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Transcaucasia - Azerbaijan and Georgia Trip Review by Ihab Zaki

In October 2008 I traveled to Armenia to quench my desire to immerse myself in the unique culture of a people of the Great Diaspora, many of whose ancestors had been scattered around the world after the Turkish genocide of the early 20th century. I was in my element as I toured monasteries and churches set against a magnificent backdrop of spectacular mountain scenery. My experience made such a profound impression on me that when the opportunity arose to complete my Transcaucasia journey I jumped at the chance. I decided to join the May 2011 tour to Georgia and Azerbaijan led by Norman Jones, professor of history. The group had begun in Armenia 10 days prior to my arrival and I hooked up with them on their last day in country in time to cross into Georgia. After my long but uneventful flights into Yerevan, my dear Nellie (the local operator in Armenia) met my 8:00pm arrival flight and took me to dinner. We shared a sumptuous meal of kebabs and salads overlooking the lights of the city.

 Next day, after a much needed rest, I was driven north to where the group had spent the previous night. Upon meeting up with them in the town of Gyumri we set off for the Georgia border. The crossing was reasonable, but the weather was cold and windy so it added drama to the experience. Formalities taken care of we headed northwest, traveling amidst lovely villages overshadowed by the high peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. The first impression, shared by all in our group, was that Georgia does not have the “soviet” feel that Armenia’s countryside had. There were no deserted factories or hideous looking large block apartment buildings. On the contrary, it had the appearance of a Swiss landscape, quaint, charming, lush, green and clean. Surely Georgia enjoys a unique position: sandwiched between the large Iranian landmass and the Turkish republic, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter two are at odds due to repeated wars and clashes regarding territorial claims. Georgia is the land link between Armenia and Turkey who are not on good terms though that appears to be slowwwwly changing! Sitting at the crossroad with one foot in Europe and one in Asia, Georgia is the glue that diplomatically binds everyone. Though it shares the common threads of the spectacular Caucasus Mountains and a recent past of Soviet domination with two of its neighbors, each is unique. Azerbaijan is a Moslem country, with the majority of Azeris being Shiite while Georgia and Armenia are predominantly Christian, with religious roots extending back to the earliest days of the religion.

 Our guide was very informative giving us background history on his country and we repaid him by teasing him about whose alphabet was first: the Armenian or Georgian! That aside, we learned a lot along the way to our first stop for lunch, especially about Georgia’s economy. It seems to rely foremost on the remittances of Georgians working abroad, international help, some meager income from selling water from their abundant supply and the fees they collect from gas pipelines that cross through Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey. We finally arrived in the little village where we would have lunch and I must say our first meal in Georgia proved to be something to remember. We were hosted by a family in their home to a meal that included plenty of fresh vegetables, delicious meat, grilled river fish and bread out of the oven. A spirited discussion began (for the benefit of the guide) on the subject of cuisine: which is better, Armenian or Georgian food.

 We departed for the rock-cut town of Vardzia built in the 12th to 13th centuries by Queen Tamar as a monastic complex. Planned as a town-fortress, the complex was turned into a well-defended monastery that served as an important political, cultural, educational and spiritual center for the country. As many as 2,000 monks once lived in rooms cut out of the rock face. There were a dozen small churches as well as the larger Church of the Assumption in the center of the cave complex. Frescoes can still be seen on the rock surfaces of this church. It can be a bit difficult to visit, since climbing is necessary, but it’s not impossible. There is a pathway making it reasonable as you can stop and take breaks along the way. When you reach the very top you will be rewarded with a dramatic view of the entire complex carved in stone and of the glorious valley below crossed by a serpentine river. It is well worth the ascent!

 From here we continued to the town of Bakuriani, a popular ski resort that was deserted at this time of year. We settled into our charming hotel perched upon a gorgeous mountain slope with lovely vistas.  By the time we arrived the clouds had engulfed all the peaks surrounding the town settling just above our hotel. Nearby a gushing river thundered to complete the ambience. That evening at dinner I brought my bottle of cognac from Armenia that was given to me as a gift.  It was the perfect complement to the delicious meal that we shared. After a fantastic first day and night in Georgia, we turned in to rest up for the continuation of our adventure that would take us all the way to Tbilisi.

 First stop after the morning drive was in GORI, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. It was amazing to get so close to this iconic ruthless man and put a human face to him. We visited the house where he was born saw where his parents slept and even his baby cradle! Next we went into the museum that retells so vividly his life and his career. The guide made it sound so thrilling, you had visions of him popping out of a room any minute or shaking your hand when you approached one of his statues or life-size pictures. Afterwards, we departed for the cave-town of Uplistsikhe located six miles east of Gori. It was once close to a major caravan route between Asia and Europe but was destroyed by the Mongols in AD 1240. Many of the cave rooms have eroded or collapsed, yet it is still possible to visit pre-Christian temples dotting the site, as well as the 10th century Christian church built over a pagan temple. Again some mountain goat skills are needed to explore it in depth and as before the views from the top of the valleys; rivers and snow-covered peaks are breathtaking.

 We drove up into the mountains towards the magical city of Tbilisi arriving just around sunset, just in time to see the rays of the sun glamorously illuminating the golden statue atop of the pillar in the square facing our hotel. I had drawn images in my mind of the city based on my impressions of Yerevan. Naturally I expected more or less the same style but, lo and behold, I found it a much more beautiful and elegant city than Yerevan. It is blessed by the shining Mtkavi River that runs through the city, dotted with churches and cathedrals on the hills around the river. Our hotel, the Marriott, was smack dab in the middle of the city with the old town nearby. Some of the rooms overlooked the impressive Narikala Fortress.

 Those of us who had energy went out that early evening and strolled along the cobblestone streets of the old town and gazed into the windows of the endless shops selling golden icons and religious statues. We peeked into some churches that were rather busy with parishioners of all ages. People were singing hymns and surprisingly many of them were young.  Even small attendees (young children) were showing their respect. In general most Christian countries have rather an older population that attends services but in Georgia, the large crowds of young were astonishing! Another interesting observation is that I saw people of all ages stop in their tracks as they passed in front of any church. They would then look at the edifice and make the sign of the cross then proceed on their way. It is a population so religious and so observant that I have personally never seen a Christian country emitting such fervor everywhere you go. We regrouped later that evening and headed out for a lavish dinner in a nearby restaurant that had live music and traditional dancing. I guess I am showing my age, as it was all a bit too loud for my taste. I tried the local national drink: Chacha. It is used as a method of giving strength, vivacity and good mood from immemorial time. It is traditionally made of distilled mixture of wines, fermented by any kinds of grapes, and indeed after a few shots I didn’t seem to mind the loud din as much! We headed back to our hotel with the promise of more exciting things to come. All in all, it was truly a joy to be able to explore this city on foot.

 We ventured into some of the sites of this gorgeous city. Tbilisi was the capital of arts and elegance in the Caucasus region. The wealthy of Armenia and many from Russia had mansions here and visited often to attend the opera, the theater, music events and to indulge in the life of the Haute Societe. We had a full day as we visited the 13th century cross-domed Metechi Church; the 7th-8th century sulphur baths; Narikala Fortress, the ancient site of Tbilisi built by the Arabs in the 4th century; Sioni Cathedral, the seat of the Catholicos, the Patriarch of all Georgia, until 2004; and the 6th century Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi. Next we toured the Museum of Tbilisi where our guide who had been indoctrinate in the soviet style in demeanor, looks, voice and attitude showed us a few highlights of the endless marvels of the humble-looking building encompassing this museum. Room after room was filled with golden icons, semi-precious stone inlaid crosses, old hand painted bibles and the crowns, jewels and robes of kings. It was a dazzling museum! We shared dinner that evening at another great restaurant, this one on a hill overlooking the entire city. We listened to a musical troop that played some local tunes as we savored some of the delicacies of Georgia, with its unique cuisine that uses lots of eggplant, bell peppers and walnut sauces.

 The following day we left Tbilisi for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mtskheta. Inhabited since the second millennium BC it is one of the oldest towns and the ancient capital of Georgia. We visited the 15th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, erected on the site where the first Christian church stood in the 4th century, the holiest place in all of Georgia. The first stone cathedral was built in the 6th century. Today the remains of decorated pillars can be viewed under the transparent glass floor. The church boasts impressive royal tombs, an icon stand, and carved decoration including bulls heads and semi-pagan fertility symbols. The current structure was built in 1029. Next stop was the 6th century Georgian Orthodox monastery of Jvari. Its facades are richly decorated with magnificent reliefs, including exquisite portraits of the kings who built the church. We departed for Dzalisi, an archaeological site comprising several Bronze Age (3rd to 2nd millennium BC) layers. The site boasts four palaces and hypocaustic baths, a swimming pool, administrative centers, barracks for soldiers, a water supply system, and burial grounds of the first settlements during the 2nd millennium BC. The baths are famous for their intricate mosaics depicting scenes inspired by the cult of Dionysus. We continued along the Georgian Military Highway to the 16th century fortress of Ananuri. The architectural design of the complex is typical of the late medieval period and includes a fortress, two churches, an old watchtower, a prison and civic buildings. We retraced our steps back to Tbilisi for our last night in the city.

 Next day we bade farewell to a beautiful country, and entered another adventure-land: Azerbaijan. As soon as we crossed the bridge that joins the two countries a customs agent came to check us out. His only interest was in printed matter, specifically maps, guidebooks or anything else showing what the Azeris call “incorrect borders of Azerbaijan”. He wanted to know if any of us where carrying material that depicted Nagorno Karabakh as an Armenian territory and not an Azeri one (as they adamantly believe it is Azeri). Even after we assured him that we were not he only let us pass after thoroughly inspecting the bags on one of our group members. Then our capable guide Mr. Ballash led us to the vehicle and settled us in. He spent the next two hours telling us stories about his country until we reached the town of Sheki. Just as in Georgia, the road followed the towering peaks of the Caucasus Mountain range. Upon reaching Sheki, we again noted the alpine-look of the town. We settled in our lovely central hotel and then headed out to an old restored Caravanserai hotel to have a special dinner in the gardens. Although the setting was majestic we did not stay at that particular hotel, despite its quaint charm and “old times” appeal. The rooms were not air-conditioned and were in need of a facelift. The grounds however were lovely and you could just visualize all those merchants in the 19th century coming in with their caravans to spend the night here as they traveled along the great Silk Road!

 Today the southeastern portion of the Caucasus region is the Azerbaijani Republic, whose official language is Azeri, a Turkic language that in the 20th century alone has been written variously in the Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. It is related to Anatolian Turkish, the language of modern Turkey, but the Azeri vocabulary is heavier with loan words from Arabic and Persian, and includes Russian words unknown to Turkish. Besides Azeri, however, some 20 percent of Azerbaijan's population speaks other languages, among them Indo-European, Turkic and Caucasian tongues.

 Historically, the name "Azerbaijan" leads to some confusion about just what geographical territory is referred to. "Greater Azerbaijan," as defined by the reach of the Azeri language, covers both the modern state of some seven million people, called the Azerbaijani Republic, and a two-province chunk of Azeri-speaking northwestern Iran that is roughly equally populous. This division between northern and southern territories dates from 1922, when the Soviet Union reasserted control over the region's oil resources by crushing nationalist movements and absorbing Azerbaijan south to the Araks River, the classical Araxes, which defines today's border between Azerbaijan and Iran. In 1990, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic rose up against the USSR, then endured a bloody war with Armenia over the Karabakh region, and became independent in 1991. Azerbaijanis today often refer to the Azerbaijani Republic as "north Azerbaijan" and the Azeri-speaking Iranian provinces as "south Azerbaijan."

 Sheki is one of the most famous and ancient places of Azerbaijan. Surrounded by mountains and forests of oak trees this ancient city was long famed as a silk center and an important stop on the great silk route. It is believed that the name of the town goes back to the time of the Saks, who reached the territory of Azerbaijan in the 7th century BC. We began by visiting the 18th century Khans summer palace to see the magnificent frescos and exquisite stained glass work. Albeit small as a palace compared to other Ottoman or Central Asian ones, it was one of the most beautifully decorated buildings I have ever seen and it is listed as a UNESCO Heritage site because of its architectural marvels. Next we visited a small annexed Sheki History Museum where we saw all sorts of ethnographic and anthropological displays from several periods including many artifacts relating to silk manufacturing and trade. We then drove up on a hill to visit an Albanian church located in the village of Kish. Locals claim that the church was built in 78 AD, but researchers place it a few centuries later. One should note that the Albanians who currently reside in Kish have nothing to do with the people residing in the country of Albania.

 Our next day was as exciting, as we left Sheki and headed towards Baku. Along the way we made a stop in the small but rather unique village of Lahij. The unpaved road that leads to Lahij winds up from the sunny vineyards of Shemakha along the narrowing Girdimanchai river gorge, crossing the torrent on a flimsy bridge and skirting the sheer walls on narrow, roughly hewn ledges. This isolation allowed Tat, a dialect of an Old Persian tongue, to remain the primary language in Lahij and a few surrounding villages. For centuries, the valley people have spoken, at various times, Azeri, Russian, Farsi and Arabic, but here in this mountain village of about 2000 people, Tat is still spoken. Lahij's isolation was legendary and the quality of its crafts was known as early as the 10th century. There are some 120 crafts represented in Lahij, everything from beekeeping to hat-making, leatherworking to charcoal burning, gunsmithing, swordsmithing and tool forging. But none of the village's products were finer than its copperwork. We walked, strolled, shopped and finally had a delightful home cooked meal prepared by a woman in her own small house and served in her backyard in the company of her roosters and chickens. After a delightful respite and a cup of good strong hot tea, we said our farewells and continued on our way.

 We were heading towards Azerbaijan‘s booming capital city, Qobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now rocky, this area was lush with vegetation 12,000 years ago. Here, beside the Caspian Sea, Stone Age people lived in caves and hunted the abundant wildlife. When they weren’t hunting, they spent their time etching petroglyphs on cave walls. We drive to Gobustan a unique site on the Caspian Sea where 300 of the planets estimated 700 mud volcanoes can be found. Locals and tourists trek to such places as the Firuz Crater, Gobustan, Salyan to cover themselves in mud that is thought to have medicinal qualities. In 2001 geologist from around the world converged at a mud volcano 15 kilometers from Baku that made world headlines when it suddenly started spewing flames 15 meters high

 Gobustan reserve, is an open-air museum littered with Neolithic rock drawings and some 4000 inscriptions that go back 12,000 years (with some 2000 year old Latin graffiti to boot). Stone Age men and women sporting loin cloths are depicted in hunting and dancing scenes. Their dances are thought to have been accompanied by the melodious strains of the Gaval-Dashy (tambourine stone), a rock that has a deep, resonating tone when struck. The well-preserved sketches display ancient populations travelling on reed boats, men hunting antelope and wild bull, and women dancing. The famed Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl returned many times to Azerbaijan between 1961 and his death in 2002 to study the site. According to Icelandic Sagas, written in the 13th century, the Norse God Odin (Wotan) migrated from the Caucasus in the first century AD.

 The collapse of cave walls sometime in the distant past (no one knows exactly when) revealed petroglyphs hidden within. It is estimated that there are more than 6,000 in this one area, alone. The petroglyphs — which continued to be carved here for thousands of years — offer a glimpse into the world of these early peoples. Besides the many abstract human figures, both male and female, there are animals: deer, goats, gazelles, horses, wild oxen and birds, among others. There’s also a petroglyph of a reed boat apparently sailing toward the sun. Our guide told us that Thor Heyerdahl suggested this petroglyph might perhaps link these early peoples of Azerbaijan to Scandinavians. Heyerdahl stated this as evidence that modern-day Scandinavians migrated north through the Caucasus in prehistoric times. He found similarities in the drawings to those found in Scandinavia, particularly some in Alta, Norway. It’s not easy to make out what many of the petroglyphs depict but Ballash did a great job translating them and showing us the most intriguing ones.

 Upon arriving in Baku we set out to visit the Old Town as our favorite places were centered here. We explored the 15th century Shirvanshah Palace, where dozens of 13th century stone carvings retrieved from the Caspian Sea, line one of the courtyards; the 12th century Maiden’s Tower, a unique 105-foot tall fortress tower which has become the symbol of Baku; old caravanserais now reincarnated as rug shops or teahouses, and the Bulvar Promenade beside the Caspian. Best of all in the Old Town was dining outdoors each night in places such as the exclusive rooftop restaurant of the Sultan Inn watching the sun set behind Maiden’s Tower and sink into the Caspian Sea. Other tempting spots are the two old Caravanserais that still exist and have been lavishly restored with period pieces such as carpets, rugs, metal works, and weapons on the walls. They are delightful spots to wine and dine while listening to traditional music and Mughams (a highly complex art form of folk musical composition that weds classical poetry and musical improvisation).

 On the final day we make a short trip to the Absheron Peninsula to visit the Fire Worshippers Temple of Ateshgah located in the village of Surakhany. It was built by Zoroastrian believers who travelled from the province of Multan in India to worship on land where a deposit of natural gas provides the catalyst for the eternal flame. These ancient fires are believed to have given Azerbaijan its name, which is thought by some researchers to mean the “Land of Fires.

After ten enjoyable days sharing this experience and exploring new frontiers I came home content, carrying two beautiful Azeri rugs and sadly five extra pounds that I did not imagine gaining when I was embarking on this journey. Ah well, I had no one to blame but myself, Ihab Zaki, as I did not think twice before indulging in the great cuisine of both Georgia and Azerbaijan!