For most of us ex-pats living in the country, Mark Elliot’s book Azerbaijan http://www.amazon.com/Azerbaijan-4th-excursions-Georgia-Excursions/dp/190586423X is a virtual Bible. It is the most comprehensive introduction to the country currently available however, even Mark cannot include all the information on every highway, byway and small community he passes. There is so much to see in Azerbaijan and so little information out there that if you go even a small step out of your way, you will come across something new and strange. That happened to me on a walk I recently took with my partner Sandra and Peace Corps friend Micah outside the town of Gusar (Qusar).
Walking out of the Leski “capital” on a fine late August day, we crossed the Qusarcay River via the strange DIY footbridge that was made of rusting, pierced metal plates, recycled from army tracking designed to stop vehicles sinking into the mud and up into the hills behind the village of Qakaend. On the steep, rough, unmade track above the village, we were overtaken by a young family of four on a motorcycle and sidecar, dressed in their best clothes. As it was Eid, the festival at the end of Ramadan, they were certainly on their way to visit relations.
At the top of the hill, we got into conversation with Zerbeli a former government official, who was made unemployed recently, thanks to reorganisation, he has now reverted to the traditional occupation of shepherd. He seemed quite happy, looking after his small flock of sheep on the open hillside that reminded me strangely of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.
At the top of the track we found ourselves followed a broad ridge that overlooked Gusar where Micah pointed out that much of the ancient pasture was being ploughed up for crops. Beyond them, rise the snow-capped peak of Baba Dag or Father Mountain, named in honour of last President Heydar Aliyev. Slightly to our right, he pointed out a steep, tree-covered hill that he said contained a Bir, or holy place. He had never been there himself, so after a stroll and a scramble collecting sloes for my favourite winter-warmer, we made our way up the steep slope to the shrine of the holy man.
Actually, though Mark Elliot does not provide a description of the site, he does indicate the place on one of his wonderful Wainwright-inspired maps (page 187) that it is the ruins of the old village of Qarabulaq.
As we breasted the top of the hill, it was clear we were not alone. Several families (mostly women and children) had been camping out and were either dozing on mats, preparing food or praying in front of the holy man’s grave. Like many such sites, who the holy man was or what he did during his life has been forgotten but that doesn’t matter. It is enough that he was holy.
During Eid, many families and individuals make pilgrimages to such holy sites to ask for something or to give thanks. Seeing so many people here, at the top of a steep hill with no path leading to it was evidence that the tradition is still strong.
That he is still important to his community was clear when Micah got into conversation with Radik, a young man who had just completed his military service. He had visited the shrine just before joining the army when he prayed for protection. Coming back to give thanks for his safe return, was a promise he gave to himself and to Allah. This was a young, hard looking man but he was still prepared to acknowledged the power of Allah, working through an obscure holy man.
Surrounded by by a rusting, iron fence, the broken tombstone had an inscription in Arabic. Behind it stood a great oak tree, covered in pieces of material, many of them red in colour, that represented the prayers of the faithful. As we watched, a family stood by and made their salat. Not wishing to intrude, we moved away past a crude shed where bedding was stored and a simple kitchen built of wooden poles. One lady told us that just beyond the grave site was a cemetery among the tall trees, that provided a canopy over the site.
These were clearly ancient stone markers. Some nearly buried in woodland litter and others toppled forward into the sward. They were simply big stones, unadorned by inscriptions. After all I was once told, why should a stone need an inscription? God knows who is buried there.
As Mark Elliot had indicated and Micah said, he had been told that in former times there had been a village here but of that we could see no evidence. On the lower slopes of the hill, we had come across a large area of brambles, evidence archaeologist friends have previously told me that the soil in such circumstances had been tilled in the past.
Judging from its position at the top of a steep hill, I would have said that we had walked through the remains of an ancient settlement. At least, if I had been in lowland England that is where I would have placed it. A good defensive position, just off a ridgeway path. It is quite possible that the site itself has been considered holy since pre-Islamic times for Azerbaijan is littered with holy rocks, holy mountains and other sites that would have been significant for as long as people have lives in these mountains.
After we had seen out fill, the young soldier acted as our guide and showed us the way down the steep slope to Qayakend village and the river crossing…
Another small adventure in the Land of Fire.