Located among the leafy foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, the Azerbaijani town of Sheki is green, tranquil, and artsy. Low-rise buildings feature eye-catching stone and brickwork. People smile easily and are eager to engage in conversation. What’s more, Sheki still bears delightful evidence of its Silk Road past.
Before we got there, I had the distinct feeling that I was going to love Sheki, given its smaller size, its artisanal traditions, and its natural surroundings. My intuition ended up being correct, as Sheki was among my favorite destinations during our four months of travels in the Caucasus.
Sheki’s Silk Route Past
Centuries ago, Sheki was located on a branch of the famed Silk Road. Thanks to the commerce and exchange of ideas that occurred as a result of this trade, Sheki achieved prosperity and a cosmopolitan flair. Palaces were constructed for the area’s rulers (known as khans). Sheki also built a fortress, as well as several roadside inns called caravansaries. These sizable complexes were built to house traders and their pack animals for the night. In 2019, Sheki’s caravansaries, palaces, and its historic center became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s fascinating to imagine all the exotic goods that were traded along the Silk Route’s numerous paths, including silk, spices, paper, wine, walnuts, porcelain, and glass. With this abundance of goods and ideas flowing, it’s no wonder why Sheki also developed a creative identity.
Sheki’s Long Tradition of Artistry
Sheki has long been a hub for artisans, with everything from pottery to shebeke (a type of stained glass) being produced there.
Silk cocoons have also been farmed in Sheki for several centuries. Over time, Sheki became known for its signature silk head scarves, too. These jewel-toned scarves are called kelaghayi (pronounced keh-la-high and written like this in Azerbaijani: Kəlağayı).
Kelaghayi were traditionally worn as headscarves. However today, women in Azerbaijan and beyond also drape the scarves over their shoulders like a shawl.
When Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union, massive amounts of silk were produced in Sheki. However, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, some of Sheki’s silk factories closed and the craft was in danger of being lost. Thankfully, families of artisans kept this art form going.
In 2014, Azerbaijan’s tradition of kelaghayi making was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Buying a Handcrafted Kelaghayi
I first learned about Azerbaijan’s kelaghayi scarves while watching Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure, which followed the host from Italy to Kyrgyzstan (with stops in Albania, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Iran, too). I knew then that I wanted to buy a handmade scarf. Ideally, I hoped Shawn and I would have the chance to watch these marvelous crafts being made in Sheki.
Not long after arriving in Sheki, Shawn and I headed to the town’s historic core. There, we chanced upon the Kalagayici Ziya shop, which is located in a storefront inside Sheki’s most famous caravanserai building.
Once we entered the shop, we were surrounded by a sea of vibrant scarves. I later learned that each color has a traditional meaning, corresponding to life events like daily activities, weddings, mourning ceremonies, and other celebrations. Traditionally, older women wore darker-colored kelaghayi, and younger women wore lighter-colored ones.
Since blue is my favorite color, I gravitated towards a royal-blue kelaghayi hanging on a rack in the center of the shop. This scarf was adorned with butas — a symbol that is common in Azerbaijan and beyond. The buta symbol may have Zoroastrian origins, but that is uncertain. Butas are sometimes associated with eternal life. I’ve also read that the buta has been likened to a teardrop, cypress tree, peacock, or flame shape. (Azerbaijan has vast oil and gas reserves, a characteristic that earned the country the nickname, the “Land of Fire.)
Other symbols are commonly applied to kelaghayi, including pomegranates, flowers, and geometric shapes.
Inside the shop we met Rashad Shamilov, the son of a husband and wife who are kelaghayi masters. As we chatted with Rashad through an interpreter, we mentioned that we were interested in seeing the scarves being crafted. He thoughtfully invited us to come to the family’s workshop elsewhere in town. We decided to meet later that afternoon, once Rashad had closed up the shop for the day.
Watching How Kelaghayis Are Made
Arriving at the family’s workshop after sunset, all was dark in the courtyard. Small fires — presumably boiling water for the dyeing process — burned. They provided the only light source.
Eight people work inside the Kalagayici Ziya workshop, including Rashad’s parents Ruhangiz and Amiraslan. The evening we visited, only a few artisans were present.
Wearing rubber boots, the men and women waded through small puddles of dye. They dipped scarves into buckets of violet dye, and hung them up to drip-dry.
Elsewhere in the workshop, we met Ruhangiz, Rashad’s mother. Ruhangiz sat at a table, periodically dipping an antique wooden block stamp or galib into an adjacent vat of melted paraffin and oil. Then, she carefully stamped the white silk fabric, creating a bronze-colored pattern around the scarf’s border. The family mentioned that some of their wooden stamps are more than 200 years old!
We learned that a scarf can take three to seven days to produce. The process is apparently the longest for scarves with a more complex — or multicolored — pattern.
If you’re familiar with the batik technique, kelaghayi-making is similar. Both use a wax-resist technique.
Essentially, the process for making a kelaghayi is like this:
- Silk fabric is made from the cocoons of silk worms. We didn’t see this process in Azerbaijan. (If you’re curious how this is done — the process is fascinating — have a peek at my silk extraction and weaving article. I wrote it after watching this process at a silk farm in Cambodia.)
- Once the silk fabric has been woven, the artisan spreads the white silk fabric out on a flat surface.
- Then, they dip a wooden stamp into a vat of melted paraffin, applying the mixture to the stamp.
- They carefully stamp the pattern onto the scarf, section by section. The pattern initially looks bronze colored on the plain white silk. This is referred to as the basmanakhish technique.
- Later, they dip the scarf into a bucket of hot dye, which colors the silk. The stamped area resists taking on the dye, and the bronze-colored paraffin melts away. This allows the stamped pattern to expose the original brilliant white of the silk fabric.
- The scarf is hung to dry.
Because a scarf takes several days to complete, we didn’t get to actually see the process from start to finish. However, it was fascinating seeing where and how my scarf was made. I’ll also undoubtedly treasure it more since I had the privilege of meeting the hardworking people who crafted it by hand!
An Interview with the Kelaghayi Artisans
The family who owns Kalagayici Ziya has been making kelaghayi scarves for several generations. After visiting Sheki, I interviewed the family by email. Their son, Tofiq, acted as interpreter. I’ve edited some of the replies for brevity.
How did your father learn to make kelaghayi?
My father was a 9-year-old boy when his father, Ziya Sarkarov, started deconstruction of the existing workshop and construction of a new one. Since then, my father started to learn the process. At that time, there were great-great masters of kelaghayi who worked together with my grandfather. They coached and demonstrated each step of the production for years and years. Finally, my father became a master as well.
Why does your father enjoy making kelaghayi?
He enjoys making kelaghayi because this is not just a business for him, this is a part of his life. He has millions of memories starting from childhood with different masters and good people. Finally, this is his father’s path, which he enjoys to extend to further generations.
Your mother has also been making kelaghayi for several decades. What does she most enjoy about this craft?
She started in the workshop in 1979 as an employee. At the time, the workshop was working 2 shifts, 24 hours per day, with some 200 people. This was the Soviet period. [My parents] had a good relationship and finally got married. So my mother had her background skills in the process long ago as well. After marriage, she stayed out of the process for many years. Twenty years later, she rejoined. This was when me and my brother were in university.
Your brother is also involved in the family business. Can you tell us more about what he does?
Actually he started to provide support when he was in school, during his free time. Upon completion of university, he returned to Sheki and started working in our shop in the Karvansaray. Later he was involved to the production, and now he can work on his own as well. His area of responsibility is finding new clients. He is very good in this field. Our generation learned from my father and this is an ongoing process.
Are you also involved in the family business?
Unfortunately, I was not able to spend much time in the production of kelaghayi. I am a health, safety, and environmental engineer working for an oil and gas business. In order to support our family business, I took on an advertiser role. From time to time I am organizing photography sessions, maintaining our Instagram account, and coordinating with customers.
I have a son and a daughter, Ziya and Fidan. My son is 6 years old. We named him after my grandfather Ziya. When we visit Sheki, Ziya enjoys spending time in the workshop. That is why my father calls him a “fifth-generation” master.
What ingredients does your family use to make the dyes?
The main part of the coloring process is coming from nature. There is a tree called saragan, which we get from the forest. We can only collect the ones authorized by local authorities. We then render and boil it. After the boiling process, you get a dark-yellow color. We use manufactured colors for crimson, purple, and green. If you mix saragan with crimson, it will produce a red color. If you mix it with purple, it will give you a black color. The dark blue is a mixture of different manufactured colors.
How much does a scarf cost?
From 60 to 200 AZN, depending on the patterns and colors. [Note: To convert US dollars to Azerbaijani manat, you can use this currency converter.]
Are you seeing an increased interest in kelaghayi scarves? Where do most of your customers come from?
Yes there is an increased interest, since the kelaghayi has become part of a modern fusion. Our customers are mainly from Azerbaijan, as well as some foreign people.
For which special occasions do Azerbaijani people buy kelaghayi scarves?
Nowadays it is a fashion. Some 30 years ago, it was a standard part of women’s dress, especially for those who were over 50 years old.
- Artisans Reveal the Secrets of How to Make the Iconic Kelaghayi Head Scarf, a Euronews video on YouTube.
- Azerbaijan Silk Roads Program, on the UNESCO website.
- Kalagayici Ziya, the Instagram account of the shop where I bought my kelaghayi.
- Paisley: The Story of a Classic Bohemian Print, an article on BBC.com
- Traditional Art and Symbolism of Kelaghayi, an article and video about kelaghayi on the Google Arts & Culture website.
- Traditional Art and Symbolism of Kelaghayi, Making and Wearing Women’s Silk Headscarves, an article and photo gallery on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage website.
Where in the World?
How to contact the Kalagayici Ziya Scarf Shop:
The Kalagayici Ziya shop is located on the ground floor of Sheki’s famous caravanserai building. (Of note: the present-day hotel also housed inside the caravanserai buiding is called Karvansaray.)
The family maintains an Instagram account, which shows some of their designs. Tofiq says that people sometimes wish to buy a kelaghayi and have it shipped abroad. Message the family via Instagram if you’d like to explore this option.
How to get from Baku, Azerbaijan to Sheki, Azerbaijan:
- Sheki is located about 350 kilometers (220 miles) from Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku.
- To get from Baku to Sheki, we took a bus (coach). We purchased our tickets at the bus station in Baku a few days in advance. In 2019, a bus ticket cost 8.80 AZN (about $5.20) per person.
- Our bus left Baku at 10:30 and we arrived in Sheki about 6 hours later. Our bus driver took a break at a rest-stop about halfway between the two cities.
- The latter part of the journey was especially rugged and bumpy, since they were in the middle of constructing a new road. However, the scenery was dramatic and magnificent at times, and our fellow passengers were friendly and helpful. Once we arrived in Sheki, one of the passengers even invited us to her family’s home for tea. Tea soon turned into a full Azerbaijani dinner. We were touched by the family’s incredible hospitality.
How to get from Sheki, Azerbaijan to Tbilisi, Georgia:
Finding transportation from Sheki back to Tbilisi, Georgia was decidedly more difficult, as we did not want to retrace our steps and return to Baku. We weren’t enthusiastic about taking a marshrutka (minivan) to Tbilisi, as we’d had some wild rides in neighboring Georgia a few weeks earlier. We couldn’t find a bus going from Sheki to Tbilisi, but we really had no choice but to take a marshrutka to the city of Ganja. Once in Ganja we waited there for a few hours and ultimately took a red-eye train (at 2:30 am!) back to Tbilisi.
Accommodation in Sheki:
We spent three nights in Sheki and stayed in two different hotels:
- the Sheki Karvansaray, the famous caravanserai &
- the Seki Qonaq Evi (affiliate link), which is a small hotel on the outskirts of Sheki
We were able to book the Seki Qonag Evi online, however, it was not possible to make a reservation for the Sheki Karvansaray in advance.
Once we got to Sheki, we visited the reception of the Karvansaray to see if a room was available in the coming days. We were lucky that there was a vacancy, because we met other travelers in Sheki who said that they were unable to get a reservation at the last minute. We visited Sheki at the end of September and beginning of October. We paid 50 AZN (about $30) for one night’s lodging.
The Sheki Karvansaray does have a Facebook page, but it doesn’t seem to be updated frequently. As a result, I’m not sure you’d be able to secure a hotel reservation that way. We did not try calling the Sheki Karvansaray in advance, but you might have luck doing so. Their telephone numbers are +994 55 755 55 70 and +994 50 859 39 82.
How to find the Sheki Tourism Office:
Once we get to Sheki, we stopped by the Sheki Tourism Office, which is just inside the walled city. The employees we spoke to (Kanan and Farid) spoke English well, and they were happy to answer our many questions and give us insider tips. I’d highly recommend a stop there if you’d like to inquire about restaurants, day trips, artisan’s workshops, or bus schedules. Here is the Sheki Tourism Office Facebook page.
Also, I’ve recently been in touch with Kanan, who mentioned that he and his friends are developing their own tourism platform. They organize hiking, trekking, historical, and gastronomical tours in and around Sheki. You can find their business, Salaam Sheki, on Facebook or Instagram.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.