Khinalug, Khinalugh, or Khinalig (Azerbaijani: Xınalıq; Khinalug: Kətş; also rendered as Khanaluka, Khanalyk, Khinalykh, or Khynalyk), is an ancient Caucasian village going back to the Caucasian Albanian period. It is located high up in the mountains of Quba Rayon, Azerbaijan. It is also a municipality in Quba Rayon, which consists of the villages of Khinalug and Qalayxudat.
It is located just north of Quba 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. Because of its location, scenery and relative isolation, Khinalug is considered one of Azerbaijan’s premiere destinations for hikers and adventure travellers in such travel guides as Lonely Planet.
Khinalug is among the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, with a history spanning over 5,000 years. Because of its high altitude and remoteness, Khinalug managed to survive and withstand many invasions. There are also some other historical places such as a 12th-century mosque, a 15th-century mosque, and several ancient cemeteries between the mountains. There are also many ancient holy caves of early humans.
The houses, made of cobblestone and stretching up the hill, resemble multi-storied buildings. In his recollection of Memories on the Village of Khinalug, Rasul Rza used to compare these houses with a whole range of eagle’s nests. Khinalug has been designated as a nature reserve, and therefore construction is forbidden in the area.
Currently, the village has 380 houses. The roof of each house serves as a small courtyard for another one built at a higher level. These houses were built densely together because the hills are very steep. Tiny gardens are built inside the courtyards. The houses are 200–300 years old, and there are many ruins of older buildings in the village. Khynalyg has preserved its architectural style. As one approaches the village, a picturesque panorama unfurls. The view from the roofs and courtyards is captivating – and it makes one feel like a bird spreading its wings in the sky. All the houses are made of cobblestone and all of them have a similar internal structure. There is even a certain smell which is the same inside all the houses. Wherever one walks, there are multi-coloured and decorated carpets under foot. Especially designed tikmes (’embroidery’ in Azerbaijani) hang on the walls.
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 Khynalyg 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 Khynalyg 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 Khynalyg residents in winter. One of the main activities also carried out by the local people is the collection and preparation of curing herbs.
August marks the beginning of the honey season in Khynalyg. 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.
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 Linguisics 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.
The village’s population follows Shafi’i Sunni Islam. Khynalyg’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.
Khynalyg 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 Khynalyg inhabitants gather in this square.
This actually is ‘a burning’ mountain, situated at 2600 meters above sea level and five kilometers away from Khynalyg. This mountainous territory is rich with natural gas deposits. According to the local inhabitants, there are more such places in the outskirts of Khynalyg. 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 Khynalyg 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 Azebaijan is known as “the Land of Fire”. Both water and earth burn with fire throughout the region.
Mount Tufandag located opposite Khynalyg, 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 Khynalyg. According to the Khynalyg 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 Khynalyg and its ancient artifacts, one may visit the local Museum of Khynalyg 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.
Photographer: Dmitry Ryabchenko for “PhotoMag.blog”