‘Azerbaijan’s long history and intermeshing of cultures has resulted in a rich tradition of handicrafts.‘
Standing at the cross roads of cultures, between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan has inevitably been a cauldron of intermingling influences. Add to this its enviable position on the ancient Silk Road, especially the town of Sheki, and the result has been a rich cultural heritage that has endured over centuries. From gorgeous carpets to delicate stained glass work, Azerbaijan is a repository of living handicraft traditions that are unique and fascinating.
The tradition of carpet-weaving is possibly among Azerbaijan’s most ancient crafts and there are archaeological records to indicate it goes back to 2nd century BC. So much so that every region has its own unique method with several subsets within. There are four major varieties corresponding to geographical regions, which includes the famous Quba, Ganja and Karabakh rugs. The sprawling Carpet Museum on Baku’s seafront promenade showcases the tradition with extensive displays of carpets, the different types of carpets and various other aspects related to it.
Sheki’s position on the Silk Road also catapulted the local handicraft traditions, but nothing can compete with the exquisite kelaghayi or silk scarf made with wooden block prints. The region has a history of silkworm rearing and weaving going back over 2000 years. Over the years, the patterns and colours, usually vegetable dyes, have undergone so many changes that the scarves produced in Sheki are beautiful and utterly soft. There are also different types for different occasions and the way they are wrapped could also vary from region to region. Contemporary efforts, like that by Menzer Hajiyeva who trains and employs local women, has also turned it in a stylish accessory.
One of the most significant musical instruments of Azerbaijan, the tar is a long-necked stringed instrument. It is an essential part of mugam, the local folk music tradition, and its making is usually handed down from one generation to the next. In a little workshop near the Khan Palace in Sheki, Zahid Valadov, a third generation maker and musician, is busy chipping away at a wooden block to make the main body of the instrument. Made from three different kinds of wood, mulberry is the main constituent and forms the 8-shape hollow block over which ox pericardium is stretched. The rest is made of walnut and pear wood. It takes several weeks to produce a single instrument. But Zahid demonstrates a haunting melody from a just completed one. Artistes like him are scattered all over the region producing the melodious instrument.
Among the most stunning sights in Sheki is the 18th century Khan Palace, which is reputed for its stunning stained glass windows. However, it is unlike the usual stained glass detailing that is popular in Europe. Instead it is an intricate jigsaw of wooden latticework inserted with precisely cut coloured glass. What’s more intriguing is that the whole elaborate set is assembled without nails or glue, and is a skill that is handed down from father to children. In Sheki, craftspersons are adept at modelling boxes, stands, lamp shades and several kinds of artefacts in addition to designing intricate windows and doors using shebeke.