Sufi tombs in Azerbaijan: whatever you do, don’t disturb the snakes
The small green village of Kelekhana is located just 5 km south of Azerbaijan’s Shamakhi city. However, it takes an hour to get there. The road is in a poor condition and one is lucky if it’s not raining. Right next to the village there is a large wild field where the famous Kelekhana tombs are situated.
The members of the Chilkey Sheikhs Sufi order are buried there. Initially there were nine massive octagon-shaped stone buildings, but now there are only eight of them left, including the one that is half-ruined. The Sufis, members of one of the most ancient and famous tribes in Islamic culture, designed and build these with meticulous attention. The Kelekhana tombs are regarded as one of the most beautiful monuments in the territory of Azerbaijan, where plenty of them could be found.
Sufism is the esoteric dimension of the Islamic faith. It was introduced in Azerbaijan almost simultaneously with the religion itself. The Sufi often united with various orders/fraternities and there were a great many of them. Experts have little information on some of these, specifically on the Order of the Chilkey Sheikhs. Very little is known about the tomb complex itself and the information that is available, is rather vague.
It is generally believed that the complex was built in the 17th century as is evident from the inscription on a portal of the wall surrounding one of the tombs. The inscription says that the building was erected in 1663-1664 by master Abdul Aziz, which is unusual as it wasn’t customary for the Chilkey Sheikhs to put any inscriptions on tomb walls (even if it was Quran quotes or religious symbols), except for the names of the deceased and the informative plates of this kind.
However, despite this seemingly indisputable evidence, Fariz Halili, a member of the ‘Miras’ (Heritage) NGO, believes that the tombs were built long before that, as early as between the 14th and 15th centuries. In his opinion, the tomb complex deserves more in-depth study and it may be full of surprises.
These tombs are associated with a disturbing local legend, the key point of which is that it’s not good to engage in looting or do harm to animals. It is said that once there was a man seeking to quickly enrich himself who went to one of the tombs in search of gold. He accidentally killed a snake that lived there. The next morning, hordes of snakes came to seek revenge. They inundated the streets and houses, urging the horror-stricken residents to flee from the village. People only dared to return years later.
Although the Kelekhana tombs are regarded as an architectural monument of local importance, the villagers say officials don’t pay much attention to it.
The tomb complex was renovated once during the Soviet period. However, restorations have never been done since, neither have there been any serious excavations carried out in the tombs.