Chirax Qala

Peeping out from a thickly wooded ridge high above Qala Alty (Under the Castle) sanatorium, this stone keep is very ruinous
but nonetheless about the best preserved of Azerbaijan's ancient fortresses. Originally built by the Sassanid Persians (5th century AD), the surviving tower dates from the 18th century when it was part of the southern defences of the khanate of Quba.

The remnants of Chirax Castle sit very impressively at 1200m on a cliff top above the forested sanatorium of Qala Alti and associated Mashrif village. It's one of the few castle ruins in Azerbaijan to retain a real castle-shaped silhouette and makes a worthwhile and reasonably easy diversion if you're driving between Baku and Quba.

Part of a defensive chain for 1600 years, the name Chirax means 'lamp' for beacon fires lit here to warn of approaching enemy armies. During the 18th century it was the southernmost outpost of Quba's Fatali Khan. Never stormed, it simply fell into disuse. Today the main knob of stone and brickwork that remains is teetering ever more perilously on a rock which is being eroded from beneath. The authorities have yet to undertake minimal repairs to bolster the site, as they did at Old Qabala. The need is now very urgent if the most impressive remaining fortress tower of the region is not to collapse. Hidden in the forest beneath are many more wall sections.

Visiting the castle is most interesting for the sweeping views towards the Caspian and for hikes in the pretty surroundings. The hike up to the castle is one of many healthy exercises prescribed by Qala Alti sanatorium which specializes in 'Balneo mud treatments' using mineral spring waters and additives taken from the Kainaija mud field, 7km away.

A local spring produces sulphurous waters, which taste sickening but are a very popular medication.

There are two approaches (from Davachi or Siyazan), though the once-asphalted road surfaces have degenerated significantly. Both routes, but especially the former, are more attractive when driving towards Chirax. There are also several ways to reach the castle from the sanatorium gates.

An unpaved rutted track passes the decaying concrete cube of Qala Alty Hotel after 800m, then divides twice. On both occasions take the right-hand fork and you should emerge at the top of a grassy clearing just 15 minutes' woodland stroll from the ruins. You can reach the clearing by Zhiguli or by horse (sporadically available in summer if you ask around at the sanatorium gates).

Alternatively, on foot you can hike through the forest directly to the castle crag in about 40 minutes, starting opposite the Qala Alty Hotel. The path is fairly easy to spot but has two slightly dangerous slippery scramble sections. Below the sanatorium are several summer restaurants.

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