I first came to Khinaliq to document life in Azerbaijan’s highest inhabited village in 2003. Archeological evidence suggests that Khinaliq was inhabited four millennia ago and dates back to pre-Zoroastrian times. A village of nearly 1,000 shepherd families is built into the side of a mountain, each house made of river stone, one upon the other.
Khinaliq, because of its remoteness, still managed to preserve its ancient way of life. There is no running water but the streams nearby, no gas except the natural fires sprouting from the gas-pocked mountains. The people speak Khinaluq, a unique and endangered dialect attributed to the northeastern group of Caucasus languages. The only source of income is sheep breeding.
In summer of 2006, when I visited Khinaliq again, Azerbaijani authorities embarked on a new road construction which connected the village with a planned ski resort 30 km away. Builders dynamited mountains as we passed. Although the newly asphalted road alleviated hardships associated with isolation, it also threatened the unique culture of Khinaliq.
Later in 2009, I watched wedding preparations in Khinaliq where all weddings take place in the last months of summer. Women cooked in dimly lit kitchens, dozens of hands wrapping minced meat in cabbage leaves. The bride in her white dress with red ribbon around her waist waited for her final appearance. She no longer mounted a horse, in a way that brides traditionally appeared at Khinaliq weddings before, she was brought in a car.
I came back to Khinaliq in February 2018. While the women I had photographed fifteen years ago still radiated with beauty, their children have grown into young adults. Many traditional homes were razed and rebuilt with bricks and cement. Some installed tin roofs, which clashed with the unique architectural style of the village. The colorful decor inside many homes was replaced with modern materials of plastic doors, windows and floors made of compressed wooden panels. A new wedding hall was built where wedding parties were now contained in a single room, instead of the colorful celebrations taking over an entire village with dancing, feasts and street processions.