Remembering Shusha

I have never developed a habit of accepting role models, but one lady from the recent history of the Caucasus certainly has made a mark on how I define my own identity as an Azerbaijani woman.

Khurshid Banu Natavan known as “the Daughter of Khan” from the city of Shusha in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan stood out for me as an outstanding Renaissance woman of her time with progressive looks aimed at developing science and literature reflecting the values of the New Age of Enlightenment. The only heir to the ruling family of Karabakh khans, she was not officially a princess by her time, since the Khanate was abolished and taken over by Russian Empire, Khurshid Banu was still held at a high esteem not just by the local population, but in the region. She worked hard to improve the lives of Shushavians, including promoting social and cultural development of Karabakh and being engaged in philanthropy. One of her praised accomplishments was the establishment of “Majlisi Uns”- “The Society of Friends”, which created major poetic-intellectual force of her time. Natavan went down in history as a highly educated woman, who knew several Oriental and European languages, penned many memorable poems and elegant sketches, crafted exquisite decorative embroidery and had a good understanding of music. But my understanding of Khurshid Banu Natavan’s legacy came to me later when I was old enough to appreciate my own history, living in post-Soviet independent Azerbaijan. And by that time it was too late, since the precious archive materials, including the home-museum of Khurshid Banu, as well as the springs built by her initiative from famous Shusha white stones, which were called by the city folks “Natavan springs” and considered historical monuments under protection became out of reach and destroyed by the Armenians in the occupied Azerbaijani city of Shusha.

The last time I saw the monument to the “Daughter of Khan” that once adorned the streets of Shusha was 300 miles away from her home in Baku, in the yard of the Azerbaijani National Museum of Art. Severely damaged by the Armenian invasion of the City, along with other statues to various famous Karabakhi Azerbaijanis it was dismantled by Armenian militants and intended to be sold as a scrap metal in the neighboring country of Georgia. Fortunately, the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan rescued the bronze statues and brought them to the capital city of Baku, where pocked by bullet holes, they stand as another mute witness to the “Burnt Culture” of Karabakh. Azerbaijan lost control of the city of Shusha exactly 20 years ago on May 8th, 1992, when an Armenian military contingent of a few thousand advanced on a poorly defended city from three surrounding directions. After a ten hour full-scale engagement, that took lives of 480, wounded 1,860 and drove away 22,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis, Armenian militants, among them then the future president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan and the current Defense Minister of Armenia Seyran Oganyan, declared the “most glorious victory in the Nagorno- Karabakh War.”

An occasion to gloat was a significant one, since the district of Shusha, made of the City itself and ten surrounding villages was a crown jewel of Karabakh and the historic symbol of Azerbaijani statehood. In May, 1992 the total population of the Shusha region was 23,156, of which 21,234 were ethnic Azerbaijanis and only 1,620 Armenians. The City was established in 1750 as a town-fortress by the founder and first ruler of the Karabakh Khannate Panah Ali Khan Javanshir. Titled “Panahabad” after him, it came under attack a few years later when Panah Khan’s son, Ibrahim Khan, was in power. The legend has it a Persian army led by Mohammad Shah of the Gajar dynasty surrounded Panahabad. In his message to Ibrahim Khan, Shah wrote: “Look, God is “pouring stones” on your head from heaven. How can you sit in that “glass fortress?” meaning “we’re going to shatter your city to pieces, as though it was made of glass.” The response from Ibrahim Khan was confident: “I know that God will protect me even in this “glass.” The residents fought bravely and withstood the attack, but after that the city came to be known as “Shusha,” which means “glass” in Azerbaijani. But the special significance of Shusha to Azerbaijanis is not limited by its historical symbolism of resistance to foreign occupation and preservation of independence. It has been a center of Azerbaijani culture, giving to the world people like Uzeyir Hajibeyov the author of the first ever written opera of the Muslim World, Bulbul, a La Scala trained famous Azerbaijani tenor who founded a vocal opera art in Azerbaijan, Molla Panah Vagif, an 18th century poet who founded modern trends in Azerbaijani poetry.

Generations and generations of composers, musicians, artists, and writers came from Shusha that bestowed the title of “Conservatory of Caucasus” to this temple of culture. The music was so interwoven into the lives of the people of Shusha that there is a well known saying “even babies cry in mugham verses in Karabakh”The music was not the only trademark of this region. Shusha carpets with their bright colored designs, locally bred Karabakh horses, crafts and sites of ancient mosques, palaces and remarkable architecture of the City attracted traders and tourists from near and far for centuries. The Shushavians always imagined their town-fortress to be invincible. They simply refused to believe that it might be otherwise. Sadig Ibrahimov, a member of the exiled Azerbaijani community from Shusha who lives in Baku these days says on the eve of the occupation the City was under almost constant artillery attack. But the local population never lost a belief in their self-defense capabilities. “If not for internal political provocations Armenians would have never been able to take control of Shusha,” he says: “We are guilty for that before our Homeland.” Mr. Ibrahimov claims they always had a great relationship with their Armenian neighbors. What happened was so quick, they never saw it coming. “It feels like living with a missing limb for the past 20 years. As times goes by, all Shushavians realize that we used to leave in a real paradise. And not just because of its emerald green nature that was a joy to the eye and heart, but because Shusha, as a beacon of high culture and creative spirit, instilled in its residents kindness, sincerity, humanity and love.”

For the past 20 years he has heard many stories of Shusha neighborhoods having been burnt, looted or occupied by squatters, his own musical college where he used to teach dismantled. But he is still confident he will see the day soon when the tricolored Azerbaijani flag will be flying over the Jidir Plain in Shusha again. Sadig Ibrahimov is not the only one living with such a belief. Many in Azerbaijan are sure that the return of Shusha under Azerbaijan’s sovereignty is an uncompromised part of any future deal with Armenia. Experts claim Azerbaijan’s guaranteed control over Shusha could contribute to Baku’s willingness to accept certain concessions as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. While the Azerbaijani side recognizes the need for ensuring the security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, it also believes that the rights and security of its ethnic Azerbaijani population should not be forfeited just because they were forced to flee twenty years ago. Since the majority of the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh originates from Shusha district, Azerbaijanis would view the return of the region to their control as an act of fair treatment toward the Azerbaijani population ousted from Nagorno-Karabakh. It is difficult to envision Baku consenting to a settlement in which they did not regain Shusha, or in which the previous Azerbaijani residents of the district were not offered the opportunity to return to their homes there. As Azerbaijanis around the world mark May 8th as the Day of Remembrance of Shusha, those involved in the negotiations should consider the return of the ethnic Azerbaijani population to the district as a priority for the Azerbaijani public in the peaceful solution of this protracted conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Post Written by Shafag Mehraliyeva, Baku Representative for the Karabakh Foundation.