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Sheki: Crafts and Folk Art

This city of quiet beauty and clean mountain air lies surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains and its inhabitants differ in their peculiar manner of speech. It resembles an earthly paradise and makes you smile just by hearing its name - Sheki. There is no quarrelling or frowning here, everyone tries to be sociable and cheer each other up by telling jokes. It is considered shameful not to know jokes in Sheki because the city is, among other things, famed for its humour. Founded more than 2,700 years ago, Sheki is one of the most ancient settlements of Azerbaijan, located on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, 370km northwest of Baku. Travelers and visitors who come here leave unwillingly because of the clean air, picturesque landscapes and friendly inhabitants.

Sheki has long been popular with tourists for its favourable location and ancient historical monuments. So it is no great surprise that in 2016, TURKSOY (the International Organisation of Turkic Culture) declared Sheki its Capital of Culture and Art, thanks to its original features and rich local culture. TURKSOY was founded in 1993 by the ministries of culture of Turkic states and autonomous regions to create unity in the spheres of art and culture. By appointing a cultural capital each year the organisation aims to bring together artists and intellectuals and facilitate cultural integration within the Turkic world.

Sheki’s selection was celebrated on 29 April with a grand festival in the gardens of the historical Khan’s Palace, which hosted folk dancing, a handcrafts exhibition and press awards ceremony. Sheki is no stranger to staging festivals and many foreigners take part each year. The Silk Way Festival features memorable performances of world music and was held for the seventh time this summer, with musical groups from Azerbaijan, Turkey, Japan and Poland. The first Sheki Theatre Festival was held in 2014, within the framework of the Azerbaijani Theatre 2009-2019 programme, while the Naghara (Drum) Sheki International Festival of Percussion Instruments debuted here in the Caucasus last year. Another favourite is the International Festival of Sweets, which traditionally begins on 20 July. Sweets (firni, xashil, sweet pilaf, milky kasha, etc.), pastries (baklava, feseli, gatlama, zilviyye, umadj halvah, etc.) and confectionery (noghul, nut halvah, semeni halvah, etc.) are exhibited from around the country and dished out by representatives of the different peoples and regions of Azerbaijan, each dressed in national costume to evoke their particular regional atmosphere.

Along with being the Capital of Culture 2016, Sheki is twinned with several other cities: Giresun (Turkey) since 2001, Colmar (France) since 2014, and Gabrovo (Bulgaria) since 1980. In such a way, Sheki plays an important role in promoting Azerbaijan throughout the world.

The city is also considered the country’s capital of handcrafts and the artistic products made here are not produced in any other region of Azerbaijan. Local artisans have managed to preserve their secrets until today, passing them down from generation to generation. An example of one such skill is pottery: household objects and kitchenware made of clay. Products made here are sold locally and abroad. Yet the region is probably best known for something else.

As Sheki is located on the old Silk Road, silkworm breeding has been the main industry here for centuries. Mention silk in Azerbaijan and we immediately think of Sheki. The process of transforming mulberry leaves into silk is very delicate. Before becoming silk, the silkworm passes through several stages, to produce very fine silk, an example of tenderness and wonderful beauty. A favourite of guests and tourists is the kelegayi headscarf made with Sheki silk. There is a special way to test the kelegayi’s authenticity: if the kelegayi, whatever its size, passes through a wedding ring then it is made from genuine Sheki silk.

Sheki is also famous for its embroideries. In the 19th century the region was the centre of tekelduz embroidery, which is made using colour silk threads and is normally embroidered on velvet or woollen fabric; only the tekelduz in a gobelin style is embroidered on linen. Tekelduz embroidery is an ancient Sheki art and means to make with one hand. In ancient times, only men would embroider it but today women do too. It was used to decorate things like women’s clothes, pillows, covers and bathroom rugs and the designs often featured the flora and fauna of Azerbaijan. It is not an easy craft - one composition can take three or four months. Red, black or dark blue velvet is sourced locally or from abroad. First the artisan draws the outlines of the embroidery on the fabric stretched tautly across a machine and then fills in the middle. The needle used is called a garmag.

The subtlest, most beautiful shebeke - locally produced, multi-coloured stained glass - in the world decorates the Palace of Sheki Khans. You will be unlikely to see such stunning shebeke anywhere else in the world. It is manufactured with great dexterity and the main feature of this art is that the shebeke mosaics are put together without glue or nails. The patterns are formed of geometrical figures, the round, polygonal and star-shaped forms being the most important. An average-sized shebeke mosaic consists of 5,000 wooden and glass details. 10 to 15 steps are required to produce one detail, which means performing some 50,000 steps overall to produce an average-sized shebeke. This can take up to five or six months.

Caravanserais built along trade routes used to function as guesthouses. As Sheki was a city of trade and crafts a set of caravanserais was built here, but only two of the five large caravanserais that functioned in the 18th and 19th centuries have reached modern times. These are the Yuxarı Karavansaray (Upper Caravanserai) and the Ashagi Karavansaray (Lower Caravanserai). Today the Yuxari Karavansaray functions as a hotel. Entering feels like travelling back three centuries, it feels as though this mysterious place has kept even the smell of the past.  

There is a story in every detail and every corner of the Palace of Sheki Khans, considered the brightest example of medieval Azerbaijani architecture. It was built in 1763 by Huseyn khan, the grandson of Haji Chelebi khan. Thousands of small pieces of glass were used to produce the shebeke window mosaics, fitted together without glue or nails. It was with reason too that the palace was built in the upper part of the city: it was intended as the summer residence of the khan, the moderate heat and clean mountain air in the higher part of the city turning it into a paradise in the hot summers. Not only men but also women could unwind on the palace’s double balconies, which were closed at either end to maintain privacy. 

Sheki, one of the most ancient cities of Azerbaijan, is now a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, an association supporting the formation of a network with the aim of promoting international cooperation between cities.

The city has been added in the City of Crafts and Folk Art category of the network on October 31, 2017.

Some 64 cities from 44 countries have been designated as UNESCO Creative Cities by Director-General, Irina Bokova.