The South Caucasus country is home to several regions known for producing residents who live into the triple digits, including Lankaran and Nagorno-Karabakh. But another, Lerik, is reputed to have the highest concentration of centenarians.
In this emerald land high in the clouds of the Talysh Mountains, reached by loop after loop of a winding road, people seem to have discovered a secret to a long and healthy life.
The Museum of Longevity
The two-room Museum of Longevity, built in 1991 and renovated in 2010, contains more than 2,000 exhibits documenting the lives and memories of the region’s oldest inhabitants.
Record individual lives with household items that have survived, including three generations of clothes irons. There are chests full of handkerchiefs and shirts, silver jugs and bowls, well-woven socks and hand-dyed rugs that still have vibrant colors despite their age.
And then there are the letters, written in both Azerbaijani and Russian: personal artifacts so old that the ink is beginning to fade.
Perhaps the most captivating features are the portraits of centenarians that cover the walls of the museum. These images, which date from the 1930s, were donated by French photographer Frederic Lachop.
The museum and Azerbaijan’s official statistics define “centenarian” more loosely than you might expect: here, it means anyone over 90 years old.
However, in 1991, there were over 200 people in Lerik registered as over 100, out of a population of 63,000.
The numbers have been less impressive since then, which locals variously attribute to radiation from communications towers and environmental decline, but can just as easily be put down to more rigorous record-keeping.
Currently, there are 11 people over 100 years old, out of a local population of 83,800.
The story of the 168-year-old man
Is this the oldest man in the world? Maybe not.
The current oldest citizen of Lerik is Raji Ibrahimova, aged 105. It’s a good vintage, but it pales in comparison to the age supposedly reached by the area’s most celebrated centenarian, Shirali Muslumov, a shepherd who supposedly lived to be 168 years old.
The yellow pages of his passport claim he was born in 1805 and his tombstone says he died in 1973. If true, that would make him the oldest person to ever live.
Unfortunately, in the early 19th century, birth records were rarely kept in villages as remote as his birthplace, Barzavu, so there is no verifiable record of when he was born.
The countless letters sent from all over the world on his various birthdays leave no doubt that he was indeed a very respectable age, but perhaps it is best to consider a minimum margin of error of 20 years.
Among those who corresponded with Muslumov was Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who sent him a postcard greeting him with affection: “Dear Grandpa.”
This longevity gene seems to run in the family. His 95-year-old daughter, Halima Qambarova, tells CNN Travel that while she may not live to be 168, like her father, she at least hopes to live to be 150, like her grandfather, or 130, like her father. his aunt
“Peace of Mind”
Sitting by the window, wrapped in a shawl, she speaks with a slight accent, often switching to her mother tongue, Talish, a dialect spoken by only 200,000 people and classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO.
His passport shows no month or date of birth, only the year: 1924. He may be 95, but he is fully present, interacting with his great-grandchildren and demonstrating his lively sense of humor. When asked her age, she cheerfully replies, “15.”
“The stillness of the mind is part of its secret,” says the museum guide. “They stay away from stress, thinking about life quite philosophically, living one day at a time, without much planning or worrying about the future.”
Good nutrition and natural remedies
Halima Qanbarova is 95 years old. His grandfather is said to have lived to 150, his father to 168 and his aunt to 130.
Qambarova’s day begins at dawn; she doesn’t let herself sleep. “I get up as soon as my eyes open,” he says.
He spends the whole day working in the garden or the house. His room is small, with a thick, soft carpet and pillows on the floor. Many people here prefer to sleep on the floor, with only a thin blanket instead of a mattress, as it is believed to be the healthiest way to rest the back.
Contrary to popular belief, the centenarians of Lerik do eat meat, but they inherited a preference for fresh dairy products such as shor (curd), butter, milk and yogurt drink ayran from the previous centenarians, for whom the abstinence from meat was more. due to economic circumstances.
Qambarova’s daughter-in-law brings a large plate with pears and apples from her garden and some aromatic tea.
It’s herbal, floral and refreshing. Back at the museum, the guide shows a table with the different indigenous herbs of Lerik.
“The secret to a long life is good nutrition, the minerals in the spring water and the herbs we add to the tea to prevent disease, so people don’t have to take any medicine, just using natural remedies,” says guide In fact, Qambarova insists that she has never taken any medication.
Generations living side by side
Beyond its windows, the town may seem still and quiet. But the physical work that the villagers do every day is immense. From sunrise to sunset they work in the gardens and fields, as well as around the house. They sew and knit and take care of large families.
This was the lifestyle of Mammadkhan Abbasov, a 103-year-old boy from the village of Jangamiran. Sitting on the carpet, in front of the window, the centenarian has almost completely lost his sight and barely hears his son tell him that guests have arrived, but when he finally catches him, he begins to sing, to offer prayers and good wishes.
Next to Abbasov is his great-grandson, with a gap of a century between them.
Like Qambarova, Abbasov has been a busy villager all his life, working in the fields until about seven years ago, when his eyesight deteriorated.
‘Whatever God gives’
Lerik is a testament to the benefits of fresh mountain air.
“He’s always been a good man and lived his life right,” says his son.
As for food, he eats “what God gives him” with only one restriction: he never drinks alcohol.
Abbasov attributes his long life to daily physical activity, not to the point of exhaustion, but enough to challenge the body.
Along with a good diet of farm produce, he also used to drink gallons of icy spring water, rich in minerals said to contribute to longevity.
Headache-inducing mountain altitudes can also be a factor.
The ages of some of these celebrated centenarians may still be disputed, but here in Lerik their legacy lives on through people who still follow Lerik’s simple secret to longevity: physical activity, good nutrition, plenty of water and a attitude towards life that says: We only live once, but if we do it right, once is enough.
Museum of Longevity, 22 A. Asadullayev Street, Lerik, Azerbaijan; (025) 274-47-11