Travel in Azerbaijan: Must Visit Places of Universal Value

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BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

This pandemic era – when international travel is heavily restricted or limited to zero – is the best time to thoroughly explore the country where you are based in now. Looking for recommendations on where to visit this weekend in Azerbaijan? We would recommend you to see the places noted by UNESCO. The sites which are a part of the World Heritage List have outstanding universal value, and will be the perfect start of your never forget stay in the country:

Walled City of Baku 

The Walled City of Baku at the edge of the Caspian Sea was founded on a site inhabited since the Paleolithic period and represents an outstanding and rare example of an historic urban ensemble and architecture, with influence from Zoroastrian (followers of the ancient pre-Islamic religion), Sassanian (Iranian dynasty which lasted from 3rd to 7th century), Arabic, Persian, Shirvani (Shirvan is a historical region in Azerbaijan, which was ruled by the Shirvanshahs dynasty, known for their support of culture, from 9th until 16th century), Ottoman, and Russian cultures.

The inner city (Icherisheher) has preserved much of its 12th-century defensive walls, which define the character of the property. The most ancient monument of Icherisheher is the Maiden Tower – symbol of the city of Baku. Some evidence suggests that the construction of the Tower might have been as early as the 7th-6th century BC. Another monument of universal value, one of the pearls of Azerbaijan’s architecture is the 12th to 15th century, Shirvanshahs’ Palace, located at the highest point of Icherisheher. Within the Palace complex are the Divankhana (reception hall) or, as some researchers believe, the Tomb of Shah, the residential building of Shirvanshahs, the remains of Key-Kubad Mosque, the Palace bath-house, and others architectural gems. Earlier monuments of Icherisheher include the Mohammed Mosque, together with the adjacent minaret built in 1078, and remains of the 9th to 10th century mosque near the Maiden Tower. There are also numerous historical-architectural monuments of the medieval period such as caravanserais, hamams (bath-houses), mosques and residential buildings of the 18th to 20th centuries located within the property.

As a combination of distinct architectural monuments and cultures, Icherisheher is still a living, vibrant city with residential areas housing local communities.

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape

Gobustan site, which is about 60 km to the south-west of Baku, covers an area of 537 ha of rocky boulders rising out of the semi-desert, with an outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. The rock carvings and petroglyphs at the site, display mesmerizing images of prehistoric life in the Caucasus and have outstanding universal value for the evidence they represent for hunting, fauna, flora and a way of life that has since disappeared. Gobustan also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting the intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

Now Gobustan is an open-air museum, visited by thousands of people from all over the world. In 2013, the Gobustan museum won the European Museum of the Year Award. In 2015, the site was included in the Prehistoric Rock Art Trail cultural route of the Council of Europe.

Historic Centre of Sheki with the Khan’s Palace

The historic city of Sheki is located at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains and extends from the mountain into the river valley. Its historic center, rebuilt after the destruction of an earlier town by mudflows in the 18th century, is characterized by a traditional architectural ensemble of houses with high gabled roofs. Located along important historic trade routes, the city’s architecture is influenced by Safavid (The Safavids were a dynastic family that ruled over modern-day Iran in 16th-18th century, when many arts flourished in the country, including architecture), Qajar (A royal dynasty of Turkic origin, ruling over Iran from 1789 to 1925, a period marked by a transition from traditional to modern architectural design) and Russian building traditions.

The Khan Palace and a number of merchant houses reflect the wealth generated by silkworm breeding, and the trade in silk cocoons from the late 18th to 19th century. The structure of the Khan Palace combines red brick with red cobblestone and does not contain a single nail, while its facade has a lattice frame with a set of colourful traditional mosaic (shabaka). The historic center, with the main shopping street, public buildings, bathhouses, shops and workshops of craftsmen, silk production factories, cooperatives and individual residential houses, has retained an authentic historic townscape. The Sheki’s caravanserais, built in the 18th century, used to be centers for exchanges and negotiations for merchants and other people travelling along the Silk Roads as well as a place to stay overnight in the city.

Benefiting from its reputation, Sheki continues to play an important role in promoting the Silk Road heritage, through different initiatives, such as the Silk Way International Music Festival that the city hosts every year and reviving caravanserais, where any modern traveler can stay and experience the Silk Road traditions.

For those who have already ticked the above-mentioned sites off their ‘bucket’ list, we would recommend to see the properties which are not yet a part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but have been nominated for its inclusion. They are much less advertised, but can definitely offer a unique experience to every single visitor:

Baku Stage mountain

Baku Stage mountain is located near the Bibi-Heybat settlement of the city of Baku on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The main importance of Baku Mountain Stage is geological. There is an opened classic column of lower anthropogenic deposits on the slopes of this mountain with a depth of 70 meters. Baku is rich with geological deposits and paleontological remnants, therefore this natural monument is unique and of great interest for geologists. For tourists who are not interested in the earth sciences, Baku Stage mountain has an aesthetic value, thanks to a wide panorama of the Caspian from this height.

Binagadi 4th Period Fauna and Flora Deposit

Binagadi 4th Period Fauna and Flora Deposit is located on the territory of Binagadi District of the city of Baku. Remains of animals and plants have been found here trapped in the tar at the bottom of an ancient asphalt lake. The occurrence gives us a clear idea about fauna and flora of the Pliocene (an epoch extending from 5.333 million to 2.58 million years BP. Binagadi can be compared to The La Brea Tar Pits in California by its variety of animal relics. The scientists discovered and recovered about 50,000 bones of various animals, including 40 specimens of mammals, 120 species of birds, as well as 107 species of insects and 22 species of vegetation relics. Tourists may find the deposit itself not very attractive, but they will definitely be interested to see the remains, which are in display in the Baku Natural History Museum.

Lok-Batan mud cone

Lokbatan Mud Volcano near Baku, Azerbaijan

The Lok-Batan mud cone is located near the Lokbatan settlement of the city of Baku. It is one of the largest of 220 mud cones in Azerbaijan and 600 mud cones on Earth. Since 1810 it has had about 25 eruptions, which makes it the most active among Azerbaijan’s mud volcanoes. The latest one happened in 2017, when it produced large flames dozens of meters high. Unlike many other mud cones there are no mud gryphons, but deposits from the Upper and Mid Pliocene period with rich stratum from the geological structure of this mud cone, which rises to the surface and forms as a ridge around the mud cone.

Hirkan Forests

Hirkan National Park, located in the Lankaran and Astara regions in the south of Azerbaijan, has a huge area of 40,000 ha. It is primarily a mountainous territory with 99% covered by forests, which has not been interrupted by any settlement or pasture as is strictly protected. The history of these broad-leaved forests dates back 25 to 50 million years, when they covered most of this Northern Temperate region. Now it is a vast natural museum featuring numerous endemic and relic species, which were not affected by the Ice Age. Unlike anywhere else at this scale, the Hirkan Forests keep its flora of the Tertiary period (lasted from approximately 66 million to 2.6 million years ago) exceptionally intact, which makes them the best available representation of intact Holarctic mixed and deciduous forests worldwide. Hirkan National Park also represents a natural, unmodified environment and habitat for endangered large mammalian predators such as the wolf, brown bear, striped hyena, lynx and Persian leopard.

Khinalig village

Khinalig village is the highest residential area of Azerbaijan located in the Great Caucasus Mountains in the Guba region. Archaeological findings and historical studies prove that the village’s area was inhabited about 4,000 years ago, dating back to the Bronze Age. A few scientific investigations of the area allow the connection between Khinalig’s past and the ancient country of Caucasian Albania. In addition, this mountainous area is very rich with paleontological materials revealing marine fossils in such a high mountainous area. The village is characterized by unique medieval architecture with land-colored, flat-roofed houses on a mountain slope where the roof of one house is used as the front door terrace of another house. Surrounded by mountains and green valleys, Khinalig is also a place of incredible natural landscapes and breathtaking views.

Ordubad architectural reserve

The ancient city of Ordubad, located in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is interesting with its structure and architectural monuments. The building plan of the city gives an opportunity to become acquainted with the eastern feudals’ culture of city construction. Ordubad was one of the most important trade cities with caravans passing enroute from China, Europe and India, supplying them with fruits, agricultural products and silk. Nowadays, the city’s economy still relies on trading these products. The main sights of the city are the Juma glass mosque, dating back to the 17th century, and the medieval market square in the heart of the city, while the ancient streets, which lead to the mosque complex, have been preserved as architectural constructions. The neighboring green environment, mountainous relief and fruit gardens add beauty to the city.

Ateshgah fire temple

The Ateshgah temple, often called a “Fire Temple” is located in the village of Surakhani next to the city of Baku. Its history goes back to the pre-Islamic time, when Zoroastrianism or ‘fire-worshipping’ was the main religion in this region. The present temple and cells were constructed by Indians living in Baku at different times between the 17th and 19th century. Based on Indian and Persian inscriptions on its walls, this was a pilgrimage and philosophical center of fire worshippers from the Northwestern Indian subcontinent, who were involved in trade with the Caspian area via the famous Grand Trunk Road (one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads). The temple ceased to be a place of worship after 1883, with the installation of petroleum plants in the area. Now it is an open-air museum, surrounded by oil fields.

Shusha reserve

The city of Shusha is a historical Azerbaijani city, which was the center of Karabakh khanate founded in the middle of the 18th century. Shusha is densely surrounded with woods, and was founded at the top of the mountain, forging a natural stronghold, surrounded with steep precipices from three sides. Shusha has been a historical and architectural reserve of the Republic of Azerbaijan since 1977 with 248 historical monuments protected by the state, including ancient mosques, caravanserais, mausoleums, madrasas (educational institutions), castles and fortress walls of the city. Being a home city of many prominent Azerbaijani musicians and scholars, it is also known as a symbol of Azerbaijani history and culture.

Shusha was under Armenian occupation for nearly three decades, but was finally liberated by the Azerbaijani troops in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. The day of the recapture of Shusha will be annually celebrated in the country as a Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War. In early 2021, Shusha was announced as the cultural capital of the country. Though visits to the city are not allowed yet without special permission, there is hope that the restrictions will be lifted very soon. The country is working hard on the reconstruction of Shusha’s infrastructure and historical monuments destroyed by the occupiers.  There are plans to organize large-scale cultural events in the city by the end of 2021.

Caspian Shore Defensive Constructions

The Caspian Shore Defensive Constructions are eight defensive barriers, strongholds, castles and towers between the Absheron peninsula and the border with Russia. They were built on the narrow coastal plain between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea, to safeguard the trade route connecting Azerbaijan with Middle Asia and South-West Europe, and date from between the 5th and 14th century. The defensive constructions include the following elements:

Beshbarmag Barrier, located in the narrowest part of the corridor next to the Beshbarmag Mountain, which is a one-hour drive to the north from Baku. In this barrier, a stone stronghold was built near the top of the mountain, with a caravan shed on the caravan way at its foot. In addition, Beshbarmag is a place of worship, regularly visited by pilgrims.

Gil-Gilchay Barrier, located a little north of Beshbarmag and extending from the Caspian Sea up to Babadag Mountain of the Great Caucasus. The 120 km long Gilgilchay barrier is considered to be the second longest defensive fortification in the world after the Great Chinese Wall. Archaeological excavations revealed that the construction of the Gilgilchay walls started BC, and it was reinforced with additional construction at a later date. It is the biggest monument among the Caspian Shore’s defensive constructions.

Chiragqala castle, located above Qalaalti village, 20-23 km to the south from the city of Shabran. In terms of architecture, Chiragqala is a rare art pearl, and it is the best-preserved castle of the Caspian Shore Defensive Constructions. Moreover, this castle, built on the tallest rock, presents the best view of the remote places of ancient Shirvan below.

Shabran Tower, located in the city of Shabran not far from the Gilgilchay barrier. The ancient city of Shabran has existed since 4th century. During the Middle Ages, it was known as a large center of trade and craft, which took an active part in the international transitive trade. In the result of archeological excavations in the territory of the city, a fortress belonging to the 10th century consolidated with semicircular towers was dug out.

Mardakan Round Tower, located in the Absheron peninsula, about 30 km from Baku. The height of this well-conserved column-shaped stone tower is 16 meters. At the top of the gated tower, there are three inscriptions written in Arabic.

Bayil Tower are the ancient remains of a castle on an island close to the Bayil district of Baku. During a major earthquake that rocked Baku in 1306, the tower collapsed and the remains were submerged for several centuries. It was only in the early 18th century, when the Caspian Sea retreated, that the island resurfaced. Now the island can be seen from Baku Seaside Boulevard. Some stones from the Bayil Tower decorated with inscriptions in Arabic and Persian – chain-shaped ornamentation and images of people, animals, birds and mythical animals – are currently kept in the courtyard of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace in the Old Town of Baku.

Nardaran Tower, is located about 30 kilometers from Baku in the village of Nardaran. The well-conserved tower was used for both observation and defense. Above the entrance to the tower there are two inscriptions in Arabic, carved out of stone.

Ramana Tower, located in the village of Ramana next to Baku. This magnificent monument, built on the tallest rock, overlooks surrounding villages and oil fields. It is considered that the tower was built for the purpose of defense and used as a castle during the Shirvanshahs’ reign. Ramana Tower is similar with other towers of Absheron for its plan and architecture.

Mausoleum of Nakhchivan

Garabaghlar Mausoleum

The mausoleum of Nakhchivan comprises of four burial monuments in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. They are all shaped differently, and decorated with various ornaments and inscriptions, dated back to the 12th-14th century when Nakhchivan was a center of art and architecture. Included are:

MomineKhatun Mausoleum, located in the western part of the city of Nakhchivan. For its composition, perfectness, neatness of separations and architectural solution the tomb is considered one of the architectural masterpieces of Eastern architecture from the Middle Ages. The monument demonstrates the old history of Azerbaijan and its great architectural schooling.

Gulustan mausoleum, located next to the Gulustan village near the city of Julfa. Gulustan mausoleum has a special place among other medieval architectural monuments of Azerbaijan as it differs from them in its architecture-constructive structure. This construction has 12 facets and all its sides are decorated with ornaments and inscriptions.

Garabaghlar Mausoleum, located in Garabaghlar village, 30 km north-west from the city of Nakhchivan. This historical-architectural monument of the Middle Ages has a cylindrical form with 12 semicircular facets and is 30 meters high. The Mausoleum is part of a complex together with a double minaret and remainders of the religious building situated between them.

Yusif ibn Kuseyr Mausoleum, located in the city of Nakhchivan. The monument, also known as Atababa tomb or Atababa dome, is the only mausoleum with an upper pyramidal cover, remaining undestroyed during the 800 year period, among the other tower-formed mausoleums in Azerbaijan. For its composition, tectonic clearness, proportionality of parts and level of engineering structure, the tomb is a very advanced artistic-architectural example.