Gusar, which is called “The Northern Gateway” due to its geographical position, is the last population center in northern Azerbaijan. While travelling here, you can go up the path behind a board announcing Gusar, reach a place called Gachagus and have a cup of tea enjoying a view of the district center from woods situated high up. Incidentally, this is the only point to provide a beautiful view of Gusar. The gorge below Garagush hosts a place called Garabulag. This wide gorge has been well-liked by locals and tourists as a holiday destination since the Soviet period. For this reason, almost all the recreational centers of Gusar are located in Garabulag. A region of mountains and plains, Gusar has so many beautiful places, and in this resort area, high mountains that are always covered with snow and glaciers, cold plateaus and plains come one after another. Most of the territory, 20 per cent of which is forest-covered, is a tourist zone.
They say that Iranian ruler Nadir Shah (1688-1747), who invaded Gusar, settled down at the foothills of Mount Shahdagh. He was so captivated by this place that he named the mouth of the Gusar River after his wife Shahnabat. Since then, this place has been called Shahnabat. The Shahnabat plateau is one of the internal tourist routes in Gusar. Another legend about Shahdagh says that the mountain was named Shahdagh in honour of Shah Abbas who visited here and set up a tent at the foothills of the mountain. The flat area where the ruler set up his tent is still called Shah plain. According to the legend, the Shahnabat River which starts from Shahdagh was named after Shah Abbas’s wife Shahnabat.
It is the most popular form of address. This is how every sentence begins and ends in Gusar. Women use it more often, and this makes their speech more attractive and sincere: “Jan, welcome, jan”, “Jan, what can I do for you, jan”, “Jan, be our guest, jan”.
• Kharak bread
This is the name of Gusar bread. The bread is made in ovens typical of the northern zone. These ovens are called kharak. They are different from ovens used in other regions. The kharak made from soil has a rectangular shape and looks like an oven. Apart from bread, it is also used to cook other flour dishes of Lezgin cuisine. This bread which cooked from dough made from water, salt and yeast can be kept for a long time. At normal room temperature, it can be kept for seven days and in a fridge for 10-12 days. The dough is divided into rounded lumps and rolled out. Before Lezgin bread is put into a kharak, it is pierced with special kind of turkey or rooster feather. This allows air to penet rate the dough and helps cook it more rapidly. The bread is ready within five minutes. Sometimes, bread which is not completely baked is taken out of the kharak, basted with cheese and eggs and then baked for several minutes longer. It is called Lezgin pizza. They also cook “afar”, that’s to say Lezgin gutabs here. They make thin flat rolls from dough, chop various plants picked from the courtyard or mountains and put them on the roll after mixing them with dried cheese. Then they put another layer of rolls on top and cook it in the kharak. It is very delicious and enjoyable.
• Turkic villages
In Gusar where most of the population is Lezgin, there are four totally Turkic villages: Badisgala (13 km), Gunduzgala (15 km), Badirgala (8 km) and Hasangala (10 km). There is an interesting story about these villages. They say that four brothers moved here from the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th-17th centuries: Badis, Gunduz, Hasan and Badir. They chose to settle in this area. After their death, their families named these villages after their grandfathers.
• Hil village
Located at a distance of 17 km from the district center, Hil was the district cen ter until 1960. The village’s famous 19th century mosque is listed as a historical monument of national importance. The place-name is related to the word “Gil” (clay). Local soil is abundant in clay.
• Lezginka dance
It is the common name of Caucasian dances. In Turkey, they are called “Sheikh Shamil’s play”. It is the most popular ethnic dance performed to the accompaniment of the accordion and nagara drum. In this region, everyone always dances Lezginka. It is a highly vigorous dance. Its technique is difficult. The main particularity of Lezginka is that it is performed on tips of the toes.Although it is interpreted as a dance in honour of a Lezgin girl, most people do not accept this point of view. The Lezgins call Lezginka “Lazgi Hangi”. Folklore experts say that it is a plaintive thought-provoking dance and that on the stage, dancers tell a story with their motions and facial expression and that every dance has its own story. We learnt that there are dances of horsemen and herders, as well as love dances. While dancing Lezginka, it is enjoyable to see ladies gracefully dancing like cranes in the middle (onstage). Your blood starts to boil as you watch the dances. There are stunts involving knives and swords, and while learning them, dancers get injured and wounded repeatedly. You can’t stand still as you hear everyone exclaiming “ups-a” or “as”. Sometimes dancing guys jump and land on their knees sich such force that you doubt their ability to stand up again. But they stand up again and continue dancing with their same vigour and passion. It is worth seeing it.
• Mahalin Taji (19th century)
It is a mosque located in the village center. It is called Mahalin Taji because it resembles the Taj Mahal in India. Anigh has a long-standing tradition of building luxurious and fashionable houses. It is believed that the person who built this mosque visited the Taj Mahal during his trip to India and liked it so much that he decided to build a similar mosque. They say that the mosque, which was built from raw bricks, is 300 years old. The pictures on the walls draw attention. Although these pictures have never been renewed, their colours draw attention. They were drawn with paints made from natural vegetable roots.
N. I. Zakiyev – No. G. Nematov “Memori¬es of Anigh Village”, Baku, Ganjlik, 1994 (pp 23-24)
• Dervish Baba shrine
There is a graveyard belonging to the first millennium BC in the village of Anigh. The Dervish Baba shrine is situated in the graveyard. Since Dervish Baba was a religious person and a philanthropist, villagers still respect his memory and visit his grave. The dome-shaped shrines in this area are so low that when you get inside, you need to bow down and show your respect for Dervish Baba in this way.
It is a place in a mountainous area within 2 km from Laza. It is the highest holiday destination and tourist base in Azerbaijan. Located at the foothills of Shahdagh, Suvar is open in winter as well. You can live in tents and sleep in sleeping bags here. The artificial lakes created at such a height give a different look to the area. Those who wish to take a trip to the mountains and conquer peaks higher than 4,000 meters can get assistance from the staff of the Suvar recreational complex. You can also ask local villagers who are regarded as the best guides to the mountains and know every inch of land here. They can take you to the 3,000-meter high Shah plateau, the Shahnabat plateau or the 4,243-meter Mount Shahdagh, as well as to the 3,751-meter high Heydar Aliyev peak in the Gizil-Gaya area.
• Winter holidays
In winter, nature at this highest point in the country is amazingly beautiful. The snow which starts falling in November lies until March. It is perfect for practising winter sports here. You can ski, ride a snowboard, climb a mountain and hike and trek in the mountains. It is also planned to set up a winter Olympics base here to provide services throughout the year.
Gusar is located at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, 715 meters above the sea level and on the border with Dagestan. The highest peaks of Azerbaijan, Bazarduzu (4,466 meters) and Shahdagh (4,242 meters), as well as the Samur-Davachi canal, the Gusarchay and Samur Rivers are located in Gusar. The distance between Baku and Gusar is 180 km. The Baku-Darband- Makhachkala-Moscow highway passes through the district. It is 35 km from the Khudat railway and 40 km from the Khachmaz railway.
Some authors interpret the Lezgin ethnonym as “mountain people”. Lezgins comprise 95 per cent of the district population. Having an important position among national minorities in Azerbaijan, the Lezgins live mainly in the northern and northwestern part of the country. Known as one of the main peoples of Caucasian Albania, the Legs are regarded as ancestors of the Lezgins. Strabo recorded that among the 26 Albanian dialects, it was exactly the dialect of the Gargar and Legs, who lived in the north, which played a great role in the formation of the Albanian language. They belong to the Shahdagh language group. Comprising 2.2 per cent of Azerbaijan’s populations, the Lezgins are Muslims.
The district has no interesting places that would draw visitors’ attention. In order to obtain information about tourist routes, it is recommended that you visit the tourist base in the Friendship Park. All historical monuments and must-see sights are located in villages. But in the center, an old home draws attention. It is a house in which the great Russian writer and poet, Lermontov, once lived. It now functions as a museum.
Tsikan is the most famous dish of Lezgin cuisine. It is cooked in the kharak. Round balls made from dough are kneaded with butter. Then the balls are rolled out and placed in a deep frying pan. Small slices of potatoes fried on oil beforehand are placed into the pan. It is covered with dough and cooked in the kharak for about an hour. The ingredients of tsikan can vary. We recommend that you taste tsikan made from vegetables, cheese and chicken here.
The district has four of the country’s nine climates. The favourable climatic conditions make it possible to set up resorts, recreational zones and tourism complexes here. The district, which is called the mother of Shahdagh, is one of the main holiday destinations in the country. With its rich flora and fauna, all conditions are right for ecotourism in Gusar. The ecological routes can be divided into three directions.
• 2. Gusar-Sudur route (102 km)
In villages located along this route which stretches along the Samur River, you can buy handicrafts, watch the national customs and traditions of the local population and performances by wrestlers and closely familiarize yourself with Lezgins’ lifestyle and folklore. The Samur River is a boundary between Russia and Azerbaijan. It is worth seeing some of the villages in this area.
• Hazra village (53 km)
In the 15th century, Shirvan and its northeastern provinces were at peace. This peace was broken by Sheikh Juneyd of the Safavid dynasty and his son Heydar. Intending to occupy Shirvan, Sheikh Juneyd crossed the Kura River and invaded Shirvan under the slogan of “jihad against godless Circassians”. He met with resistance from Shirvanshah Khalilullah, and the Gizilbash troops were defeated in a battle in the village of Gipchak on the left bank of the Samur River in 1460. Sheikh Juneyd was killed in the battle. The sheikh’s followers brought his body to the right bank of the Samur River and buried him in the village of Gulkhan. The story is about the village of Hazra in Gusar. One of the most important points on the route, the village of Hazra is located at a distance of 53 km from the center. The meaning of its name is interpreted in different ways. It is a modified form of the word Hazrat. Shah Abbas I (1557- 1628) moved the village population from Iran to Guba province and settled them near the grave of Sheikh Juneyd.
• Yukhari Tahirjal village (96 km)
It is a mountain village with wonderful scenery and difficult roads. The population is engaged in bee-keeping. The village’s emblem is a beehive. The forests that surround the village are known for their fruit trees, especially wild apple trees. The upper mountainous part of the Tahirjal River is the territory of the old village. After the 1964 earthquake, villagers were so feared that they started moving to the lower part on the left bank of the river. After villagers went to work at the new Samur-Davachi canal, they gradually started leaving this area. More people are coming to the village in summer. The village used to have three mosques and several shrines. Under the atheist communist regime, they went into decline as they were not looked after. Inside the village, you can see graves with human bones inside on every corner. Villagers say that you can find precious metal items inside those sizable graves. The most valuable historical monument in the village is a large three-tier graveyard. Its territory is surprisingly large, as if big battles had taken place here and thousands of people had been killed. It is strange that there are gravestones on each grave. Local gravestones have interestingly strange shapes. Although they say that some items found in the graves belong to the Bronze Age, no scientific research has been carried out on the territory so far.
• Laza village
In Lezgin, this village is called Latsar. Situated in a valley among the mountains, it consists of two parts. The second part is on the other slope of the mountain – on the bank of the Damiraparan River in Gabala District.
They say that residents of Laza moved to this area from there and gave the new village the same name. The village is in the foothills of the Great Caucasus Ridge, on the slopes of Mount Shahdagh (4.242 meters) and the Shah Yaylaghi Peak and on caravan routes passing through the Main Caucasus. Local residents call this place, situated at a height of 1,800 meters above sea level, “Kurva Pass”. The most famous and only historical monument in the village of Laza is the 300-year-old mosque in the center of the village. The village’s population is Lezgin. Historical research showed that the main ethnic habitat of the Legs, ancestors of the Lezgins, was in southern Dagestan on the left bank of the Samur River. In the course of centuries, some of the Lezgin tribes gradually moved to the foothills in the south.
Laza is one of the most popular tourist places in Azerbaijan. There are many tourists in the village, both in winter and summer. Foreigners love to visit here most of all. The tourists stay in local residents’ homes – rooms specially built in the courtyards have every convenience. Services also include dishes made by landladies.
• Shahdagh (4,243 meters)
It is a massive mountain that looks remote and inaccessible. But it is possible to conquer it. To this end, you can get to Suvar by car, while you will have to walk the rest of the road. It will take three days to conquer Shahdagh. There are two roads leading to the Shahdagh peak. These are northern and southern routes developed by local mountaineers. Although it is dangerous and difficult to climb, the wonderful view of Shahdagh, its excellent air, Garabulag which you will see on the road, high mountain lakes, canyons and other wonders are fascinating. There are shrines, ancient caravan paths, remains of an antique bridge and other traces of history in the area. The easiest way to reach this greatest peak of Azerbaijan is to use the road from the south. It is a safe road that does not require any special mountaineering equipment. This is the road used by the topographer Andrey Pastukhov, which was the first to draw the map of the mountain ridge in 1892.
It is believed that the word Gusar is derived from the name of a tribe or a tribal chieftain. There are claims that it is derived from the name of the Hisar tribe that used to live here and played a role in the ethnogenesis of the local population, but disappeared in the course of time.The place-name is derived from the word Gusar which means “a small cavalry detachment” in Hungarian. The city bears the name of the Gusar cavalry regiment that was stationed in this territory in the past. Modern Gusar was first founded in 1810. In 1816-1870, there was a military college in Gusar which trained officers for the Shirvan infantry division that was set up here. Gusar’s original name was Geysari. It is believed that Geysar tribes lived here in ancient times. Although they moved from here later, some local villages accepted their name. The word gradually lost its original form and became Gusar. They say that there are four graves in the suburbs of the town of Gusar. The word Gusar derived from the combination of the words “gud” (four) and “srar” (grave) in the Lezgin language and means “four graves”.Lezgins professed the Gutsar religion in the first millennium. It is possible that the word Gusar derives from the name of that special religion. The word derives from “kas” (man) and “ksar” (men), which means courage, fearlessness, bravery and other features typical of the Lezgin people. Neighbouring tribes named the area’s first settlement Ksarkhur (men’s village), and in the course of time, the word khur, which means a village, became redundant. Only Ksar remained and turned into Gusar in the course of time.
• M. Y. Lermontov (1814-1841)
Although he was a military officer, he was convicted for his speeches against monarchy and for his free ideas. Touched by Pushkin’s assassination in a duel in 1837, he wrote a poem called “The Death of a Poet” and blamed this crime on the tsarist government. After this poem, the young poet was arrested and exiled to the Caucasus. While in Gusar in 1825-26, he wrote the poems “Caucasus Prisoner” and “Ashug Garib: Turkic Fairytale” (1828). Being a friend of Mirza Fatali Akhundov, the poet stressed in his letter to his friend Rayevskiy that he had started learning the Tatar (Azerbaijani) language, which was as widely spoken in Asia as French in Europe.
• Lezgin feast
There is a popular saying: if you go to someone’s house, have a dinner there and after that, rush to leave, it is called the “Lezgin feast”. Even Lezgins themselves laugh at this, saying “jan, my son, bon appetit”.
• 1. Gusar-Gazanbulag route
In this direction, there is a forest called Alistan Baba with an area of 7 sq. km. In villages situated along the road, you can buy cloths with embroidery, wood engravings and famous Sumakh carpets.
• Sudur village
It is the last stop on the route and the last village in Gusar. Located at a height of 1,800 meters above the sea level at the foothills of Mount Shahdagh, Sudur has fascinating scenery. It has good potential for creating a mountain tourism and health zone.
• Sheikh Juneyd sepulchre
The sepulchre, which was built in honour of Shah Ismayil Khatai’s grandfather Sheikh Juneyd, is considered to be one of the most important historical-architectural monuments in Gusar. It is also called the Shikhjannat Mosque. It stands on the grave of Sheikh Juneyd of Ardabil, who was killed in a battle with the troops of Shirvanshah Khalilullah I and was buried here. It was built on orders from Tahmasib I after Safavid Shah Ismayil I moved the remains of Sheikh Juneyd to Ardabil. An inscription on the fachade of the monument says that it was built in 1544. The village of Hazra is famed for its wrestlers. Here, they maintain “Sim wrestling” performances, which are the most popular samples of Azerbaijani folklore. Sometimes you can see wrestlers practicing in the village. Gusar also has a dance folklore ensemble called Lezginka.
• 3. Gusar-Laza-Suvar route (42 km)
You can travel on the road most of which is covered by shells and stones only in an off-roader. As you travel on this route, the first stop could be the village of Anigh.
• Anigh village
In this village of strategic importance at the foothills of Mount Shahdagh, a fortress was built in the Middle Ages to defend the village from Arab raids. The walls of the fortress still stand in the village. The walls of the 9th century fortress Anigh are 9.3 meters high and 2 meters wide. Villagers are still saying that the fortress was ruined during a Christian-Muslim war. When the Christian Georgian detachments of the army of Hulaku ruler Argun fought Golden Horde troops in 1288, they actively participated in the Anigh battles.The historical chronicle “The History of Abu Muslim”, which was written in Arabic in the 10th century, mentions several Azerbaijani villages, including Anigh. Locals say that the name of the village is derived from Anigh aga who used to live here. According to other versions, Anigh is a place-name related to Hun tribes. First it was called Unug and then it became Anigh.
• Haji Seyid Baba shrine
This is the most notable place in the village. There is a pointed rock that looks artificial here. The ground around the rock is covered with small white stones and shells. People who visit the shrine make a wish, after which they have to take off their shoes and go round the rock barefoot three times over the stones and shells, thinking only about the wish they have made and not saying anything. Then they have to repeat their wish and drink from a nearby spring. After that, it is necessary to donate some money to the shrine. The local population still visits the burial site inside the rock, which they think is holy. Usually, those whose wishes come true after they visit this place return here in order to sacrifice an animal. According to tradition, they invite guests to eat with them. Refusal is regarded as disrespect, while tasting it is a good sign. Such a pilgrimage resembles a picnic, while the rituals are very interesting.
There are also other notable sites within 15-20 km of Laza. One of them is the Tsar’s Cave – a deep vertical cave in the rocky wall of Mount Shahdagh. The old bridge Gonji-Myukh is a stone bridge over the Gusarchay River.
At a nearby base, you can find guides for mounted or pedestrian excursions to the holy shrines high up in the mountains.
• Twin waterfalls
Situated at a height of about 2,000 meters, the twin waterfalls are another beautiful spot in this area. Local waterfalls have one typical feature – they freeze in winter. Professional mountain climbers hold contests to conquer such waterfalls. There is an interesting story about the dark wooden house under the waterfalls. The house was delivered here by Viktor Polyanichko, who was second secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party. The second secretary who once came here on holiday liked it so much that he decided to create a summer recreation place for himself. Villagers still remember how this house was delivered here by military hardware in the 1980s. Now this place is an irresistible picnic site for summer holidaymakers.