Sheki (also confusingly known as Shaki and Şeki) is located in the shadow of the Greater Caucasus Mountains in north western Azerbaijan. One of the main draws is the Summer Palace of Sheki Kahn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We entered the palace complex through an ornate wooden door in the fortress walls and followed a downhill path to the palace, built in 1787. Although the grounds are free, tickets are required to enter the palace, where disappointingly photographs are not allowed.
The grand exterior, a blend of classic Islamic and local styles, had a mix of colourful frescoes and intricate tilework. There were four domes, known as muqarnas, with the two above the ground-floor entrances being decorated in gold, whilst those on the first-floor balconies had mirrored fragments. However, the grand, elaborate effect was somewhat ruined by a turnstile at one entrance which was constantly manned.
The palace was long and thin (30m by just 8m) with three identically sized rooms on each floor and two stair cases, one for the men and one for the ladies. Each doorway had a high wooden board to step over – as people sat on the floor, the boards kept out draughts.
A ground floor room had a low roof, as the gap had been stuffed with stones to prevent those above from eavesdropping, whilst the Khan’s study was plain, to avoid him being distracted when writing poetry. In contrast his wife’s room, was ornate and elaborate with every inch of the walls and ceilings being hand painted in colourful flowers. The silk carpets would have mirrored the ceilings but had been taken by the Russians.
Whilst flowers abounded on the walls, the murals in the first-floor central chamber contained battle scenes with swords, guns and severed heads whilst others contained animals which the artist would never have seen in real life.
This palace was only used in summer as open windows let in light rendering candles and fires, which would have destroyed the murals, obsolete.
However, the real feature of the palace are the coloured windows, created using the technique of shabaka, where wooden lattices are filled with thousands of pieces of coloured glass fitted together without glue or nails. The coloured glass used in the palace windows was obtained from Italy in exchange for Azeri silk.
Within the fortress walls we found the Sheki Ceramics and Applied Art Centre, which aims to restore the historical pottery traditions of the city and preserve them for future generations. Outside were quirky clay statues and a wall with a huge display of clay tiles, whilst in the artists’ studios, clay objects and figures were being created and painted. In a workshop dedicated to shabaka, a craftsman demonstrated how the windows are made: which is basically like a jigsaw puzzle with wooden and glass pieces. Small boxes were on sale for 35 Manat (£16) and after a demonstration took it apart, he told us that if we could put it back together, he would give it to us: needless to say, we couldn’t, and he didn’t.
Also within the grounds was a photogenic Albanian church similar to the one we’d previously seen in Kish – (Caucasian Albanian the Christian nation that once covered northern Azerbaijan, rather than the current Balkan’s Albania). This now houses the Museum of National Applied Art.
Just outside the fortress walls, and directly opposite our hotel, Sheki Palace, was a caravanserai or travellers inn. Whilst there were lovely gardens in the central courtyard, the first floor had been converted into a hotel and was therefore out of bounds.
We finished our sightseeing by browsing the souvenir shops down the outer wall of the caravanserai