Author: Aynur TALIBOVA QAX
Ilisu's fairytale beauty enchants visitors whatever the time of year. Blindingly white snow blankets the scene in winter. The surrounding wooded mountains are permanently hidden in clouds. In spring and summer there is heavy rain almost every day, followed by a rainbow. Crystal-clear air and deafening silence. Wherever you look, you can see attractive, centuries-old houses and ancient monuments… You want to stay here for ever. Take a couple of months' holiday in the Ilisu resort area and you will rid yourself of chronic stress and all its consequences. Local people say that Ilisu would be a serious contender in a competition to find paradise on Earth.
The conditions are ideal for mountaineering and hiking. Spa and tourism holidays are popular. Holidaymakers in Ilisu can go horse riding or walking in the area. The conditions are ideal for hunting too. Ilisu was a famous resort area in Soviet times and has all the necessary infrastructure. New cottages and modern hotels have been added to the already existing guest houses. Although there are a great many of them, it is impossible to find vacancies here in summer as people who have already holidayed here before book their rooms in advance. Locals say that in the summer there are ten times more tourists than local people. However, as soon as the cooler weather starts, there is nobody here. This is because of a lack of facilities for winter holidays although some establishments do work all year round.
Summer visitors who cannot find vacancies are taken in by local people, lest they be disappointed, so Ilisu's historic buildings welcome tourists.
At first glance Ilisu does not look at all like a village. The unusual architecture of the streets, roads, houses and other buildings is eye-catching. The baked brick houses with their red-tiled roofs are surrounded by pebble walls. The houses have a distinctive smell. The interior design is pretty much the same everywhere: the walls have special niches which house cupboards and glass cases. The niches opposite windows are for bedding and the higher ones are for lamps and candles. Shelves called "taxca" for crockery line the walls. Some houses also have small rooms. The newest house is at least 100 years old. The garden wall usually shows the date a house was built, the name of the builder and sometimes of the owner.
Many forest trees grow in the yards. Free space is covered with pebbles which lend a special character to the architecture.
The neighbourhood system exists in Ilisu too. The largest, oldest and best known neighbourhoods are Sangar, Bucaq, Qala, Qacar and Bay-Tabun. The village is surrounded by mountains and thick forests. Two mountain rivers - the Kurmukcay and Agcay - merge in this indescribably beautiful place. These rivers are very deep and fast flowing.
The centre of the village is a place called Besbulaq or Five Springs. There actually are five turbulent springs here. Visitors should not miss the waterfall in the upper part of the village either.
Historically most of the population of Ilisu have been craftspeople. The craftsmen passed down the secrets of their trade from generation to generation. Local people are also market gardeners and farmers. The village is famed for its scholars. There is a joke here that an educated Ilisu native becomes a scholar and an uneducated one a shepherd.
Local people take good care of their ancient traditions and customs. For example, no locks are hung on doors in Ilisu and dogs are not kept in yards. You won't find people talking loudly in the streets here either. Ilisu people are not to be found manning stalls in the market or on the street and are not traders. They don't like to go cap in hand to anyone so prefer to solve their problems themselves. Local people say this is because Ilisu people come from an aristocratic lineage. The sultans' cemetery, Tovlatla, known as the burial place of the martyred sultans, still exists. The graves of most of the members of the ruling family of Ilisu can be found here. The roots of the local aristocracy go back to the Middle Ages.
Ilisu has 11 registered historic monuments. Some of the most interesting monuments are to be found high up in the mountains and it's very difficult to get to them even in summer. These include the 14th century Kesikci Castle, Shamil Castle and Cin Castle.
One of the most interesting monuments is the 17th-century Ulu Bridge across the River Kurmuk. The bridge was built after the capital of the sultanate was moved to Ilisu. It is a source of pride for local people and considered to be the gates to Ilisu. When Russian troops attacked Ilisu in 1844, the last sultan of Ilisu, General Daniyal Bay, famed for his ruthlessness and courage, is said to have been categorically opposed to destroying the bridge in order to prevent the enemy from entering the village. Egg yolk is said to have been used as a fixative when building the bridge which is why the bridge is still standing.
The historic Sumug Castle monument in Bucaq neighbourhood is considered the emblem of Ilisu. It's a four storey defensive tower which has a very good view of the entire area from the top. There are many towers of this type in the North Caucasus and Dagestan. As "sumug" is the local pronunciation of the word "sumuq" or "bone", the tower is thought to have been named for its strength. The tower was a key part of the home of Sultan Daniyal. No trace of this house now remains, however. Some scenes from the first Western in the history of Soviet and Azerbaijani cinema, Don't Worry, I'm With You, were shot in the tower in 1981.
The 19th-century Ilisu fortress is a defensive fortress built by the Russians. Despite the presence of many place names, legends and historical events connected with Sheikh Shamil, he never visited this area. The two-storey fortress in the very centre of the village on the road to Dagestan has survived pretty well. Inside you feel very much as though you were on a film set.
The old mosque in the centre of the village was built in 1700 on the orders of the Tsakhur sultan, Ali. The mosque is one of the most precious historical monuments in Ilisu. It is 10 metres long, seven metres wide and four metres high. The mosque does not have a minaret. Some religious figures are buried in the cemetery around the mosque.
Ilisu state nature reserve
The nature reserve was set up in 1987 in order to protect the distinctive ancient historic monuments, the unique architecture of Ilisu and the flora and fauna typical of the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus.
Ilisu is 3,500-3,600 metres above sea level and covers an overall area of 54,000 hectares. Hundreds of plant species grow here; there are 35 species of mammals and up to 50 species of birds, some of which have been included in the Red Book of endangered species. There are hundreds of mineral water springs and streams in the nature reserve. The Qanix (or Alazan) River flows through the reserve, as does the republic's second largest spate river, the Kurmuk. It takes just a drop of rain for the Kurmuk to break its banks and wash away everything in its path.
The River Hamamcay that flows seven kilometres north-west of Ilisu is also known as the River Istisu or Agcay. The Hamamcay is a tributary of the Kurmuk, one of the Greater Caucasus's most beautiful mountain rivers. The river gorge has steep cliffs and it is very difficult to walk along the bottom of the gorge. You often have to cross the turbulent river. Going upstream the gorge narrows and the slopes almost touch at the mineral spring. You can take curative baths here. The river valley is considered sacred, as there are many geysers and hot springs here with medicinal properties. The Moxsu spring is also here, full of sulphurous water. The largest waterfalls in Qax District - Ram-Ramay, Vazircal and Gical - are also to be found in the Hamamcay river basin. The bewitching mountainsides, the overflowing rivers and wooded gorges create a unique landscape. Legends abound about the flora and fauna of Hamamcay where nature remains wild and untouched.
Ilisu cuisine's royal dishes
Ilisu cuisine is very varied. Herbs, dairy products and local honey are widely used. Thirty-five varieties of flour dishes are produced in Ilisu. Hot, high calorie dishes from grains are essential in the local conditions and they are more easily digested than in the city. Surxullуu is the best known of these dishes. It is also known as surxulya. Locals say that if you haven't eaten surxullyu, then you've not seen Qax. Surxullyu is a type of khingali or dumpling. It is mainly eaten during the cold months of the year. This typical local dish intrigues even those who aren't too keen on flour dishes.
The area has one dish made from flour, served as a first course, which is enjoyed even by people who don't usually like starters. You cannot leave Ilisu without trying it. This widespread dish, girs, is eaten during cold weather. It tops the list of the best dishes served to guests. Serving girs to guests is considered a sign of special respect and has become a tradition for all the peoples of the region. When someone is invited to dine, both parties know that girs is bound to be on the table. The dish is known as "gurza" in other regions.
The local cuisine has a variety of fillings for girs, including offal, salted cottage cheese known as sor, pumpkin and nettles. Meat-filled girs are especially tasty and high in calories.
Saribas is 18 km from the district centre and 1,800 metres above sea level. You can get here via Ilisu. Winters in this remote mountain village in Qax are severe and summers cool. The village is north-west of Ilisu between the rivers Gunahcay and Agbulaq on a 100-metre river terrace. Several peaks in the Greater Caucasus range rise up behind it.
The village is connected to the outside world by a dirt road, which after every downpour is washed by the torrential Kurmuk. As a result, the village is cut off from the world. It is dangerous to cross the river. On the way, you might meet shepherds heading for the mountain plateaus and can share some food and conversation with them. A trip to Saribas is for lovers of adventure and the extreme. If you go to the village for fun, you need to bear in mind that bad weather might trap you there for some time. Locals say that sometimes visitors wait all summer for suitable days to travel to Ilisu from Saribas.
Saribas was created as a village in the 16th century. The 16th-17th century Haji Tapdiq mosque is the oldest of the village's many historic buildings. Local women weave carpets with unusual designs and knit richly decorated socks. The folklore genre Tonqay Malik which arose out of women's daily chores is unique to the village and played only amongst women. Winters in Saribas are freezing and the nights long. If they are not working on the small holdings, the women do all the household chores together. To avoid boredom they sing songs, recite poetry and even dance in order to move around a little. After every two lines of a dance song, they say Tonqay Malik. An older woman leads the young women dancers.
Saribas is one of the victims of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev's 1960s' "development" plan for the regions. Under this plan, the residents of remote mountain villages were resettled to district centres in the lowlands to avoid creating infrastructure in tough mountain conditions. This was the fate of the people of Saribas who were resettled in the lowlands in the specially created new village of Calayir. The name of the village comes from the Calayir dynasty which ruled in Tabriz in 1358-1410. This Turkic dynasty left a deep mark in the history of the statehood of Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus and the whole Near and Middle East.