Documenting destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage

Part 2: Counting secular cultural loss: Shusha

[Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of a series of contributions concerning preservation of Azerbaijani (broadly conceived) cultural heritage sites.]

By AzStudies Collective, December 26, 2020

Suggested citation: AzStudies Collective. 2020. “Counting secular cultural loss: Shusha.” In Documenting destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage: Part 2. Medium.com, December 26.

The hilltop town of Şuşa / Shusha has a special meaning for Azerbaijanis.

A historical capital of Karabakh, it has been variously described as the “heart of Karabakh”, the “music capital of Azerbaijan”, and the “music conservatory of the Caucasus”.

Home to 19,036 ethnic Azerbaijanis (1,377 ethnic Armenians) (1989 census), Shusha’s loss meant humiliation for most Azerbaijanis, for whom the city was an important — perhaps even inalienable — part of Azerbaijani national identity and pride. The city was home to over a hundred of Azerbaijani cultural, intellectual and literary figures, including Natavan, Gasim Bey Zakir, and Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli (writing under Kurban Said pseudonym); famous composers and musicians that gave birth to musical genres among them Bulbul (Nightingale), Rashid Behbudov, Niyazi, Fikret Amirov, and Uzeyir Hajibeyov. Hajibeyov (sometimes spelled Hajibeyli), a prominent Azerbaijani modernist intellectual in the early 20th century and composer of the first Azerbaijani opera (premiered in 1908) hails from the village of Agjabedi near Shusha.

Shusha city before the war

The rise of Shusha as a center of cultural life is attributed to the Javanshirs, the ruling family of the Qarabağ / Karabagh Khanate. Under its founder Panah Ali Khan (r.1748–1760), the Karabagh Khanate with its center in Shusha became the most powerful khanate in Azerbaijan. The Javanshir family fostered culture and learning, with many members of the ruling family themselves prominent poets and scholars (Rice 2018). The last heir of the khanate, Khurshidbanu Natavan referred to as “khan qizi” (“khan’s daughter”), was head of Shusha’s literary assembly the Mejlis-i Uns and is considered one of the greatest composers of ghazels in the Azeri language (Rice 2018).

Apparently Natavan hosted and beat at a game of chess Alexandre Dumas, the famous French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Khurshidbanu Natavan (1832–1897) / Source: in public domain

After the city fell to the Armenian armed forces in the early 1990s, Azerbaijani cultural heritage sites and hundreds of cultural and religious monuments became victims of brutal treatment.

“When captured on 9 May 1992 by Armenian forces, the Azeri population fled, while the city [Shusha] was looted and burned. Estimates suggest that, by 2002, 80% of the city still lay in ruins.” — observes writer Owen Vince (2015)

Many monuments, museums, mosques, libraries, memorial sites and theaters were left to rot at best, but often vandalized, replaced by new “Armenian” monuments or simply and tragically wiped out, leaving no chance of restoration.

Jury is still out to name the actual scale of cultural loss and destruction in Shusha, but it is estimated that already in 2007, more than a decade ago, at least 198 recognized historical and architectural monuments, 15 museums and memorial complexes, 28 libraries, 8 houses of culture and other cultural objects in Shusha were either destroyed or whose status is at best unknown (Imranly 2007).

The sheer scale of destruction indicates a systematic policy of eradication of traces of Azerbaijani cultural presence in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and Armenia itself. Hundreds of original Turkic (Azerbaijani language is part of a Turkic family of languages) toponyms were replaced with Armenian names, and many mosques — the places of Muslim prayer for devouts among local Azerbaijanis — were persianized and turned into cultural centers. Azerbaijanis were the largest ethnic minority in Armenia, yet none of the monuments listed as minority monuments under protection of the Armenian state includes or mentions Azerbaijani heritage sites in Armenia (see Kharatyan 2019).

As a result, Azerbaijani cultural and religious heritage was “savagely damaged and ruined” by Armenia in and around Upper Karabakh. Despite the ceasefire agreement, Armenian settlers — many from foreign countries, such as Lebanon and Syria — who were asked to vacate the occupied districts of Azerbaijan where they were placed in violation of international norms continued to destroy and pillage civilian infrastructure, vandalize historical and cultural monuments, illegally log trees and export them to Armenia, and burn down homes in an apparent attempt to “destroy history and inflict long-term damage”.

This essay looks at some of the most prominent secular cultural sites (on Mosques, see Part 1) in the city of Shusha. [Note: this list is incomplete and will be updated as new information becomes available.]

  1. Zülfüqar Hacıbəyovun evi / House of composer Zulfugar Hajibeyov (1884–1950), co-founder of Azerbaijan Music Comedy Theater. After the occupation of the city by the Armenian armed forces, the house was destroyed. Today only the ruins remain.
House of Zulfugar Hajibeyov
House of Zulfugar Hajibeyov after Armenian occupation / Source: Virtual Karabakh

2. Şuşa real məktəbi (1881) / Shusha Realni School, one of the first secular schools in the region. Status: destroyed and vandalized by Armenia.

Realni school
Realni School after Armenian occupation / Source: Kavkaz Uzel, January 20, 2020

3. Zöhrabbəyovların evi / The Zohrabbayovs mansion in Shusha (19th c.), Mirzə Salah bəy Zöhrabbəyov was an eminent educator from Shusha:

Zohrabbayovs mansion/ Art Gallery / More images here.
Zohrabbayovs mansion / Art Gallery / Source: Tural Ganjaliyev 2019

4. Şuşa Xalça Muzeyi / Shusha Carpet Museum opened in 1987 in Shusha in an 18th-century mansion owned by General Samad Bey Mehmandarov. Its exhibits were taken to Baku during the war. Status: exiled

Shusha Carpet Museum

5. The mansion of the Hajigululars in central Shusha was built in 1849 by the merchant Gulu Mahammadali oglu. Today only the ruins of a mansion remain.

Hajigululars mansion / Source: Amina Melikova
Hajigululars mansion after it got destroyed by Armenian forces/ Source: @Turkiina, Nov 19, 2020

6. Xurşidbanu Natəvanın evi / Poet Khurshidbanu Natavan’s 18th century house (later museum) in Shusha, Natavan [1832–1897] was a princess of the Karabakh Khanate and a master of poetry. Status: Natavan’s house was looted and destroyed by Armenian armed forces.

Khurshidbanu Natavan’s house (later museum) / Source: @Turkiina, Nov 17, 2020
Khurshidbanu Natavan’s house (later museum) / Source: @Turkiina, Nov 17, 2020

7. Mir Möhsün Nəvvab [Mir Mohsun Navvab’s 18th century House], Navvab [1833–1918] was a poet, astronomer, historian and artist who lived and worked in Shusha. Status: abandoned or got destroyed by Armenian forces (no images available).

Mir Mohsun Navvab’s 18th century House / Source: In public domain

A painting by Navvab:

Navvab / Fragment from a painting on a pencil box. Source: Visions.az

8. House museum of Bülbül /Bulbul was inaugurated in 1983 in Şuşa /Shusha. Azerbaijani opera tenor Bulbul was born in and spent his childhood years in this house. Status: The museum got destroyed and plundered by Armenian armed forces.

House Museum of Bulbul
House Museum of Bulbul after occupation / Source: Mahmudov and Mustafayev 2012

9. Xanlıq Muxtar karvansarayı Şuşa / Khanliq Mukhtar Caravansarai (19th century) in Shusha city. Current status: destroyed by Armenian armed forces.

Khanliq Mukhtar Caravansarai
Khanliq Mukhtar Caravansarai after occupation / Source: 1news.az, Dec. 21, 2020

10. Üzeyir Hacıbəylinin ev-muzeyi / Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s House-Museum in Shusha. Hajibeyli (1885 –1948) was a musical genius who at the age of 22 composed the first opera in the Muslim East. Current status: museum had to discontinue operation in 1992 and most exhibits were preserved in Baku. Ruins.

Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s House-Museum
Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s House-Museum: Before/After / Source: Amirova 2020

11. Molla Pənah Vaqifin muzey-məqbərə kompleksi / Museum Mausoleum Complex of Molla Panah Vagif. Vagif was a 18th-century Azerbaijani poet and statesman. Status: severely damaged and looted.

Museum Mausoleum Complex of Molla Panah Vagif
Museum Mausoleum Complex of Molla Panah Vagif / Source: @Turkiina, Nov 19, 2020

12. The 1941–1945 Soviet war memorial in Shusha.

The 1941–1945 Soviet war memorial in Shusha
The 1941–1945 Soviet war memorial in Shusha after occupation / Source: @Turkiina, December 7, 2020

13. Qarabağ xan sarayı /Palace of Karabakh Khans. Status: in ruins.

Palace of Karabakh Khans: Before/ After / Source: in public domain

14. Əbdürrəhim bey Haqverdiyevin evi / House of Abdurrahim bey Hagverdiyev — a prominent Azerbaijani playwright and one of the leading writers for a satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin, an internationally celebrated, distinctly sophisticated satirical magazine that predated Charlie Hebdo by a hundred years. Born in Shusha in 1870, he went to Realni School there (see No.2 above). Status: destroyed.

Abdurrahim bey Hagverdiyev / Source: Bagirov/ IRS 2017
House of Abdurrahim bey Hagverdiyev / Source: Ministry of Culture, 2020

Conclusion

Historically, Shusha has played an immensely important role in the cultural life of Azerbaijanis. During Soviet times, it was the site where both Azerbaijani and Armenian communities co-existed peacefully. However, driven by an ideology of extreme ethnic nationalism, in the 1990s, Armenia seized large swaths of lands from Azerbaijan and pursued the policy of redrawing existing internationally-recognized borders, renaming Azerbaijani place names, and erasing Azerbaijani cultural heritage, both religious and secular.

The extent of Azerbaijani cultural loss inflicted by Armenia is bewildering and shameful, and becomes more evident as Azerbaijan gains access to its formerly occupied regions (for example, completely erased towns of Aghdam, named by a long-term observer the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”, and Fuzuli). While the Armenian side is appealing to protect Armenian heritage in the region — which no doubt contributed to the region’s highly diverse cultural mosaic— it should begin with admitting its own mass-scale efforts to rid Karabakh and current-day Armenia of its Azerbaijani heritage. All cultural heritage should be protected. Repairing what is possible to mend and restore is an important first step in this direction.

Photos:

Most images are taken from the following sources, unless otherwise noted.

Qarabağ həqiqətləri, Baku 2011, https://ebooks.az/book_IyaYDql9.html

Qarabağ — irsimizin əbədi yaddaşı, 2008, https://ebooks.az/book_IP9E53Kn.html

References

Alibeyli, Jamil. Shusha: Heartbeat of Karabakh, Azerbaijan International 6:2 (1998): 52–54. http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/62_folder/62_articles/62_shusha.html

Amirova, Leyla. 11 памятников Шуши до и после оккупации (фото). Москва-Баку, November 23, 2020, https://moscow-baku.ru/news/culture/11_pamyatnikov_shushi_do_i_posle_okkupatsii/

Anar and Ramazan Khalilov. 110th Jubilee: Composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov. Azerbaijan International 3(3), 1995. https://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/33_folder/33_articles/33_hajibeyov.html

Bagirov, Abuzar. Знатный Карабахский интеллигент. IRS, No. 6(90), 2017. https://irs-az.com/new/files/2017/213/2720.pdf

Imranly, Kamala / Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “War against Azerbaijan: Targeting Cultural Heritage”. Baku, 2007. http://anl.az/el_en/w/waa_p1-99.pdf

Khalilov, Anar. Monuments of Karabakh. Baku, online.

Kharatyan, Lusine. “Armenia”. In: The Cultural Heritage of National Minorities in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Caucasus Edition. September 1, 2019. https://caucasusedition.net/policies-on-cultural-heritage-of-national-minorities-in-armenia-azerbaijan-and-georgia/

Mahmudov Yaqub and Camal Mustafayev, Şuşa Pənahabad. Baku 2012. https://ebooks.az/book_PxT1eadm.html

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Damage to cultural heritage, https://mfa.gov.az/en/content/114/damage-to-cultural-heritage#_edn3

Rice, Kelsey. “Forging The Progressive Path: Literary Assemblies and Enlightenment Societies In Azerbaijan, 1850–1928”. Penn PhD Dissertation 2018. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4699&context=edissertations

Safarova, Zemfira. Shusha: The Music Capital of Azerbaijan, AAMF:
Azerbaijan-American Music Foundation, 2018, https://www.aamfusa.org/shusha-the-music-capital-of-azerbaijan/

Taghizadeh, Tahir. Armenia is wiping out Azerbaijani cultural heritage. The Guardian, Letters, Sept. 2, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/armenia-is-wiping-out-azerbaijani-cultural-heritage

Vestnik Kavkaza, Shusha: Caucasus Conservatory, May 9, 2017, https://vestnikkavkaza.net/analysis/Caucasus-conservatory.html

Vince, Owen. Urbicide in Nagorno-Karabakh. Failed Architecture. October 28, 2015. https://failedarchitecture.com/urbicide-in-nagorno-karabakh/

Шушинский, Фирудин, Шуша. Baku, 1968. Link.

© AzStudies Collective 2020

This site aims to publish scholarship & essays on Azerbaijan’s history, culture & politics. Managing editor: F.Guliyev

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