Shusha, city of marvels

“When our famous forefathers, O Khan, came to this land, where they acquired a great and dreaded name, they cried out: “Kara bak!” – “See, there’s snow!” Since then this land is called Karabagh. Its older name was Syunik. Because you have to know, O Khan, that our homeland is very old and famous. The karaulis, dark spirits, live in our mountains, and they keep immeasurable treasure. Our forests have sacred stones, and sacred sources spring up there. We have everything. Go to the town, look around – is there anyone working? Almost no one! Is anyone sad? Nobody! Is anyone sober? No one! You will be amazed, my young sir!

“I was indeed amazed, at how great of liars these people are. There is no fairy tale they would not invent to glorify their homeland. Just yesterday, a portly Armenian tried to convince me that the Christian church of Maras in Shusha is five thousand years old.

“Shusha is the city of marvels. It was built in the mountains, at a height of five thousand meters, in the embrace of forests and rivers. Armenians and Muslims live here peacefully side by side. For centuries it was a bridge between the countries of the Caucasus, Persia and Turkey. The locals, with amiably childish exaggeration, like to call their small adobe huts ‘palaces.’ They are never bored of sitting next to their doors, smoking their pipes, and telling to each other again and again how many times the generals of Karabagh saved the Russian empire and the Tsar himself, and what a terrible fate would have befallen them, had they put anyone else in charge of their protection.”

Kurban Said: Ali and Nino, 1938. (The Azeri novel, written in Paris exile, tells about pre-1914 Shusha.)

Late in the afternoon we arrive in the city of Shusha, in Azeri Şuşa, in Armenian Shushi. The adobe huts have long disappeared, and Soviet panel blocks occupy their places. Of the palaces, the two-story houses built of carved stone in the 18th and 19th century, many still stand in the old town. What they have in common is that they stand wholly or partially without roofs, and burned out.

As we climb the steep streets, we understand why Shusha was the key to Stepanakert in the Karabagh war, why the Azerbaijani artillery persisted here even in February 1992, when the Armenian army had already marched into neighboring Khojaly, cutting them off from their airport and slaying the Azeri population of the town, why the Armenian headquarters in Stepanakert undertook to besiege and take the mountain town at the cost of a massive loss of blood, and why the destruction of 8-9 May, the Day of Victory, also brought them the victory over Karabagh. We look down from the remains of the city wall. Six hundred meters below us, just a few kilometers away, lies the capital of Karabagh, which, from 10 January on, was bombarded for four months by Azerbaijani artillery, destroying almost all the houses and killing about two thousand civilians.

The main reason for the destruction of Shusha was not so much the short siege, but rather the Armenian civilians who, following the invading army, looted and burned the flats of the Azeri population that had fled the city. But this was not the first destruction of Shusha in this century. After the first world war, during the territorial conflict of the briefly independent Armenian and Azerbaijani states, at the end of March 1920, the Azerbaijani army and the Azeri inhabitants of Shusha massacred the Armenian population of the town for four days and ruined the Armenian quarter. Of the seventeen churches praised by Kurban Said, only two remained, which, for a lack of believers, survived the Soviet system by being converted into store houses. Of the 45 thousand strong pre-war population only five thousand remained. And so Osip Mandelstam could write these lines as late as 1931, during his Caucasian journey:

…Так, в Нагорном Карабахе,
В хищном городе Шуше
Я изведал эти страхи,
Соприродные душе.

Сорок тысяч мертвых окон
Там видны со всех сторон
И труда бездушный кокон
На горах похоронен.
...And in Nagorno-Karabagh,
in the destroyed city of Shusha,
I saw things that were
equally terrible to the soul.

Forty thousand dead windows
yawn on every side, and the
empty cocoon of former working
lies on the mountain as a graveyard.

Shusha, ruins of the Armenian quarter, ca. 1920

Today, the situation is reversed. The Armenian cathedral has been restored, just as have several houses in its neighborhood. Here live the four thousand inhabitants of the town – which had 15 thousand people before 1992 –, mainly Armenians who fled Azerbaijan. Today it is the Azeri quarter that is dead.

Arriving in the former market square, it feels as if we have left the town. The asphalt ends, we are stumbling in the mud, between deep puddles of melting snow. The windows of the panel blocks yawn black and empty. The Soviet house of culture has only the facade left, with the Stalin Baroque tympanum. At the end of the square still there is standing the Upper Mosque, built in 1787. The black plaque in front of it announces that it is under state protection. Indeed, the small Azeri cemetery in its garden has not been ravaged, in contrast to the cemetery of Julfa. State protection, however, does not protect against time, which is slowly consuming the mosaic facing of the minarets, and the arches and brick facade of the mosque. On photos from 2007 the minarets still have their roofs. Today we only see a strange structure in the place of them, which probably served to lower down the roofs when they were at risk of falling of their own accord.

Shusha, Upper Mosque, 1988

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Below the market place, behind the former house of culture, lies the Lower Mosque, built in 1874, now in similar condition. Children play in the courtyard. When they catch sight of us, they turn to us with an unabashed confidence, showing us the armory they have collected from under the neighboring ruins. “Azeris. They have been left here by the Azeris.” “And where did they go?” “Back to Azerbaijan.” “And you came from there?” “Not at all. We are from Shushi. We are no bezhentsy, refugees!”

They show us the secret stairs up the minarets and to the top of the domes. The arches of the building are still intact from below, but from above you can see that between the exposed domes, left without a roof, saplings grow, which will in time pierce the brick vaults.

Our companions follow us, they want to show us everything. “These all were Persian houses.” “Not Azeri ones?” “No, no. The Azeris lived there. Here lived the Persians.” “And what happened to them?” “They have also gone.” “And there was the prison,” they point at the ruined basement of the house of culture. We do not ask who detained whom there.

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As we go back on the main street, we check, following the counsel of Mustafa Agha, whether anyone is working. We are pleased to see that there is some work going on in almost every doorway, they are packing donkeys, cutting meat, sewing and making pots, a photographer is capturing in his studio, how it was when in Shusha Armenians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side.

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“O Khan”, said Mustafa Agha. “Your ancestors waged wars, but you sat in the House of Wisdom, and you’re an educated man. So you have heard about arts. The Persians are proud of Saʿadi, Hafez and Ferdowsi, the Russians of Pushkin, and in the far away West, there lived a poet called Goethe, who wrote a poem about the devil.”

“Are all these poets from Karabagh, too?” I asked him.

“No, my noble sir, but our poets are better, even if they are not willing to close their words into the prison of dead letters. They are too proud to write down their poems. They sing them.”

Qubanin ag almasi (White apples of Quba), in Bayati Shiraz mugham modus, sung by Miralan Miralanov. From the album Azerbaijani love songs. Karabagh, and particularly Şuşa were considered the center of traditional Azeri mugham music.

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