Our Shusha

Shusha – From foundation to the occupation

Karabakh is part of Aran, an ancient area once known as Caucasian Albania. The place name Karabakh (Qarabağ) is a combination of two Azerbaijani words “gara”, meaning black, and “bağ”, meaning garden, and first appears in historical sources 1,300 years ago. One of the world’s most ancient human settlements, the Azykh cave, is in Karabakh. An early Neanderthal jawbone found here in the 1960s is thought to be over 300,000 years old, and spawned the term Azykh Man. Archaeological excavations in the caves near Shusha found Stone Age tools. This land has been part of successive historical Azerbaijani states, such as the Median Empire, Caucasian Albania and the Karabakh Khanate. Karabakh is famous for its heritage and folklore, its horses, the silk that it exported to Russia and Europe, its jewelry and weaponry. Shusha was the center of the Karabakh school of carpet-weaving, one of the main Azerbaijani carpet schools. Karabakh carpets are known for their floral and geometric designs. The unique landscape of Karabakh also produced medicinal healing waters.

The Roman historian Tacitus (2nd century AD) mentions the city of Sosu located in the Caucasus and belonging to a Turkic tribe. According to local legend, the city was named Shusha for its healing air, as clean as glass (“shusha”- “şüşə” – in Azerbaijani means glass). There are places with similar names in different parts of Azerbaijan and in the North Caucasus.

The city came under attack a few years later when Panah Khan’s son, Ibrahim Khan, was in power. Mohammad Shah of the Gajar dynasty surrounded Shusha with his army. Legend says that the Shah wrote a letter in verse to Ibrahim Khan, khan of Karabakh, saying: “Look, God is “pouring stones” on your head from heaven. How can you sit in that “glass fortress”?” What he meant was, “We’re going to shatter your city to pieces, as though it were made of glass.” Ibrahim Khan’s answer was: “I know that God will protect me even in this ‘glass’.” The city withstood the attack, heroically defended by its population. After that, the city came to be known as “Shusha”. The place name “Shusha” can also be found in modern Iran in the areas inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis. The fortress of Shusha was built on the territory of an ancient Azerbaijani town. The archeologists from Institute of History (Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences) defined Shusha as an old place of residence, destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 13th century. In his work on the history of Karabakh (Tarikh-e Qarabagh), Azerbaijani historian Mirza Jamal Javanshir, who worked in the service of the Karabakh khans, mentioned the ruins of that ancient town: “Khan sent his people for the inspection of the fortress and surrounding territories […] Khan came here with his people to learn about the place and decided to fortify the tower”. This indicates that the old fortress was restored and reinforced by Karabakh ruler Panah Ali Khan in 1750. The Shusha fortress was the capital of Karabakh from 1756 to 1822.

Shusha Castle implies the castle walls embracing the Shusha city of Azerbaijan. The Castle defended the city against the foreign invasions, and over a long period of time had been a symbol of impregnability. Though the Castle had been besieged for a long time during Agha Mahammad Shah Gajar’s attack to the South Caucasus, it could not be seized.

There is no accurate information about the foundation of Shusha Castle. The founder of the Karabakh Khanate, Panahali Khan Javanshir took up building a reliable residence for himself after gaining independence in 1747. Previously constructed Bayat and Shahbulag Castles not fully meeting the time’s defense standards, Panahali Khan first of all summoned the State Board to decide for constructing a new Castle. The Board members advised: “Let us build such everlasting ad unassailable Castle in a strong and impassable highland area that no enemy could be- siege it. One of the Castle’s sides should be open to the highlanders, and our communications with the neighborhoods shouldn’t be broken”. Allowing all these requirements come true, a natural stronghold, the Shusha summer pasture was chosen the new residence place. Historians stress the city-castle being constructed after Bayat (1748) and Shahbulag (1752), yet the date they indicate 1756-57 is not accepted due to discrepancies from outer historical sources. To clarify the issue, information found out in the 19th century’s Russian sources by E. Avalov is very valuable. It is stated that Shusha’s foundation by Panahali Khan in 1753 was mentioned in an inscription placed on one of the Juma Mosque’s walls. This stone inscription had been taken off during the following reconstruction. According to this lost inscription, Shusha Castle was founded in 1753.

The castle has a strategically favourable location. Thus Shusha Castle is located in the mountainous area. The Shusha plateau is 1600 meters the highest and approx. 1300 meters the lowest above the sea level. This area is covered by deep brooks flowing into the Dashalti and Halfali rivers’ beds. Taking into account the unfavourable geographical position of Bayat and Shahbulag castles, Panahali Khan, the Khan of Karabakh Khanate, enacted a decree on reconstruction of Shusha castle in 1753, and the centre of the Karabagh khanate was transferred to Shusha castle.

Constructing Castle walls was only required in the North-East of the plateau, the natural defense resources weak. So, it came possible to develop a large city (350 hectares) with strong defense meeting the age’s strategic demands at low cost as a result of very successful choosing the location. In its early years the city-castle was called after the founder, Panahaliabad (“Panahali City”). However, it was renamed as “Shusha Castle” shortly after, due to the natural shape of the location.

Among Azerbaijan’s khanate capitals of the age, Shusha was the best to fit a “city-castle”. “Rising over an unreachable rock” (G. Keppel), Shusha’s entire composition resembles city-castles depicted in ancient Midian wall drawings (9th century BC). Having stood a number of strong attacks and sieges since its construction, Shusha was Karabakh’s main Castle known as that from the capital letter among people.

Shusha Castle is one of the most beautiful pieces of the Azerbaijani architecture. The castle is constructed in Arran style of architecture. Mainly the local stone, lime and yolk mixture were used in construction of the castle. The walls of Shusha Castle that was built on defensive purpose are about 8 km long, 5 meters high and over 2 meters thick. The Casatle initially had four gates, but one of them was later closed. It is assumed that that gate is supposed to be removed during reconstruction of the castle walls by Ibrahimkhalil Khan. The names of three gates – Ganja, Aghoghlan and Revan gates have survived to our time. The gate that was used for horse-drawn carriages was the main entrance to the Castle. The other two gates were used as secret entry and exit points during wars and difficult times. These gates faced north and west, and were therefore called Ganja-Chilabord and Revan (Iravan) gates, respectively.

The Castle has a circular guard towers. At close quarters of the Castle there is a bridge of fine architectural qualities connecting it with outside world. The bridge is known as Gala Bridge (“Gala” means castle).

The town included “Old” and “New Shusha”, and its population was almost entirely Azerbaijani. The fortress established Shusha as the military, political, economic, and cultural center of the Karabakh Khanate. Its location along with the fortress walls helped to protect Shusha from invasion.

In the early 18th century, Armenians started to migrate in small groups from Iran to Karabakh and settled in the suburbs of Shusha. Mass Armenian resettlement in Karabakh took place in the first half of the 19th century. Under the Gulustan and Turkmenchay treaties of 1813 and 1828, which put an end to the war between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan was divided into two parts. Northern Azerbaijan was occupied by Tsarist Russia, and South Azerbaijan by Iran. From 1828 to 1880 more than 40,000 Armenians were moved from Maragha, Salmas, Khoy and other regions of Iran to Karabakh and Western Azerbaijan in order to bolster the security of the Russian Empire. The resettlement is mentioned in official state documents from the 19th century, including the annual statistics provided in the Caucasus Calendar. When the Karabakh Khanate was abolished in 1822, Shusha became the center of Karabakh Province, and in 1840 the center of the Shusha District (uyezd). According to documents drawn up by Russian officials in the early 19th century, Azerbaijanis constituted the majority of the town’s population. Russia’s forced policy of Armenianization in the South Caucasus significantly influenced the status and demographic of Shusha. In 1823, the Russian administration prepared a “Description of the Karabakh province”, which provided statistics on the population of the region and its ethno-religious composition. Based on these statistics, there were 600 villages, of which 450 were Muslim and only 150 registered as Armenian. (“Description of the Karabakh province”, composed in 1823 by order of the chief superintendent in Georgia Ermolov, real state councilor and Mogilev Colonel Ermolov 2nd. Tbilisi, 1866, p.415) According to this reliable source, in 1823, only 4,366 out of 20,035 families living in Karabakh were Christian.

Russian military historian V.A. Potto notes that the first great migration of Armenians in Karabakh happened in 1828. He writes that on March 16 1828, 40,000 Armenian families left Iran for the Yerevan region. However, due to a shortage of bread, 5000 families – the first group of settlers – had to wait a long time on the bank of the Araks [Araz River], and were eventually sent to Karabakh. (V.A. Potto. “Caucasus war, Persian War 1826-1828”, Volume 3, Stavropol, 1993, s.591). The 1828 resettlement of Armenians in the Muslim province of South Caucasus, including Karabakh, was governed by Article XV of the Turkmenchay contract. (Collected Laws of the Russian Empire. T. III, St. Petersburg. 1830, p. 130).

An important Russian researcher published a book in 1911 in which, using the documents, he points out that in the years 1828-1830, 40,000 Armenians from Iran and 84,600 Armenians from Turkey settled in the Caucasus. They were accommodated in Yelizavetpol and Yerevan provinces, where previously the number of Armenians had been close to zero.

In 1918, after the first Armenian state was established on Western Azerbaijani territories with its capital in Yerevan, Azerbaijanis were deported from their historic motherland. Azerbaijani cultural heritage – artifacts, handicrafts, places of worship, holy tombs and even cemeteries – were destroyed, and place names changed. Across the entire 20th century, and especially during the last two decades, Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people suffered as a result of this “hospitality” towards the Armenians, as so aptly predicted by Russia’s ambassador to Iran A. Griboyedov.

Shusha was known as the “Conservatory of the East” and the “Cradle of Azerbaijani Music” thanks to its incomparable contribution to Azerbaijani culture and music. The town is the birthplace of many outstanding Azerbaijani musicians, composers, conductors, philosophers and writers.

The list of eminent Azerbaijanis born in Shusha includes Ahmad Aghayev, one of founding fathers of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), the first democratic republic in the East; Uzeyir Hajibayov, composer of the ADR anthem and the first opera in the East; composers and singers Fikrat Amirov and Zulfugar Hajibayov, Bulbul and Rashid Behbudov; internationally renowned carpet-designers and artists such as Latif Karimov; and the General of the Imperial Russian Army Samad Mehmandarov. Famous French writer Alexandre Dumas père visited Azerbaijan in 1858, where he was beaten at chess by Khurshudbanu Natavan (1832-1897), the Khan’s Daughter, Princess of the Karabakh Khanate. A prominent poet, Natavan, was the granddaughter of Shusha ruler Ibrahim Khan Javanshir. Natavan owned Karabakh’s first stud farm, laid the first water mains in Shusha and accomplished a great deal in the areas of health and education. Dumas presented to Natavan the chess set and a small bust of Napoleon brought from France. She, in turn, presented him a piece of her embroidery. Dumas was fascinated by the delicacy of the handwork, describing it as “the most precious gift”. Duma recounted these adventures in his Voyage to the Caucasus (Le Caucase: Impressions de voyage, pub: 1859).

The Karabakh history museum, carpet museum, sculpture museum, art gallery, medicinal herbs collection and the homes of Natavan, Bulbul and Mir Mohsun Navvab housed unique exhibits of Azerbaijani history and culture. There were 248 architectural monuments, 160 works of art, 549 historic buildings officially registered in Shusha, as well as 17 district springs or wells, six caravanserais, three holy shrines, two mosques, two castles and the town’s fortified walls. Shusha embodied the memories of centuries gone by, streets trodden by some of Azerbaijan’s finest sons and daughters, a living chronicle. It was no surprise when in 1977 Shusha was designated a historical and architectural reserve.

In the Soviet era, Shusha developed as a famous historical, cultural and tourism center. The Armenians did not give up their claims on Shusha during this period. Shusha District was established in 1930, but following the efforts of Armenia’s patrons in Moscow, Shusha District was abolished on 4 January 1963 and was added to Stepanakert (former Khankandi) District. On 6 January 1965, Shusha District was restored. In these years Shusha became one of the best-known tourism and resort centers in the former Soviet Union. The mountains of Shusha were known for their unique scenery and clean air. There were festivals and days of Azerbaijani music, which attracted tourists from around the world.