Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook- Shushi Region

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Shushi is easily accessed from Stepanakert by taking the highway towards Goris for about 20 minutes, passing a series of switchbacks and a tank memorial on your right, dedicated to those who perished in the successful Armenian attack on Shushi on May 9, 1992. Built atop a mountain topped with a massive, horizontal rock, Shushi ★70 (3105p, Շուշի; Şuşa in Az.) is a strategic fortified city with views of the valleys below, and the cultural capital of the wider region until Stepanakert eventually surpassed it. Entering from the first highway off-ramp into Shushi on your left takes you in past the fortress walls depositing you directly in the town square. The second off-ramp into the city leads directly to Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. Either entrance will lead one past many ruined buildings, destroyed after the capture of Shushi (and after the departure of all of the Azeris) out of fear that Shushi could be recaptured by Azerbaijan and once again become an Azeri stronghold.

Shushi has a unique micro-climate which makes it noticeably cooler and wetter than Stepanakert and subject to fog. For this reason it is greener, and home to plentiful huge snails, none of which are being served as escargot in restaurants at this time.

Construction work in 1981 near the city walls on the N revealed khachkars (one dating to 971, another to 1252), gravestone slabs, capitals and traces of a prior settlement. An inscription mentioning Hasan-Jalal indicates this area was part of the Khachen Principality (aka Melikdom). The first known mention of the settlement of Shushi is in an illuminated gospel produced in the town by Ter Manuel in 1428, now on display at the Matenadaran in Yerevan. Several later sources indicate that it became a fortress for the Melik-Shahnazarian ruling dynasty of the Varanda principality and was a lynchpin in Avan Yuzbashi's campaign against Ottoman forces in the 1720s and 1730s, during the Turkish invasion of southern Caucasus. Control then turned over to Muslim ruler Panah-Ali Khan Javanshir, who around 1750 built the fortification walls we see today and called it Panahabad. While the cliffs surrounding the city create a strong natural fortress, the 2.5km long fortified walls complete the job. Sources disagree on what existed in the spot before the walls were built; some say that it was an uninhabited place without buildings and others saying it was already occupied. Panah-Ali died captive in Shiraz, leading to his son Ibrahim-Khalil's rule, during which the town received it's present name of Shushi, which some theorize originates from the name of the nearby Armenian village of Shosh. During his rule the town grew rapidly, reaching about 10,000 people by the end of the 1700s. He eventually had to submit to Persia and become a tributary despite a successful defense of Shushi in 1795 during a 33 day seige by a large Persian army. Defeat during a second siege in 1797 led to his escape to Dagestan, then return upon the sudden death of the attacking shah in Shushi just days later. Ibrahim-Khalil gave his daughter as one of the wives of the new shah in order to help secure peace.

Russian rule came effectively in 1813 with the treaty of Gulistan between Russia and Persia. A 1823 Russian survey of the five traditional highland Armenian principalities (Khachen, Jalapert/Jraberd, Dizak, Gulistan, Varanda) indicated a total of 69 Armenian villages and 7 Tatar (Azeri). This survey preceded the large migration of Armenians from the Persian Empire to the newly formed Armenian province beginning in 1828.

Beginning in the 1830s the town was divided into two parts, with Turkic-speaking Muslims living in the 17 eastern lower quarters (each with a mosque, Turkish bath, spring and a council representative), and Armenian Christians in the 12 somewhat newer western upper quarters (with a total of 5 churches, town and district school and girls' seminary). During the 1800s, Shushi was larger and more prosperous than Yerevan or Baku, was the largest center of silk production in the Caucasus, and had carpet-weaving, wine and vodka production, horse-breeders and traders. In the middle of a network of caravan routes, there were 10 caravanserais in the city. George Keppel, the Earl of Albemarle, passed through in 1824 and noted "... The language is a dialect of the Turkish; but its inhabitants, with the exception of the Armenians, generally read and write Persian. The trade is carried on principally by the Armenians, between the towns of Sheki, Nakshevan, Khoy and Tabriz."

1905 saw the first clashes began between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Shushi, with the mutual violence leading to hundreds dead and 200 houses burnt. After WWI, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan claiming the region, Karabakh was briefly occupied by British troops, who placed an Azeri named Sultanov as governor general, who used terror, blockade and famine to try to force local Armenians to submit to Azeri rule. On June 5, 1919, 600 Armenians will killed by Azeri/Kurdish forces in the villages surrounding Shushi. Armenians revolted, which was put down by Azerbaijan's army. In late March of 1920, the Armenian half of the police force of Shushi executed the Azerbaijani half, actions organized by forces of the Armenian Republic. This in turn led to the Shushi pogrom of Armenians in March 1920, with thousands of Armenians killed, and others forced to flee, leaving the Armenian quarter destroyed and the city without Armenians. Azerbaijani communist Ojahkuli Musaev gives the following account: "... the ruthless destruction of defenseless women, children, old women, old men, etc has begun. Armenians were exposed to a mass slaughter. ... beautiful Armenian girls were raped, then shot. ... By the order of ... Khosrov-bek Sultanov; the pogroms proceeded for more than six days. Houses in the Armenian part have been partially demolished, plundered and reduced all to ashes, everyone led away women to submit to the wishes of executioner musavatists. During these historically artful forms of punishment, Khosrov-bek Sultanov, spoke about holy war (jihad) in his speeches to the Moslems, and called on them to finally finish the Armenians of the city of Shusha, not sparing women, children, etc."

The crowning of Stepanakert as Karabakh's new capital by the Soviets led to a further reduction in Shushi's importance, and the town remained half ruined in 1961, when the government in Baku decided to demolish much of the ruins of the Armenian part of town, along with 3 Armenian churches and 1 Russian. The Armenian part of the city was replaced with buildings typical of the Khruschev era. Around that time Shushi began to slowly revive as a resort town. Meanwhile, by 1940 Shushi's formerly expelled Armenians had grown once again to over a quarter of the population, before declining to 13% by 1979.

At the beginning of the Karabakh war, Shushi was an important Azeri stronghold which Armenians were forced to leave when ethnic tensions rose. From their strategic vantage point, Azeris rained bombs down upon Armenian settlements in all directions, including Stepanakert. The capture of Shushi on May 9, 1992 was therefore an important turning point in the war. And while the Azeri population was allowed to flee through a corridor towards Lachin during the assault, the relatively intact town was once again devastated after the capture by fire and demolition. Today, Shushi remains a shell of its former self, with a few thousand Armenian residents.

Wandering around and exploring the mostly ruined-town, which still manages to preserve a lot of historic buildings and architecture is rewarding. Shushi has a lot of interesting things to see, and here are some of the more interesting, in no particular order:

Surp Amenaprkich Ghazanchetsots Cathedral
  • Ghazanchetsots Surb Amenaprkich Cathedral ☆ - a large (35m high) and beautiful 1868-1887 white stone structure, which saw post-war restoration -- note that the stained glass windows now depict rockets. The separate three story bell tower structure with life sized trumpeters (now on the Shushi coat of arms) was built by Abraham Khandamiryants.
  • Jdrduz or Katarot ★ ⟪39.751633, 46.756205⟫ - on the SE edge of town, near the cemetery is the famous viewpoint along the sheer cliffs known popularly as Jdrduz (Jidir Duzu means "horse race field" in Azeri), with truly breathtaking views of the Karkar/Hunot canyon below. A must-see.
  • Yukhari ("Upper") Govhar Agha Mosque ☆ - completed in 1885 by the architect Karbalayi Safikhan Karabakhi/Garabaghi by order of Govhar Agha, daughter of Ibrahim Khalil Khan. Served as the town museum in late Soviet period beginning in 1969. Some post-war restoration was done by Iranian experts hired by Artsakh's Ministry of Economy.
  • Fortress walls - the first thing you see upon your approach to Shushi, it has multiple gates and is surprisingly well preserved.
  • Town Square - this small square has a statue of Vazgen Sargsyan seated on a bench, and is adjacent to the 19c city park leading to the highrise Avan Shushi Plaza Hotel.
  • Hamam - behind some buildings adjacent to the main square is a restored Turkish bath which may or may not be open for bathing.
  • Rug Museum - next to the Avan Shushi Plaza Hotel on Ghazanchetsots St. is a rug museum, with fine examples from Shushi and the region.
  • Kanach Jham (Green Church, aka Verin Tagh Church) - of 1818, a much simpler, smaller church which also saw post-war restoration. During late Soviet period served as a mineral water tasting room.
  • Meghretsots Church - the end of this church with the altar remains standing. The remainder of this church properly known as Surb Amenaprkich was built in 1833 and was ruined in the 1960s.
  • Covered Market (shuka) - restored 19c market/inn sits empty in central Shushi.
  • Ashaghi ("Lower") Govhar Agha Mosque - with red and white diagonally striped minarets, this mosque can be hard to spot behind other structures, but is just 240m away, on Adamyan Street, off Varanda Street. It was built by the architect Karbalaei Safi Khan Gharabaghi at the expense of Govhar Agha in the years 1874-1875 (completed approximately 8 years prior to the upper mosque). Largely intact, but in poor condition.
  • Saatli Mosque - this small mosque completed in 1883 (like the upper mosque, also by architect Karbalayi Safikhan Garabaghi) is located on the corner, across the street from the rug museum.
  • Water Fountain - a traditional water fountain at the opposite end of Varanda Street from the upper mosque illustrates how locals once got their water supply.
  • Shushi History Museum ⟪39.75668, 46.75353⟫ - restored by the Tufenkian Foundation, this museum provides an insightful glimpse into a traditional Shushi home of the past
  • Adjacent to Jdrduz are the ruins of the once 18m Molla Panah Vagif Mausoleum ⟪39.755477, 46.758365⟫, built 1977-1982 for the Azeri poet and prominent statesman of the Karabakh Khanate. Inaugurated by then First Secretary of Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, later president of independent Azerbaijan.

For those wanting to delve deeper, there are many other old buildings in various states of repair including an 1860s prison, mansions, rug factory, caravanserai, spring monuments, etc.

Gone are Aghuletsots Surb Amenaprkich Church, and Kusanats Convent Church, also known as Anapat. The latter once had a two-story residence for girls, which was bulldozed in the 1960-70s. The Russian church which was approximately at the site of the covered market is also gone. Haji Gulu's Mansion is mostly in ruins as well. The condition of the Azeri artist Bulbul's house museum is unknown, and the contents presumably looted. Bulbul's bust has apparently made its way to the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani poetess Khurshudbanu Natavan's large house has no roof and is in abandoned condition. The condition of composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s House-Museum is also unknown, but all of the contents were safely transported to Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s House-Museum in Baku.

On the approach to Shushi, rather than turning left at the lower entrance towards Shushi, there is a good dirt road heading downhill. Follow this to the bottom for a nice picnic spot with a historic bridge and river (another historic bridge is found elsewhere on the river, one of which is 13c, the other 17c). Cross the bridge and turn right to reach the tiny hamlet of Ghaybalishen, with Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Virgin) church, which according to the inscription was built “In the summer of 1696”.

While Shushi is built on a huge rock, below the rock you'll find the village Karintak (570p, Քարին Տակ, literally "Below the Rock"; Daşaltı in Az.). The turnoff for Karintak on the Stepanakert-Goris highway is soon after the second highway exit to Shushi, where you begin the descent to Karintak. Since Shushi was just above this village, and was the last Azeri stronghold to be captured, this village saw a great deal of destruction during the war, with accompanying loss of life. The villagers are proud of their role scaling the cliffs during the surprise attack on Shushi that led to its capture. Most of the village was rebuilt since the war ended, leaving little of the historic architecture. The old village square however is partially preserved, and shows some of the traditional pre-Soviet architecture of the region, similar to that of old Shushi. The plain parish church was founded in 1816 in the place of a previously existing chapel. This common vaulted hall is built mainly from untrimmed stone, and was restored by Land and Culture Organization workers and volunteers in 1999-2000. The village offers beautiful scenery, hikes, a stream, and friendly villagers. Crossing the stream towards Avetaranots is the plain stone Simonents Bridge ⟪39.7399, 46.7503⟫, with the inscription, "I had this bridge built. Servant of Christ Hakob Simonov, in the year 1838.". The stream has some swimming holes and the stunning mossy Zontik Waterfall ★ (proper name is Mamrot Kar) is an almost one hour hike downstream along the Janapar Trail. The whole area is great for camping, and the massive vertical rock above Karintak seems perfect for rock-climbers. There are some trails up to Shushi that will get you there in under an hours hike.

Hiking beyond Zontik Waterfall in Hunot/Karkar Canyon, or down from Shushi, you will find the remains of Hunot Village, once a prosperous milling town founded in the 18c, it declined and was abandoned in the 1930s. The 25m Hunot bridge ☆ ⟪39.761195, 46.766632⟫ of 1720, a church much like Karintak's, mills, a cemetery and old homes can be found in various states of ruin. Also in the canyon are a number of caves, some of them inhabited by man as far back as the 2nd millennium BC. The largest is Avana Karan Cave, measuring 78 meters deep, up to 15m wide, and with a height ranging from 7-10m. Red signposted hiking signs may still be found leading to Avana Karan and Zuyg caves. Other named caves include Meliki, Hunoti, Aleksana, Yughoniki, Tsrten, Apun, Mosunts, and Əlkhol (Ըլկհոլ).

Upriver from Karintak village, away from Hunot/Karkar Canyon, in the direction of Mt. Kirs, exploration will reveal evidence of old, long abandoned settlements. Cemeteries, half-destroyed churches, monuments and khachkars indicate there were once prosperous settlements here. In an area called Pulur is a beautifully ornamented 13c khachkar, with small 12-15c khachkars found in areas called Khachin Aghbyur, Nvavor Aghbyur, Okhnə Aghbyur, and Tsurt Aghbyur.

Continuing on the Stepanakert-Goris highway past the Karintak turnoff, you almost immediately pass a small hill on your right, with a paved turn-off just after, which you take to the right and head down 2.1km to reach Isahak's Spring. A historic spring that with a picnic site which in Soviet times had a popular cafe named Isabulagh (İsa bulağı, the Azeri name for the spring). There is now a woodsy cafe-restaurant at the spring.

Much further down the Goris highway you pass the ruins of Zarist (Zarıslı in Az) village with nearby ruins of Karahat, which has numerous khachkars. Continuing well down the highway, at a very sharp circular right bend, there is a turnoff left to the small village of Lisagor (99p, Լիսագոր; Turşsu in Az), right off the highway, and visible from it. Once known for healing water, traces of a very old bath house have been found nearby. Driving past the lower part of Lisagor SE and deep into the mountains, the road eventually reaches Kirsavan (22p, Քիրսավան; Köhnəkənd in Az.).

Back along the highway you next reach a turnoff (right) to the tiny settlement of Kanach Tala (9p, Կանաչ Թալա; Yengibar in Az.), 1.5km from the highway, with numerous monuments in the area, including 2 large and 8 small burial mounds, which saw some excavation in Soviet times. The next tiny village of Tasə Verst (15p) comes up on the highway itself.

Just meters after Tasə Verst is the left turnoff to Mets Shen (95p, Մեծ Շեն, previously Metskaladeresi, before that Berdadzor; Böyük Galadərəsi in Az.), in the vicinity of which have been found remains of over 10 churches, numerous chapels, castles, settlements, caravanserais, dwellings, khachkars, gravestones and bridges. A chipped stone church is built on the foundations of an ancient basilica. Following the crest that the village is located on to the SE, you come upon the recently restored Parin Pich church ⟪39.65675, 46.60838⟫ 1 km distant. Historic "Russian" spring is situated in thick forest W of Mets Shen. E of the village is the Khach pass, where an ornamented khachkar is found, in the past considered a relic from the local sacred place. The next analogous khachkar is situated in Jambarakhach area, with the name Karink engraved. In the area known locally as Pulen Glukh are remnants of earthen houses and ruins of a large caravanserai (ijevanatun) with stalls, as this was once an important caravan route from Persia to Russia. The largest cemetery of Mets Shen is named Kaghataghi hangstaran. Found on the left bank of Akari, E from the village, at the SE foot of Khojhoraberd mountain, the gravestones are covered with reliefs of domestic and military theme, ornaments and inscriptions. In the surrounding ancient destroyed settlements, Ilanats and Bghlavar stand out, with noticeable traces of dwellings and larger constructions.

Beyond Mets Shen a long road leads to Hin Shen (169p, Հինշեն, named Kirov in Soviet times), with a chipped stone village church. 3km S of Hin Shen is an area known as Vardot, where traces of various constructions, pieces of capitals and gravestones have been found. This village, and the former village of Yeghtsu Glukh (head of Yeghtsu) once got their water from (preserved) ceramic pipes leading from a spring near the foot of Hamdzasar mountain. East of the village is or was Ziravor-Tsar chapel, with noticeable traces of many dwellings and an ancient cemetery. Another holy place is situated NE of the village, atop mount Hamdzasar, and named after it.

Fortresses in the vicinity of the upper and middle streams of Agari river. Tumasar Fort is situated 3km towards SW of Hin Shen, on the impregnable spur of the high mountain. From here the entire Agari river valley could be kept under observation, until the Araks river. Scant remains of a second fort are situated on the hill near the union of the Shor Jur and Chiman streams. The ravine, stretching below the serf-wall is called Khlen Tak. There were several mills here, belonging to Hin Shen village. Hin Berd - the third fort - is situated on the rise by the W foot of mount Saghsaghan. The forth fort, Oshapi Kar, is situated on the conical rock in the southern side of the same mountain. The cliff-fort is isolated from the surroundings by vertical side-walls of 100-200m. Here too there is a secret passage called Jragoghi Antsk. Oshapi Kar Fort has a number of caves. They are connected with each other by a labyrinth of artificial passages. The fifth "fort", situated N of Hin Shen is not man made, it consists of steep cliffs protecting a rather large territory. The N side of the fort-castle protects Mets Dzor's only vulnerable access road.

Numerous paleontological sites were discovered in areas known as Kapen Dzor, Tsak Kari and Tsllan Aghpyur, where you can find man-made heaps of stone, under which are settlements, known to be houses of primitive man, accessible by going down stone stairs. The homes have light-passages which widen downwards and the settlements are connected to each other by narrow underground corridors.

1.9km past the turnoff for Mets Shen brings you to the post-war spring-monument known as Monument to the Liberators of Artsakh, and almost immediately after is the right-hand turnoff to Yeghtsahogh (306p; Եղծահող, Sarıbaba in Az), with a one-nave basilica church of 1661, cemetery and memorial springs. 1km W of the church is a large cemetery, after which the area is known as Gerezmanatun. Low remains of a chapel and a number of khachkars can be found here. Surb Sargis church is on a promontory a few dozen meters S of the village.

In the general area was also the place known as Yughutants Gom (barn), where they not only kept cattle, but also made gun-powder, and bred thoroughbred Karabakh horses. Also in the area is a one-span bridge of trimmed white stone with an inscription dating it to 13c over which the old road to Armenia passed.

In the far SW corner of Shushi region is the ruined Hunanav (Հունանավ, Unannovu in Az.) village, extremely cut off from the rest of the region, and more logically a part of Kashatagh region.

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