Spectacular views of the green lush Caucasus mountains is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Kish, a village five miles from Sheki City. This village, home to the first Albanian church, no connection with the modern-day Albania, is one of the most visited historical sites in Sheki.
Built in the first century on the site of a pagan temple, the oldest church in the Caucasus has weathered many storms; but as a result of the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise and the Architecture and Construction University of Azerbaijan cooperation, the church has been restored and turned into a museum. Why Norwegian? You might ask. The reason is that Norwegian explorer and scientist Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) – notable for his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947 – inspected the archaeological dig in the area of the church (on his fourth visit to Azerbaijan) and concluded that ancestors of Norwegians came from the Caucuses. Though, two years later he came up with a different hypothesis that didn’t involve Azerbaijan.
Before Thor Heyerdahl had a change of heart, a bust was erected across from the church to honor his contribution to restoration and research of the Kish Historical Site. Below is a picture of the stone installed next to the bust of the adventurer, with text expressing his hypothesis at the time. Heyerdahl’s old and new Odin hypotheses have yet to be validated.
Slow and bumpy, but beautiful ride from the Kish Church.
The Palace of Sheki Khans, a summer residence of Sheki Khans, is the only remaining structure from the larger palatial complex inside the Sheki Khans’ Fortress, which once included a winter palace, residences for the Khan’s family, and servants’ quarters. Built in 1797 by Muhammed Hasan Khan, the lavishly decorated residence features ornamental tiles, fountains, and colorful stain-glass windows set in a wooden latticework (shebeke).
Shebeke, central to Sheki’s architecture, is an ancient Azerbaijani craft in which latticework is assembled without nails or glue. After pieces of wood are set in an intricate design that resembles jig saw puzzle, colorful glass is cut to fit into the frame, or the frame is left empty.
Sheki Halva, which bares a resemblance to shebeke, like Piti is the staple of Sheki cuisine. Authentic halva is prepared at halva shops by halva maker, halvachi in Azerbaijani; Every halvachi has his/her own recipe that is passed down from generation to generation and kept secret.
Making halva requires a lot of skill, time, and patience. The halva consists of rice flour, nuts, coriander, cardamon, butter, and sugar syrup. Using a special mold that has small holes, the rice flour batter is poured into a large flat-bottom frying pan (saj) and cooked over low heat, which results in lace like appearance of the halva layers. In the same way, 20-30 additional layers are prepared. Then, half of these layers are stacked on top of each other in halva dish. After that, a mixture of toasted nuts, butter, and spices is evenly spread over the layers; the remaining layers are placed on top of the nut mixture, and the edges are trimmed and tucked in. The halva is cooked on a stove top. Finally, it is decorated with food paint, and sugar syrup is poured over it.
Halva is usually served in bite-size portions with tea. Below are two halva shops I visited in Sheki. Both shops are located in the building of Upper Karvansaray.
Not far from Upper Karvansaray is Gagarin, a restaurant that has an outdoor sitting area with a nice view. I really enjoyed their yogurt made with the milk from grass fed cows and
roasted village chicken.
My breakfast at Sheki Palace Hotel was one to remember. As usual, I assembled my sampling plate: locally made butter, cheese, heavy and sour cream, cherry preserves, and mulberry syrup, one of my favorite syrups. I added pastries instead of traditional tandir bread – I ate too much of tandir for dinner the previous night – and some olives to my plate as well, which, I am pretty sure, don’t grow in Sheki. Oh well, my breakfast was almost local.
I hope to return to Sheki next time I visit Azerbaijan to eat more of the amazing food this place has to offer and hike beautiful mountains.