In this article, you will find information about getting to Shaki from Georgia and then to Baku from there. You will find a brief history of the city in order to understand its geopolitical importance throughout the centuries and then useful tips to hike around going to see an ancient fortress and the village of Kish. Finally, you will find information about where to sleep and eat as well as an inside perspective over the “issue” going on between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
How to Get to Shaki from Georgia
We crossed the Lagodekhi/Matsimi border in Georgia and thus we entered Azerbaijan from North-West in order to go to Shaki (Azerbaijani: Şəki).
The passport and customs control took almost two hours and, while queuing, we met a local guy who offered us a lift till Zaqatala (about 35 km) where we could have taken the minibus to Shaki. We were very happy till he was blocked at the border as he was carrying a sword.. well, we were surprised but then he explained to us that he is a soldier, he had just graduated in Ankara, Turkey, and the sword was part of his uniform. Anyway, we didn’t wait for a long time and we eventually took a taxi with him to Zaqatala. After a couple of stops for his uncle’s own business, we got to the bus station. He ordered traditional food for us and we then catch the minibus at 3pm. Actually, the driver call us while we were eating and it seemed like everyone was waiting for us; indeed, the time on the minibus was 2 pm but we left at 3 pm.. not clear, but we made it!
The journey was funny as the driver talked all the time in Azero to the other passengers, who were not really interacting! Also, the landscape was nice and the surrounding areas seemed well-preserved. The picture of the former President appears from time to time, just to remind everyone who you should thank for everything you see and have 😅.
A Brief History of Shaki
Shaki is located in the northwest side of Azerbaijan and was an important thoroughfare on the Silk Road, the ancient web of trade routes linking East and West. Nowadays, the area is an important source of gas whereas Baku area is famous for oil.
There are traces of large-scale settlements in Shaki dating back to more than 2700 years ago. In the 1st century, it was one of the biggest cities of the Albanian states and the main temple of the ancient Albanians was located there; you can still see one in Kish, the northern area of the city.
Shaki was one of the important political and economic cities before the Arab invasion but, as a result of the invasion, Shaki was annexed to the third emirate. Between that time and the Mongol invasion, it was ruled by different kingdoms and rulers in the area and, around the turn of the 9th century, it was part of the vast territorial unit ruled by the Armenian Sembateans. In the first half of the 14th century, Shaki gained independence under the rule of Sidi Ahmed Orlat but in the early 1500s, Safavid king Ismail I (r. 1501–1524) conquered the area.
In 1743, the Ottoman Empire took definitely over and Sheki khanate was established; it was one of the strongest feudal states among the Caucasian khanates. One of the signs of its strength was Gelersen-Gorersen, a fortress whose name means “will come-will see”. It is said that when the ruler of Iran, Nadir shah, attacked Sheki Khanate in the 8th century, Haji Chalabi, the first Khan, secured in the fortress. When Nadir shah offered him to give in, Chalabi answered: “You will come and see”. Infuriate Nadir shah, who was not expected such an answer, decided to capture the fortress by force. In 1744, the shah approached the fortress with a great army, but couldn’t capture it and fell back. Since then the fortress was named as Gelersen Gorersen.
The Khanate lasted till 1819 and one of its symbols is the beautiful palace which characterizes Shaki old town, completed in 1797 by Muhammed Hasan Khan. During this time, the local population of the city was engaged in silkworm breeding, craft and trade.
The area was fully annexed by Russia by the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and, as said, the khanate was abolished in 1819 and the Sheki province was established in its place. In 1840, Caspian Oblast was created and Shaki was renamed as Nuha. It regained its original name just in 1968 and became part of the just-declared modern Republic of Azerbaijan on 30 August 1991, just before the dissolution of the USSR.
During its history, the town saw devastation many times and because of that, the oldest historic and architectural monuments currently preserved are dated to only the 16th–19th centuries. It is now a tourist destination because of both the old town surrounded by high walls and the chance to do some trekking.
Hiking in Shaki: How to Get to Gelersen Gorersen
Indeed, we went there to do some trekking and we managed to do a short but nice one. We went to see the ruins of the previous mentioned Gelersen Gorersen (Galarsan Gorarsan on maps.me). We wanted to do a longer hike going on top of the highest viewpoint but at the Tourist Information Centre (which is open till 7pm and very useful) were discouraged to go alone due to the presence of bears… we were offered a very expensive tour so we decided to go for the easy-and-cheap one.
In order to go to Gelersen Gorersen , we took a local minibus (No. 7; 0,30 azeri manat) to go to Kish up to Shaki Park and then we easily found our way up to the fortress – you can use maps.me as an extra support. It was very easy for us also because we got a super precious local guide with us: a stray dog! He started following us and after a few steps he was actually showing us the way. Thanks to him we could enjoy all the viewpoints from the fortress. Once up, he led us to the left to see the biggest ruins and a view of the mountains and the valley – we also had our sandwiches there and fed him, of course. Then, we thought it was over and were about to go down, but he wasn’t following us so we stopped and looked at him; he started moving up to the right and led us to enjoy another view of the valley.
On our way back, we met some soldiers and our furry friend stopped walking with us, unfortunately. We then continue our walk till Kish following maps.me and the path which crosses a dry river bank; we were controlled by the soldiers and eventually entered the village from a sort of gate.
We found the village very authentic and it was nice walking around to get to its main attraction: the Albanian Church, also known as Church of Saint Elishe . It is now a museum surrounded by a beautiful garden. From there, we walked a bit downhill to get to the bus station and catch the crowded minibus No. 5 back to Shaki bazar, which is indeed very authentic and worth a visit!
Where to Stay in Shaki
Then, we went home, that was Asteria Hostel. We enjoyed our stay there also because of the two owners. One was a dentist, very calm and food-oriented person; the other one served in the army as an operator of the radar system S-300 (that’s what we got from Google translate) and we had a meaningful conversation with him, using Google translate Russian-Italian. He is basically waiting for – well, even looking forward to – the war to get back the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been under the control of Armenia since the end of a six-year war in 1994. He fought in that war and he is ready for another one. Also, he said that every real man should be able to use a weapon, that’s why the military service is important. We then asked if it’s compulsory for both men and women and he answered that it is just for men as women must stay at home waiting for their men…. We decided not to reply and moved back the conversation to the war, but it ended up with him giving us his not-so-nice opinion about Armenians. To sum up, he thinks that Armenians are coward by nature and they won the war just because Russia backed them up; also, he said that they are living there just because the Russian Empress Elizabeth gave them that land in the XVIII century and that Armenia is now a monarchy where just Armenians live, whereas in Azerbaijan there are 32 different nations, including Armenians (30,000).
These claims are not supported by information you can find online; for instance, Armenia is a republic and it’s got minorities, even if they represent just the 2% of the population, according to Wikipedia. About its history, it’s very ancient and intricate and this is not the place to discuss it. Anyway, his opinions really show a common idea about Armenians we could perceive in the region. the political and territorial situation is really tough over there and not so easy to understand for a foreigner.
After this intense conversation, we were actually hungry and went to eat at the nextdoor Kafe Nuran, a cheap place where could find local food such as the piti, a mix of lamb meat, cooked with chickpeas, chestnuts and fat.. heavy but good!
In the morning of our third day there, we left to go to Baku. Make sure you catch the marshrutka and not the big bus; indeed, the first one takes only 4 hours, while the latter 7 hours. We took the quickest one and paid 9 manat each.