Author: Aynur TALIBOVA Quba-Xinaliq-Atasgah
The village of Xinaliq
This area, which UNESCO has included on its list of historical monuments of global importance, may be likened to a museum in the open air. Xinaliq, called "an island in the mountains", is situated 65 km from the district centre. Houses built of cobble stones and situated on a slope resemble a multi-storey building. In his essay "Memories of the Village of Xinaliq", Rasul Rza compared the local houses with eagle nests lined up in a row. Since Xinaliq has been declared a protected area, it is prohibited to build new houses here.
Although there are no accurate figures, ancient Greek historians have left quite a lot of information about the Kat tribes who inhabited this area in the first century. The main source of information confirming the ancient history of the village of Xinaliq, are the eight cemeteries, whose overall area is bigger than the village itself. Most of the long, wide graves are three or four-layer burial sites. Inscriptions on the graves are written in different alphabets.
In order to defend the village against nomadic tribes, fortifications and a castle were built in Xinaliq in the 10th century. The main tower of the castle housed a fire temple. Elders say that a priest who lived in this temple was called Pirocomard and that there was an eternal flame there. The fire temple still stands on the site of this tower and is revered as a shrine.
They say that this area is linked to Noah. Legend has it that on seeing a high, level area, Noah cast his anchor here and told everyone to get onto the land.
The legend of Xinaliq
The survivors of a strong earthquake which destroyed a village situated on the slopes of Mount Kast settled on the slopes of Mount Dam-Dam and began cultivating henna. Since then, the village has been called Xinaliq. The lifestyle of Xinaliq residents has undergone little change, and they regard themselves as grandchildren of Noah. They are convinced that at the time of the Flood, their village was situated on Mount Kast. Later, after a severe earthquake, not a single house was left intact and most of the population died, while the survivors crossed the river, climbed a relatively low height and founded the present-day village of Xinaliq. Local residents think that after the Flood, Noah's sons - Shem and Ham - moved to other areas, while Japheth and his sons remained there and the people of the Caucasus originated from them. The shells and fossilized fish remains which are common around the village, situated 2,300 metres above sea level, prove that this area was covered with water in the past…
Xinaliq residents are very religious. Before adopting Islam, they were fire worshippers. Now the village has about 10 mosques. In the 12th century, Abu Muslim began promoting Islam in this area and the Friday mosque built at the time was named after him.
Geography and climate
Xinaliq, which is situated on one of the heights of the Caucasus, resembles an amphitheatre. It is surrounded by the mountains Qizil Qaya, Sahdag, Tufandag and Xinaliq. The village stretches along the left bank of the Qudvalcay River on a cone-shaped mountain in the northwest. Only grass and bushes, as well as juicy cabbages and carrots grow here. The cold weather arrives in early autumn here. The winter is very cold and snowy - the temperature falls to -30.
It has always been dangerous to get to Xinaliq: one false move on a narrow mountain road, hardly wide enough for one car, may end in the car falling into an abyss. Although this road was widened and resurfaced in 2006, it is still dangerous to drive along it. For this reason, it is better to travel to the village with the private drivers who have been working on the Quba-Xinaliq route for a long time. These people, used to living and working in extreme situations can be trusted. The mountains and the landscape along the whole road are fascinating and the higher you go, the more captivating it is.
Tourism in Xinaliq
There are no hotels or cafes in Xinaliq. You can only stay overnight with local residents, who are extremely hospitable. The difficult life high in the mountains has made their lives modest and economical. Ecotourists can spend the night in tents.
You can get to Mount Qizil Qaya (3,700 m) via a mountain road from the village, passing through Sah Yaylagi. A trip from Sah Yaylagi to the Lezgin village of Laza on the bank of the Qusar River will take you along a mountain path (only on foot or by horse). The road is 30 km. long. Xinaliq residents can organize horse trips for tourists to the Sah Nabat plateau where national wrestling and horse contests and bazaars are held.
There are 380 houses here. The roof of one house serves as the yard of the house located above. Since the slopes are very steep here, the houses are built close to each other. Small gardens have been laid out in the yards. The houses are very old - each of them built 200 or 300 years ago. The village has older buildings and many ancient ruins as well. Xinaliq has maintained its architectural style. As you approach the village, a beautiful view opens up in the gorge. The view from the roofs and courtyards is simply captivating - you feel like a bird hovering in the sky. All houses are built of cobble-stones and have the same internal structure. Even the characteristic smell inside is the same. There are carpets of different colours and patterns everywhere under your feet. The walls are covered with hand-made embroidery.
Embroidery (Tikma) is one of the most ancient kinds of folk art. It is also called takalduz. Patterns with different motifs are stitched onto white linen cloths. Tikma is only made by hand and is regarded as the first decoration. In the West and the East, cloths have been decorated with thread of different colours since ancient times. In Azerbaijan, this craft takes various forms and the earliest known examples belong to the Sassanian era. Columns to support the roof are placed in the centre of the houses. There is no furniture, but there are plenty of pillows, blankets, mutakka and mattresses, both large and small. Nor are there any tables in the houses - people usually sit on the floor.
The Xinaliq lifestyle
The Xinaliq people have maintained their customs and traditions. Weddings and other ceremonies are held in accordance with these customs, which have been handed down from generation to generation. The village has rich traditions linked to rain, agriculture, the attitude towards domestic animals, weddings and wakes and the observation of heavenly bodies. The customs and traditions which have become an integral part of the local population's lifestyle correspond to natural phenomena and are related to their interpretation. Since the residents of the village are engaged mainly in sheep breeding, weaving is quite common here. Shawls woven from woollen yarn in Xinaliq were famous throughout the Quba region. The surrounding villages bought these cloths to make clothing. In the past, clothes made from woollen shawls were the national costume for wealthy people in the villages. Multi-coloured woollen socks, which look like mini-carpets, are very common here, and it is impossible to imagine Xinaliq without them in winter. One of the main activities of the local population is also the collection and preparation of medicinal plants. They are picked and dried for further use in the kitchen and for sale to tourists.
Until the middle of the 20th century, a primitive communal system was common here. Every tribe which inhabited this area and had a separate administrative system, had its own quarters, graveyards, mosques and holy places. The local villages are still divided into quarters which used to be inhabited by clans in the past. Sometimes these quarters played the role of administrative units. Every quarter had its own elders. Some of them were even named after the clans which had settled here in the past.
Since the road to the city was so long and difficult, residents of the village went there only once or twice a year, and only in summer - to sell their products and buy food and other necessities - and then returned home. The honey season begins in Xinaliq in August. The local honey has a unique taste and smell which never satiates. Local residents use honey as a cure for 70 diseases. The season for goat meat begins in the autumn, and this meat also has its own taste.
Walls built with special bricks made of manure are a characteristic element of the local panorama. Manure is collected, mixed with straw, put into special moulds and tamped. The bricks are dried under the sun and used to build the walls. These bricks are Xinaliq's main fuel. It is believed to be of high quality and does not involve any cost.
Local residents who have maintained their customs, traditions and clothes are also distinguished by their appearance. The harsh climate leaves its mark on the faces of Xinaliq people - their skin is cracked by the frost and has become stiff, and their cheeks are always red. Xinaliq people are short and sturdy, with chestnut-coloured hair and brown and blue eyes. They are courageous and enterprising. The ancient Greek scientist Strabo recorded in his work "Geographica" that Caucasian Albania was inhabited by 26 tribes and every tribe spoke its own language. The Xinaliq people are one of these Albanian tribes.
The Friday mosque
This mosque, situated on a height in the middle of the village, is regarded as the forefather of all local mosques. Runic inscriptions remain on two boulders two metres high, to the right of the entrance to the mosque.
The Pircomard mosque
A plaque mounted on the mosque indicates the date when it was built - 1388.
The Burc shrine was built in the 7th century in the most ancient part of the village - at the site of the fire temple. It is visited only during Muslim religious holidays.
Xinaliq is surrounded by caves, shrines, temples and the Atasgah. There are shrines (pirs) everywhere. Each of them holds the grave of a saint - the ovliya. In almost every shrine, there is a picture on the wall showing Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac. The most famous shrine in the village is called Xidir Nabi. Every shrine is regarded as a cure for a certain disease. Since the Xidir Nabi shrine is visited by those who have toothache, it is also called the "toothache shrine". They say if you rub one of the small, round stones from this shrine against your ailing tooth, the pain will go away. Another famous shrine is the "40 Abbal". Forty dervishes used to hide and pray here. This shrine is a cave situated two kilometres from the village and has a spring which is believed to be holy. A faience pipeline delivers water from this spring to villagers' houses and to the central square. During big holidays and festivities, all the residents of Xinaliq gather here.
In essence, this is a "burning mountain" situated at 2,600 m above sea level and at a distance of 5 km from Xinaliq. This mountain area is rich in reserves of natural gas and local residents say that there are several other such places in the surrounding area. Smooth pieces of rock and scattered pebbles enveloped in flames create the impression of a fallen tower. Those who come here not to pray but to have a picnic cook kebabs on these stones and then bask in the meadow under the sun, enjoying the mountains. A horse trip from Xinaliq to Atasgah takes 30 minutes, and on foot - two or three hours. A legend about the Atasgah says that a herder who wandered here with his flock on a cold day collected some firewood in order to make a bonfire. But as soon as he started the fire, flames engulfed the whole area. The frightened herder kissed the ground and began praying to God. Since then, the fire has never gone out, and this place has been regarded as holy and become a temple. You realize here why Azerbaijan is called the Land of Fire: both water and land catch fire in all parts of the country. Atasgah is also a common name for all fire temples. In Northern Azerbaijan, fire temples are scattered across a vast area. Most of them are used for completely different purposes… In his work "The History of Albania", Moses of Kaghankatouts calls one of the provinces of this state Kheni. This is present-day Xinaliq. Ancient sources call Xinaliq residents Gat. Qeybullayev says that the north-eastern parts of the region were also populated by Turkic tribes from the North Caucasus steppes - Huns, Sabirs, Maskuts, Goruses, Chollars and Tats and Jews, who were sent here by Sassanian rulers to defend their northern borders.
This mountain, situated opposite the village of Xinaliq, is considered to be holy. As a rule, its peak is shrouded in fog and wind. Legend has it that there are the ruins of an ancient village destroyed by an earthquake 1,000 years ago on this mountain. The residents of that village founded the present-day Xinaliq. According to Xinaliq residents, Pira-Mixix - a place holy to the then residents of the village - is located on this mountain. (H. Masadiyev, "Azerbaijani Place Names of the Caucasus", Baku, the Elm publishing house, 1990, p 107)