From east to west, south to north, Azerbaijan offers a unique travel experience thanks to its multiethnic and multicultural society.
Since 2020, the travel map of Azerbaijan also includes the territories liberated from Armenian occupation. Shusha, an indigenous city of Azerbaijanis, is unarguably one of the most desired locations on the travel bucket lists.
The small territory of the city cradles numerous unique examples of the Azerbaijani historical, cultural, and religious heritage. The “misty mountains” of Shusha guard a treasure that keeps unfolded pages of a one-of-a-kind history and culture.
Shusha is important due to its location and historical significance. Founded in the 18th century during the rule of Panahali Khan, a leader of the Azerbaijani Karabakh (Garabagh) khanate, Shusha became a major cultural, economic, and administrative centre of Azerbaijan.
The city was constructed strategically at a height of 1,600 meters above sea level and became the capital of the Khanate in 1756-1757.
By the late 18th century, Shusha emerged as a crucial trade hub in the South Caucasus region, with merchants bringing goods from cities such as Baku, Sheki, Nakhchivan, and Ganja.
The city also established trade relations with the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Iran, India, and several European countries. Its merchants participated regularly in renowned trade fairs in Leipzig, Germany, and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Additionally, Shusha played a vital role in the development of Azerbaijan’s carpet-weaving industry. It became the carpet-weaving center of the Karabakh region in the latter half of the 19th century, exporting carpets to global markets.
Shusha’s carpets set the trend for ornamental and plot groups in local carpet weaving. Renowned carpet weavers from Shusha, such as Meshedi Bayram Gurban-oglu, Djabbar Haji Akber-oglu, Fatima Aga Sherif-gizi, and Ahmed Dashdamir-oglu, received accolades at international exhibitions in Paris and Moscow.
In terms of music, Shusha holds a position in Azerbaijani culture similar to Vienna in Austria or Naples in Italy. It is recognized as “the temple of Azerbaijani music” and a leading conservatory in the South Caucasus.
Shusha nurtured the distinguished Mugham tradition, an Azerbaijani genre of vocal and instrumental arts that has influenced music across the Caspian and Middle Eastern regions. Notable figures from Shusha include Uzeyir Hajibeyli, the founding father of Azerbaijani-composed classical music and opera, as well as the renowned Azerbaijani poet Molla Panah Vagif and poetess Khurshudbanu Natavan.
Unfortunately, the city of Shusha, built and inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis, faced significant challenges after its occupation by Tsarist Russia in the early 19th century. The Russian Empire relocated Armenians from Iran and Türkiye to Azerbaijani territories, including the Karabakh region. This resulted in the displacement of indigenous Azerbaijanis, and tensions escalated with a bloody terror and genocide campaign against Azerbaijanis in 1905-1906.
Armenians made multiple failed attempts to capture Shusha between 1918 and 1920, during which Azerbaijanis heroically defended the city. With the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, the repression of indigenous Azerbaijanis in the region intensified. Granting autonomy to the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh region and designating Khankendi as its centre marginalized Shusha as the region’s administrative capital.
Consequently, the quality of life for Azerbaijanis in Shusha deteriorated significantly, and many historical and architectural monuments belonging to Azerbaijanis were destroyed. The Azerbaijani population dwindled threefold over the next 50 years, from around 44,000 in 1917 to 14,000 in 1970, due to mass expulsions.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia launched a military campaign against Azerbaijan, resulting in the occupation of 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories, including the Karabakh region and Shusha. Over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed, nearly 4,000 went missing, and one million were expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by Armenia. The brutal war lasted until a ceasefire was reached in 1994.
However, the tides turned on November 8, 2020, when the Azerbaijani army successfully restored Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Shusha. This victory came as part of a 44-day-long counter-offensive operation from September 27 to November 9, 2020, during which Azerbaijani forces liberated more than 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha.
The liberation of Shusha played a crucial role in Armenia’s retreat and the cessation of hostilities. The war concluded with the signing of a tripartite agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 10, 2020. Furthermore, as part of its obligations under the agreement, Armenia returned the occupied districts of Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin to Azerbaijan.
The restoration of Shusha’s cultural significance and heritage is now a top priority for Azerbaijan. Efforts are underway to revive the city’s rich musical traditions, promote its historical and architectural treasures, and foster cultural events and festivals. By the end of 2023, the Azerbaijani government plans to relocate the first group of former IDPs to the city.