Shusha (Azerbaijani: Şuşa; Armenian: Շուշի, transliterated as Shushi; Russian: Шуша, transliterated as Shusha; also, Shoushi) is a town in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. It has been under the control of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic since its capture in 1992 during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. However, it is internationally recognised as being part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, with the status of an administrative division of Azerbaijan serving as the administrative center of the surrounding rayon of Shusha.
Situated at an altitude of 1400–1800 metres (4,600-5,900 ft) in the picturesque Karabakh mountains, Shusha was a popular mountainous-climatic recreation resort during the Soviet Union. It was the only large settlement in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast with a predominantly non-Armenian population; the population is now almost exclusively Armenian who use the Armenian equivalent of the town's name—Shushi.
Shusha's fortress was built to serve as the capital of Karabakh khanate, and the city was one of the cultural centers of the South Caucasus after the Russian conquest of the region in first half of the 19th century. It was home to many intellectuals, poets, writers and especially, musicians (e.g, the ashugs, mugham singers, kobuz players). In 1977 it was declared reservation of Azerbaijan architecture and history. The city was often referred to as "musical capital or conservatory of Transcaucasia".
The city was also a major center of Armenian cultural and economic life until the closing years of World War I. Along with Tbilisi, it was one of the two main Armenian cities of the Transcaucasus and the center of a self-governing Armenian principality in the 1720's. Furthermore, it had religious and strategic importance to the Armenians, housing the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral (Cathedral of the Holy Savior; Armenian: Սբ. Ամենափրկիչ), the church of Kanatch Zham (Church of the Holy Mother of God; Armenian: Սբ. Աստվածածին) and serving (along with Lachin district to the west) as a land link to Armenia.
The first capital of the Karabakh khanate was castle of Bayat, built in 1748 in the district of Kebirli. However, soon afterwards Panah Ali khan realized that in order to secure himself and his newly-established khanate from external threats, and especially from the invasions from Iran, he needed to build a new more reliable castle.
According to Mirza Jamal Javanshir Karabagi (1773-1853), the author of Karabakh-nameh ('History of Karabakh'), one of the most significant chronicles on the history of Karabakh in 18-19th centuries, the Karabakh nobility assembled to discuss the danger of invasion from Persia (Iran) and told Panah Ali khan: "We must build among the impassable mountains such an inviolable and inaccessible fort, so that no strong enemy could take it". Melik Shahnazar of Varanda, who was the first of Armenian meliks to accept suzerainty of Panah-khan and always remained his loyal supporter, suggested a location for the new fortress. Thus, Panahabad-Shusha was founded. According to the aforementioned chronicle, prior to construction of the fortress by Panah Ali khan there were no buildings at that location and it was used as a cropland and pasture by the people of the nearby Shushakend village.
Less than a year after Shusha was founded, the Karabakh khanate was attacked by Muhammed Hassan khan Qajar, one of the major claimants to the Iranian throne. During the Safavid Empire Karabakh was for almost two centuries ruled by Ziyad-oglu family of the clan of Qajar (of Turkic origin), and therefore, Muhammed Hassan khan considered Karabakh his hereditary estate.
Muhammed Hassan khan besieged Shusha (Panahabad at that time) but soon had to retreat, because of the attack on his khanate by his major opponent to the Iranian throne, Kerim khan Zend. His retreat was so hasty that he even left his cannons under the walls of Shusha fortress. Panah Ali khan counterattacked the retreating troops of Muhammad Hassan khan and even briefly took Ardabil across the Aras River in Iranian Azerbaijan.
In 1756 (or 1759) Shusha and the Karabakh khanate underwent a new attack from Fatali khan Afshar, ruler of Urmia. With his 30,000 strong army Fatali khan also managed to gain support from the meliks (feudal vassals) of Jraberd and Talish (Gulistan), however melik Shahnazar of Varanda continued to support Panah Ali khan. Siege of Shusha lasted for six months and Fatali khan eventually had to retreat.
After Panah Ali khan's death his son Ibrahim Khalil khan became the ruler of the Karabakh khanate. Under him Karabakh khanate became one of the strongest state formations and Shusha grew. According to travelers who visited Shusha at the end of 18th-early 19th centuries the town had about 2,000 houses and approximately 10,000 population.
In summer 1795 Shusha underwent a major attack by Aga Muhammad khan Qajar, son of Muhammad Hassan khan who attacked Shusha in 1752. Aga Muhammad khan Qajar's goal was to end with the feudal fragmentation and to restore the old Safavid State in Iran. For this purpose he also wanted to proclaim himself shah (king) of Iran. However, according to the Safavid tradition, shah had to take control over the whole of South Caucasus before his coronation. Therefore, Karabakh khanate and its fortified capital Shusha, were the first and major obstacle to achieve these ends.
Aga Muhammad khan Qajar besieged Shusha with his 80,000 strong army. Ibrahim Khalil khan mobilized the population for a long-term defense. The number of militia in Shusha reached 15,000. Women fought together with men. The Armenian population of Karabakh also actively participated in this struggle against the invaders and fought side by side with the Muslim population jointly organizing ambushes in the mountains and forests.
The siege lasted for 33 days. Not being able to capture Shusha, Agha Muhammad khan ceased the siege and advanced to Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi), which despite desperate resistance was occupied and exposed to unprecedented destruction.
In 1797 Agha Muhammad shah Qajar, who by that time has already managed to declare himself shah (albeit he did not succeed in conquering the Caucasus as the tradition required) decided to carry out a second attack on Karabakh.
Trying to avenge the previous humiliating defeat Qajar devastated the surrounding villages near Shusha. The population could not recover from the previous 1795 attack and also suffered from serious drought which lasted for three years. The artillery of the enemy also caused serious losses amongst the city defenders. Thus, in 1797 Aga Muhammed shah succeeded in seizing Shusha and Ibrahim Khalil khan had to flee to Dagestan.
However, several days after seizure of Shusha, Aga Muhammed shah was killed in enigmatic circumstances by his bodyguards. The Iranian troops left and soon afterwards, Ibrahim Khalil khan returned to Shusha and restored his authority as khan of Karabakh.
From the early 19th century, Russian influence in the Caucasus began to rise. Following Georgia, many khanates accepted Russian protectorate. In 1805, a Kurekchay Treaty was signed between the Karabakh khanate and the Russian Empire on the transfer of the Karabakh khanate to Russia.
The Russian Empire consolidated its power in the Karabakh khanate following the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and Treaty of Turkmenchay of 1828, when following two Russo-Persian wars, Iran recognized belonging of the Karabakh khanate, along with many other khanates, to Russia.
The Karabakh khanate was eliminated in 1822. During the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828, the citadel at Shusha held out for several months and never fell. After this Shusha ceased to be a capital of a khanate and instead became an administrative capital of first the Karabakh province (1822-1840) and then of the Shusha district (uyezd) of the Elisabethpol Governorate (1840-1923). Shusha grew and developed, with successive waves of immigrants, particularly Armenians following the Treaty of Turkmenchay when Russian authorities urged many Armenians to migrate from Persia to the region.
Beginning from 1830s the town was divided into two parts: Turkic-speaking Muslims lived in the eastern lower quarters, while Armenian Christians settled in the relatively new western upper quarters of the town. The Muslim part of the town was divided to 17 quarters. Each quarter had its own mosque, Turkish bath, water-spring and also a quarter representative, who would be elected among the elderlies (aksakals), and who would function as a sort of head of present-day municipality. The Armenian part of the town consisted of 12 quarters, five churches, town and district school and girls' seminary.
The population of the town primarily dealt with trade, horse-breeding, carpet-weaving and wine and vodka production. Shusha was also the biggest center of silk production in the Caucasus. Most of the Muslim population of the town and of Karabakh in general was engaged in sheep and horse-breeding and therefore, had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, spending wintertime in lowland Karabakh in wintering pastures and spring and summer in summering pastures in Shusha and other mountainous parts.
The beginning of the 20th century marked the first Armenian-Tartar clashes throughout Azerbaijan. This new phenomenon had two reasons. First, it was the result of increased tensions between the local Muslim population and Armenians, whose numbers increased throughout the 19th century as a result of Russian resettlement policies. Second, by the beginning of the 20th century peoples of the Caucasus, similar to other non-Russian peoples in the periphery of the Russian Empire began to seek cultural and territorial autonomy. That is why, in the beginning of the 20th century in Russia itself was a period of bourgeois and Bolshevik revolutions, in the peripheries these movements have acquired a character of the national liberation movement.
The initial clashes between ethnic Armenians and Azeris took place in Baku in February 1905. Soon, the conflict spilled over to other parts of the Caucasus, and on August 5, 1905 first conflict between the Armenian and Azeri inhabitants of Shusha took place. As a result of the mutual pogroms and killings, hundreds of people died and more than 200 houses were burned.
After World War I and subsequent collapse of the Russian Empire, Karabakh was claimed by Azerbaijan to be part of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), a decision hotly disputed by neighboring Armenia and by Karabakh's Armenian population. After the defeat of Ottoman empire in the World War I, British troops occupied Karabakh. The British command provisionally affirmed Khosrov bey Sultanov (appointed by the Azerbaijani government) as the governor-general of Karabakh and Zangezur, pending final decision by the Paris Peace Conference.
In August 1919, the Karabakh National Council entered into a provisional treaty agreement with the Azerbaijani government, recognizing the authority of the Azerbaijan government until the issue of the mountainous part of Karabakh would be settled at the Paris Peace Conference. Despite signing the Agreement, the Azerbaijani government continuously violated the terms of the treaty. Ethnic conflict began to erupt in the region. In summer of 1919, 700 Christian inhabitants of Shusha were massacred by Tartars. The strife culminated with Armenian revolt, suppressed by the Azerbaijani army, leading to the pogrom of March 1920, in which between 500 and 20,000 of the Armenian population of Shusha was killed, and many of the rest forced to flee. According to the historian Giovanni Guaita, the Azerbaijani and Soviet authorities "during the decades will deny and try to hush up the mass killings of about 30,000 Armenians."
According to the description of Azerbaijan communist Musaev, «has begun ruthless destruction of defenceless women, children, old women, old men, etc. Armenians were exposed to a mass slaughter (...). At what beautiful Armenian girls raped, then shot. (...) On an order (...) Khosrov-bek Sultanov, pogroms proceeded more than six days, houses in the Armenian part have been crushed, plundered and reduced all to ashes, everyone lead away women where it will wish to executioners musavatists. During these historical artful punishments Khosrov-bek Sultanov, saying speeches, declared to moslems, about sacred war and called to finish finally with Armenians of city Shusha, not having spared women, children, etc.»
Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote about Shusha in the 1920s: "...in this town, which formerly of course was healthy and with every amenity, the picture of catastrophe and massacres was terribly visual... They say after the massacres all the wells were full of dead bodies. ...We didn't see anyone in the streets on the mountain. Only at downtown- in the market-square there were a lot of people, but there wasn't any Armenian among them, all were Muslims".
In order to attract Armenian public support, the Bolsheviks promised to resolve the issue of the disputed territories, including Karabakh, in favor of Armenia. However, on July 5, 1921 the Caucasus Bureau (Kavburo) of the Communist Party adopted the following decision regarding the future status of Karabakh: "Proceeding from the necessity of national peace among Muslims and Armenians and of the economic ties between upper (mountainous) and lower Karabakh, of its permanent ties with Azerbaijan, mountainous Karabakh is to remain within AzSSR, receiving wide regional autonomy with the administrative center in Shusha, which is to be included in the autonomous region." As a result, Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Region was established within the Azerbaijan SSR in 1923.
The decision favoring Azerbaijan has been largely possible by the firm position of the then Soviet Azerbaijan leader Nariman Narimanov, who resisted pressure from Stalin to concede Karabakh and Nakhichevan to Armenia. According to another version, Stalin knew that by including the disputed and by then majority Armenian-populated region within the boundaries of Azerbaijan, it would ensure Moscow’s position as power broker.
Following the 1920 pogrom and burning of the town, Shusha was reduced to a small provincial town of some 10,000 people. Khankendi (renamed Stepanakert after the Armenian communist Stepan Shaumyan), which previously was a small village, became the new regional capital and soon became the largest town within Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Region.
The town remained half-ruined until the 1960s, when the town began to gradually revive due to its recreational potential. In 1977 Shusha was declared a reservation of Azerbaijan architecture and history and became one of the major resort-towns in the former USSR.
With the start of Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1988 Shusha became the most important Azeri stronghold in Karabakh, from where Azeri forces constantly shelled the capital Stepanakert. On May 9, 1992 the town was captured by Armenian forces and the Azeri population fled (see Battle of Shusha). According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the city was looted and burnt by Armenians. Today a large part of the town remains in ruins.
After the end of the war, the town was repopulated by Armenians, mostly refugees from Azerbaijan and other parts of Karabakh, as well as members of the Armenian diaspora. While the population of the town is barely half of the pre-war number, and the demographic of the town has changed from mostly Azeri to completely Armenian, a slow recovery can be seen. The Goris-Stepanakert Highway passes through the town, and is a transit and tourist destination for many. There are some hotels in the city, and reconstruction work continues, in particular, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral recently finished going through the restoration process.
The Armenian quarter continued to lie in ruins until the beginning of the 1960s. In 1961, Baku's communist leadership finally passed a decision to clear away the ruins, even though many old buildings still could have been renovated. Three Armenian and one Russian churches were demolished and the town was built up with plain buildings typical of the Khrushev era.
The town of Shusha is extremely popular with the musical traditions of Azerbaijani people. Shusha is home to one of the most renowed schools of mugham, traditional Azeri genre of vocal and instrumental arts. Shusha is particularly renowned for this art.
Shusha is also well-known for sileh rugs, floor coverings from the South Caucasus and parts of eastern Turkey. Those from the Caucasus may have been woven in the vicinity of Shusha. A similar Eastern Anatolian type usually shows a different range of colours.
When the city was founded in the middle of 18th century, it had predominantly Muslim population. In the late 19th to early 20th century, the Armenian Christian population increased and prevailed in number over the Muslim, and in Soviet times Shusha became the second largest town in Nagorno-Karabakh with predominantly Azerbaijani population.
George Keppel, the Earl of Albemarle, who in 1824 on his way back to England from India arrived to Karabakh from Persia, wrote that “Sheesha contains two thousand houses: three parts of the inhabitants are Tartars, and the remainder Armenians”.
The 19th century also brought significant alterations to the ethnic demographics of the region. Following the invasions from Iran (Persia), Russo-Persian wars and subjection of Karabakh khanate to Russia, many Muslim families emigrated to Iran while many Armenians were induced by the Russian government after the Treaty of Turkmanchay to emigrate from Iran to Karabakh.
In 1851, the population of Shusha was 15,194 people, in 1886 - 30,000, in 1910 - 39,413 and in 1916 - 43,864.
According to first Russian-held census of 1823 conducted by Russian officials Yermolov and Mogilevsky, the number of Muslim families in Shusha was 1,111 (72.5%) whereas the number of Armenian families reached 421 (27.5%). Seven years later, according to 1830 data, the number of Muslim families in Shusha decreased to 963 and the number of Armenian families increased to 762.
By the end of the 1880s the percentage of Muslim population living in the Shusha district (part of earlier Karabakh province) decreased even further and constituted only 41.5%, while the percentage of the Armenian population living in the same district increased to 58.2% in 1886.
By the second half of the 19th century Shusha became the largest town in the territory of present-day Azerbaijan republic and the second largest town in the Caucasus after Tbilisi. By March 1920 there were 12 thousand houses in Shusha, with approximate population of 60,000. However, after the pogrom against the Armenian population in 1920 and the burning of the town, Shusha was reduced to a small provincial town of some 10,000 people. Armenians did not begin to return until after World War II. It was not until the 1960s that the Armenian quarter began to be rebuilt.
According to the last population census in 1989, the town of Shusha had a population of 17,000 and Shusha district had a population of 23,000. 91.7% of population of Shusha district and 98% of Shusha town were Azerbaijani.
Following the Armenian capture of Shusha in 1992, the Azeri population of the town fled and currently the population consists of roughly 3,000 Armenians, mainly refugees from other parts of Azerbaijan and some immigrants from Armenia and the Diaspora. As a result of the war, there are no Azeris living in the Shusha region today.