We were just handed a bowl full of white, pill-shaped balls, each about the size of a boiled sweet. They appear to be made of dry, compacted cotton wool and vibrate when shaken.
“These,” reveals our dear guide Ilqar Aghayevm, “are the cocoons. They are already sorted and ripe and yes — I’m afraid the pupa inside didn’t survive. That’s the noise you can hear. But if it had bitten the road and had become a moth, he would have died a few days later anyway”.
Ilqar is clearly more aware than many in the Caucasus of Western sensitivity to animal welfare, but there is no way around the unpleasant fact that silk production requires the sacrifice of millions of silkworms before the near-miraculous process of fabric creation. silk to begin.
Ripe cocoons have to be softened, their outer coverings removed by fancy soft brush machines, then unraveled, spooled, re-spun and finally woven. The process employs a veritable army of nimble-fingered operatives — mostly old women in colorful floral aprons — to keep the threads of the rumbling machines running.
After so much work, followed by hand dying and stamping, it’s quite surprising that Azerbaijan’s kelaghayi (hand-embossed silk scarf) costs as little as $30 — at least from the factory’s chic boutique.
Silk Road, Silk Roads, Silk Roads?
This quiet town was a major center of the silk trade even in the 19th century.
It comes as a surprise to discover that, in earlier centuries, this rather rustic backwater was one of the main stops on a Caucasian branch of the classic Silk Road. And the work being done here today is part of a much wider revival of East-West trade across the region.
The Great Silk Road, or Silk Road, was the fantastic land supply chain that famously allowed the supply of Chinese goods to reach ancient Rome from the second century BCE.
In an ancient world without trains or airplanes, transporting precious goods across the vast inhospitable areas of Eurasia required well-equipped teams of animals—usually camels—travelling in groups known as caravans.
These would usually require safety at night in strong walled enclosures where traders could find shelter and food. This took place in karvansarai (literally “sarays”, or palaces, for caravans) along trade routes: precursors to traveller’s inns, but for a pre-motorized era.
The most famous sections of the Silk Road crossed the deserts of Central Asia and Iran, but there were many points in history when disorder, insecurity or international politics served to cut off the main routes.
Typically, trans-Caucasian routes tended to become popular when conditions were less favorable for trade through the Persian world.
Today’s geopolitical problems in both Iran and Russia can be seen as another such phase in the periodic cycles that occasionally prompt Asian trade to pass through the Caspian, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
This 21st century “Silk Road” is most clearly symbolized by the newly inaugurated rail link between Istanbul and Baku — dubbed the “Iron Silk Road” — which parallels the even more important Baku oil pipeline- Tbilisi-Ceyhan for most of its route.
And just as in ancient times, with growing trade volumes come a number of associated benefits — not least a rediscovery of older layers of the region’s Silk Road history, as an incentive for further trade and tourism.
Back at Sheki’s silk factory, Ilqar recounts how less than a decade ago the city’s historic silk industry faced collapse as the factory went bankrupt.
However, Azerbaijan’s recent economic boom helped fund a massive resurgence in local kelaghayi popularity: wearing these traditional scarves has acquired an almost patriotic air since they were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014.
Sheki’s silk, as well as the legacy of the Silk Road, is now being consciously exploited as a tourist attraction.
As of late 2022, much of the city’s photogenic old core is filled with renovations of historic buildings and museums that aim to extract more from history.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Azerbaijani city of Sheki is famous for its silk trade and is home to the ornate palace of the Sheki Khans.
Sheki’s most archetypal hotel, The Karvansary, is itself inside a giant old caravanserai. Winding corridors lead to modest rooms set behind repeated arches that frame a central gated courtyard that now protects a small fountain pool instead of a chaos of herded animals. This hotel is also expected to be renovated next year.
The renewal of Baskal
While Sheki is the center of attention, it is not the only “silk center” of Azerbaijan.
The overcrowded village of Basqal won acclaim for its silk products at the world fair of the London International Exhibition of 1862. By the 20th century, the historic center of Basqal had become very dilapidated, leaving its only surviving workshop of completely obsolete shawl design, making do with old stained vats for the many dyeing processes.
Here too, things are moving fast now. A brand new workshop is under construction and in August 2022 a beautiful restoration of the old center was unveiled.
The cobbles of the river stone streets have been stabilised, the old houses in typical earthquake-resistant Ketil (timber and layered stone) have been partially fixed, while the newer buildings have been given a disguise of new stonework and lantern lamps.
Most notably, in the leafy suburbs, Basqal Resort & Spa opened this summer, designed as a “Silk Road escape” for industrious travelers, a social enterprise for local employment and an artistic inspiration with demonstration classes in printmaking. kelaghayi silk.
And the newly widened highway that now runs most of the way here from Azerbaijan’s beautiful capital, Baku, makes driving down this road much faster than ever before.
Other Silk Road Legacies
One of the reasons Sheki became a silk center was the destruction of the former regional capital Shamakhi both by military siege (1742) and earthquakes (especially 1859). However, other remnants of the Silk Road remain elsewhere.
Today Baku is by far the largest and wealthiest city in Azerbaijan, but it was relatively unimportant before the “oil boom” of the late 19th century.
An earlier period of its splendor was between the 12th and 15th centuries, and four small stone caravanserais from that era have survived remarkably well.
As of late 2022, the 14th-century Multan Caravanserai and the 15th-century Bukhara Caravanserai are both being replaced as part of Azerbaijan’s “rediscovery” of its Silk Road heritage.
The main rail and oil trade route of the 21st century passes through central Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, whose Silk Road credentials are less publicized. However, this too was a regional center of historical importance.
You can stay in a 17th-century caravanserai in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city.
For Azerbaijan’s Silk Road network to be fully restored, one final reconnection awaits — that of the vibrant historic trade route along the Araz River, which flows through the border country between Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Azerbaijan.
Once one of the most important strands of the region’s medieval trade matrix, international disputes paralyzed any transport this way for decades.
But if the road becomes viable in the future, the magical journey to Turkey via the ancient city of Nakhchivan (in a breakaway enclave of Azerbaijan) should once again be a major trade and tourism corridor.
With or without your precious kelaghayi in hand, this is another once-in-a-lifetime journey that will truly reawaken the majestic spirit of the Silk Road.