The Artisan Coppersmiths of Lahij, Azerbaijan
Other than a circuitous, super-steep, rollercoaster route, the only way to reach Lahij is on a fragile ribbon of narrow lane that clings to the side of the Girdmanchay Valley in north-central Azerbaijan. At one point, the road is a teetering ledge cut into a remarkable cliffside of upturned strata. That’s a vast improvement on the unpaved track that it replaced barely a decade ago. Until the 1980s, only horses and pedestrians could hope to make it this way.
The road to Lahij has its hair-raising moments. Image: Nina Alizada/Shutterstock
Yet somehow, this remote settlement managed to be, for centuries, a craft centre of great importance. Indeed, if you look at maps of the south-eastern Caucasus from the 19th century or earlier, you would see Lahij is one of the region’s most highlighted towns, albeit often written Lagitch, Lahitsch or Lagitsch. The town’s name has been transliterated countless times through various combinations of Russian, French and/or German.
With the (slight) improvement of road access in recent years, Lahij is increasingly becoming one of the more popular tourist destinations in rural Azerbaijan. That’s not just because of the spectacular scenery – which transitions from bucolic orchards and woodlands through stark canyons to an upland mountain-backed valley. Lahij itself is a gem of a discovery whose gently sloping main street is paved in age-smoothed river stones. It rises between little storefronts and workshops, many with overhanging box windows where young women once spent their winters weaving carpets. The buildings are distinctive. They’ve been built of roughly brick-shaped stones occasionally interspersed with timber layers to reduce the impact of potential earthquakes.
Strolling the time-worn cobbles away from the central area takes visitors back in time. Image: Nurlan Mammadzada/Shutterstock
At night, after day-trippers have left, the shops close heavy doors or put up timeless wooden slats, and the village falls idyllically quiet in the richly twinkling starlight. Rise early next morning, and you’ll find that the shop-slats are mostly still in place yet - emanating from somewhere behind, you might hear the gentle roar of a hearth or the tap-tap-tap of hammer on metal. That’s because – even now, despite Lahij’s ongoing gentrification – the oversized village still retains a few practitioners of the copper-craft for which it has been famous for centuries. A great example is Nazar Aliyev, who reckons to be the latest in an unbroken line of coppersmiths going back 7 or 8 generations.
Nazar Aliyev, in his copper workshop in central Lahij. Image: Orkhan Azim
By lunchtime, the slats are off, and the tourists flow in, first posing for selfies in Caucasian gowns and oversized sheepskin. Then they peruse the little shop-houses that range from cob-web draped mini foundries and loveably banal workshops to glittering little boutiques and colourful trinket stalls.
Since 2015’s inscription of Lahij’s copper craftsmanship on the Unesco list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the influx of visitors has been encouraged. The handful of remaining craftsmen can still be seen at work while their families sell souvenir copper and bronze bowls, plates and lamps. Many of these are inscribed with the buta (Paisley arabesque) motif, often said to symbolize fire but here having a wealth of other possible meanings according to the interplay between different butas.
Once the main form of lighting in rural hamlets, the traditional chiraq oil lantern is commonly nicknamed ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’ by Lahij coppersmiths. This example is engraved with several buta arabesques. Image: Nurlan Mammadzada/Shutterstock
Those with bigger budgets, and more storage space back home, might haggle for a big old guyum (aka jujum) pitcher. Now seen as an archetypal cultural artifact, just a generation ago, these loop-handled copper vessels were commonly used by most Lahij families to bring home domestic water from the multiple spring fountains that were the village’s main supply. These days they are more often found as museum pieces.
Copper Guyum (Jujum) and Sahang water vessels were in everyday household use well into the 1980s. Now they are often displayed in mini-museums or, as here, recycled as mini statues. Image: Alizada Studios/Shutterstock
Watch the Caspian Post’s full video portrait of Lahij master coppersmith Nazar Aliyev here:
 In reality the town’s name is more accurately written Lahıc. The undotted ı denotes an unvoiced vowel while c is a j in Azerbaijani and Turkish. The correct pronounciation is more La-hj than La-heej.