This week, a region known as “Land of Fire” popped up on our travel radar. Located at the intersection of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, Azerbaijan is known for its multiculturalism, abundance of mud volcanoes and mountain ranges.
Home to around ten million people today, Azerbaijan has cities that are both urban like Baku, and rural like Sheki. Since the region sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it is a melting pot of cultures and religions.
One of its most distinctive sites is Yanar Dağ, or otherwise known as “Burning Mountain.” Perched on the hillside that runs along the Caspian Sea, this mountain has been burning and glowing with a natural fire for over 65 years!
It’s unique nickname of “Land of Fire” originates back to ancient times, when science was explained by religion. During ancient times, Azerbaijan was considered a mysterious place due to the spontaneous flames that would burst from the mountains and the sea. This made Alberzaijan the center of Zoroastrian worship, the religion that equated fire with the light of wisdom. Fascinating travelers for centuries, an account of this mysterious fire-burning peninsula was even found in Marco Polo’s journal in the 13th century.
Today, we know that these impromptu bursts of fire are due to Azerbaijan’s large reserves of natural gas that seep into the air due to high pressures.
Despite the modern-day explanations for the mystery of the Azerbaijan region, we were intrigued by its history and took a trip to Sheki, a small town located in northwest Azerbaijan and the center of the Silk Road trade. From local crafts to hidden worship grounds, Sheki is a place full of culture and century-old craft techniques.
36 Hours in Sheki
10:00 AM: Visit the Most Valuable 18th Century Azerbaijan Monument
As it turns out, the Sheki Khanate was historically the most powerful in the Caucasus region that ruled over the Afsharid Dynasty (modern-day Azerbaijan). One of the remnants of that time is the Palace of Sheki Khans, a beautiful building adorned with glass mosaic, colorful tiles and frescoes that reflect heavy traces of Persian influence.
Built in the 18th century, this palace was the popular summer residence of the Sheki Khanate. Inside, there are 6 rooms, each of which is uniquely decorated. From being used as the receiving room, women’s room, meeting room, and studies, each space had a designated purpose as well.
Although you can pay 5AZN to enter the palace, we recommend that you save it for the entrance inside the Winter palace (Shakikhanovs’ Palace), where photography is allowed!
11:00 AM: Photo Ops Inside The Winter Palace
Located just southwest of the Palace of Sheki Khans is the lesser-known, yet equally beautiful Winter Palace (Shakikhanovs’ Palace). Since it hides behind the crisscrossing streets of Old Town Sheki, the Winter Palace receives few visitors, making it the perfect spot for photographing a treasure of the 18th century.
12:00 PM: It Would Be a “Piti” If You Missed This!
One of Sheki’s most famed dishes is known as Piti, a rich and aromatic soup that is prepared in individual crocks with lamb, chickpeas, baked chestnuts, and many other ingredients, and then cooked in the oven.
Grab a pen and paper, because devouring the soup is also a process. First, add the chopped bread onto the plate and then filter the soup base from the pot onto the bread. Then, take the meat and add it to the blend of soup and bread. Lastly, take a bite and enjoy the explosion of aromas!
For the best Piti in town, we recommend Gagarin, which is located in the historical part of Sheki.
1:30 PM: Discover Skeleton Remains at an Ancient Pagan Cult Site
Located just north of Sheki is the small town of Kish, which is also home to the Church of Kish, a 12th century Caucasian and Albanian Church.
Though it was built in the 12th century, many researchers believe the history of the site dates much older than that. One of the reasons being the discovery of skeletons below the church that dates all the way back to 3000 B.C! This evidence led many archaeologists to conclude that the Church of Kish was actually built on top of the altar that the prophet St. Elishe, built for the Pagan Ceremony.
To get to Kish from Sheki, take bus number 15 and get off at the Kish bus stop. The ride should be no longer than 15 minutes.
3:00 PM: Learn Why a Fortress was Named “Will Come-Will See”
From the Church of Kish, head towards the Galarsan-Gorarsan Fortress, an old ruin that dates back to the 8th century. To get to the fortress, you’ll have to hike through a short 30-minute trail that starts at the foothill of one of the mountains behind Kish.
The fortress gets its name Galarsan-Gorasan (which translates to “will come-will see” in English) from a short incident that occurred when the ruler of Iran, Nadir Shah, tried to attack the fortress in the 19th century. In response to the attack, Haji Chalabi, the Khan of Sheki Khanate, told Shah “you will come and see.” Furious, Nadir Shah tried to seize the fortress by force, however, after many attempts, he remained unsuccessful. This episode soon became the inspiration behind the fortress’ name.
Today, the fortress is a famous detour for hikers and tourists alike.
5:00 PM: Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice
We gave in to our cravings and headed to Aliahmed Sweets for some delicious Halva (baklava), a traditional Azerbaijan sweet made with hazelnuts, walnuts, sugar, rice flour, and spices.
Having pioneered the techniques of making Halva for many centuries, Aliahmed Sweets is the most famous spot to buy a pack of Halva, or two — there’s no judgment here!
6:00 PM: Dine at The Highest Rated Restaurant in Sheki
From Piti to traditional Azerbaijan tea to Sabzi and Cherry Marmalade, Serin is a favorite in Sheki that not only offers the tastiest food, but also the friendliest of services. In fact, many diners say they go not just for the food, but for Rafik, the restaurant owner who is known for his hospitality and kindness.
8:00 PM: Live like a Silk Road Caravanner For the Night
For just 50 AZN, you can immerse yourself into the Ancient Silk Road culture by spending the night at Caravanserai, a spot where many traders would spend the night during their journeys along the Ancient Silk Road.
9:30 AM: Hike on a Jurassic Period Mountain Trail
An interesting fact that we learned was that more than 60% of the Azerbaijan region is covered by mountains. Knowing that, we couldn’t leave Sheki without taking a trip to one of the three main mountain ranges: the Greater Caucasus, the Lesser Caucasus and the Talysh Mountains.
With the “go big or go home” mindset, we headed to the Greater Caucasus where Mount Bazarduzu, the highest point in Azerbaijan, is located. On this hike, you’ll pass by many rock formations that date back to Jurassic and Cretaceous times.
11:30 AM: Shop Like a Local at the No-Frills Teze Bazar Market
To cook like a local, get your ingredients at Teze Bazar, a local market that will allow you to escape from the wearisome souvenir-selling stalls. Some highlights of the market include local sweets like Halva, cooking spices and dried fruit. This is as authentic as it gets in terms of immersing yourself in the everyday life of Azerbaijan locals!
1:00 PM: Grab a Meal at the Best Seat in the House
Located at the heart of the city, Chalabi Khanis is known for its delicious local dishes and beautiful outdoor seating. Some of the menu items you can’t go wrong with include their kebabs, pilaf, chicken soup, and tea!
2:00 PM: Visit One of The First Mosques Built in Azerbaijan
Built in the Caucasus in 743, the Juma Mosque is one that has undergone many historical attacks and reconstructions. From being demolished by the Georgians in the 12th century to being set on fire by marauding Armenians, the fifth and final reconstruction to date was completed in 2013.
3:00 PM: Sample Fresh Fruits at Bio Garden
For a fun evening activity, you can head to Bio Garden, where there is an abundance of fruits that you can try (for free)! Additionally, as you walk through the beautiful, 8-hectare garden, you’ll also be accompanied by a variety of animals such as bunnies, dogs, and birds.
This spot is a hit amongst even the grumpiest of kids!
4:30 PM: 18th-Century Rebellion Weapons, Silk, Costumes, and More…
The Museum of Folk and Applied Arts is a place where you can see a collection of all kinds of things that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. From local artifacts and art to real weapons used in the rebellion against Persian shahs sometime in the 18th century, this museum has it all. Even its domed rotunda and unusual architecture is a sight in and of itself!
As you make your way through the museum, make a stop at the souvenir shop where you will find a variety of woven knapsacks, silk scarves, and other items.
6:00 PM: Grab a Drink and Enjoy Folk Music at Vip Club
End your trip at Vip Club, a lively lounge and restaurant that offers live music and delicious food. With its cozy brick walls and outdoor patio, Vip Club is the perfect spot to catch-up with friends and unwind after a long day of exploring.
Embrace the Simple Pleasures of Azerbaijani Culture
In addition to the historical significance of Sheki, one of the most integral parts of the Azerbaijani experience that we noticed was Tea (chai). Whether you’re dining at a local restaurant or exploring the mountain ranges of the Caucasus region, you’re bound to be offered a cup of tea. Served with delicious jams and local sweets, tea is an integral part of the Azerbaijan culture. We hope that you’ll find as much joy as we did in embracing this simple yet meaningful experience of a 36-hour journey to Sheki.
How to get there
The best way to get to Sheki is by plane. Though there are many nearby airports such as those in Nakhchivan city and Lankaran, the easiest option is to fly into the main airport, Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku.
When to go
The best time to visit is between June and August when the weather is warm.
To visit Sheki, you will need a visa. Those who are exempt include nationals of Middle Eastern countries including Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait. Visas on arrival are also available for certain countries such as China, Japan, Malaysia, Israel, and others.
The local currency is Azerbaijan Manat (AZN).
The official language of the city is a dialect of the Azerbaijani language. Locals are especially known for their cheerful intonation in their pronunciation.
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