A four-hour drive from Baku, the cosmopolitan capital of Azerbaijan, sits the city of Sheki, an antique gem. Ensconced in the forested Caucasus mountains, it was once an important trading hub along the historic Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected the East to the West for centuries. The city’s history and unique architecture earned it a tag as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019.
As I drive into the cozy, infinitely walkable historic centre, time seems to stand still. Upon cobbled streets, lined with centuries-old merchant houses, are traditional buildings with high roofs and wide verandas. Several of these homes and various structures inside the city fortress, reflect the wealth generated by silkworm breeding and the trade in silk cocoons, raw silk and the development of various crafts, especially from the late 18th to the 19th century.
Chief among these structures is the Khan’s Palace, an ornate building of small and elegant proportions constructed in 1762, and set amidst an ornamental rose garden. The façade is distinguished by silvered stalactite vaults, with geometric patterns in deep blue, turquoise and ochre, as monumental as they are airy. The interiors display exquisite examples of the craftsmanship that attracted traders and travellers to this area for hundreds of years. The central hall in which the Khan spent time with his guests, is peppered with narrative frescoes of hunting scenes, scenes of fauna and flora, as well as battles depicting the military power of the Sheki Khanate. The paintings radiate a sense of the prosperity of the time and the images have layered meanings—the pomegranate, for instance, stands for unity in Azerbaijani folklore.
No photos are allowed inside the Palace, but the image that lingers in my memory, is the lightness of these spaces created by the art of shebeke. This intricate craft involves thousands of tiny pieces of glass held together in a wooden lattice without glue or a single nail, to form a painstakingly composed mosaic. I’m told a square meter of a single-coloured glass window here, which includes about 5,000 individual pieces, took roughly six months to assemble. These create a bright decorative pattern in the interior due to the way they reflect light.
Outside the palace but within the Sheki fortress area, at the Shebeke Craft house, I meet master Shebeke craftsman, Tofig Rasulov. He tells me the skill of Shebeke making, like many other crafts in this town, has been passed from one generation to the next. I attend a masterclass on creating my own Shebeke, and sit inserting pieces of glass into a wooden frame, as a way to connect with the local community and learn the rudimentary aspects of a new skill.
Peppering the historic old town are artisans conducting workshops and running small production units for authentic craftsmanship. The local indoor Craft Market is studded with industrious men and women embroidering clothes with intricate floral designs, others creating musical instruments, engaging in skills passed down through time. Outside on the historic trading street named after celebrated local writer Mirza Fatali Akhundzade, there is more evidence of this fact. Stores brim with carpets, spices, ceramics, and silks, amid an array of other local products. What stands out especially are the colourful Kelaghayi or headscarves traditionally worn by Azerbaijani women. Soft, weightless, and in all hues of the rainbow, these scarves continue to be a reminder of the importance of silk to the region.
Adding to the city’s appeal is the fact that ancient buildings have been repurposed. For instance, what was once a military dormitory, is now the Sheki art gallery, home to the works of celebrated art masters like Maral Rahmanzade. Other buildings, key to silk route history, are the historic Caravanserais. These were roadside inns with courtyards, stables and sleeping quarters, where traders would rest and exchange goods along the Silk Route. A part of the Caravanserai now operates as a hotel with 21st century amenities, but retains its old-world charm. It continues to attract travelers as a historical and architectural wonder.
It wasn’t only goods that were exchanged on the silk trade route; it was ideas, philosophies and culture as well. Evidence of these exchanges lie 5km outside Sheki, in the village of Kish, in the form of a round-towered temple or Albanian Church. The core of this church is thought to date to 1AD, in what was then Caucasian Albania. Key to note, is the site goes beyond an exposition of what was then Caucasian Albania, all the way back to the bronze age. Excavations carried out by a join Azerbaijani and Norwegian team in the early 2000’s, unearthed bronze age ceramics (on display today). Also, glass-covered grave excavations let visitors peep at bronze age skeletons.
Back in Sheki that evening, I go deeper under the skin of silk road history by visiting a cluster of museums. The Yurd Yaddashi Miniature Museum, with its models of historic buildings walks me through architectural wonders of the area. Near at hand, the Khan Mosque complex has a fascinating museum, that highlights aspects of the Sheki Khanate history through artifacts and cultural items. Finally, there’s the Shekikhanov’s house, set in its own rose garden. The main hall is elaborately decorated with paintings that illustrate poems likeLayla and Majnun of the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi.
On my final day, I venture down the highest streets of this tiered city, along one of the many mountain trails. Here as I admire the sunset and the red-roofs of the old city, I have a chance to let the mystique of the silk route and all it enabled, soak in.
Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.