Basqal's Rebirth - How a Historical Azerbaijani Village is Getting its Groove Back
All images provided by Mark Elliott
Once upon a time, the village of Basqal was one of the more important towns in Azerbaijan’s Caucasian foothills. Today it’s a place inextricably linked with the silk industry, as described in a previous article. When we last visited, Basqal’s single remaining silk-dying workshop had become very ragged, its craftsmen were getting older, and the once splendid old centre was pretty much dilapidated, albeit with a certain tumbledown charm. Fast forward to late 2022, and a lot has happened in Basqal.
Since the pandemic, Basqal has become the focus of one of the nation’s rural investment programmes.
Most notably, a vast new resort has opened, covering a 17-hectare plot at the gateway to Basqal, 3km before the village itself.
Rooms costing around US$100 a night allow guests a spacious room with high ceilings and Basqal silk designs displayed like paintings on the walls.
Giant picture windows frame sublime sunrise views that encompass patchworked folds of fields and oak woods rising to a craggy forest ridge on the near horizon.
The rate includes a breakfast spread with several regional delicacies offering sesame-crusted pistachios, cubes of Sheki Halva and plenty of seasonal fruit (including fresh persimmons when I stayed) along with a groaning board of international and Azerbaijani favourites.
Guest facilities include an indoor pool, sauna, an outdoor ‘self-service’ summer café where families can do their own barbeques and a great kids' zone where the most imaginative elements are two teaching rooms to inspire youngsters to think about traditional Azerbaijani crafts.
One is for wood carving, the other a hands-on chance to try kelaghayi silk-pattern stamping. This is all part of the resort’s human brief - it’s not just designed as a tourism magnet but also as a social enterprise recruiting around 90% local staff. For many, this is their first job in the hospitality industry, and they learn a variety of skills taught by very experienced managers and lead staff poached from upmarket hotels in Baku and beyond.
Building on the UNESCO status of kelaghayi silk scarves that has brought renewed interest in both Sheki and Basqal, where they originate, the old town centre has been given a significant makeover. As yet, the construction of a new silk-dying workshop hasn’t proceeded beyond a building site, but a new parking area and tourist office are immediately apparent as you approach the centre.
This building site should eventually become a new silk workshop.
The shabby old grocery store has been revamped as a sales point for local silk products, and the Araz tea house might have lost its eponymous owner but now has a new roof. Wise old local men sitting here still merrily regale visitors of how silk scarves from the Basqal (no, NOT those from Sheki!) were a major success when exhibited at the 1862 London World Fair.
The real changes are most apparent when you descend the gully from the shop to a cute new carpet boutique/café, then climb to the old town square via Damirchibazar – a curving street cobbled in large rounded river-stones.
The street was always attractive, but now infrastructure work has patched up gaps, faced newer concrete walls with stone tiles and added little lantern lamps. The stone cladding is obviously decorative and easy to tell apart from the originals. Genuine ‘Ketil’ buildings included timber layers between larger stones to give buildings an added flex against seismic shocks. In contrast, the newer ones have stick-on strips of wood as décor.
The square itself always had a potential charm, but that has now been harnessed to a degree by the creation of a little row of small stone-built shops and a trio of simple cafes.
Service can take a while as everything is cooked from scratch, but the khinqal I was served was particularly tasty.
At the top of the square is a magnificent 500-year-old hollow chinar tree that was once used as a barber’s shop booth. In front of that, a thick glass pane allows visitors to peer down into the remarkably ancient system of sewerage pipes (if the condensation cleared).
Behind that, within the shell of the abandoned Sheikh Mohammad Mosque, are the archaeological excavations of two much earlier places of worship.
However, the real highlight is a completely rebuilt bathhouse that’s now a fascinating museum illustrating the traditions of village bathing in years gone by.
Inside the bathhouse, historic photos have been turned into cartoon-esque GIFs displayed on video monitors.
Buy tickets (AZN5, US$3) from the information office that occupies the very conspicuous new building at the eastern edge of the square.
Until a couple of years ago, the roads to nearby villages were formerly so ropey that even with a 4WD, reaching outlying settlements was often too painful to contemplate. Here too, there has been investment, meaning now there is smooth asphalt to several once remote spots. These include the ancient village of Sulut, from which there’s a fascinating hike to the fragmentary ruins of the so-called “40 Rooms” (qırx otaq), and a secondary palace-castle and harem of the last khan of Shirvan that was abandoned after around 1820 and is now lost in the woods.
More spectacular is the 4km drive that climbs very steeply to the hamlet of Taghlabiyan, high on the ridgetops above. It’s a place where horses carrying bags of gathered walnuts or supplies of logs for winter fuel are almost as common as cars. And the gold and russet colours of the autumn foliage are particularly spectacular. A rough track from here allows hikers to walk to Zernava and across a famous suspension footbridge to the Lahij road.