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, artisanal traditions, and 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 historic center became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s fascinating to imagine all the diverse 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 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 silkworms. 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 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 building 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 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 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.
19 thoughts on “Watching How to Make Kelaghayi Silk Scarves in Sheki, Azerbaijan”
Fascinating!! Nice to see you are enjoying your travels and finding interesting places once again.
This artisanal adventure was pre-pandemic, but I’m just finding some time to document it. :) These silk scarves are a labor of love. I definitely cherish the ones I got during this visit.
Are you in Europe or North America? We’re back in Germany. However, we were fortunate to be able to spend a few months in Italy early this year. I look forward to sharing the stories of the artisans we met there, too!
Thanks for dropping by, and hope you’re well. Are you penning a new book?
Just discovered your post on the stunning scarves from Sheki. We visited Azerbaijan a few years ago as part of an extended self-guided trip through the region. I don’t recall hearing about the scarves so thank you for illustrating their complex process.
It sounds like you had the chance to explore a lot of Azerbaijan. We were there for just about a week, but there’s so much more I would have liked to have seen. We visited during autumn, and with cooler weather approaching, we had to get back to our “home base” in neighboring Georgia.
What were some of your trip highlights in AZ?
So nice both of you spent four months exploring the Caucasus! With that amount of time you must have seen many things most tourists don’t see when they visit this part of the world. Reading about the process of making a kelaghayi scarf reminded me of a similar process used in making batik, especially the printed version, as you mentioned. It’s nice that you also pointed out about the ‘dancing figures’ of Gobustan. In my opinion they are among the most distinctive images of Azerbaijan, which was also displayed during the opening ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku.
I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments. Since you live in Jakarta, I wonder if you have ever watched batik being made? I read that the process originated on Java. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Java in 2011. However, we did see lots of batik items on Bali. I purchased a blue-and-white scarf there that I still treasure. Over time, it’s become a tad weathered with wear. I guess that means we must return to Indonesia so I can buy another one and watch artisans there crafting batik. :) I’ve watched the process online, but would love to see it in person.
Shawn and I were indeed fortunate to have spent a few months in the Caucasus. We’d been wanting to visit that region for a long time, but we couldn’t find good ferry connections to Georgia circa 2014 when we were (somewhat nearby) in Moldova. Fast-forward to 2019, and my longtime friends were living and working in Tbilisi. When we found a great flight to Kutaisi, it felt like the right time to go. Tbilisi made a great base for exploring a few parts of Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Also, thanks for mentioning that tidbit about the Gobustan dancing figures being displayed during the 2015 European Games in Baku. I admittedly didn’t learn about the petroglyphs until we got to the Caucasus. Gobustan is another fascinating spot deserving of an article!
Finally, how are things there now with the pandemic? It looks like Indonesia’s Covid numbers have thankfully dropped. Hope you and your family are well.
Actually I haven’t seen the process of making batik in person. Here on Java, we have multiple batik-making centers and each region has its own batik style — notable differences are in the patterns and colors. If you do return to Indonesia one day, you should visit Yogyakarta and/or Solo for both are among the island’s most important cultural hubs. The batik made in this part of Java tend to have brown as its dominant color, while the batik from the coastal cities of Pekalongan and Cirebon are more colorful. There’s a small town called Lasem in the eastern part of Central Java that is known to produce arguably the finest and most intricate of all batik, thanks to the combination of batik patterns and colors from the royal courts and the coastal ports of Java, as well as influences from the Chinese-Indonesian community in the town.
It’s nice that you had a friend in Tbilisi, which made it easier for you to explore the Caucasus. I always think when I go one day, it’s best for me to start in Azerbaijan, then continue to Georgia, before ending the trip in Armenia. Because of how things are between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I always get the impression that it would be harder for me to visit the latter first. I don’t know if this is true though.
We had a really bad second wave in July which pushed the healthcare system in the country to the brink of collapse. At its peak, I saw a friend or someone I know losing someone they love due to Covid on a daily basis, and it was very stressful to say the least. Fortunately, things are much better now. The government is taking more precautions before easing the restrictions, and the vaccination rate — especially in Java — is quite high. The problem is because of Indonesia’s geography, it’s quite challenging to deliver vaccines to some regions.
I hope you and Shawn stay safe and healthy, and fingers crossed we will be able to travel freely again in the not-too-distant future!
Hi again, Bama,
Thank you for sharing such interesting batik details with me! I’ve made note of those cities so that we can possibly visit some batik workshops there someday. :)
It would be interesting to know why the coastal cities gravitated toward more colorful batik while the batik in other areas incorporated more brown. Culture is fascinating.
I agree with your assessment about which countries in the Caucasus to visit first. We found Georgia to be a great hub for visiting its neighbors. We used both the train and minivans in Georgia to get to Azerbaijan and Armenia. We were in Georgia for a few weeks before we headed to Azerbaijan. We then returned to Georgia for a few weeks, and then traveled to Armenia. We did not visit the disputed territory. Once we got back to Europe, we were sad to hear that the conflict started up again in that region.
We did need to apply for an online visa in order to visit Azerbaijan. That process was fairly straightforward. We also registered with local authorities upon our arrival in new cities.
I’m sorry to hear that many of your friends and acquaintances lost loved ones on a daily basis during the second wave of Covid. That is heartbreaking, Bama. With so many islands, I imagine it is difficult to distribute the vaccine to much of the country. I hope things will continue to improve.
I remember watching this on Joanna lumleys silkroad adventure and being so fascinated by it. That show put Azerbaijan high on my list. You are so lucky to have gone, hopefully I will in the future too! Lovely post!
We first heard about the kelaghayi on Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure series, too! I can’t recall which town she actually visited to watch the kelaghayi being made. Nevertheless, when we got to Sheki, asking about kelaghayi was one of the first things I did. I hope you’ll get the chance to visit Azerbaijan sometime soon too, and that your trip will be as rewarding as ours was.
I see you’re a self-described Croatian-Australian. :) My husband and I love Croatia! We’ve spent several winters there, and in many ways, it feels like home to us. What part of the country do you have ties to?
Hi Tricia, yes, I am of Croatian origin. Born in Australia to Croatian parents. I go back quite often too, I love it! My dad is from the island of Pag, and mum is from the small town Of Nin, which is near Zadar and home of the famous Grgur Ninski. Where do you stay mostly when in Croatia?
Anna, we’ve not been to Nin nor Pag yet, but we’ve heard great things about both places.
On the coast, we’ve based ourselves in Trogir, Split, Makarska, and Pula. One summer, we even spent a month inland in a small town called Ludbreg. All were great experiences, thanks in large part to the wonderful people we met there who treated us like family. Do you speak Croatian?
Hi Tricia. Wow you sure have seen a lot of Croatia yourself! I haven’t even been to Makarska yet but hear it’s a must. Sadly my Croatian is pretty bad…. I can understand quite a bit but not really speak it much.
Makarska is lovely. We were there for most of 2020, due to the pandemic. We were grateful we had many fantastic places to go walking/hiking/jogging. Unfortunately, since we couldn’t get together with our hosts and neighbors (due to Covid), our Croatian didn’t improve much. But we know a few greetings and grocery-store terms. :)
do you recall what you paid for the silk scarf?
I asked the family who makes kelaghayi how much they cost. They said they are about 60 to 200 AZN (manat). The price varies based upon the size of the scarf and how complex the pattern is.
My scarf doesn’t have multiple colors and it isn’t as large as some that I saw in their shop and workshop. I recall it costing about $25 to $30, but I don’t remember what the exact amount was in manat.
Hope you enjoy your time in Sheki!
Fabulous! I’ll have a white scarf with gold print please.
That sounds like an elegant color combination, Jo! Perhaps you’re not headed to Azerbaijan anytime soon, but I have seen kelaghayi on sites like Etsy. :)