about 7AZN/day

Day ski pass for an adult 22AZN

Rental of ski, shoes & poles 30AZN

Useful links:

FB page of Shahdag Resort

Shahdag Mountain Resort official website