The unpaved road to the village of Lahic winds up the narrowing Girdimanchai river gorge from the sunny vineyards of Shemakha, crossing the torrent on a flimsy bridge and skirting the sheer walls on narrow, roughly hewn ledges. Ice and snow cut Lahic off from the valley for weeks at a time in winter, but this early December visit coincides with an unseasonable warm spell in the Caucasus.
From the window of the rickety Russian-built bus groaning its way up the mountain, the narrow path of the charvadars, or horsepackers, cut into the opposite bank, almost seems a safer bet. Until 30 years ago, the charvadars' horse trains offered Lahic's only connection to the larger world.
This isolation allowed Tat, a dialect of an old Persian tongue, to remain the primary language in Lahic and a few surrounding villages. For centuries, the valley people have spoken, at various times, Azeri, Russian, Farsi and Arabic, but here in this mountain village of about 2000 people, Tat remains.
Lahic's isolation was notorious and the quality of its crafts was known as early as the 10th century, as recorded in the Hudud al-Alam (The Limits of the World): "The Shah of the Shirvans lives at an army camp at a distance from Shemakha.... In the region he possesses a mountain with a high summit which is broad and smooth. It is accessible only from one side by a road which is very difficult. All the treasure and wealth of the king are kept there, and all his tributaries live there, where they sow and eat what they produce."
This last statement is misleading. The mountain terrain above Shemakha is ill-suited to agriculture, and it is for this reason that Lahic developed into a craft center. According to Gamal Shaikh Javadov, a scholar at the Institute of Ethnography in Baku, there were once some 120 crafts represented in Lahic, "from beekeeping to hat-making, from leatherworking to charcoal burning. And please do not forget gunsmithing, swordsmithing and tool forging. But none of the village's products were finer than its copperwork."
A student of Middle Eastern metal-ware would be well advised to make the trek up to Lahic, amid high foothills shadowed by the peaks of Babadagh ("Grandfather"), Niyaldaqh ("Nine Summits") and Galagimish ("Brass and Silver"). From the bus turnaround, pass through the market square known as Gapandibe ("Under the Scales"), and walk down the cobbled main street known as Aghale. Not far along, knock on the door of Hajj Nagi Aliyev, a 68-year-old coppersmith whom his neighbors respectfully call ustan ("master").
Wearing a gray Persian lamb hat typical of the region, Hajj Nagi sits among the clutter of his workshop, hemmed in by anvils round, square, horned and double-spiked; by shelves lined with samovars, braziers, water buckets, ewers, covered pilaf dishes and sets of nested bowls for making the richly garnished rice-and-meat dish known in the Eastern Caucasus as aash.
"It would take more than a year to tell you about my work," he says. "I've spent my whole life at it. At one time there were 200 coppersmiths here alone, my father Mashade Saif Ali and my grandfather Mashade Ebali among them. Now there are fewer, but we are still busy."
Hajj Nagi goes to his hammer drawer and pulls out seven tools, all with well-worn shafts and heads and peens variously round, square, elongated, blunt and sharply chisel-like. He hands over two that look identical. "No, there is a great difference between them," he protests. "This one is for beating out flat platters, and that is for rounding the insides of bowls."
"When I went to Makkah in 1986, I was one of the first in the Soviet period to go from my district," he digresses with a note of pride. "I stopped in Damascus, where I taught them my craft. It's different there, but here it's 100 points better than anywhere. Even though we use the same metals, in Lahic we do better work."
To prove his point, Hajj Nagi reaches for a drawer of rod-like steel punches, called qalam, "pencil" in Turkic languages, used for stamping such figures as full and half moons, five- and seven-pointed stars, wedges, triangles, fish scales and animal hair into metal, creating the figures that adorn most Lahic ware. "For example, samovars. The Russians made them first, but we make them much better. Take this one," he says, reaching for a gleaming piece on the shelf. "Embossed and etched by my son using these simple tools, when he was just a 10th-grader! My sons can even make a man's shape. They can't give it breath, but they give it perfect form."
A pack horse clip-clops over the cobblestones past Hajj Nagi's open shop. Next door, a mechanic tunes the smoking engine of an antique Volga automobile whose pristine, baby-blue paint seems to mock the gray face of Lahic's fast-approaching winter. Up and down the street, women draw water from fountains that carry Azeri inscriptions in Cyrillic letters; one is inscribed with a prayer in Arabic. Most of the women carry the large, one-eared copper water jugs that are designed for hoisting over a shoulder.
Hajj Nagi recaptures the moment with a poem that sounds as if it had sprung from his own lips.
No man is happier than a master smith
Who earns everything by his hand.
Even the Khan needs his work.
His shop is his realm and he a king,
No better job there is to be had.
He stirs raspberry jam into his tea, Russian style. "I did my military service near Vladivostok. You know the proverb is true, 'He who travels more, knows more'—just look at me! In the Great Patriotic War [World War II], when our fathers put down their hammers and picked up their rifles, I [was young and] kept the workshop open, but it was not easy. We sent all our blankets to the soldiers, and those winters were hard. Some of us died here, and some of us died in battle, but Lahic managed to survive. I know cold and hunger. That is why I always give coal and wood and bread and salt to anyone in need. I have chosen my place in the cemetery because no one lives forever, not Churchill, not Stalin, not Marx. The world is but a window and we live our lives looking out at Paradise. At the end, we hope to pass through."
A carpet made by Hajj Nagi's daughter in the qullacheche ("flowered arms") pattern hangs in his bedroom. By flickering candlelight, its intricate red medallion might indeed be mistaken for a window overlooking paradise. "The electricity always fails when the wind is high," says Hajj Nagi, with one last sip of tea before bedtime. "I like it that way."
The next morning, a few doors down from Hajj Nagi's shop, 30-year-old Agha Mashade Husseinov, a leathercrafter already in the trade half his life, is awake early to work on a pair of charig, the thick-soled, lace-up moccasins worn by the mountain people. His grandfather's awl and lasts are within easy reach. From the rafters hang finished sets of reins and whips. "My customers all know what they can buy here," he says. "What they can't get from me, they can get from Azade."
Azade is Azade Manafov, blind and nearly deaf, 76 years old and Lahic's senior saddlemaker. "I can tan any leather and make any saddlery you want. Since childhood I've been working. Why do I need my eyes now?" he says.
He shows off a handsome set of horse tack he once made from double-stitched leather and flat-woven carpet fragments. "My customer asked, 'Why did you cut up a perfectly good carpet for my horse? I could have sold it for money!' He shouted at me in anger, but you see, horse trappings must be beautiful too."
Azade picks up a pair of charig made from water-buffalo hide fully four millimeters (3/16") thick. "If you work in them, you'll never be tired and you'll never slip, no matter how steep the mountain," he promises.
"Once I received an order from the communist officials," he recalls. "They needed many pairs of charig, only made from fine leather and for small feet, for a ballet company they were sending on tour to Italy. I didn't have much time, but I made them all and shipped them out with the charvadars."
It must have been a remarkable moment in the annals of trade: Footwear for Russian ballerinas, made in an all-but-isolated mountain village in a style designed for rough crossings of the High Caucasus, traveling by horse-train to a stage in Rome. But many items of Lahic craftsmanship traveled far: a Lahic copper set won a gold medal in the Paris World Exposition of 1878, and masterpieces of Lahic metalwork are on display today in the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Elsewhere in the town, blacksmith and farrier Zeynal Zeynalov is cold-forging and fitting cleated winter shoes for a horse while its owner, a mustachioed charvadar, waits. He can size the shoes, Zeynalov explains, without a hot forge, and "neither ice nor snow will stop this churan on a high pass." Churan is Tat for a bay horse.
Although charvadars are no longer needed for the 40-kilometer (25-mi) trip down to the valley, Lahic continues to serve as a supply center for some 35 otherwise isolated mountain villages. Among the older charvadars Mashade Yusuf Charmilov remembers when their main traffic was to the valley and the city of Shemakha.
"We each had only two or three horses on a string, but often a hundred of us traveled together," he says, "bringing up the mountain grain and tobacco and metal—65 different alloys, from as far away as Omsk and Donetsk—and taking back down all the finished goods Lahic could make."
All—except carpets. Weaving came to Lahic only in the years before World War II, but the town's 80-loom cooperative carpet workshop is today a well-established part of the craft economy, busiest when winter curtails women's outside chores. Forewoman Fatima Ahmadova is working on a new carpet in the Quba design, named after its village of origin. She explains that weavers earn their wages from the co-op according to the carpet's size, the complexity of the pattern and the speed of completion. The wool comes from Australia, the colors are dyed in Baku, and the patterns are borrowed from other villages: Only the weavers' hands are entirely native to Lahic.
Fatima Bachishova and her 18-year-old daughter Rudabah sit side-by-side on a loom bench working on a gulistan pattern. "I know this design by heart," says Fatima. Even so, a hand-colored pattern guide on graph paper is posted on the loom, next to a cup of tea and balls of woolen yarn to be knotted into the pile.
"Yes, I have to count the knots in the beginning, but once the pattern begins to emerge, I work by sight alone," says Fatima. On a bench nearby, a seven-year-old girl named Vusala is watching her mother work on a Shirvan-design carpet, listening to her call out knot counts and colors as she pulls lengths of carnelian, black and turquoise wool from balls of yarn hanging from the loom, tying each knot of the medallion's complex pattern. Beside each weaver are the tools of her trade, all forged in Lahic: a 12-tined comb for tamping knots into the weft; a marlinspike for equalizing the warp; a hook-tipped knife; scissors for trimming the pile, and a whetstone for keeping everything sharp.
The deft, multi-stroke action of a carpet weaver's knife is hard to see, as each knot, though tied to two warp threads, takes only about a second to complete. With her right hand, the weaver uses the hooked knife, called buchag in Tat, to pull a taut warp thread toward her far enough to start tying a knot around it with her left hand. The knife next pulls the adjacent warp thread forward to allow the weaver to complete tying the knot. A short sweep of the buchag's cutting edge slices the completed knot from the ball of yarn. The untiring rhythm—pluck, pluck, slice; pluck, pluck, slice—produces a row of knots in surprisingly short order. After a few rows are tied, the comb is used to pound the knots down onto previous rows to make the pile dense, and a warp thread is passed through the weft to lock the knots in place. The gauged pile-trimming scissors, whose invention dates from the Middle Ages and which make carpets with an even pile depth possible, are held in both hands, and they give the pile a final, perfectly even shave.
In 19th-century England, William Morris, whose arts and crafts movement espoused the social value of crafts in the industrializing world, greatly admired the Ardabil carpet, one of a pair of Azerbaijani carpets commissioned by the Safavid shah Tahmasp I that hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum. "The carpet has no counterpart," he wrote. "Its design is of singular perfection, logically and consistently beautiful, with no oddities or grotesqueries which might need an apology."
It is a pity Morris never visited Lahic. Here, he might have seen the living proof of his idea that crafts contribute to a culture that is woven no less tightly and attractively than that carpet. Hajj Nagi's nephew Nazar Aliyev is both a craftsman and director of Lahic's Cultural Preservation Society. He takes both jobs seriously: Visitors to the market square are met by his severely worded Azeri signboard that translates, "Warning! It is forbidden to remove the historic stones of Lahic. It is forbidden to build here without permission."
The society's most practical rule restricts the village's building style to a traditional stone-and-wood cross-tie technique known in Tat as divarchu ("wood wall"). This is more than esthetics, for the blue-painted crosspieces set into all outer and inner walls every 65 centimeters (25½") dampen the seismic tremors that frequently rumble through Lahic and indeed gave the town its name. Before living memory, when the town was named La, an earthquake flattened it. The syllable hic, a Tat word meaning "destroyed" or "non-existent," was added to the name. The last major quake in the region, in 1902, left the town unscathed, although it ruined Shemakha, a much larger town that has no such building code.
Nazar explains that such rules help to keep Lahic whole not just physically, but also socially and architecturally. A visit to the bathhouse of Hajj Jahan Bakhish shows how. Here, a 200-year-old underground steam vault, a beehive-shaped boiler and a labyrinth of changing and cooling rooms sit beside the owner's new house that was built, according to the law, in a matching style. Had it been constructed of incongruous materials, Nazar asserts, the new house would have greatly reduced the public bath's implicit function as a repository of communal values and tradition.
Nazar goes back to tapping out the dents in an old brass samovar. "This piece is local, but we used to repair samovars from as far away as Baku and beyond. They were brought here because our people were the best. Now many of us have moved elsewhere so you can find Lahic work all over Azerbaijan."
"No matter what kind of salaried job I might get, it could end at any time. Only copperwork is forever. Those smiths who left Lahic to search for other work all eventually turned back to their craft. Even our children know, and my uncle still teaches us, that smithing will never die."
Louis Werner is a New York freelance writer and filmmaker.
Kevin Bubriski's photographs have been widely published, exhibited and collected. He lives in Vermont.