For centuries, Şamaxı (Shemakha) was the royal seat of the Shirvanshahs and thus one of northern Azerbaijan’s most prominent cultural and trading cities. However, fire, earthquakes and invasions have left virtually no visible historical signs. One minor exception is Yeddi Gümbaz, a handful of domed tomb towers (mostly 19th century) set on a small rise across the main Baku–Şəki road from town. The surrounding graveyard is older.
Above Xinişli village, 2km west of Şamaxı’s busy bazaar, is the site of Gulistan Castle on the further crest of an abrupt cleft hilltop. This was the 12th-century residence of the Shirvanshahs but only a few utterly unrecognisable stones remain.
Şamaxı’s sturdy Cümə Mosque is dubbed the ‘second-oldest mosque in the trans-Caucasus’ (after Derbent in Dagestan). However, the 8th-century structure disappeared centuries ago, and during 2011 even the grand 1902 rebuild was largely demolished as part of a massive reconstruction project that should eventually create a 21st-century masterpiece.
Minor attractions around Şamaxı include a group of ancient turbe (tomb towers) at Kələxana and the popular weekenders’ getaway of Pirqulu whose high, windswept hills are reminiscent of Yorkshire’s ‘Brontë Country’. Note that Pirqulu’s extensive Soviet-era Astronomical Observatory (Rasiatxana) is closed for major reconstruction until at least 2013.
West of Şamaxı, most traffic descends the looping Ağsu Pass to the dusty lowland plain. But continuing westward towards İsmayıllı is quieter and far more scenic, crossing the deep, wide Ağsu River valley then following a long, bucolic ridgetop.