The Fascinating Graveyards of Shamakhi
Photographer Orxan Azim visits three very different cemeteries around the Azerbaijani city that was once a great regional capital.
On the face of it, Shamakhi has few visible features that tell a visitor that this was the ancient capital of Shirvan – one of the most important fore-runner states that would become Azerbaijan. However, the twin effects of brutal invasions and earthquakes mean three things. The urban architecture is mostly 20th century, the hilltop Gulistan fortress-citadel site that was the city’s medieval trademark is essentially invisible, and the Caucasus’ second oldest mosque’ is a beautiful structure but predominantly a 2013 rebuild. For tourists, some of the most intriguing historical features are a trio of out-of-town graveyards.
Overlooking the cityscape from a minor rise directly south of Shamakhi, the grandest domed mausoleums at Yeddi Gumbaz are those of the family of the 19th-century Shirvan khans. The name translates as “seven domes,” though only four of the main royal structures remain, along with nearly two dozen other graves, typically inscribed with Arabic calligraphy and now leaning at eccentric angles. The site offers a beautiful panorama of the city and a distinct air of windblown history.
Far older and even more picturesque is a grand scattering of eight octagonal tomb towers, six kilometres southeast in the sloping fields of Kalakhana. Over four metres tall, then narrowing to a pyramidal spire, the monumental structures are said by superstitious villagers to have magical powers: notably the ability to prevent theft of or harm to animals. This is linked with an apocryphal tale in which a man once went to one of the tombs in search of gold. While digging for treasure, he accidentally killed a snake. The very next day, a swarm of venomous snakes filled the streets and houses of Kalakhana village. Fleeing locals saw this as a coordinated attack to avenge the killing.
At Kalakhana, we met Mr. Rafael Tagizade, chief consultant of the regional cultural department, who claims that Kalakhana is one of the most ancient villages of Shamakhi. “Kala means big; khana means house. So welcome to our big house!”
Although now half-forgotten, Mr. Tagizade contends that the settlement was once a stopping point for caravans on an ancient trade route, one of the many branches of the famous ‘Silk Road.’ “There were dug-out cellars. Passers-by both rested here and kept their food in the cellar so as not to spoil along the way.” Possible evidence for this is an apparently ancient springhead between the tombs and the village, though an inscription here – probably Arabic – has been damaged beyond legibility, and there are no visible remnants of a Caravan Serai’ Caravan Palace’ these days.
However, as Rafael showed us, one of the tomb towers does retain an Arabic inscription helping scholars to date it to the 1660s. That would have made the structure relatively ‘modern’ when Dutch diplomat-traveller Cornelis DeBruijn visited the place in May 1703. However, at that time, DeBruijn seems to have felt that they were already ancient, suggesting rather optimistically that they might date back to the previous millennium.
Curiously he was told that the name of the place was Jediekombet (aka Yeddi Gumbaz) and that – like its later namesake described above – the name means seven domes… even though there were then nine. One has since been almost completely destroyed though the foundations are still visible. Despite the confusion over names, his descriptions and especially his drawings of the place make it unquestionable that DeBruijn was indeed visiting what’s now known as Kalakhana.
Showing us around the site, Mr. Tagizade pointed out that the only remaining graves now seem to be in areas outside the main tombs.
The interiors of the now-empty tomb towers, he speculates, might have been used as places of study for Sufi sheikhs to worship and to study secular sciences in secret: as a kind of madrasa for esoteric forms of Islamic scholarship. Certainly inside, there are no signs of any kind of burial vault – a situation mirroring observations by DeBruijn, who said that he “found tapers sticking against the walls but perceived nothing like a tomb.”
Mr. Tagizade postulates that all the tomb towers once had Arabic inscriptions as per the first one that he had initially pointed out. Certainly, there are no longer any such texts above their entry portals, and on some, it does appear as though a motif might have been removed. Popular local theories tend to imagine desecrations perpetrated by former Armenian residents of the region aimed at disguising the tomb towers’ Islamic history. However, that seems a little far-fetched given that one tomb retains an inscription in Arabic: systematic vandalism surely would not have spared that.
On the next hilltop, four kilometres west in Kerkenj, is a graveyard that’s contrastingly undramatic yet, in its way, is every bit as fascinating as the Kalakhana complex. Kerkenj is the “village upon a fertile eminence, covered with vineyards” that DeBruijn recorded by the name of Kirkins. But the attraction of Kerkenj cemetery is not the antiquity or artistry of the tombs. What is remarkable here is that many of the 20th-century graves remember families of former Armenian residents who left the place in 1989 to escape possible trouble ahead of the looming First Karabakh War. What happened that year was an almost unique social experiment. The Armenians of Kerkenj accepted the idea of a straight ‘village swap’ with the Azerbaijanis of Gizil Shafag in Armenia, moving into each other’s homes rather than have both sets of residents flee as refugees to an unknown future (as happened to so many others).
A key part of the agreement sealed between the two villagers was that each set of new residents would carefully tend the graves left behind by those they replaced. And, as we discovered in July 2021 – even in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, the pact is still being scrupulously honoured. Read more about the full village-swap story here or watch the video here.