Jun 16, 2018
Sheki’s modern life began with Haji Chalabi Khan’s revolt against the Safavid Empire in the eighteenth century. It was here that he built his fort, palaces and numerous other buildings and it continued as the capital of the khanate for a couple of generations. A flourishing town, grown rich with the silk trade, it boasted several caravan serai at one time and still has a couple of renovated ones. Of the original buildings, very few of the survived and those that did needed extensive restoration. The old part of town is pretty, with cobble-stoned streets lined with houses of stone and brick against a backdrop of green-clad hills.
The Xan Serai, or Palace of the Khan is one such sight where the current artwork is the result of recent renovations. The extensively decorated exterior is the only area where photographs are allowed. For all its importance, it is diminutive in size, with both the upper and lower storeys of the palace each consisting of just three rooms. Built in railway carriage-style, the design is simplistic; each room opens into the next. But what is lacks in design it makes up in the elaborate painted murals. Every inch of interior space – the ceiling, walls, cornices and pillars are exquisitely painted in rich colors. The stained-glass windows detailed by shebeke art of woodwork let in a rainbow of light into the rooms. As in most Islamic art, flowers, trees, animals and geometric shapes dominate but in one of the upper rooms, a frieze runs along the walls just above eye level. It shows hunting scenes and scenes from battles in minute detail. The battle against Nadir Shah is prominently depicted. The result is the sort of beauty that I remember from monuments in Iran. I wanted to gawk for hours.
Beautiful as it is, the visit left a lot to be desired. After buying tickets, visitors are herded in in the manner of a school field trip. Names are called out and groups of twenty-five are hustled from room to room by one of the employees. Any desire to spend time looking and admiring the paintings are sternly discouraged. The unsolicited and unwanted guide opens one set of doors, rattles off a sentence or two in Azeri and marches us out of the room in under four minutes. My attempts to look closely or longer were curtly reprimanded and other such stragglers were rounded up and moved on. This is herding at its most efficient and we were in and out of the entire building in under twenty minutes. This is strictly a look-where-you-are-told-and-when-you-are told kind of visit; not exactly a winning recipe for fond memories!
By contrast, the visit to the Winter Palace was lovely. Not being on the must-see list of most visitors yet, the palace is blissfully crowd-free. Set amid tranquil gardens, built in the same style, most of the rooms are still bare, awaiting restorations. Only one of the rooms has had the paintings restored and I could look at my leisure. Among the flowers, trees and animals, are images of women and men. As in the summer palace, the paintings are a rich palette of colors and patterns and I gawked to my heart’s content. Photographs are allowed here and I pottered around as long as I wanted, thankfully left alone by sole overseer.
The rose garden leading up to the palace doesn’t have that many roses now but with a view of the surroundings hills and the faint smell of roses wafting in the breeze, it is oasis of welcome calm. The only interruptions to occasional bird calls and buzzing of a few bees is the squawking of a rooster next door.