Exploring Western Azerbaijan’s German Traces
Today, when you walk along the streets of Ganja, Goygol and Shamkir, you can still feel the strength of the region’s former German community, and find traces of their culture in the architecture, city planning and local viticulture. It’s hard to believe now but 200 years ago German settlements were established in western Azerbaijan.
As a result of economic instability and religious differences, hundreds of Swabian Germans moved from Württemberg to the South Caucasus having received an invitation from the Russian tsar. They began their journey in 1816 and first settled in Tbilisi, but later about 500 migrants continued their journey to western Azerbaijan, which was then underthe Russian Empire.
They first stopped in Yelizavetpol (now Ganja) in 1818 where local people sheltered them in their homes. After spending the winter there, in 1819 they started to build their first colony, Helenendorf, 20 kilometres to the south. In total, eight German colonies were established in Azerbaijan: Helenendorf, Annenfeld, Georgsfeld, Alekseevka, Grunfeld, Eigenfeld, Traubenfeld and Yelizavetinka, located throughout the regions of Goygol, Shamkir, Tovuz, Agstafa and Gazakh.
Many of the Germans were skilled craftsmen but their main occupations were agriculture and especially winemaking. In 1922, the Concordia cooperative was established in Goygol and its products became popular throughout the Soviet Union. But with the start of the Great Patriotic War in June 1941, their situation in Soviet Azerbaijan became extremely precarious, and in October of that year, 22,741 Germans were forced to relocate from Azerbaijan to the Kazakh SSR. Only those in mixed marriages stayed in Azerbaijan.
Before starting your trip to the German heritage settlements, bear in mind that the distances between them aren’t short, so you might need about three days to visit all the sights and feel the atmosphere of each destination. The main places to see are Ganja, Goygol (Helenendorf) and Shamkir (Annenfeld). But if you have time, I would also recommend visiting Chinarli (Georgsfeld), which still bears signs of German settlement and is not as renovated as the others.
My journey started from Baku where I took the new high-speed train to Ganja which leaves Baku each day at 8 am and returns from Ganja at 6 pm. A ticket costs 10 AZN and you can order it online, but note that you’ll need to print your ticket at the station to present it as you board the train, so come at least 40 minutes early. The train is comfortable but not as quick as you might expect: you’ll arrive in Ganja at 12:15 pm. Of the main German heritage attractions, visit the old Lutheran church on Ahmad Jamil Street which was built in 1885 and funcfunctions now as a puppet theatre. Ganja is
quite a modern city with lots of historical attractions and red-brick streets, but it’s enough to spend one day there. The city has a wide variety of accommodation options which you can book online or on the spot.
From Ganja, it’s easy to get to the town of Goygol, which is about half an hour away by taxi or regional bus, which leaves from Ganja Bus Station. If you take a taxi (and depending on your language skills) one option is to ask the driver to stay with you throughout the day and take you to each location which will cost approximately 50-60 AZN.
While you’re in the Goygol region, I would strongly advise visiting the Goygol National Park, home to lakes Goygol and Maralgol, which are about an hour’s drive from Goygol town and will definitely impress with their natural beauty. Entrance to the park costs 2.50 AZN per person, but start your trip early if you want to visit both the town and the national park in one day.
When you reach Goygol town, the best way to discover it is by starting from Saint Helena Lutheran Church which was built by the Germans in 1857 and was the first Lutheran church in Azerbaijan. During the Soviet period this church functioned as a military hospital and then for a long time as a sports hall. In 2005, it was renovated and became a German heritage site and local history museum. Inside, you’ll find information about the German period in Azerbaijan and admire this wonderful example of German architecture. The museum works every day from 9 am – 6 pm and is free to enter.
Next to the church is a useful map of Goygol town which points out the main spots to see and visit, and a five-minute walk from here is the house of Victor Klein.
Victor Klein was the last German in Goygol who passed away in 2007 and never married because his mother wouldn’t allow him to marry an Azerbaijani girl, yet there were no German girls left in the region. Therefore, the sole inheritor of his property was Fikret Ismailov, his close friend since 1951. Fikret was anxious about inheriting Victor’s house as he didn’t want people to think their friendship was built on inheriting the property, so he proposed using it as a museum, which Victor agreed to. And after his death, Fikret gifted the house to the Ministry of Culture, which plans to turn it into a museum of German heritage in Azerbaijan.
This house is a vivid example of how the Germans lived in Azerbaijan. The old, handmade furniture from walnut and cherry, the piano, radio and basement for keeping wine. Some of the kitchen tools as well as the basement look modern even now. At the moment, to enter you need to find Fikret, who will open the door with pleasure and show you around. But in the near future, this will be a museum for anyone wishing to visit.
One more attraction in Goygol is the Goygol Winery (also known as Xan 1860), located on the territory of the original Vohrer brothers’ winery established in 1860. Nearby, the Hummel brothers, another famous local winemaking family, opened a trading house. In the Soviet time the Vohrers and the Hummels cooperated under the name of Concordia which won international medals for the quality of its wines and cognacs. Today the winery combines an old German wine cellar with new Italian technology. As Chiara Chiacometti, its marketing manager mentioned, the winery is open to tourists, provided you book in advance:
We are happy to organize winery tours around our vineyard and factory, to show the fermentation room and cellar with 150-year-old German barrels. The tour ends in our degustation room for a tasting of our wines. The price of the tour is 20 AZN and there must be at least five people to a group. To book just email me at [email protected]
In order not to lose time after visiting Ganja and Goygol, it’s best to overnight in Shamkir, which has a few accommodation options with prices starting from 50 AZN per night, breakfast included. During the evening, if you still have the energy to go out, visit the Excelsior hotel to drink Brau bear made with Austrian technology in their own brewery. On the menu, you’ll see plenty of tasty beer snacks, including fried dushbere and a type of fried cheese you can only try in Azerbaijan.
In the morning, walking in the streets here you’ll immediately notice the difference between Goygol and Shamkir. Both of them still have German-style houses, but they look so different. Since the reconstruction of the city, the entrances to each house are adorned with different emblems. Some have wooden gates and white arches with symbols of vines and the year in which the house was built, which is especially aesthetically pleasing when draped with the red or blue ribbons symbolizing marriage or childbirth in Azerbaijani tradition. If you’re very attentive, you’ll also notice that almost all the German houses have cellars and sometimes you can even peer inside through the windows. As in Goygol, Shamkir has its own Lutheran Church, which was built by the German colonists in 1909. It was renovated in 2013 and continues to function as a church and concert hall complete with organ. Behind the church is a museum of history and ethnography.
Unfortunately, there are no Germansleft in Shamkir. The last one, Yunis Hajiyev, whose mother was German and father was Azerbaijani, passed away in the winter of 2019. I had the chance to meet and interview him last year. Yunis continued to make wine, his life’s occupation, even into his nineties. He spoke three languages and clearly remembered how the German settlement used to look. As he sadly recalled: “In 1941, during the war, Stalin decreed to relocate the Germans and ordered them to move in three days’ time taking only 15 kilograms of belongings. This town became empty. They had to leave all their belongings, cattle and houses.” German culture had a big influence on Azerbaijan and is a vivid example of how people with different languages, religions and lifestyles can integrate. While travelling in this part of the country, you start to think what would have been if not for the war which resettled the Germans from Azerbaijan. We don’t have the answer, but nevertheless the preservation and continuation of German traditions in the former colonies is a sign of the still tight connection between the two different nations.