The Pearl Of Karabakh – Shusha City

Shusha has immence historical, cultural and spiritual importance to the Azeris. Being home to many Azeri intellectuals, poets, writers and especially, musicians, Shusha is considered the cradle of contemporary Azeri culture and music. It is also of high religious and strategic importance to the Armenians, housing the Karabakh Armenian Cathedral and serving (along with Lachin district to the west) as a land link to Armenia.

The present web-site site aims at breaking down with the information gap about Shusha by providing a comprehensive and trustworthy information about the town, its history, architecture, its contribution to the world culture. The intention is to make this web-site an ever-growing online reference source, a virtual encyclopedia about everything related to Shusha and more broadly, the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

Primarily, this web-site will serve as a collection of materials on Shusha, information which is available online and in print, but which is scattered. Therefore, the initial goal is to bring together all this scattered information thus, creating an online web-resource where anyone interested in anything related to Shusha, would find at least some information of interest.

Foundation of Shusha

Shusha was founded in 1750-1752 (according to other sources, 1756-1757) by Panah Ali khan Javanshir (r. 1748-1763), the founder and the first ruler of the Karabakh khanate (1748-1822). Initially the town was named Panahabad, after its founder. Later during the rule of Ibrahim Khalil khan (r. 1763-1806), son of Panah Ali khan, the town was renamed to Shusha, apparently after the name of the nearest village of Shüshükent. The town was also largely known by the name “Qala” (‘castle’ in Azeri).

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 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 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”. Thus, Panahabad-Shusha was founded.

Struggles agains the invasions from Iran

In 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 the Turkic-speaking clan of Qajar, 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 of 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 Ardebil accross the Araz river in South (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 in 18th century. Azerbaijan and Shusha turned into a big city. According to travellers who visited Shusha at the end of 18th-early 19th centuries the town had about 2,000 houses and app. 10,000 population.

In summer 1795 Shusha underwent major attack of 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 and Azerbaijan. 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 his 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 long-term defense. The number of militia in Shusha reached 15,000. Women fought together with men. The Christian Armeno-Albanian population of Karabakh (which hitorically formed as a result of ethnic mixture of local Caucasus Albans and Armenians) also actively participated in this struggle against the invaders and fought side by side with 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 an 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 revenge for 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 draught which lasted for three years. The artillery of the enemy also caused serious losses to the city defenders. Thus, in 1797 Aga Muhammed shah succeeded to seize 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 without head ran away and soon afterwards, Ibrahim Khalil khan returned to Shusha and restored his authority as khan of Karabakh.

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