How ecotourism helps biodiversity conservation

Pride of lions on Kenya's awesome Maasai Mara reserve. Copyright Paxton images.

Pride of lions on Kenya’s awesome Maasai Mara reserve. Copyright Paxton images.

Now that the inoculation efforts against covid are gaining ground we can turn our minds to future vacations in exotic places once more!

Here’s an article I wrote on how ecotourism helps biodiversity conservation.

If you are interested in taking safari expeditions that support community wildlife conservation in Kenya’s awesome Maasai Mara, consider Shavicol Safaris!


US Disclaimer: Author Charles Paxton received no remuneration for this article.

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The Spice of Life: Biodiversity

Hello everyone,

Just in case you have the Blues from COVID-19 social isolation, here are some posts from the natural world to help cheer you up! There’s nothing like nature to help cheer the spirit. Walking among trees and in lush places helps boost your immune system too, so don’t be afraid of getting some fresh air into your lungs, just remember to keep 6ft away from other people and wear a mask in public.

I hope you enjoy these articles anyway and maybe are encouraged to investigate your own wild world!

Raccoons in focus! These lovable rascals are full of surprises, read on and see how they have come to be misunderstood.

All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. Read on and see what she means.

Woodlice! We have all see these little creatures scurrying about, but what actually are they and what on Earth do they do?

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Christmas greetings and news of good cheer

  1. Christmas turkey in Santa hatOn behalf of Steve Hollier I’d like to wish all his blog readers a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2020, to the Muslims may God’s peace and blessings be upon you. While I personally believe there is no better gift we can receive than Christ’s sacrifice and promise of life eternal with God in Heaven, that Steve Hollier enjoys now, here is a message of good cheer that I hope will warm everyone’s hearts in the face of the growing concern about climate change. I hope it will encourage you and fight off any thoughts of despair about the state of the world now and in the years to come.

A Louisiana Master Naturalist friend shared this information with me and with their kind permission I’m sharing it further. Though some of this news is about changes in Louisiana, USA, much of it is more global. Please feel free to share it too, if you wish!

Awareness of the climate change crisis is growing, but —

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has said that he was disappointed with the
COP 25 talks held in early December 2019 in Madrid. What’s to be done to galvanize action on the climate crisis looming before us?

News media have tended to avoid discussing climate change in America but climate related disasters are hard to avoid in the news these days. However there is a major initiative underway to increase coverage and there are plenty of people who are working hard and effectively to avoid climate catastrophe.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, wrote an 8 Oct 2018 column entitled: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.” This led to the “Covering Climate Now” project, initiated the summer of 2019 by The Guardian, the Columbia Journalism Review, and The Nation. The PBS Newshour, USA Today, and many other news organizations have joined the project, increasing their coverage of the urgency of the climate crisis.

The stories of our cultures – and our emotions – move us to act. Telling the story of the climate change crisis through dance, visual art, and literature has been identified as highly important.

Bill McKibben wrote an article for Grist, 22 Apr 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art” ( It’s short, only about 1400 words, and includes the following two sentences: “Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action.” And, “We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?”

Some examples of the interaction between art and climate change science include the dance, “On the Nature of Things” by Karole Armitage in collaboration with scientist Paul Ehrlich (, and websites like

Solutions to the challenges of climate change need to be highlighted. Climate Connections, affiliated with Yale University, has a great approach for this.

They provide daily 90 sec broadcast radio programming and original web-based reporting, commentary, and analysis about solutions to climate change challenges ( My friend is working to get our local public radio station to carry Climate Connection’s free content.

Might your local station be interested too?

How can we finance action on climate change?

Recently, a friend who’s educating himself about this, recommended as a resource the e-learning courses from the UN, such as: “Finding the Money – financing climate action” (

(I’m going to take the course myself).

You might also be interested in some free courses offered by

Young people like Greta Thunberg are shining examples to inspire us.

TIME 2019 Person of the Year – Greta Thunberg ( She reminds me of a Viking shield-maiden sailing the Atlantic in search of action to prevent climate crises.

Here are some other good examples:

Forward-looking youth responds to climate challenges

William Kamkwamba, of Malawi, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, designed and built a windmill out of recycled and repurposed components to provide sustainable electric power for his home and to pump water. Due to a severe drought and famine in 2002, his schooling was interrupted. He worked to continue studying independently and began to build the windmill. He had only a drawing of a windmill in a textbook in the library of his elementary school and other basic textbooks for guidance. He’s written a memoir covering the famine, building the windmill, and his successful drive for further education, which was made into a feature film in 2019 (See, and

Fionn Ferreira, from West Cork, Ireland, won the 2018-2019 Google Science Fair Grand Prize for his investigation into removing microplastics from water. This is a real concern because if we don’t clean up our behaviours there’ll soon be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

Project title: An investigation into the removal of microplastics from water using ferrofluids. He suggests the method could be used during wastewater treatment. (See, and

Felix Finkbeiner. Felix Finkbeiner of Germany, when he was 9 years old in 2007, founded Plant-for-the-Planet, an international youth organization that campaigns for tree planting across the globe. They’ve planted 13.6 billion trees in more than 130 countries.

Felix was inspired by Wangari Maathai of Kenya, winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2004, who started the Green Belt movement, that planted tens of millions of trees. (See,  and

Greta Thunberg. Greta Thunberg, from Stockholm, Sweden, is an impassioned spokesperson for urgent action on the climate change crisis. (See, and TEDxStockholm talk at

(Source: Worldwide climate strikes were held the 20th and 27th of Sept. 2019, including in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Climate change consequences are taken seriously by many groups such as:

U.S. military: Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense. Issued January 2019. Excerpt: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations. Our 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritizes long-term strategic competition with great power competitors by focusing the Department’s efforts and resources to: 1) build a more lethal force, 2) strengthen alliances and attract new partners, and 3) reform the Department’s processes.” (See

Actuaries: 12th Annual Survey of Emerging Risks, Key Findings. Issued March 2019 by the Casualty Actuarial Society, Canadian Institute of Actuaries, and the Society of Actuaries. (See

Science academies: statements regarding the status of climate change science to help decision makers needing key information for critical policy decisions. For example, from 2014, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, an overview from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Science. (

Religious leaders: The Vatican. (2015) Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis “on care for our common home”. (See

Solutions to challenges of climate change include:

  • Building sustainably

CenturyLink Technology Center of Excellence in Monroe, LA, which has a Silver LEED certification, opened in 2015. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification includes a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes, and neighborhoods.

Photo source:

  • Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency includes production and installation of energy-saving products, and services that reduce energy consumption.

It covers manufacture of ENERGY STAR®-labeled products, and building design and contracting services that provide insulation, improve natural lighting, and reduce overall energy consumption in homes and businesses.

Demand for efficient technology and building upgrades has driven expansion across many traditional industries including construction trades and professional services. Nationally, energy efficiency in 2018 produced the most new jobs of any energy sector. (Source: 2019 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, see

In Louisiana in 2018, there were 22,152 jobs in energy efficiency, an increase of 6.3% from 2017. (Source

  • Non-emitting energy generation

Sparta Reuse Facility in West Monroe, LA, which processes wastewater to potable grade water, opened in 2012. A municipal solar farm, largest in Louisiana, is to the left. It provides electricity to the adjacent water treatment plant, and off-sets the electricity used by the facility from other sources. Five million gallons of the water produced is supplied daily to Graphic Packaging’s paper mill. Photo credit: courtesy photo, published in the Monroe News-Star (


River Bend Nuclear Station in St. Francisville, West Feliciana Parish. It provides about 10% of the state’s energy demand and has operated since 1986. Photo source:


  • Agriculture and Forestry practices

Robbie Howard demonstrating his improved soil health after over 18 years of no-till and cover crop practices on his 2900 acre family farm in East Carroll Parish. His average soil organic matter content initially was 0.5%. Now it’s 2.8%, and 3.7% in some places. Photo source:


Pine chips feedstock and biochar, produced in a pilot plant of Cool Planet’s facility at the Central Louisiana Regional Port in Alexandria, LA.

Biochar is formed by pyrolysis. Biomass is heated to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen and thermally decomposes. Pyrolysis is potentially “carbon negative”, taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Biochar used as a soil amendment sequesters carbon and may improve soil performance.

Photo by Jeff Zeringue, published in the magazine Forests & People, Vol. 69, No. 2, Second Quarter 2019, page 4.


  • Natural solutions

Many sportsmen and women, conservation groups, photographers, and others who care deeply about nature support “natural climate solutions” (NCS). These are conservation, restoration, and improved land management, in order to increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse-gas emissions in landscapes.

(See for the Article: Natural Solutions to Climate Change by Justin Adams (2017), and for the article: Natural climate solutions, by Griscom, BW and others, (2017) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114 (issue 44): pages 11645-11650)

Photo credit: John Hoffman, Ducks Unlimited, retrieved from

  • Green infrastructure

Green infrastructure describes ecological systems acting as living infrastructure, planned and managed primarily for stormwater control  (Source:

Restoration Park in West Monroe is a restored wetland that also resolved industrial blight. (Source: “West Monroe works to renew Restoration Park”, by Bonnie Bolden, 12 Jan 2019,  Photo credit: see website for Restoration Park, West Monroe, LA.

Major flooding events of 2016 in Louisiana, and following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, intensified interest in planning for community resilience. A report from the Urban Land Institute to Lafayette’s municipal government emphasized the benefits of incorporating green infrastructure into plans for revitalizing the downtown. (Source: ULI Advisory Services Panel Report, Downtown Lafayette, Louisiana, posted 8 Aug. 2017; download is available at service-panels/downtown-lafayette-la-advisory-services-panel/)

  • Companies cutting emissions

63% of Fortune 100 companies have clean energy, &/or energy efficiency, or reduced emissions targets, including Walmart, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. (Source: World Wildlife Fund 2017 report, Power Forward 3.0: How the largest U.S. companies are capturing business value while addressing climate change)

Walmart is especially active in decreasing its impact on climate change: (Source: )

  1. Walmart doubled the efficiency of its fleet from 2005 to 2015, and saved $1 billion.
  2. Walmart’s Project Gigaton incentivizes its suppliers to reduce their emissions, and thereby cut carbon emissions by 2030 by 1 gigaton (1 billion tons).
  • Transportation

The green initiative of the award-winning Monroe Transit Service fleet includes hybrid and biodiesel buses as well as increased ridership. (Source:



Finally my thanks to for the Santa hat and to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge for the handsome young Tom turkey model.

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Some Projects Demonstrating Adaptation To Climate Change

Azerbaijan Pastoral may be of interest here!

Wild Open Eye - Natural Vision, News from Wild Open Eye

Wildopeneye filming a reforestation project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Wildopeneye filming a reforestation project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Andy Luck.

Wildopeneye would like to draw your attention to some interesting projects that are helping people to adapt to climate change. These are exemplars that can inspire similar responses in similar contexts. Click the links in blue to visit the articles on Exposure.

Azerbaijani Pastoral

by Climate Adaptation UNDP – Exposure 

Overgrazing is one of the primary reasons that the pastures are being degraded, which has negative consequences for the broader ecosystem and the farming communities that depend on them. Over-grazing results in losses of organic carbon soil through wind and water erosion and soil impoverishment. Loss of organic matter reduces soil stability and eroded, unstable soils increase the likelihood of greater water runoff and landslides.

 The Power of Women

by Climate Adaptation UNDP – Exposure 

To reduce the risks changing climatic conditions pose on livelihoods and food…

View original post 139 more words

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A Salute To Steve Hollier

It is with great regret that we must announce our loss of Steve Hollier, a dear gentleman international travel photojournalist who touched a lot of lives and wrote and photographed with beautiful and very cultured insight.

Steve’s very extensive travels ranged from Southern Africa, through Europe and the Middle east and he was residing in Baku, Azerbaijan with his beloved wife Sandra when he died.

His writing and editing for the journal AZ magazine was exemplary and his excellent blog entitled Azerbaijan Days – Living in the land of fire is one of true quality, quite brilliant.  We have greatly enjoyed his writing and would like to direct you to some of his articles that we particularly enjoyed:

There are many more treasures to be found on his blog.

There’s a refined selection of his images to view on Flickr. Perusal of his Picasa Web albums, will take your breath away too, and because there are one hundred and twenty-five of them up-loaded, and because anoxia is bad for the brain – it’s best to take them in stages. His shots are pin sharp and picture postcard perfect and his choice of subject and his perspectives testify to his powerfully cultured intelligence.

Steve said “When you look at a photograph, it tells you more about the photographer than the subject. That means that when people look at your images, it is a way of communicating something about yourself and your world view. All art is a means of communication and for me, the most enjoyable thing about photography is being able to speak through pictures.”

Steve’s many and varied images show his love of the world and its people, and the smiles on his subjects’ faces show that  it was a love reciprocated.

 His work lives on  and will give pleasure and interest beyond our ability to measure. He helped a lot of people through  the British Council , was a gift to the world and opened a delightfully sensitive view of Azerbaijan.

Sandra Williams, Hugh & Charles Paxton


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Absheron National Park

The Absheron National Park with Baku in the distance

“So, you want to go and look at dead seals?” said my friend Greg, when I mentioned that I was thinking of visiting the Absheron National Park, the beak of land that juts out into the Caspian at the far end of the peninsular on which Baku is situated. “Actually, no. I thought it might make a nice day trip”. I checked out Mark Elliot’s guide book to Azerbaijan and found the park damned with faint praise.

In addition to the seabirds, songbirds abound

“The site is a narrow strip of coastal sand dunes that might appeal to ornithologists but whose visual impact is very limited and not much different to similar dunes you’ll see en route to the entrance gate” (p146). The reference to the nearby village of Zira that once was home to a snake farm, until they all escaped into the surrounding area did not increase its appeal either. Anyway, my partner Sandra and I were not to be put off by such niceties and headed off one sunny Saturday afternoon with hope in our hearts and as we are optimists as far as snakes are concerned, sandals on our feet.

The predecessor to the Absheron National Park was called the Absheron State Nature Preserve and was founded in 1969 during to Soviet era, in order to protect the herds of gazelle that grazed the salty pasture, the increasingly rare Caspian seals and a plethora of wildlife including, waders and birds of prey.

Reopening under new management as it were on 8th February 2005, it covers on a area of 783 hectares (7.83 km2) in the administrative territory of the Azizbeyov district of Baku.

At the entrance to the park "big problem", if you are "diplomatic". I recommend that all visitors describe themselves as tourists!

There are no signs or direction posts until you get within a few kilometers of the park, so you have to follow your nose to some extent. When we eventually did arrive at the entrance, the gatekeeper was very surprised to see us, and our driver Murad reported to us that there was a “big problem”. If we were “diplomatic”, we would be refused entry for some strange reason. Odd, very odd we thought. “No, no” we explained. “Tourist, tourist!” All was well and having parted with 4AZN each (plus 2AZN for the driver and another 4AZN for the vehicle), we were allowed access along a crumbling road that soon turned into a gravel track and ended at a building site. When I later asked Murad who had been chatting with a group of builders what this single story construction building was going to be, it transpired that it will become an interpretation center for the park. A good thing in my opinion as currently if you want a guide, you have have to book in advance through the ministry of ecology and the only interpretive material available is a board at the entrance with a list of species you might run across.

Actually, the board is really impressive, if it is to be believed. Here it suggests, you might come across jackals, foxes, native tortoises and hares however of the Caspian antelope, there is no mention… If it is those you seek, I suggest you visit the Shirvan National Park some two-hours South of Baku. We abandoned the car at the interpretation center and set off on foot.

Egrets and herons mingle against a blue sky

Stretched out in front of us was a vista of low dunes covered in attractive reeds and grasses that swayed gently in the cooling breeze. You will be amazed how clean the water is and how pristine the environment, this is once you get beyond the the building site and the remains of a Soviet era electricity sub-station where rusting steel foundations remain anchored to concrete blocks, surrounded by piles of rotting batteries. Don’t be dismayed however, the site is beautiful and alive with wildlife!

A plethora of bird life

Hawks and eagles hover overhead looking for mice and shrews that burrow into the sand, snowy egrets fly by in small groups and numerous herons lazily take to the skies as you approach. Large groups of waders watch you warily from sandbanks just offshore and take off in a flurry of wings as you approach.

A water snake catching his dinner

At the beginning of our walk we looked into the still waters just beside the interpretation centre and were rewarded with the sight of a massive water snake writhing in a mass of coils close to the shore. It looked like it had caught a fish and was busily subduing it. Take a look at the accompanying image if you don’t believe me!

Walking up the pristine beach on this sunny Saturday afternoon, we were completely alone. There were no seals to be seen at that time of year – mid September. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject , in winter and cooler parts of the spring and autumn season, the seals are to be found in the Northern Caspian. As the ice melts in the warmer season, they move southwards to the mouths of the Volga and Urasl Rivers, and down to Azerbaijan and the Absheron National Park where cooler waters can be found due to greater depth.

Jackal track on the beach

As we walked along the sand, we noticed some dog-like tracks. They could of course been dog prints, but there were no human footprints beside them and my feeling was that these were jackal tracks. Certainly the claws were long and sharp, something you don’t tend to find with domestic dogs whose claws get blunted by exercise on the hard surfaces you find in towns.

The fact that there was not a single plastic bottle on the beach was due I am certain to the effects of longshore-drift, a natural process whereby sand and other materials are washed in a single direction down a coastline. As we were at the very top of the the Absheron peninsula well above Baku, all the plastic bottles that are so familiar tocoastal environments further South were nowhere to be found.

After a long walk beside the sea, we turned and saw the rippling silhouette of Baku, on the horizon some 30 kilometers distant.

Pristine beach and clean water at the Absheron National Park

If you are looking for some relief from the urban environment of Baku, for a walk on a pristine beach, surrounded by the lapping of crystal clear water to the sound of seabirds calling and wheeling above you, I recommend a day trip to the Absheron National Park.

To find the park, drive beyond the international airport, turn right and go to Qala. Head onward through the town and several kilometers beyond, turn right again and proceed through through the village of Zira. When you hit the coast road, bear left for a few more kilometers and you will find the park entrance.

Here is a link to the Ministry of Ecology webpage on the site:

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Baku State of Mind – Eurovision 2012 Azerbaijan

My friend Tim released the attached youtube video, that went viral a few hours after release on youtube. What do you think?



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Azerbaijan Days: A deserted village, a forgotten holy man and a soldier redeeming a promise to God

Gusar with Baba Dag in the distance

For most of us ex-pats living in the country, Mark Elliot’s book Azerbaijan 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).

The DIY bridge across the Quasarcay River. The handrail is actually the pipe that takes the gas supply to Qayakend!

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.

Ex government officer, now a shepherd. A good swap, if you ask me...

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.

A family praying at the grave of the forgotten holy man

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.

Micah (left) with the Azeri soldier who fulfilled his promise to return to the Bir or shrine

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.

Graves known only to God

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.

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Xinalaq (or Khinaluq): Haji Balar and the Roman short sword

The obliging museum curator at Xinalaq

The curator was delighted I expressed so much interest in the exhibits inside the old house in Xinalaq, that had been converted into a makeshift museum. He said though, I must visit the home of Haji Balar who lived only a few minutes walk away. He had many objects that I would find most interesting…

At an elevation of 2,300 meters, Xinalaq or Khinalug is one of the highest communities and formally one of the most isolated in Azerbaijan. With a population of only 250, the local Avar people speak their own language that according to Wikipedia belongs to the “Avar-Andi-Tsez subgroup of the Alarodian Northeast Caucasian (or Nakh–Dagestanian) language family”. They certainly look different from Azeris, often being taller and slimmer with many of them having stunning blue eyes, deep set in deeply tanned faces.

Haji Balah's dining room and cabinet of curiosities

It was the ancient ancestors of these people that Thor Heyerdahl thought might have fled the area that is now Azerbaijan in the face of Roman invaders and made their way via European waterways to Scandinavia some 2,000 years ago.  Certainly, a Roman legionnaire left an inscription on a rock near Gobustan, South of Baku and the area was at the edge of their influence during the first couple of centuries of the common era.

My guide and friend Elkhan from the village of Laza, showed me the way to Haji Balar’s home. When we arrived at the modest, traditional house with a glazed entrance hall and steep steps up to the living area, we were confronted by the women of the family who had been sharing a meal with a pair of linguistics researchers I happened to have met the week previously in Guba. They had been invited to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan with the family. I tried to withdraw as I didn’t want to disturb them but by this time, the family were getting up from the table. “No, no”, one of the women researchers said quietly to me “I am so glad you came. We have been eating with the family since 11am!” By this time it was four in the afternoon.

Eid is a good time to visit Xinalaq as the tradition is to visit friends and family, so many doors were open to me and my companion.

Haji Balar

Haji Balar is a substantial man in his late-middle years, with shining intelligent eyes. He has been a collector of odd and interesting objects all his life and the best of them he keeps in a display cabinet at the back of his dining room. If he were English, living in the 18th century, he would be described an an antiquary as his interests are broad, very broad.

Next to the coins and banknotes from the Tzarist and Soviet periods was a clearly ancient quern stone used to grind corn, some amber funerary beads and some iron shackles that had previously been used (so he claimed) to fasten slaves to their galley seats. At some point, they had been brought to Xinalaq and converted into a hobble for horses. Actually, they looked old, but not that old! Maybe mid 19th century… Then something grabbed my eye. Was it, could it be?

Haji Balar's "Roman" short sword

Elkhan leaned across to me and said “he says this is a Roman sword” and truly, it did look just like the Roman short stabbing swords used by legionnaires across the empire. About 30cm long, it was broad in comparison to its length and substantially made of iron. It was rusty and had clearly been in the ground for many years. The handle had corroded long ago, leaving the metal blade exposed to the handle.

I did not have long enough to spend with Haji Balar to ask him where he found the remarkable object, if he uncovered it himself or if someone gave it to him. Certainly, even if it were a genuine Roman sword, there is no guarantee that it came to Xinalaq attached to a Roman soldier. But if it did, then this is circumstantial evidence that Heyerdahl would have jumped as it supports his theory that some of the Avar people fled their homeland over the mountains, into Europe and on to Scandinavia at the time of a Roman invasion.

I ogled the many and varied treasures in Haji Balar’s home for as long as was decent then with regret left to rejoin my other companions waiting for me outside. This is a story that needs to be investigated more thoroughly…


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Azerbaijan Days: Living in the land of fire…

After writing my blog (and over 58,000 hits-thank you guys!) for a little over a year, I have decided to focus this blog-spot on topics relating specifically to Azerbaijan. I will still be writing about the US and other stuff like “on this day” on my other sites America Watch at  and Funny Bone (yet to have a web-address but I will post this later).

I look forward to reading your comments in the near future.

Good reading!



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