It takes most of a day to drive west from Baku to Shekki, in the northwest corner of Azerbaijan, although the odometer measures the trip at only some 250 kilometers (155 mi) long. After the pastoral expanses of the central valley, and long after the road north to Lahic branches off (see p. 12), the Shekki road rises and begins to trace the southern brow of the high Caucasus. Here samovars steam at roadside cafes, tobacco leaves dry in open-air sheds, and children mind flocks of turkeys and herds of water buffalo. United Nations-sponsored camps for refugees from Nagorno Karabakh, which lies some 150 kilometers (90 mi) to the south, crowd the outskirts of towns and villages.
The road skirts the hilly spurs and crosses boulder-strewn rivers that tumble from the mountain ridges. The valleys formed by these steep drainages are warm, micro-climatic refuges for cultivating pomegranates, custard apples, bananas and cornel cherry, whose white variety, of legendary sweetness, is unique to the district. Tea is served Russian-style, sweetened with fruit preserves.
Topping a hill overlooking Shekki, what is immediately remarkable is that it is almost entirely a town of red tile roofs and stone walls. A flood in the year 1772, when Shekki's wealth was at its height, destroyed the old town and permitted its reconstruction in a unified style.
Shekki's fame came from its silk industry and the vibrant foreign trade that followed it. French novelist Alexandre Dumas, familiar with France's greatest silk-producing center, visited here in the early 19th century and called Shekki "the Lyon of the Caucasus," a city of horse-powered looms and mulberry plantations. Two vast, 300-room caravanserais, each sprawling over some 4½ hectares (11 acres), still stand, abandoned, on the bank of the Gurjanachai. Silk from Shekki, it seems, was not part of Soviet economic plans for the region.
But among Caucasian nationalists, Shekki is remembered for another reason: It was here that Hajji Murad, a 19th-century Tartar fighter, died in heroic defiance of the forces of Czar Nicholas I. Leo Tolstoy's eponymous 1904 novella chronicled the tale of Hajji Murad's last days, and ever since, Shekki has been a popular destination for nationalists and Tolstoy aficionados alike.
In Shekki's streets, rows of massive plane trees run uphill to the Khans' palace. Built in 1761 by Hussein Khan, who ruled one of several princely domains of the south Caucasus, the rectangular building has a long facade whose every surface is either pigmented or pierced. Fields of painted, mosaic-like patterns and bands of grilled windows with Venetian glass are interrupted only by a twin set of half-domed entryways with mirrored stalactites.
The Shekki Khans were not known for beneficence. Hussein Khan is said to have executed the palace architect, Abbas Quli, simply so he could never again design such a magnificent building. Hussein's own fate was similar, and it came at the hands of his uncle, Abdel Qadir Khan, who poisoned him. Hussein Khan's victory frieze, painted on the walls of the reception room, seems designed to intimidate visitors: It depicts the khan, on horseback and carrying a scepter, surrounded by allied and opposing troops hoisting battle standards and pikes bearing skewered heads. The flags are emblazoned with the crescents, lions, sunbursts and scimitars that identify the soldiers as Turks, Shirvanshahs, Mongols and Persians, respectively. More severed heads are stacked on all sides like cannonballs, each one detailed with a neatly wrapped turban and a well-combed mustache.
In contrast, the Khans' private sitting room was decorated as a floor-to-ceiling paradise by the noted 19th-century painter Qubar Ali Karabakhi. Irises, pomegranates, roses and intertwining tendrils provide a magical garden in which peacocks and flower-breathing dragons play. Yet even here, the iconography of raw power is not absent: In the lush verdure, lions rip the heads from deer and gorge on their entrails.
Downhill from the palace, 78-year-old Farukh Abdul Rahimov is expertly ripping the membrane from a bull's heart. "Wet it, look how strong it is," he says. "A perfect piece for the tar." Abdul Rahimov is Shekki's foremost maker of musical instruments, and his shop is crowded with spike-fiddles, lutes, tambourines and drums that all use animal skin as sounding boards.
The lute-like tar is his specialty. It can take weeks for woodcutters to bring him just the right branch of a knotted mulberry tree for him to carve into the tar's hourglass body. When asked from whom he learned his craft, he points to a framed picture of his teacher, Ahmad Bey Tahirov. "He who has died, has died," he says sadly. "Very few still do this work well."
Hajji Salim Efendi, prayer leader (imam) of the recently reroofed Jum'ah Masjid (Friday Mosque), tells a different kind of story of Shekki, one of rebirth and revival. He points out that the 18th-century mosque, with its distinctive brick minaret, burned in 1990, at the start of the Karabakh war, but that it is now open again. "We rebuilt it quickly, and the madrasa [school] is full," he says with satisfaction. Upstairs, 12-year-old Musa Iskandar steps forward from a row of boys to sit cross-legged and recite the first Sura, or chapter, of the Qur'an. His voice is melodic, but firm. His teacher nods approval.
On a high crag overlooking the town and the valley sit the ruins of "Gelesen-Geresen," the Shekki citadel. The story of how it got its name is a proud chapter in the town's history. In 1744, Nadir Shah Afshar, usurper of the last Safavid ruler's throne, wrote to Shekki's Hajji Chelebi Khan with the demand that he submit. By way of refusal, Hajji Chelebi replied from his stronghold with an enigmatic and adamantine response: "Gelesen, geresen"—if you come, you will see. The shah, too curious, attacked, and met defeat.
That two-word reply might be the best response to any number of questions posed to the people of Shekki by curious outsiders. Why are Shekki's sweet cherries white? Why does a Shekki bull's heart make such a fine sound board? "The Caucasus," Tolstoy wrote, "was like nothing at all that had ever been dreamt of, or written down, or talked about."
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.