Welcome to Masalli
For those who do not know of Masalli – this is a district of southern Azerbaijan. Those in the know try not to miss any chance of spending a weekend in this subtropical paradise.
A southern city
There are several theories about the origin of the place name Masalli. According to one, the name derives from the word “masal” which means “example”. They say that residents of the region liked citing examples, and Masalli means “a town with examples”. Another theory says that the word Masalli was pronounced “Mosullu” in the past – like the Iraqi city of Mosul from where the local population originated.
The name Masalli is first mentioned in medieval Azerbaijani texts. The villages of Sixlar and Masalli are mentioned in a decree issued by Safavi Shah Sultan Huseyn in the 17th century (Ehbarname, Mirza Ahmad Xudaverdi oglu, 1882). According to the same source, the territory belonged to a certain Masal bey. Historians believe that Masalli was founded in the 11th-12th centuries AD.
Masalli is situated in the foothills and uplands of the Talis Mountains. There are many mountain rivers here. In order to make effective use of the river waters, the Vilascay water reservoir was built in 1979. People come here for the fishing and to escape the city. The water reservoir, the woods and the mountains provide a captivating vista – cool and quiet. This is an environment in which to relax both body and soul.
The Vilascay River is the longest in Azerbaijan’s subtropical zone, at about 115 km. It flows through the middle of Masalli, dividing the town in two and also serves as a boundary between the districts of Masalli and Lerik. The mountainous district of Lerik is situated on the other side of the river which flows through Istisu. So climbers can walk from here to Lerik.
Historical sources say that the name Vilascay was first recorded thousands of years BC. Ptolemy himself, the famous Alexandrian astronomer, mathematician and geographer of the second century AD, marked it on a map of the Caspian, indicating that the Vilascay flowed into the sea in the Gulf of Qizilagac.
The abundance of sunlight, water and fresh air make Masalli a real paradise for subtropical plants. One of the district’s most exotic sites is the so-called green pharmacy. This was known as the USSR’s first botanical pharmacy, and was established in the 1980s. Various diseases are treated here with medicinal plants picked in the mountains and cultivated in the pharmacy’s own botanical garden. The pharmacy was set up by a resident of Masalli, Rauf Rahimov, whom local residents call “a king”. Botanists gave him this nickname because he dedicated his life to this science and has an excellent understanding of plants.
The hotel is situated in the city centre and is open all year round. Built in Soviet times, it was recently overhauled. The garden at the entrance makes a great impression on visitors. It is impossible to ignore the captivating fragrance of the pines and decorative plants growing here. The hotel’s owner is also involved in floriculture. You can buy magnolia, eucalyptus, jasmine, lemon, acacia, Himalayan cedar and other decorative plants grown in various climate zones. If you are on good terms with the owner, you may get a free potted decorative flower!
Masalli also attracts visitors by the friendliness and sincerity of its residents. These southerners work hard throughout the day. But hard work and fatigue in no way diminish their hospitality.
Since we are talking of the residents of Masalli, we must mention one of the local elders – Haci Cavansir. He went down in town history by making the Hajj (pilgrimage) on a bicycle. Imagine how many thousands of kilometres and how many countries he visited on his way from Masalli to Holy Mecca by bike. Haci’s famous fish farm is based in the village of Qariblar. It is an excellent place for fishermen as the pond is inhabited by pikeperch, carp, grey mullet and other fish. If you don’t have fishing tackle with you and don’t have the patience for fishing, you can simply buy some fish. It is much cheaper here than in the marketplace. You can go to any restaurant in Istisu with the same fish. They will cook it so well that it will be finger-licking good.
Istisu is a hydrogen-sulphide clinic. The locals call Istisu wonder water. They say that it is the remedy for one hundred diseases. The mineral water gushes from the ground at 69 degrees Celsius; hence the name Istisu – “hot water”. Mineral baths are used to treat pains in the joints and muscles, and skin, gynaecological and many other problems.
Between the rocks in Istisu there are also other sources of medicinal water. But the water here is as cold as ice. Saturated with hydrogen sulphide, it smells like rotten eggs, which is why it should be drunk in one gulp. On the rocks through which the streams trickle, you can see inscriptions such as “kidney water” and “stomach water”. They say that this water helps treat gastritis and stomach ulcers, as well as kidney diseases. The medicinal qualities of Istisu came to light during a survey conducted here in the 1950s. In 1955, a local geologist, Mir Kazim Aslanli, defended a dissertation on the medicinal qualities of this mineral water. In the 1960s, a medical health centre was set up here and in 2007 it became a sanatorium.
Due to the subtropical climate, there is higher precipitation in Masalli than in other parts of the region. Frequent rains lend a special romanticism to the woods located 12 km from the district centre. It is beautiful here throughout the year. In autumn, the Talis woods are iridescent and, in order to really enjoy this beauty it is better to visit Istisu in autumn, winter or spring. Firstly, there are fewer people here at these times of the year (most holiday-makers come here in summer) and, secondly, it is better to take a warm medicinal bath when the weather is relatively cool. While in the summer heat you can stay in a warm bath for only 3-5 minutes, in cool weather you can swim for hours. After the bath, you will definitely feel lighter as the medicinal water relieves any pain, and you will experience a real miracle.
The territory of Istisu is also famed for its waterfalls. They give a special beauty to the clinic. Picnic lovers are happy to work their way through the thick woods to escape the heat and relax near the waterfalls. Tourism is developing quickly in Istisu. There are more than 40 recreation centres here with cottages and restaurants. In order not to disrupt the forest environment, all buildings are constructed mainly from wood.
On the road to Yardimli District, there is a recreational centre called Yanardag. This name was not given by chance. Yanardag means “burning mountain” in Azerbaijani. Natural gas emerges from the upper layers of the soil here. Catching fire, it gives the impression of a blaze. Tongues of fire also rise from the surface of streams located nearby. Thus these streams are called Yanar Bulaq – “burning spring”.
The Yanar Bulaq springs are near the Vilascay River. At first sight, they are peaceful and harmless streams. But if you approach one and light a match, it may catch fire. You understand from the smell that the water is saturated with sulphur. There are many of these springs along the river and local residents sometimes spend hours taking footbaths here. This helps them relax and relieves their aches.
After resting a while, you can proceed to Mount Yanardag – this time for a pilgrimage. Local residents regard the burning mountain as holy and worship it.
A rare tree grows in the Talis forests which you will not come across in other parts of Azerbaijan. This is the only species of tree that sinks in water like iron. It is as solid as iron, hence the name, Damiragac – “iron tree”. Even the thinnest twig of Damiragac cannot be broken by hand. Its wood is quite popular in agriculture. The Talis forests are rich in this rare tree.
The most interesting places in Masalli are situated in villages outside the district centre. You can acquaint yourself with local history, traditions, lifestyle and the southern mentality here, as well as relaxing in a rural spot.
This is a mountain village with an alluring panorama. It has a captivating view of the Vilascay water reservoir and the Masalli district centre. Most families in this village are engaged in bee-keeping. Sixlar is also famed for its quince. This village has a source of drinking water which supplies the whole district centre. In general, local people are quite lucky with water. They say just dig a three-metre hole in any place and water will emerge. The village of Sixlar was previously called Nazarkand in honour of Sheikh Nazar, who used to live here. The village is also visited for the Pirzada shrine.
This is one of the biggest villages in Masalli. Boradigah, which has been granted the status of a town, is also regarded as the oldest in Masalli. They say that the district was founded just here. The district centre was later relocated to its current site. There are many legends about this village.
They say that when the Golden Horde led by Timur (Tamerlane) conquered Azerbaijan, his troops stayed in the village of Digah in the Astara District. When Timur’s people collected taxes from the population and left, a group of local youngsters chased them and took what they had stolen. But then they were forced to hide from Timur’s troops. In search of a safe haven, the young villagers wandered to a place on the Caspian shore and hid in some thorny bushes. Local residents called this place “bira”, which means “thorn” in Talis. Years passed and a village was founded which they called Boradigah – “a thorny halt” – in the place where the heroes had taken refuge.
Residents of Boradigah are well acquainted with the secrets of trade. Even in Soviet times, free trade was quite well-developed here. At a time when the shelves in Baku shops were empty, everything could be found in Boradigah. For this reason, the village is compared to Baku’s Kubinka (market).
The Masalli ethnography museum is located in this village. It holds more than 8,000 exhibits. Material artefacts found on the territory of Masalli, gravestones, remains of castles and barrows testify that the village was populated during the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. In 1850, French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan studied about 250 tombstones in the Talis region. Some of these monuments are still kept at Paris’ Saint Germain Museum.
This village is situated on the Masalli-Boradigah road, 10 km south of the district centre. It is one of the biggest mountain villages in Masalli. They say that the name Bendalan means “left to be cooked”. The point being that the peak of the mountain where the village is located is often enveloped in a dense fog. That is why the forefathers of Bendalan’s residents compared their village to a boiling pot in which something is being cooked. Another theory goes that Beldalan was named after a tribe which lived here in ancient times.
The best sumac of the Talis Mountains grows in Bendalan. It is harvested from May to August. Sumac berries grow on bushes. Before ground and dried sumac ends up on your table, it goes through a lengthy treatment process. Bendalan residents guarantee 10 years of quality for the local sumac.
In ancient times, this village was called Ciyalilar. The word “ciya” means “a rope”. The village has been a centre of the spinning business from ancient times. They say that this little village spins enough rope for the whole country. Almost all the rope and string used on Azerbaijani ships are the handiwork of Digah residents.
The most widespread handicraft in Masalli is wickerwork. Wicker hats, baskets and bedding are essential attributes of the southern region. Wickerwork is still held in high regard in this region – it is in demand even in this age of high technology. This is a very important and useful facet of the southern lifestyle. Thin stalks of reed, which grow on the coast, are used for wickerwork. Locals call this type of reed “pize”.
The reed is first collected and dried under the sun. After drying, the elastic stalks are softened and rubbed by hands. Only then is it ready to be machined. Apart from linen, they also make belts which are used to make baskets and hats resembling Mexican sombreros. Wicker items have a number of advantages over artificial ones. They are waterproof and keep you cool. A straw hat will always protect you from the scorching rays of the sun and will not make your head sweat. Baskets made of this natural material can keep fruit and vegetables for a long time.
Traditionally, women have been engaged in wickerwork. Asked what their men are doing, they say in fun: “We have a shortage of men here.” Thus, the women willingly continue the work of their ancestors. On the other hand, wickerwork is also a stable source of income. Wicker items can be found very often in the Boradigah marketplace. Every Sunday morning a traditional exhibition of wicker items opens here.
The southern woman
I wouldn’t be mistaken if I said that the southern woman bears the brunt of the household on her fragile shoulders. It is difficult to say whether this is a voluntary choice or not. The women we observed got up at six o’clock in the morning, milked the cattle, looked after the house and worked from home. They seemed quite used to it. In any case, they did not really complain about their lives and smiled in reply to my questions, calling me “qiza” in Talis – girl.
Some may be amazed at the picture they will surely see in a number of Talis villages. Have you ever seen a woman carrying a heavy basket or even a big basin on her head without using her hands? In southern villages, even pregnant women can surprise you with their ability to move freely with a full basin on their head. They are mainly carrying brushwood from the woods. They say that it is easier to carry it in a basin on your head than in your hands. In order to avoid injuring their heads, they cover them with something soft, for example, with a towel.
The woman we met on our way refused my offer of help, although she looked tired. She just stopped and carefully laid her burden on the ground. Out of curiosity, I also tried to put a basin on my head. But my efforts were in vain. The basin was so heavy that I could not even hold it in my hands, let alone lift it. For local women, this is an ordinary job. With the same skill they can cook food whose taste and fragrance the guest will long remember.
The diversity of southern cuisine has influenced the culinary traditions of the region as well. Dishes change depending on the season. For example, in May oily pilaf with beans and finely cut fresh dill is more common here. In spring, leaf salad with apple sauce and fragrant herbs is also popular. The people like contrasts. For example, a smoked fish may be served with pilaf and sweet melon. Masalli is also called a green paradise. People grow all the greens used in Azerbaijani cuisine here. Greens from this region are in great demand in the markets of Baku and other cities, and they are also exported to Russia. Many wicket gates in this district have little counters laden with greens. They are much cheaper here than in the marketplace. Red turnip and red onions, which are typical of this place, are essential ingredients of Masalli cuisine. This onion is not bitter and is very tasty. It is collected in summer and dried for winter. In this way, it can retain its quality and aesthetic appearance for many months.
Southern cuisine does not use salt in its usual form. Instead, you can see dried mint ground together with salt on the table. Imagine fresh cherry plums or cucumber salted with this mixture. It is original, tasty and healthy. But the unique culinary traditions of the south do not end here. From September to summer the southern piece de resistance – lavangi – ascends the throne. This is a fried bird or fish stuffed with minced nuts, onions, dried fruit and spices. It is a sin to miss the chance to try lavangi cooked over a flame. In this lush environment, wildfowl is also popular. Apart from in lavangi, it is used in other dishes, including pilaf dressed with onion and pomegranate.
Alongside the exotic dishes, in Masalli you can also help yourself to the widely known traditional dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine, such as kebab or dolma. But you cannot list everything. It is better to see once than to hear one hundred times.