Silk Road Tours offer private tailor made journeys to Azerbaijan
The largest but least well-known of the three Transcaucasian countries, the secular Muslim state of Azerbaijan stands in contrast to its Christian neighbours Georgia and Armenia. Located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the country’s culture, architecture and cuisine display influences from both continents.
Azerbaijan has a wealth of cultural landmarks, including the Zoroastrian Fire Temple at Ateshgah and the Stone Age petroglyphs and 3rd century Roman graffiti at Gobustan. The historic centre of the capital city, Baku, is a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site and a walk through the narrow streets of the walled town reveals medieval bath houses, mosques, fortresses and Islamic madrassas. It is also home to the Maiden’s Tower, an enigmatic monument which blends Arabic, Persian and Ottoman styles. The northern town of Sheki was the capital of the Sheki Khans, and their magnificent summer palace was constructed without using a single nail. Sheki’s caravanserais demonstrate Azerbaijan’s importance as a trading centre along the Silk Road.
Alongside traditional Russian dishes, there is a distinct eastern tinge to much of the food of Azerbaijan, and the principal dish, Plov, is an Azeri adaptation of the rice dish which forms a central part of the diet of Uzbekistan. Shashlik and kebabs are also common, highlighting the influence of Persia, while stuffed vine and cabbage leaves call to mind Greek cuisine and desserts such as pakhlava and halva are reminiscent of the Middle East. With such a range of food on offer, a visit to Azerbaijan is a gastronomic as well as a cultural journey.
Tours that visit Azerbaijan
Colourful, vibrant Baku is the capital of oil rich Azerbaijan with a population of over 2 million and lying at 28metres below sea level the largest city and capital below sea level. Fuelled by oil money the city is now an eclectic mix of old and modern. The UNESCO World Heritage listed old town, or Ichari Shahar, dates back to at least the 12th century and its maze of narrow streets contain gems such as the 15th century Palace of The Shirvanshahs. The visitor can also enjoy the early 20th century mansions of the oil barons or the sumptuous modern architecture – symbol of today’s Azerbaijan. The perfect way to finish a day after a meal of traditional Azeri kebab is a stroll along the promenade by the Caspian Sea.
The Gobustan National Park is located some 40kms south west of Baku and makes for a wonderful day excursion from the city. The park is famous for its some 600,000 rock carvings (petroglyphs) that date from between 5,000 and 20,000 years ago. These magnificent petroglyphs, in a remarkable state of preservation, depict a wide variety of scenes such as bull fights, ritual dances, camel caravans as well as the sun and stars. A further highlight of visiting the park is the mud volcanoes, Azerbaijan has half of all the world’s mud volcanoes, to see the mud bubbling up from the depths of the earth.
The Absheron peninsula juts out into the Caspian Sea to the east of Baku and offers a stark landscape of semi-desert and the remains of decades of oil production, indeed the oil that naturally bubbles to the surface is thought to have been the main source for the ancient world. However this shouldn’t deter the visitor who can find much of interest from the ancient Ateshgah fire temple to the Mardakan castles dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Natural highlights include mud volcanoes of which Azerbaijan has nearly half the worlds and the eerie Yanar Dag burning natural gas mountain.
Tucked away in the Greater Caucasus Mountains the small city of Sheki is a real little gem. A stop on the Silk Road, Sheki maintains its atmosphere with tea houses, bath houses, caravanserai and silk production. The city is also home to the 18th century Khansarai, the summer palace and fortress of the Sheki Khans with its lavish decoration and stained glass windows. The region is also home to a distinctive cuisine of rich sweet dishes and ‘piti’ – meat and vegetables cooked in clay pots. In all Sheki makes for a lovely and recommended stopover particularly en route to the close by Georgian border.