At the foot of the Caucasus mountains lies an escape: a wooden chalet called the Palace of the Shaki Khans. Gorgeous but tiny, it was built as a prayer that the world’s revolutions would pass by the Caucasus. Unfortunately for the Shaki Khans, they didn’t.
The Shaki Khans’ summer palace is located a few hours from Baku, an ancient city that today is rapidly replacing its stone buildings with glass skyscrapers. Perched high in the Caucasus mountains, the palace itself looks like the setting for a Wes Anderson movie. It is painstakingly symmetrical and more cosmopolitan than one might think for a mountain refuge. French stained glass, Russian wood, Ottoman ceramics, and Iranian mirrorwork decorate all of the facets.
One can easily imagine the early 1800s, when the Shaki princes sat in its now-quiet halls, speaking of their grandeur. Those same princes spent their nights fearing what would happen when the world’s warlords would finally discover their corner of the mountains.
Surrounded as it is by mile-high peaks, there is no good reason for Shaki to be targeted by an invading army. The town is located in what is now Azerbaijan, but for thousands of years, it remained a forgotten front as wars between the Ottoman, Russian, and Persian empires raged on all sides. Shaki’s rulers (called “khans”) were quite happy with this arrangement. They were free to sell their silk to the world, free from the greater region’s rampaging hordes.
Today, visitors can march through the palace like the Russian army eventually did in 1819. You can gape at the tile work, which depicts the bearded Shaki cavalry bearing pikes topped with mustachioed heads, or squint at the sun setting into mirrors carved like a Tsarina’s ring. While getting lost in the delicate finery of the palace’s details, one finds the mind wandering into territory involving the intricacies of maintaining the daily rituals of a fantasy kingdom in the Caucasus, and what the invading army might have felt when they burst the Shaki’s bubble.