Glimpsing into Azerbaijan through its exquisite Shebeke windows

azerbaijan craft shebeke

At the heart of the culturally distinctive treasure trove of the spectacularly spellbind premises of the Azerbaijan identity dwells a very remarkable manifestation of art that flashes across with its myriad hues of many a unique realisations. Realisation not as such in the transcendental nature of its being but as a very diversive exploration of a particular facet of the artistic inclination that bathes it in a glow of particular vibrancy.

An art form that characterises quite a few regions of this Transcaucasian Land of the Fire but is still particularly linked to the historic city of Sheki is a very interesting manifestation explored as Shebeke that which ranges in its identity also as being an enthralling exploration of the folds of the architectural. Shebeke windows are so characteristic of Sheki, courtesy its historically and culturally standout monument of the Sheki Khans Palace that it continues to be an exclusive center for protection and restoration of this ancient art form even today. Like most other culturally and essentially distinguished art forms though, the status of shebeke hinges today almost on the forlorn premises of being a lost art, as the complexity of its technique and the intricacy of design through which it reveals its really dramatic glory of bathing in a light of multihued prominence makes it as elusive as it is coveted.

In fact so unique is the architectural allure of the Shaki Khans Palace, in part brought about by its endowment of the Shebeki form of artistic windows, that has led to it being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in all its uniquety. As an expression itself of the intangible cultural heritage of Azerbaijan and more particularly of Sheki, the shebeki mode of decorative art is a secret and a revelation all at once. A mainstay of Azerbaijani architecture of earlier times that has been in application since the 11th- 12th centuries, shebeke made for a splash in its glitter of beauty not just in the city of Sheki but also in other areas like Shusha, Ordubad, Baku, Ganja, Lankaran, Nakhichevan and Derbent. Sheki though remains the most important centre of exploration of shebeke in its true essence, with this captivating tradition in craftmanship still preserved here in its most authentically pure and classic form. Essentially an art that sees little pieces of colored glass inserted into a wooden lattice without the use of any glue or nail, this very remarkable assertion of the Azerbaijani folk craft manifests its very impressive grandeur upon doors and windows and walls or even in decorative pieces like lamps and cabinets.

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Despite however the prominence and popularity of it as being a kaleidoscope of glittering shines worked out through the use of glass pieces, shebeke in essence is in fact just small wooden pieces assemble together into an individual whole without the use of any external agent whatsoever. Translating literally as net or lattice, the more remarkable assertion of shebeke sees the colored glass bits inserted into a wooden lattice usually made from walnut or oak wood, emerging therefore as a brightly incorporative mosaic of colors that speaks at once both of the brilliance of the folk artists who helped sculpt these structures of diversive charm and helps assert the striking mannerism of working of them, in a vision of the aesthetics imbibed within the alleys of grandeur of what concerns the architectural in this part of the world.

Like most other artworks and craft forms that cater still to the realms of the traditional while continuing with the allure of their extravagance, the art of the shebeke too is somewhat rooted in symbolism. Made up of precise geometric figures are the Shebeke patterns that symbolize the Sun, the energy of life, the eternal flow of the time and the infinity of the universe and that which venture beyond therefore their resting in the aesthetics to span a parallel universe of relevance equally tied to the Azeri existence in its myriad assertions. Equally steeped in precision is the technique on which the art form is based, that calls for minute and detailed attention to its intricacies that need to be worked out also with utmost caution. As just a millimeter thick pieces of glass were traditionally used in the creation of the shebeke art, the measurements therefore were expected to fit exactly to that smallest possible unit of size, with even a fractional aberration meaning that the entire work would have to be redone from scratch. And while this demand to adhere rigorously to the spread of the dimensions is what makes shebeke all the more complex and therefore visually stunning an artist expression as well, the lesser exploits of the mastery today means that this folk art can not likely prevail in as intricate an assertion as possible. Thus even as the lack of adeptness has meant that glass pieces that are at least some three millimeters thick have managed to work their way upon the premises of shebeke windows, the art form itself is still dying a gradual death owing indeed to such impeccably rigorous modules through which it needs to ascertain the striking dimension of its beauty, with patient attention to its many a facets that which makes it the stupendous phenomenon that it is.

The glass prominence of the shebeke art however have been predated by its earliest discoveries set in stone instead as openwork stone lattices worked out upon the architecture of the palaces, and in simple houses, baths, mosques. A central feature in Azeri architecture throughout history, shebeke however is not exclusive to the famed Sheki Palace though it continues to be the most dramatic manifestation of it, indeed with some 5,000 wooden and glass details etched onto it. Other prominent places that flaunt the shebeke riches as prominently are the Shah Abbas mosque in Ganja, the Khan’s palace in Nakhchivan, the Martyrs mosque in Baku or some of the residential stone houses of Azerbaijan dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. Important here is to mention that despite the shebeke art form being a really ancient craft work, the explorations of it was largely looked down upon for a really long time till at least the time when Sheki finally managed to eke out its own trade scene through the trails of the Silk Route. With offerings of their own that ranged from exquisite silks to aromatic spices, the Sheki locals bartered Murano glass from Italy and ceramics from the Ottomans and put that into rather good use in the form of the shebeke.

Despite the aesthetic of the shebeke presenting it as a montage of colors that come across as rather fragile in the glassy essence of it, the resultant structure itself is very robust and reliant in their use. Much like the light itself that it effectively plays upon through its dramatic scheme of colors that dance through flashes of the reds and the yellows, the blues and the greens, the art of shebeke is a continuing visage in brilliance, refracting the sunlight that falls upon it to shine in a beauty and a radiance that enhances further its all immersive appeal to the senses. Demanding not just patience and precision but also ample understanding of the sciences of mathematics and geometry, as well as an innate awareness of the deftness in drawing, shebeke expands beyond the realms of the art to emerge as as spectacular an exercise in technical pursuit. A very vital assertion of the Azerbaijan culture even today, shebeke in fact is so ingrained in the country’s identity that has even seen the art form further its legacy by etching its place of pride upon stamps issued by the government. However such steeping in distinction does not make the craft of the unbounded glass work an exclusive entity of Azerbaijan. The art form marks also the dominion of the architectural in Iran where a similar experience of the aesthetics prevails as well, albeit under a different identity of Orosi. The underlying premise is the same though as that of Shebeke, that perhaps is a bit more valued in its definite assertion as being an expression of the heritage facet of the land where it is rooted.