My Four months milestone was celebrated with a trip to a village called Neej (Nic in Azeri). We first heard about the village from a friend’s boss, who said that he had the best pork of his life in a small, mostly Christian village outside of Gebele. I took a quick peek inside Mark Elliot’s Azerbaijan Guidebook, which said
Very ancient Nic was mentioned by Prolomy and was the Catholicos (spiritual centre) of the Albanian Christian church from the 11th century. It is the only village in Azerbaijan which retains a substantial population of Udi people (65%) – an ethnic group who still consider themselves Christian, though other Christians might not easily recognize the fact. Historians trace the Udi people to a warrior tribe ho attacked southern Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) in 2228 BC. They were later driven back into Azerbaijan where they became a major force within the multi-ethnic make up of Christian Albania. The churches here maintained their Albanian-Christian masses right up until 1836 when the synod of St Petersburg coerced them into accepting Armenian priests.
The unique history of the town made it seem like a worthwhile excursion, but I was hooked as soon as I’d heard pork kebabs.
After riding some overcrowded Taxis, we showed up only to be told that all the pigs had been killed because of the Swine Flu scare. I guess we could have seen that coming if we weren’t so drunk on the idea of eating pork, but it ended up not being a problem, as a guy pointed us to his restaurant where he said he’d have the kebabs up in a few minutes. They were worth the trip in itself.
After some pork, we chilled out in the sunshine and had a couple beers, while people, one by one, approached us to say “Welcome.” There was a bit of a nervous moment when we were approached by a policeman who wanted to know what we were doing there. We explained it all, and after a quick document check, everything was fine. Everyone was really friendly, and we were told that when we went to look at the churches that we could just call the number on the side of the door if no one was around, and they’d be opened so we could check them out.
We saw two churches in Neej, one functioning and one abandoned. The functioning church is called Chotari, according to Mark Elliot, and we were given a short tour from a guy named Sergei (who walked with us all over town). Inside the modest church, there was a guestbook signed by people from all over, including Norway, Japan, England and the U.S. I didn’t get the exact story, but it looked like the priest of the church was named an honarary citizen of Dallas, Texas and had a few photos in what had to be the Lone Star State.
The abandoned church hadn’t been used for a while. There was some strange script on the door, which I didn’t realize until later was looked like Armenian. I’m guessing that the church stopped being used around the time of the Azerbaijan-Armenian war. It was in pretty rough shape, but Sergei told us that they were in the process of cleaning it up.
Our plan was to buy some raw meat from a butcher and bring it back with us when we left town. The butcher told us that he didn’t have enough left to sell to us, so we settled with a second round of pork kebabs before walking out of the town to catch a taxi on the highway. It was a great trip that signaled the beginning of summer, a better understanding of Azerbaijan, and that the best parts of this country lie in the moments you never thought you’d have.