The village of Lahic nestles in a valley high
in the Caucasus Mountains
The sound of
Old traditions are being revived in a mountain village
The Caucasus Mountains stretch
from the Black Sea to the Caspian, a 5000-metre-high wall of rock between
Russia and its southern neighbours Georgia and Azerbaijan.
They boast Europe’s
highest peak, dizzying ethnic diversity
the Romans took 140 translators on their Caucasus campaign — and some of the
world’s most extraordinary hats. Their rugged isolation has also preserved
traditions that vanished elsewhere long ago, like the metalwork of Lahic.
village, high in the mountains of Azerbaijan, made its name in the 1700s
when it supplied the Middle East with copperware and firearms. Little seems
to have changed since then. Houses are still built by stacking stones
between thick timber beams, an early form of earthquake proofing. Old women
still squat beside the cobbled main street selling sunflower seeds while the
men sun themselves, compare hats and gossip in Tat, the village’s unique
language. And from every doorway echoes the staccato sound of tiny hammers
tapping on metal.
Choosing a place to sleep in Lahic isn’t hard. Until recently the Ismailov
family ran the village’s only guesthouse, named Cannet Bagi, or Garden of
Paradise, for the apple and walnut orchards that surround it. It’s no luxury
guests sleep on mattresses on the floor of spartan rooms, and anytime but
summer the nights are bitterly cold
but that’s more than made up for by the backgammon lessons and endless
glasses of sweet tea. Best of all, the Ismailovs have a 300-year-old Turkish
bath where guests can douse themselves in steaming water for hours.
of Paradise is run by a taciturn matriarch and her two sons, the younger of
whom ends up being my interpreter. He explains he was named Intiqam, or
Revenge, because he was born just as the conflict with neighbouring Armenia
was heating up. The name and the staunch haircut contrast oddly with his
thick eyelashes and impish grin.
Intiqam tells me the guesthouse sees 200-300 tourists a year, mostly in the
spring and autumn. In summer it’s crowded with Azeris fleeing the heat of
the capital, Baku, and in winter the road is closed by snow.
The beauty of Lahic is that it gets just the right number of tourists. Too
few and you feel like a one-man freak show; too many, and hospitality
evaporates. In Lahic just about everyone greets you with a hearty "salaam aleykom"
peace be upon you
and most stop to chat. It doesn’t take long before I’ve met the village
maths teacher, the guys who run the antiquated telephone exchange, a Red
Army veteran, and dozens of excitable children.
has a museum, a ruined caravansaray, the odd mosque, and some pretty
scenery. However, the village’s real attraction is wandering the streets,
poking your nose into workshops, holding muddled, multi-lingual
conversations, and stopping for cups of tea.
first foray into the village, Intiqam introduces me to the wonderfully named
Zeynalabdin Abdullayev, director of the Lahic Historical Museum. He explains
that copper working started in the 15th century; at its peak,
just over a century ago, more than 100 craftsmen were hammering out water
jugs, bowls, dishes and trays. They were joined by potters, stone masons,
saddle makers, cobblers, hat makers and gunsmiths.
curious why an isolated valley, with no ore of its own, became a bustling
"We are surrounded by mountains, so in wartime this is a quiet place. No one
attacked and craftsmen could get on with their work," Zeynalabdin says.
But today, he adds glumly, only seven blacksmiths and a handful of carpet
such craftsman is Nazar Aliev, who ditched his $70-a-month job as a teacher
to return to the family trade. His workshop is a single room off the main
street, with anvils set into the dirt floor, copper stacked against
white-washed walls, and racks of pliers and punches.
Hammering a design into an oil lamp, he says jugs and genie lamps
decorated with flowers, geometric patterns or characters from Azerbaijan’s
national poems "about love and bad kings"
are his most popular wares.
One lamp takes four days to
make and sells for $40; in the tourist season he can earn $300-700 a month.
better living than teaching, but Nazar isn’t convinced life has improved
since the collapse of the Soviet Union cast Azerbaijan adrift as an
independence it was good to sell things by myself. Before there were no
foreigners and the state bought everything," Nazar says.
life would be good, but it was better in the time of the USSR. Life was easy
then. We had social security if you got sick or had no job, and we could
travel all over the Soviet Union. Now we have no money to travel outside
And until the road is fixed
20km drive into the mountains takes a hair-raising hour and a half and keeps
many tourists at bay —
Nazar will struggle to make a living, and the young men will keep drifting
to the city. The government, blinkered by Caspian Sea oil, cares little
about tourism or roads. Or that with every spring melt a little more of
Lahic crumbles into the river.
A boy, a donkey, and a "bridge to nowhere" —
part of an abandoned, Soviet-era Trans-Caucasian Highway across the
another workshop, Jusif Kamilov, chairman of the Lahic Craftsmen’s
Association, is more upbeat. His shelves teeter with old samovars, water
jugs, trays, bowls and candlesticks; his most popular item is the pilav
tray, which sells for $70-$140. Some of his metalwork goes to the tourist
bazaars in the capital, Baku, but most is sold in the village.
"One century ago our wares were sent to many other countries
the US, UK, Germany. Our handiwork was in museums around the world. Not
prospects are better now than in Soviet days when the Government sold 80
percent of the craftsmen’s work. Jusif’s
gleaming 24-carat smile and holiday home in Baku suggest business is good.
"Today we can produce and sell by ourselves. The only problem is there are
not enough customers. But they will come, insha’allah - God willing."
First published in The New Zealand Listener, 2010.
Where in the world?
Azerbaijan is a country of
about 8 million at the very southeastern corner of Europe - or the
northwest of Asia, depending on your perspective.
Elevation ranges from almost 5000m on its northern border to below
sea level beside the Caspian Sea; the climate varies from
semi-desert to sub-tropical.
It borders Russia, Georgia, Iran and Armenia, with which it has
fought a bitter war since both countries regained independence in
From Baku, the Azeri capital, several buses a day stop in
the nondescript town of Ismayilli on their way to northwest
Azerbaijan. From Ismayilli three buses a day brave the 20km,
90-minute trip to Lahic. Alternatively, a direct minibus to
Lahic departs Baku’s chaotic 20 Yanvar bus station around 8am daily.
The five-hour trip costs about NZ$10.
Where to stay
When the author visited Lahic
in 2005 the only
place to stay was Cannet Bagi (Garden of Paradise), a homestay run
by the Ismailov family. Accommodation is basic but includes the use
of a historic Turkish bath. The rate for full board was about NZ$20 a
night, with meals such as goat kebabs marinated in pomegranate
Some travellers visiting Lahic since
then report a price hike to $30-60 a night and a decline in hospitality.
If that's the case, you could try your luck looking for another homestay, or stay in one of Ismayilli’s modest
hotels and visit Lahic as a day trip.
Baku, consult a guidebook such as Lonely Planet’s
Georgia, Armenia and
for the best deals. Tourists are often sent to decaying, Soviet-era
hotels charging three-star prices for zero-star facilities, but the
city has several smaller hotels with clean rooms and friendly staff
starting from $20 a night.
Azerbaijan’s currency is the New Manat (1 New Manat = NZ$2.10; a
string of zeroes has been lopped off the old Manat).
dollar is the currency of choice, though the euro is catching on.
ATMs are available in
Baku, dispensing US$ or Manat, but are rare elsewhere in
Be sure to count your Manat when changing money,
at official exchange booths.
A craftsman works on a copper lamp
The flagstoned main
street of Lahic looks much as it did centuries ago
Bowls, dishes and trinkets crowd the
shelves in Nazar Aliev’s workshop
Old men sun themselves
on the man street
Craftsman Nazar Aliev at