Along the traces of Great Silk Roads
The Great Silk Roads bringing together two different worlds – the East and the West – could not but leave a trace in the history of political, economic and cultural development of the countries through which it passed. Travelers, merchants and missionaries exchanged cultural, scientific, educational and spiritual values. Azerbaijan was on the path of the Roads and made a significant contribution to the development of this global transit network. The goods and products of Azerbaijani towns and settlements spread along the Silk Roads with great success, and its towns had long been known to act as centres of culture, science and education. Oil, carpets, raw silk, silk fabrics, cotton, weapons, dried fruits, salt, precious stones, jewellery, alum, saffron, natural dyes, polychrome pottery, wooden utensils, non-ferrous metals, sturgeons, and caviar ironwood were the main exports of Azerbaijan. Bilateral land and sea routes linked Azerbaijan with China, Syria, India, Asia Minor, Iran, Egypt, Russia, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Europe. The British used to lay their routes to India via Azerbaijan, Indian merchants traded in spices and cashmere fabrics with Baku and Shamakhi. For this reason, actually, one of the medieval caravanserais in Baku has the name of the Indian origin, “Multani”. Baku used to serve as a transit point for goods passing from China and India through the Black Sea to Constantinople.
The Silk Roads in Azerbaijan passes several cities in the north-western direction. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, located on the crossroads of the East and West, has always been and even today remains the main administrative, political, cultural, ideological, handicraft and trade centre of the region. The city is also known as a major seaport. A 1375 Catalan map highlights the Caspian Sea as “Sea of Baku”. The 13th century sea fortress “Sabail” in the Bay of Baku guarded entrance into the port city. The capital itself and its surroundings have preserved numerous buildings known since the days of the Great Silk Roads, like for example “Icherisheher”, the old city, which compromises in its boundaries the 15th century Palace of Shirvanshahs, Maiden Tower – a unique monument of the 5th-12th centuries, as well as mosques, caravansaries, baths, mausoleums and madrasa. The Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower is now included into the UNESCO World Heritage List. The temple of “Atashgah”, erected at the expenses of Indian followers of Zoroaster, known as Parsi, is another wonderful example of the intercultural exchanges in this city. Atashgah or “Fire Temple”, a castle-like religious temple in Surakhani, was a pilgrimage and philosophical centre for fire worships. According to the Persian and Indian inscriptions, this temple was used as Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian place of fire worship. The Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, included also in UNESCO World Heritage List, represents rock art cultural reserve, which covers areas of a plateau of rocky boulders rising out of the semi-desert of central Azerbaijan, with an outstanding collection of more than 6000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40 000 years of rock art. The site also possesses remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, dated to the period from the Upper Palaeolithic to the middle Ages.
Shamakhi, located on the crossroads of caravan routes linking Europe with Asia, the city played an important role in the international silk trade. Merchants from all over the world would go to numerous bustling bazaars there. Shamakhi was a major commercial centre and the commodities exported from here were silk, carpets and rugs. According to the testimonies of travellers, Shamakhi supplied the best silk, which used to produce fabrics such as brocades, darai, diba and zarbaft. The city was also famous for its wine, exported mainly to Western Europe. Basgal (an Ismayilli region) is one of the oldest settlements situated on the Silk Roads and in the 16th- - 17th centuries it was one of the most important silk-weaving centres. The other distinctive feature of Basgal is that already in the Middle Ages this settlement had a sophisticated sewage system and every household had a bath. Lahij is a monument of the ancient urban and architectural art, protected by the State. Lahij is a well-known craft centre for production of cold steel arms, copper ware decorated with engraved design and etc. Gabala is a city that became known 2400 years ago. The city was surrounded by strong defensive walls, behind which palaces, houses of the nobility, pavilions, bazars and places of worship were being developed. The city was famous for silkworm breeding and horticulture.
Shusha is a unique town that has left an enormous cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, and is located in the centre of Karabakh – an ancient region of Azerbaijan. Situated in the strategic and economic part of Karabakh, it became the capital of the Karabakh Khanate. The town was surrounded by stone walls with round towers protecting the gates. The khan and his court lived in a rectangular citadel surrounded by bazaars, a Friday Mosque and residential quarters. Each quarter was centred around a mosque surrounded by small squares containing a source of drinking water. Town estates incorporating a garden and vegetable plot were separated from the street by stone walls. The southern part of Shusha has a very famous plain called “Jidir duzu”, which used to be the main location for festivities and sporting events in Shusha, such as, for instance, Chovqan or Chovken, a traditional Karabakh horse riding game, now included into the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Shusha was famous for its trade in carpets and silk products.
Sheki, the architectural reserve of the country, is one of the most ancient cities nestling in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountain. The citadel and the Khan’s Palace, built between the 18th and 20th centuries are situated in the historic centre of Sheki. The structure of the Palace was made of combination of red brick with red cobblestone and does not contain a single nail. The facade of the palace, facing to the South, has a lattice frame with a set of colourful shabaka (traditional mosaic). The historic centre, with the main shopping street, public buildings, bath houses, shops and workshops of craftsmen, silk production factories, cooperatives, individual residential houses, has retained a historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. In the northern part of the city, there are ruins of the once impregnable fortress “Galarsan-gorarsan” (“Come and See”) dated to the 15th-18th centuries. The Upper and Lower Caravanserais were built in the 18th century. The people travelling along the Silk Roads used to hold negotiations, as well as stay overnight in the caravanserais of Sheki. With the spread of Christianity, early Christian Albanian churches appeared in the city and its surroundings. The best known temple is located in a small mountainous village, Kish (1st-2ndcenturies). The Kish shrine became “ancestress of the churches in the East”.
Another architectural treasure of Azerbaijan is its ancient bridges. The most famous ones include “Sinig Korpu” in Gazakh district, Khudaferin bridges across the Aras River in Jabrayil district. These bridges used to serve as the main route for the migration of different peoples and ethnic groups, and represents one of the key components of Silk Roads.
The exchange of information, religion, cultural values and traditions, as well as migration of peoples was fostered with the development of the Silk Roads. Commercial towns of all sizes and villages emerged along this route, which stimulated the important social and cultural processes, large-scale commercial operations, diplomatic agreements and even military alliances.
Azerbaijani intangible heritage along the Silk Roads
Since ancient times, Azerbaijan has played the role of a melting pot of civilizations, serving as a venue and major transfer point of different cultural traditions and customs. The intangible heritage of Azerbaijan, diverse and rich, continues to live and to be transmitted from generation to generation. From a cultural and historic point of view, Azerbaijan has close ties with the Silk Roads history and was strongly affected by its development. One point of reference of this strong link between the Silk Roads and Azerbaijan is “Seven Beauties” by the great poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209, Ganja, Azerbaijan), in which he allegorically describes the countries lying along these great Roads.
The location on the Silk Roads promoted the growth of handicrafts in the country. For example in 1834 there were more than 400 shops of the craftsmen on the streets and the bazaars in the city of Sheki. Among the products of handicrafts manufactured in Sheki, there are products that are unique to the region, such as “tekelduz” – the embroidery featuring coloured thread silk tambour on dark velvet with a special needle called “garmach”. This embroidery method is also used in Central Asia and the Middle East countries, however the “tekelduz” made in Sheki are distinct by their design and embroidery technique. A variety of crafts were developed in Sheki, like blacksmithing, weapons manufacturing, silk weaving, decorative and artistic shabaka, jewelery items, silk and artistic embroideries. The small wooden trunk boxes called “mujru” are another famous handicraft product. Mujrus were used by women for jewelry or embroidery thread storage. These small boxes are made of local hardwoods, such as chestnut and walnut, and are decorated with hammered copper. Since ancient times and still today, the small “mujru” boxes are the major attribute in the dowry of brides from this region.
Rooted in traditions found along the Silk Roads, the art of Kelaghayi is concentrated in two locations in Azerbaijan - in Sheki and Basgal. “Kelaghayi” is a woman’s headscarf and is made of thin silk threads and its colors are tied to specific social occasions. The art of making Kelaghayi is transmitted exclusively through non-formal apprenticeship and is primarily an intra-family occupation. The traditional practice of making and wearing headscarves is an expression of cultural identity, religious traditions and serves as a symbol of social cohesion, reinforcing the role of women and strengthening the cultural unity of Azerbaijani society.
Carpet-weaving is another popular tradition in Azerbaijan. The patterns of Azerbaijani carpets are a characteristic of the various regions of the country. Carpet making is also a family-run business tradition, transferred orally and through practice. Carpet weaving is closely connected with the daily life and customs of the communities involved, its role reflected in the meaning of the designs and their applications. Thus, the carpet is widely used for home decor and furniture. There are special carpets woven specifically for medical treatment, wedding ceremonies, the birth of a child, mourning rituals and prayer. The carpets are also used by young girls who sit on them while telling fortunes and singing traditional songs during Novruz.
Celebration of Novruz Bayram (the regional New Year) on the occasion of the 1st day of spring is one of the outstanding traditions that have been transmitted along the Silk Roads . It traveled widely, from Central Asia to Turkey by passing from, Indian sub-continent, Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and other countries. Novruz marks the New Year and the beginning of spring. It is celebrated on 21 March every year. Novruz is associated with various local traditions and numerous tales and legends. Songs and dances are common to almost every regions, as are semi-sacred family or public meals. Novruz promotes the values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and neighbourliness, thus contributing to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and various communities.
In the field of sport, the traditional wrestling, Gulash, can be mentioned as a common sport activity among Silk Roads countries. Gulash is a competition in body force, as well as in willpower and spirit. The tournaments are accompanied by music, as in ancient times, normally by the sounds of the traditional wind instrument called zurna and rumbling of drums. The wrestlers of Gulash are known as pekhlevans. During Novruz Bayram, pekhlevans prepare impressing shows to present their living art and traditions.
It is important to note that “Traditional art and symbolism of Kelaghayi, making and wearing women’s silk headscarves”, “Traditional art of Azerbaijani carpet weaving in the Republic of Azerbaijan” and “Novruz” have all been included into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Tolerance and hospitality were the main features for the countries along the Roads, including Azerbaijan. The country has passed various stages of spiritual life over its long history. Initially it was dominated by beliefs and cults, then by Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Christianity in the 4th century. Since the 7th century, most of the country’s population practises Islam. Azerbaijan is a perfect example of the country with high religious tolerance. Nowadays, like many years ago, along with mosques, there are synagogues, Christian churches, and Zoroastrian temples. Tolerance is one of the features that was reinforced during the times of the Silk Roads. The same can be mentioned about the hospitality of the Azerbaijani people, where pilgrimages, merchants, strangers were always warmly welcomed.
The Great Silk Roads is a history of civilizations and its role can hardly be overestimated. It is shrouded with all sorts of legends and folk tales. All countries through which this longest transcontinental trade route passed gained immensely and inherited the most advanced achievements of those years. Azerbaijan served as one of the most important links of the Silk Roads and an integral part in the development of mankind.