Long before I’d ever considered setting foot in this part of the world – before I knew about the Silk Road or had any knowledge of Central Asia – I’ve been enamored with one word: caravanserai. When I was in my teens, a Turkish restaurant bearing the name Caravanserai opened close to my house. This was probably the first time I heard the word uttered, and I’ve been fascinated with caravanserai and everything it conjures ever since.
Sheki’s Karvansaray Hotel is a phonetic corruption of the word I love so dearly, but this is as authentic (and impressive) a caravanserai as you’ll ever see. Staying two nights at this hotel will surely go down as one of the highlights of our time in the Caucasus.
Caravanserais were constructed in the early 19th century to accommodate travellers on the Silk Road. The Caucasus aren’t traditionally considered part of the famous trading thoroughfare that connects China with Turkey and Europe; but so far as the Silk Road was actually an ad-hoc series of routes that extended across Central Asia, traders branched out into Sheki and northern Azerbaijan.
This particular caravanserai is actually classified as two separate buildings – the yukhary (upper) and ashaghy (lower) caravanserais. I can’t emphasise how huge the stone and brick structure is. There are close to 600 individual rooms of various sizes – that’s counting the underground storage cells that merchants could access from their sleeping quarters by stepladder if they wanted to check on their goods during the night.
In 1988, after a period of abandonment, a number of these rooms were turned into basic guest accommodation and travellers once again started treading the stone paths of one of Azerbaijan’s oldest accommodations.
After a couple of rough nights in Quba and a long bus journey from Baku, we were ready to relax in Sheki. The rooms at Karvansaray Hotel are certainly not luxurious, but the atmosphere more than makes up for it.
As you can imagine from the pictures, every room has an impressive domed brick ceiling. The rooms are split into two parts, with a quaint sitting area in the front and a bedroom at the rear. Private bathrooms are very outdated in terms of design and fittings – but there is steaming hot water.
Another thing: The old brickwork and poor sealing around the windows and doors means that the rooms are cold – like, extremely cold – at night. There were more than enough blankets to keep us warm in bed, but walking around inside the room after sunset was almost unbearable. Get under the covers before dark if you can!
The Karvansaray Hotel is located walking distance from the Sheki Khans’ summer palace (Seki Xan Sarayi) and a quick taxi ride (or pleasant meandering stroll through Sheki’s beautiful residential area) to downtown.
The street-facing side of the hotel is occupied by a collection of souvenir shops, bakeries, restaurants and – get this – an Illy Espresso House that serves excellent coffee. Someone recommended we eat at nearby Restaurant Gagarin, but we enjoyed the stew at Piti House (located under the Karvansaray Hotel) much more. The Hotel also has a cafe/restaurant on the top level that boasts a decent range of home-cooked Azeri dishes.
Rates are very affordable – we paid 50 AZN (30 USD) per night for a twin room during shoulder season (April 2017).
This isn’t the only caravanserai you’ll see in Sheki, but it’s certainly the only one you can sleep in. If you are planning to visit Azerbaijan, make sure you get to Sheki and stay at Karvansaray Hotel for at least a night or two: It’s a truly unforgettable travel experience!
Sheki Karvansaray Hotel
Mirza Fatali Akhundzada
Sheki (opposite Sheki Palace Hotel)
+994 50 859 39 82 (Russian; Azeri)
Note: At the time of our stay (April 2017) it was not possible to book online. Try contacting the tourism office in Sheki for more information.