By Alexander KANANYAN
Independent Expert

The importance of the strategic location of Shushi is not the only reason why the city still retains the deep symbolism of its name. The mystery of Shushi is deeper and more meaningful. Shushi is a synthesis of civilizational resilience, urban traditions, cultural treasury, versatility of ethnographic incarnations and remarkable crystallization of life in its everyday life.


Surrounded by scenic mountain peaks, Shushi of the 19th century, perhaps more than any other town in Armeniaof the era, was the place of the creative mixing, growth and harmonious development, shaping the future of the Artsakh region of Armenia. However, Shushi of 19th century, as  a comprehensive reflection of Armenia’s life, unfortunately, carried the seeds of destruction, which mercilessly manifested themselves in the disastrous events of the early 20th century, plunging the phenomenon of Shushi civilization to dust. However, the legendary history of 19th century Shushi, its value and civilization forming mystery still retain their appeal. Today we have cities, towns, and rural communities, but the social mechanisms such as religious, national, economic, and cultural traditions that built the city in the true and deepest sense of the word are lost or forgotten. Shushi is capable to reveal the mystery of the mechanism that enables transformation of the contemporary faceless urban communities into a City and attaches civilization-generating elements to everyday private life and activity.

Speaking of symbolism of the Shushi history, we would not like to discuss it only as a historical phenomenon of the past. After the devastating shocks of the 20th century Shushi is now reviving, making slow, but firm steps forward. The most important is that the liberation of the city is an irreversible historical reality. Even today, half-ruined and bowed, Shushi remains the natural and man-made wonder of the Armenian Homeland, which will not only restore its past glory, and the creative force of civilization, but also reach new heights, unseen before.

Then Time of Foundation of Shushi

The medieval cross-stones and the remains of Christian burial places discovered in Shushi confirm the historicity of the existence of Shushi in pre-Khan period. The annual explorations, as well as the cross-stones and mutilated parts of gravestones, bearing the Armenian epigraphy, found in course of restoration and repair works in the streets stacking and walls of houses, laid or built by Azerbaijanis, definitely show the insolvency of the views that the history of Shushi allegedly started in the mid-1700s. However, it should be noted that in the pre-Khan period Shushi, being one of the defensive chains in the system of the military and political security of Artsakh principalities, in the beginning of the 18th century, was not a populous city-fortress.

Building a wall around the northern, the only vulnerable part of Shushi plateau, required extensive construction works, huge financial resources and the military-political stability. Armenian Artsakh rulers at that time faced the extremely difficult problem of preventing nomadic Turkic tribes from penetration  and the need to confront the challenges of the regional anarchy, arising as a result of the fall of Safavid dynasty in Iranand the expansionist policies of the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, they succeeded to construct only few fortified castles in the most difficult rocky part of Shushi plateau. An ambitious program of the plateau walling was implemented only in the mid-18th century under Panah Khan, during a political period, beneficial to the newly established newcomer power, and no doubt, by the advice of Shahnazar Melik, who handed over this area to the Khan. Thus, Shushi, as a settlement and the location of individual fortifications is a medieval and exclusively Armenian phenomenon.  Shushi, as a territory that includes the whole plateau of fortress city with multi-thousand population, is the result of the Khanate period of Artsakh history.

From the History of Shushi of the Khanate Period

After formation of a criminal alliance between Shakhnazar Melik and Panah Khan and establishment of military and political power of the latter in Shushi, extensive fortification works started, covering the entire territory of the Shushi plateau and including the construction of the Khan’s residence and adjacent buildings. During this period, the authorities organized transfer of Armenian population to Shushi from the neighboring Syunik provinces of Goghtn and Arevik, considered by the Khan’s administration as “more loyal” than the Artsakh population. Due to the Armenian population resettled from the famous centers of craft production, trade and urban traditions, it became possible to provide an active and steady growth in construction and trade.

From the very first days in Shushi Panah Khan initiated construction of the extensive wall, fortified with massive towers to ensure fortification cover of its only vulnerable northern end of the plateau. Initially Shushi fortress had three entrances: Northern – Gandzak (Elizavetpol) gate, western (Yerevan) gate, and eastern one – Amaras or Ag-Oglan, as this gate was called by the Turks. In the northern part of the city, next to the Gandzak gate, the Khan residence and the “Court Hall” with the wall fortified with two round shape towers were built on the hill.

Due to political and confessional specifics, the town was formed from two parts growing and developing in their own way – Armenian and Turkic ones. By the mid-18th century, there was still a vast vacant space between the Armenian and Turkic parts of the city, stressing the phenomenon of the communal segregation. However, the growth of the Turkic population of the town and the desire for development of the free lands led to the emergence and expansion of construction in those areas as well. The newly built mosque was quickly surrounded by a square “Meydan” and the so-called “Tatar Bazaar”.

From the History of Urban Development of Shushi in 19th century

Establishment of the Russian rule significantly enhanced the urban development opportunities for Shushi. The relatively progressive, as compared to the Khan’s power, the Russian government took the comprehensive development of a fortress city, having critical importance for the consolidation of the Russian military-political hegemony in the region. The lack of urban development system, typical to Khan’s period, was gradually overcome by introducing a strict order of allocation of land for construction within the frameworks of the approved master plan.

Some description of the process of the Shushi urban development in 1836 is provided here: “The fortress, being defended on three sides by the nature itself, is impregnable; the fourth side has the artificial strengthening… Town buildings are located without any order, mountainous streets are in many places intersected by deep ravines. Nearly all house are made of stone, for the most part covered with boards; however, there are small dugouts, called darbazi; the roofs, contrary to the Asians’ habit, are not flat, but with the rafters. Altogether, there are 1698 houses in the fortress…  The fortress of Shushi is supplied with water through the supply system, arranged there at the expense of one of local Armenians.”[1]

In the days of the last Khan of Shushi Mehdi Kuli, who affirmed citizenship of the Russian Empire, with the connivance of the Tsar’s government, newly-minted Muslim Beks who seized most of the Artsakh land and majority of the Armenian Artsakh Melik families preferred the “civilized” urban area and resettled in Shushi for permanent residence, continuing to live on the incomes derived from their lands.

Consolidation of significant financial flows, wealthy landowners and entrepreneurs in Shushi contributed to the comprehensive development of the city. At the same time, the Armenian and Turkic parts of Shushi in terms of urban development were progressing almost independently of each other and everyday social relations between them were not harmonious or stable.

In the 18-19th centuries, the walls of Armenian houses were mostly stony. Masonry with lime and sand mix created a special game of lines. The floors were separated from each other by rows of polished lime stone. Shushi-born architect Rafael Israelyan wrote: “Each of Armenian cities was established through the efforts of a certain school, so that they become one and whole body and found their special appearance. From this point of view, Shushi is an interesting city, where the houses are often exactly repeat the same pattern of the gables. However, this did not hampered the city from becoming a very picturesque, with multicolored repetitions. Moreover, the repetition of color created a color play due to the different height of buildings, terrain, richness, diversity of the wall niches and balconies, and unexpected turns of the streets. You go across the street, and suddenly a new perspective opens, then the second, third, which, in turn, wonderfully enhance through the changing light, the spatial harmony of city streets.”[2] Through the proper use of terrain Shushi residents also solve the problem of rain drainage of the cobbled streets. Builders, wisely using the rugged surface of Shushi plateau, were able to create an extensive drainage system of the city’s main streets.

By mid-19 century, a new architectural style of the 2-3 storey buildings was shaped and dominated. Despite some compositional elements, formed under the European influence, this style did not lose the continuity of the main lines, typical to the traditional Armenian dwelling. Shushi houses “… with wide balconies, rooms with large windows and exits directly onto the balcony, pitched tiled roofs, tall ladders with openwork railing, with wide-arched gate – these houses have become symbols of a new architectural style throughout entire Artsakh.”[3] Distinguished by their size and wealth, the Shushi houses, as a rule, had beautifully ornamented iron bars protecting the dwellers from night burglars. The gate and door locks of the rich houses of Shushi were an original work of art craft.

Gradually, the public recreation places were emerging. Thus, in 1859, improvement works carried out by Armenians turned the territory from Gandzak gate of the former Khan residence into a city park “100 yardslong and 20 yardswide.”[4] The level of social services infrastructure development is testified in inns built in traditional Armenian architectural style. The furnishing of those guest houses and inns was in line with accepted standards. In 1851 there were three inns, and about 20 wine taverns operating in Shushi.[5]

The blooming Shushi of the second half of 19th century with its well-planned shape and beauty always attracted the attention of writers and cultural figures. The Armenian part of Shushi, due to its developed trade and industrial infrastructures and high cultural and educational sphere, became the main driving force of the urban development. Shushi was the fourth most populated town of the Russian “Trans-Caucasus,” which gave up to such cities as Baku and Gandzak (Elizavetpol) only in some parameters.

By the end of the 19th century Shushi entered the period of economic decay: most of merchants started to move to Tiflis or Baku, which were considered as more advantageous from the view of transport communications and the potential of development of the oil industry. They were followed by the residents, capable for intellectual and physical labor. In particular, the volume of the housing construction and realization of other urban projects decreased. At the same time, the Shushi Turks gradually penetrated to the Armenian part of the town, misappropriating or cheaply buying up the houses of the Armenians, who left the town.

After the bloody clashes of 1905-1907 the departure of wealthy Armenian families and entrepreneurs from Shushi intensified. An archive document of 1905 quite expressively testifies the “Shushi suffered such an extensive destruction that the best part of the town is ruined, and only half of the population remained … In the formerly active and busy Armenian trade center of the town 300 stony buildings were burned and completely destroyed and up to 80 houses were destroyed in the Tatar part. Along with the houses the whole property of their owners, residents and merchants was destroyed. After that, having no hope for a soon improvement of the situation, many craftsmen and merchants moved to other towns in search of income, and settled where they found work and business.”[6]  However, despite the significant destructions and emigration of the Armenian population, Shushi preserved its former unique charm up to 1920.

Cult buildings in Shushi

The history of construction of cult buildings in Shushi, i.e. churches, chapels, mosques, – is so much large that it would be impossible to present its even a brief essay within this article. A huge amount of preserved archive materials and evidences makes us just provide an incomplete list of them here.

Armenian cult buildings of Shushi were distributed throughout the quarters of the Armenian part of the town. Each quarter has its church, sometimes additional chapels and places for worship. Their list is presented below: Aguletsots Surb Astvatsatsin (St. Mother of God) (1785), Ghazanchechots Surb Amenaprkich (The St. Savior) (1858-1888), Verin Taghi Surb Hovhanness Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist of the Higher quarter (1847), Karabakhtsots Nerkin taghi Surb Astvatsatsin (Karabakhtsots St. Mother of God of the Inner quarter) (the 18th century), a parish church (1839) and women’s monastery Kusanats Anapat (the Virgins’ Desert) (1810.) in the quarter of Meghretsots, a church in the quarter of Jraberdtsots (1888 г.) – 7 churches in total and several chapels and places of worship in the immediate nearness to the town  housing.

An “orthodox” church of the Byzantine rite was built in the town for the representatives of the Russian administration and soldiers of the garrison.

In the Muslim part of the town, according to various sources, there were up to 9 mosques, most of them were temporary structures of wood or rush.   There were three fundamentally built mosques of stone in Shushi.  The most famous of them were the Upper and Lower mosques of “Gevkhar-agha”, built in 1768 and 1866.

Educational institutions

Shushi was of the most fruitful and developed centers of the Armenian education. Armenian educational institutions not only with their number, but also the variety of disciplines competed and even excelled other regional centers. Many prominent Armenian figures of the time studied in the Armenian educational institutions of the town. Only the listing of the names of the educational centers would be enough to get a notion about the development of educational sphere. Against the background of a number of not-regularly functioning Russian and Turkic schools, there was the famous “Eparchial school” and “Technical school”, schools for girls “Mariamian”, “Mariamian-Ghukasyan” and “Hrypsimian”, the schools of Armenians quarters: Aguletsots,  Verin Taghi  “Tadevosyan”, Gayane Danielyan’s school and the boys’ school of the Surb Astvatsatsin Church in Meghretsots quarter. There were also private schools of A. Baghdasaryan, A. Ter-Grigoryan, A. Ter-Hovhannisyan and V. Shakhunts. All this just testifies the absolute leadership of the Armenian educations institutions in the town.

No wonder that the Russian authorities were more and more cautious to the obvious Armenian civilizational supremacy; up the beginning of the 20th century their attitude became simply intolerable. The state Russian schools with an obvious delay tried to compete with Armenian ones, but anyway, met the criteria of the elementary education of that time. However, the progress in education and cultural spheres of the Turkic community of the town was a direct derivative of the immediate nearness of the Armenian civilized environment. The communication of the Armenian and Turkic young people took place not only in the Russian schools for all subjects of the Empire regardless their ethnic or religious origin, but  also, rarely, in the Armenian educational institutions as well, where children of prominent representatives of the Turkic community studied,  as an exception. In early 1900s, the Armenian educational institutions of Shushi, managed to resist the administrative terror, unleashed by Russian authorities; they succeeded in keeping their viability and development trends up to the massacre of 1920, as a result of which the whole Armenian population of the town was annihilated, and the Armenian life in Shushi was interrupted for 8 decades.

Health care

Among the prominent figures of public health care and creators of the network of resorts, it is necessary to mention Shushi resident Ukraine Doctor Pyotr Luciev, who founded the first sanatorium “Ttu jur” (Acid water) in 1872 and the well-known pediatrician-gynecologist Movses-bek, who, following Petr-Luciev’s example, founded another sanatorium at the foot of the Shushi plateau with electricity and appropriate equipment. The enterprising doctor, according to witnesses, had a dream to connect the sanatorium with the town by means of an aerial cable way. The town hospital of Shushi was built by Armenian benefactors in 1902. According Hrachya Acharyan, the Shushi doctors had an unwritten law – not to get money from teachers for any medical service[7].

The theatrical life

The theatrical life of Shushi was a vivid display of the active, intensive and creative life of the town. The theater was not just a new option of the publicly useful pastime, but also a place for the business, friendly and personal communication with the intertwining habitual life and art, emotions and cold calculations, high ideas and hidden political aspirations. The Armenian theatrical life that flourished in Shushi also contributed to the establishment of the foundations of the Azerbaijani theatrical tradition that also comes out from the Shushi   plateau.

The first theatrical performances in Shushi, having the elements of the classic theatrical art, became reality as early as in 1840s, when young people, returning back from abroad, where they got education, started organizing their own theatrical performances, acting both the male and female parts. The Shushi young people from the very first days took part in realization of the classic theatrical performances, the art of which was set up in the town by prominent theatrical figures: Chmshkyan, Mandinyan and Amerikyan.

In 1882 the prominent figure of the Armenian theatrical art Petros Adamyan visited Shushi.[8] He organized theatrical evenings there, which were held in the atmosphere of the general public interest. After that the theatrical life of Shushi finally got the shape of a well-established and autonomously developing phenomenon. Armenian performances were staged by local actors and various visiting theatrical groups. Performances were mainly staged in the summer months, when the number of people in the town substantially increased at the expense of the families, coming to Shushi for rest. Local Shushi student groups periodically stages such plays as “Pepo”, “Another victim”, “Khatabala”, “Destroyed hearth”, “The Vardanants war”, “Arhsak II”, etc.

In 1891, inthe neighborhood with the Church Ghazanchechots Surb Astvatsatsin (Saint Mother of God) the famous Shushi entrepreneur and benefactor Mkrtich Khandamiryan built the national theater with a hall for 350 seats, comfortable scene and foyer. The theater was equipped with electric elimination, which was quite rare for the Russian “Trans-Caucasia”. Mkrtich Khandamiryan was not only a benefactor, he translated George Ohnet’s play “Doctor Rameau” from French into Armenian, some other works from Russian and French, and wrote several plays himself[9].

Many famous theatrical groups appeared at Khandamiryan’s theater with performances. According to Yervand Lalayan’s statistics 13 performances were staged there in 1891, 19 – in 1892, 20 – in 1893, 19 – in 1894, 24 – in 1885-1886.[10] These data show how important the theatrical art was in the cultural life of Shushi residents.

The artistic repertoire of the Khandamiryan Theater included dozens of works by Armenian and foreign authors: Sundukyan, Shirvanzadeh, Paronyan, Pushkin, Gogol, Сhekhov, Lermontov, Ostrovsky, Ibsen, Sevantes, Schiller, Moliere and Hugo.  Especially popular were Shakespeare’s plays: “Hamlet”, Othello”, “King Lear” and “the merchant of Venice”.

The residents of the Turkic part of the town also frequently watched the theatrical performances. Remarkably, in 1882 the Safrazains family out of humanistic considerations organized the first amateur theatrical group for Shushi Turks[11], and another Shushi resident Hovhannes Abelyan helped with translation and staging Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Turkish. So the Turkic-Azerbaijani Theater is indebted for the place of its origin to the Armenian cultural area of Shushi.

The building of the Shushi Theater, constructed by Khandamiryan, became a victim of the Armenian-Turkish clashes in 1905 and was completely burned.


[1] “Review of Russian possessions in the Caucasus in the statistical, ethnographic, topographical and financial terms,” St. Petersburg, 1836, Part III, pp. 308-309. (In Rus.)

[2]  R. Israelyan: “Articles, studies, essays”,  Yerevan. 1982, p 130. (In Arm.)

[3]  M. Sargsyan, “Essays from the history of Shushi urban housing,” Yerevan, 1996, p 16. (In Rus.)

[4]  ՎՀՊՊԿԱ, ֆ. 8, ց. 1, գ. 2254, թ. 3

[5]  “Caucasus calendar for 1852”, Tiflis, 1851, p. 435. (In Rus.)

[6]  ՀՀՊՊԿԱ, ֆ. 113, ց. 3, գ. 159, թ. 2-3:

[7]  H.Acharyan, “Life memories”, Yerevan, 1967, p. 260. (In Arm.)

[8]  R. Ter-Gaspatyan, “Shushi”, Yerevan, 1993, p.  117. (In Arm.)

[9]  B. Karapetyan,  “Shushi fortress town,” Yerevan, 2000, p.  213:

[10]  Y. lalayan, Op. cit, pp. 93-94. (In Arm.)

[11]  B. Karapetyan., Op. cit. p. 213.


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