Khinalug is an ancient Caucasian village going back to the Caucasian Albanian period. It is located high up in the mountains of Guba district of Azerbaijan.
It is located just north of Guba in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountains that divide Russia and the South Caucasus. Khinalug is also the highest, most remote and isolated village in Azerbaijan and among the highest in the Caucasus. The weather changes dramatically during summer and winter, ranging from −20 °C to 18 °C. Khinalug has a population of about 2,000 people. This small group of people speaks the Khinalug language, which is an isolate within the Northeast Caucasian language family, although many speak Azerbaijani as well.
Khinalug was included on the World Monuments Fund’s 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites due to concern over the building of a road between Khinalug and Guba. The listing is not intended to criticise potential tourist and commercial activity in Khinalug, rather it is intended as a warning that new development should not come at the cost of the site’s essential, historic character.
Tikmes and tekulduz are two of the most ancient types of Azerbaijani embroidery. The master craftsmen of this profession embroider various ornamental designs on to white linen using multicolored threads. Tikmes can only be made by hand, and is considered as the most important decoration to be embroidered on clothes. Since ancient times, linens have been decorated with multicoloured threads, both in the West and the East. There are different forms of this craftsmanship in Azerbaijan. Its earliest examples are referred to in the period of Sasanian Empire (4th century). Columns supporting roofs are seen in the centre of local houses. They have no furniture. However, there are plenty of pillows, blankets, and mutakkah (long oblong shaped pillows), as well as large and small sized mattresses. They don’t have tables and by custom, the inhabitants sit on the floor.
The inhabitants of Khinalug have preserved their traditional way of life. Weddings and other ceremonies are held in strict conformity with the rites inherited from one generation to another. This area abounds with the richest traditions linked to rain and land cultivation coupled with a special attitude to domestic animals, weddings and funerals, as well as to celestial bodies. The rites and traditions that have become an integral part of life are linked closely to natural phenomenon. The villagers are mainly involved with sheep breeding. A different weaving technique is well known here. Shawls woven with wool in Khinalug are famous throughout the entire region of Guba. Neighboring villagers used to buy this raw material to make outer clothes. In the past, chukha, a shawl made of wool, was a national costume worn by the richer people in the villages. Wool socks which look like a mini carpet of many colours are widely worn because it is impossible to imagine Khinalug residents in winter. One of the main activities also carried out by the local people is the collection and preparation of curing herbs. They are collected and dried for subsequent use in food making and sold to tourists.
August marks the beginning of the honey season in Khinalug. Local honey differs by its unforgettable taste and odor. The local people say that honey is a remedy for curing seventy diseases. In autumn, they celebrate the season of goat’s meat which also differs due to its special taste.
To be fair, it is rare to find such an ecologically pure fuel. Whilst in Khinalug, one may often notice a pile of cubes or bricks called tezek in Azerbaijani made of manure. In the past, this type of bio-fuel was widely used in Azerbaijan. The manure is piled up and mixed with hay, formed into special shapes and then pressed. The bricks formed are dried in the sun and then, used to build high walls. The bricks are the main fuel used by the inhabitants of Khinalug: they are high-quality material and do not incur any additional costs.
The people of Khinalug are related to the Shahdagh ethnic group. They are mostly brown-haired, with brown or blue eyes, not very tall, and rather corpulent.
They were certainly among the 26 tribes living in Caucasian Albania that Greek philosopher Strabo mentioned in Geography.
Eight ancient graveyards surround the village, covering an area several times greater than that of the village. Most graves conceal three or four burial layers. The tombstones’ inscriptions are written in various alphabets. In order to defend themselves in the 10th century against various nomadic tribes, special defense facilities, including a fortress, were built in Khinalug: the main watchtower also included the Zoroastrian Temple. Local elders relate that the priest who lived in this Temple was called “Piajomard” and that he used to watch an eternal flame burning there.
The Khinalug people speak a distinct language that is an isolate within the Northeast Caucasian languages; it may be more closely related to the Lezgic languages than to other Northeast Caucasian groups, but that relationship has not been shown. The first description of the Khinalug language is provided in the writings of R.F. von Erkert. In his book, ‘Languages of Caucasian Origins’, published in German in Vienna in 1895, he describes the grammar and phraseology of the Khinalug language. In order to learn the Khinalug language, a special branch of the Institute of Linguistics of the USSR was established in the village in the 20th century. The linguists who worked there compiled the entire alphabet of this Latin script language, which contains seventy-two letters. The people of Khinalug call their village Ketsh, themselves Kettid, and their language Ketshmits’. The name ‘Khinalug’ started to be used in the 1950s and 1960s. It derives either from the colour of the henna of the surrounding rocks or the name of a Hun tribe. The hair-style, which in the past was popular amongst Hun and Turkic warriors, remains fashionable. One can never see the same in any other place in Azerbaijan. Similar styles are today only retained in Siberia and Mongolia, although they may also be seen in history films. These films show young boys with heads fully shaven except for a long braided single tress that hangs from the top. Young boys used to live with this tress until their adolescence, when they were obliged to cut it off when they were drafted into the Army.
Some native people say that this land is linked to Noah, as legend relates that, having seen this flat highland, he then threw out the Ark’s anchor and told everyone on board to disembark.
It is also related that the survivors of a strong earthquake, which destroyed the village of Ketsh situated on the hillside, had moved to the highlands of Mount Damdam and there started to cultivate henna. Since then, the village started to be called ‘Khinalug’. The people of Khinalug, having retained almost all of their ancient lifestyle consider themselves to be “The Grandchildren of Noah”. According to their beliefs, their village was situated on Mount Ketsh during the Flood. Later, in the aftermath of a strong earthquake, no house was left standing, and the larger part of the population had been killed. The survivors had crossed the river and climbed up the slopes and established the present village of Khinalug. Local residents relate that following the Flood, two of Noah’s sons – Sim and Kham – moved to other areas, whereas Iafet decided to remain there with his sons, who became the forefathers of the Caucasian people. Seashells and fossilized remains of fish discovered in this region located at 2300 meters above sea level prove that the area had been under water in the past.
The village’s population follows Shafi’i Sunni Islam. Khinalug’s inhabitants are very religious and prior to accepting Islam, had been followers of Zoroastrianism. Currently, there are almost ten mosques in the village. In the 12th century, Abu Muslim had started to preach about Islam in the region, and thus, the Juma Mosque built at that time is named after him. This holy place, located on the hill in the centre of the village, is considered to be the precursor of all local mosques. Two rocks, two meters high, on the right-hand side of the entrance to this Mosque have runic inscriptions. A plaque situated on the wall on another mosque called Pirjomard shows the date of its construction – in 1388 AD.
In the oldest part of the village with Zoroastrian traces is situated is the Burj sanctuary, which was built in the 7th century, and is only attended during Muslim religious celebrations.
Khinalug is surrounded by caves, pirs (‘a holy place’ or a ‘shrine’ in Azerbaijani), temples and ateshgahs (Zoroastrian praying places’ in Azerbaijani). Pirs can be seen everywhere. Each of them has a grave where a holy person – the yevliya – is interred. Almost every pir has a scene, depicted on its wall, of Ibrahim bringing his son Ismail for sacrifice. The most famous pir of this village is called Khydyr Nabi. Each pir is considered as the remedy for turning away the Evil Eye. For instance, the Pir Khydyr Nabi is visited by those who have sore teeth: it is also known as the Pir of toothache. People say that if you take one of the small, round-shaped stones found in this Pir, then your toothache will be ended.
Another well-known pir is called 40 Abbal. This was the place of prayer for forty dervishes (a dervish is a wandering holy person in Azerbaijani). It is located in a cave which is two kilometers away from the village, and where a spring comes out of the ground. This spring is also considered as holy. A pipeline supplies water from the spring to the villagers’ houses and the central square. During the most important events and celebrations, all the Khinalug inhabitants gather in this square.
This actually is ‘a burning’ mountain, situated at 2600 meters above sea level and five kilometers away from Khinalug. This mountainous territory is rich with natural gas deposits. According to the local inhabitants, there are more such places in the outskirts of Khinalug. Well polished rocks engulfed in flames, as well as pebbles scattered all over, create an impression of a fallen tower. Those who come here not to pray, but to have a picnic, like cooking kebabs right on these stones, and then, to sunbathe under the sun’s rays, whilst looking at the beauty of the highlands. A horse ride from Khinalug to Ateshgah takes thirty minutes, whereas on foot it can take up to two or three hours. The legend about Ateshgah relates that a shepherd, who came here on a freezing day with his flock, had collected a lot of wood with which to make a bonfire. However, as he made it, the entire area was suddenly ablaze: the terrified shepherd kissed the stones and started to pray to the Almighty. Since that time, the flame has never gone out, and the place is considered as holy, and subsequently became a Temple. Indeed, it may be understood from these places why Azerbaijan is known as “the Land of Fire”. Both water and earth burn with fire throughout the region.
Mount Tufandag located opposite Khinalug, is considered to be holy. As a rule, its summit is covered by mists, and winds are always blowing. According to one of the legends, the ruins of the former ancient village destroyed a thousand years ago by an earthquake are located on the mountain. Certainly, the inhabitants of this village founded the current Khinalug. According to the Khinalug people, this mountain also has on it a place called Pira-Mykhykh, which is sacred for the villagers.
It is the name of one of the mountain chains of the Minor Caucasus, situated in the north of the country. In Azerbaijan, there are seven mountains whose heights exceed 4000 meters, and all of them are in the north – the region of Guba and Gusar. One of the summits of Mount Tufandag is 4062.8 meters above sea level and is named after Chingiz Mustafayev, the journalist killed on the frontline and a National Hero of Azerbaijan. Tourists who wish to climb this mountain can enjoy touristic tours.
To learn about the history of Khinalug and its ancient artifacts, one may visit the local Museum of Khinalug History and Ethnography, which was established in 2001. In two sections of the Museum, which has a total area of 160 m2 one can see traditional earthenware, clothes, carpets, household tools, coins, and weapons, as well as photographs of famous representatives of the village.