Karavansaray

Notable building in Shaki and 300-year-old hotel

Caravanserais built along trade routes used to function as guesthouses. As Sheki was a city of trade and crafts a set of caravanserais was built here, but only two of the five large caravanserais that functioned in the 18th and 19th centuries have reached modern times. These are the Yuxarı Karavansaray (Upper Caravanserai) and the Ashagi Karavansaray (Lower Caravanserai). Today the Yuxari Karavansaray functions as a hotel. Entering feels like travelling back three centuries, it feels as though this mysterious place has kept even the smell of the past. The two-storey building with its deep basement was built at the end of the 18th century. The eastern architectural style emphasizes its antiquity and beauty. The lower row of rooms on the first floor is the basement, where trading merchants and guests would store their goods. The old walls, the pool decorated with ancient ornaments, the stone steps leading to the second floor from the wide courtyard - all this carries us back through the centuries.

The Ashagi Karavansaray is currently being restored. At 12 metres high on the street side, 10 metres on the east and west sides, it is larger than the Yuxari Karavansaray. It has an area of 8,000m², 242 rooms and four entrance gates and reflects the style of Sheki’s architects. The main facade overlooks the river, giving a sense of silence and freshness. A pool sits in the centre of the courtyard. In times gone by this building, would hospitably open its gates for merchants and strangers, but would just as quickly turn into an impenetrable fortress when closed.

Palace of the Shaki Khans

Be awash in colours inside the palaces of Sheki

The city of Sheki was home to a khanate in the second half of the 18th century, two of whose palace buildings can still be visited today.

The Khan’s Palace (Xan sarayı) is the main attraction at Sheki, which features colourful stained-glass windows known as shabaka (şəbəkə) and intricately-furnished interiors. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Khan’s Palace.

However, if you still want to capture on camera the kaleidoscopic interior of a palace building in Sheki, head over to the little-known House of the Sheki Khans (Şekixanlarının evi) where photography is permitted for an extra 2 manats (US$1.20). Said to be the khans’ winter residence, it features shabaka windows similar to those of the Khan’s Palace.

The exterior of the palace, as seen today

The Shaki Khans’ summer palace is located a few hours from Baku, an ancient Shaki city that today is rapidly replacing its stone buildings with glass skyscrapers. Perched high in the Caucasus mountains, the palace itself looks like the setting for a Wes Anderson movie. It is painstakingly symmetrical and more cosmopolitan than one might think for a mountain refuge. French stained glass, Russian wood, Ottoman ceramics, and Iranian mirrorwork decorate all of the facets.

One can easily imagine the early 1800s, when the Shaki princes sat in its now-quiet halls, speaking of their grandeur. Those same princes spent their nights fearing what would happen when the world’s warlords would finally discover their corner of the mountains.

This ornate 1762 palace building features vivid murals and dazzling coloured light streaming through şəbəkə (stained-glass) windows making it Şəki’s foremost ‘sight’ and one of the South Caucasus’ most iconic buildings. It was originally the Şəki Khan’s administrative building, just one of around 40 now-lost royal structures within the fortress compound.

It’s set in a walled rose garden behind two huge plane trees planted in 1530. The facade combines silvered stalactite vaulting with strong geometric patterns in dark blue, turquoise and ochre. The petite interior is only one-room deep, but lavished with intricate designs. Most are floral but in the central upper chamber you’ll find heroic scenes of Haci Çələbi’s 1743 battle with Persian emperor Nader Shah complete with requisite swords, guns and severed heads. No photos are allowed inside.

Surrounded as it is by mile-high peaks, there is no good reason for Shaki to be targeted by an invading army. The town is located in what is now Azerbaijan, but for thousands of years it remained a forgotten front as wars between the Ottoman, Russian, and Persian empires raged on all sides. Shaki’s rulers (called “khans”) were quite happy with this arrangement. They were free to sell their silk to the world, free from the greater region’s rampaging hordes.

Today, visitors can march through the palace like the Russian army eventually did in 1819. You can gape at the tile work, which depicts the bearded Shaki cavalry bearing pikes topped with mustachioed heads, or squint at the sun setting into mirrors carved like a Tsarina’s ring. While getting lost in the delicate finery of the palace’s details, one finds the mind wandering into territory involving the intricacies of maintaining the daily rituals of a fantasy kingdom in the Caucasus, and what the invading army might have felt when they burst the Shaki’s bubble.

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