Armenia nature Geographic Sights

Artsakh: Shushi and Stepanakert

Ghazachetots Monastery - Shushi, Artsakh Republic
Ghazachetsots Monastery - Shushi, Artsakh Republic

That’s Shushi (Շուշի), not sushi. The residents have no idea that sushi even exists in this ancient walled town that is historically the cultural capital of the region. To this day it is very important, housing the beautiful Holy Amenaprkich Ghazanchetsots Cathedral (and Bishop) of Asrtakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).

Shushi city's old streets
Shushi city's old streets

The Azerbaijani turks population, which called the city Shusha (Şuşa), fled in 1992 when the town was taken by Armenian forces and only the 3 mosques and numerous destroyed buildings testify to the fighting and subsequent drop in population. This was one of the few towns here with a mixed population, towns and villages tended to be more homogenous. Most of todays few thousand Armenian residents of Shushi lost their homes in Baku and Kirovabad and are refugees from Azerbaijan.

The canyon neer the city Shushi, Artsakh - Nagorno Karabakh Republic
The canyon neer the city Shushi (Shushi's big canyon), Artsakh - Nagorno Karabakh Republic

The art created in Armenia’s historical province of Artsakh, the largest part of which is known today as Nagorno Karabakh, constitutes one of the important chapters in the history of Armenian art. It has progressed through the same major stages as did Armenian art in a larger sense: from pre-Christian times to the adoption of Christianity early in the fourth century, through the Middle Ages, and from there — to the era of modernity.

Ghazachetsots Monastery - center of the city Shushi
Ghazachetsots Monastery - center of the city Shushi

As in many other Christian cultures, the principal expression of Artsakh’s art in the Middle Ages was through ecclesiastical architecture: churches, cathedrals, chapels and monasteries. Most other forms of art in that period, including illuminated manuscripts, khachkars (unique-to-Armenia stone slabs with engraved crosses) and mural paintings were likewise tied to Artsakh’s religious life and its primary institution — the Armenian Apostolic Church.

"Green church" - կանաչ ժամ - Shushi city, Artsakh - Nagorno Karabakh Republic
"Green church" - կանաչ ժամ - Shushi city, Artsakh - Nagorno Karabakh Republic

There is also the Kanach Jham Church – Կանաչ ժամ (or Verin Tagh) which you can see from the Cathedral and head up to. According to the building inscription the church was built in 1818 in the place of the former Gharabaghtsots wooden church (in bottom eastern part of fort-town, existed in the second half of 18c). Over the entry, crowned with chapel’s dome is carved the inscription, “Babayan Stepanos Hovanes. In the memory of the deceased brother Mkrtich. 1847”. During Soviet times, surrounded by rest houses and sanatoriums, the church was turned into a mineral water tasting hall. At that time parts of the interior were altered or concealed.

Shushi city - Mets Meched Mosque
Shushi city - Mets Meched Mosque

Of the mosques, you should at least visit Verkhiya Mosque, also known as Mets Meched Mosque. It was built in 1883 by architect Kerbelay Sefi. Fully repaired by the Soviets, it became Shushi town’s history museum, but was subsequently damaged during the Karabakh war. There has been recent talk of Iran funding a new restoration. The walls are built from simple and roughly-trimmed stone, finished with lime-mortar plaster.

Two minarets rise from southern and northern sides, which are covered with red, white, blue resin bricks. Climb up the minarets for a great view of the town and area, including the valley which Stepanakert lies in. Stepanakert and surrounding areas were barraged with bombs from this vantage above the surrounding plains until it was finally captured. The damage to Stepanakert during the war is mostly repaired, but the extensive damage to Shushi is mostly still apparent and you can explore these ruins which are so odd to see interspersed among occupied homes and businesses. Most of the buildings are of white stone, in the traditional architecture of the region, and much more attractive than the newer, soviet constructions.

Shushi city historical-geographic museum
Shushi city historical-geographic museum

Pre-historic times

The earliest monuments in Artsakh relate to the pre-Christian era when polytheism was the most widespread form of religion. The most curious art form from that time period is, perhaps, large anthropomorphic stone idols that are found in the eastern lowlands of the northern counties of Jraberd and Khachen. They date from the Iron Age. Also, in the northeastern outskirts of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and further to the east, so-called sahmanakars (“Border Stones”) are found.

Nowadays Shushi city - Avan plaza building in the center of the town
Nowadays Shushi city - Avan plaza building in the center of the town

They originally appeared during the reign of the Artashessian (Artaxiad) royal dynasty in Armenia (190 BC-53 AD) who used the stones, with inscriptions, to demarcate the kingdom’s frontiers for travelers. In Artsakh, the tradition of marking borders with sahmanakars endured throughout the Middle Ages. The largest of such medieval markers stands near the town of Mataghes in the Mardakert District. An inscription on the stone declares: “Here [the province of] Siunik ends.”

Tetradrachm of Tigran II the Great, King of Armenia.
Tetradrachm of Tigran II the
Great, King of Armenia,
(95 BC-55 BC)

The most famous representative of the Artashessian dynasty was Tigran II the Great (95 BC-55 BC), under whom the Kingdom of Armenia stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Recognizing the important position of Artsakh inside his kingdom, Tigran II built a city in the region and named it Tigranakert after himself (Tigranocerta, in Roman sources); its ruins are found some 50 miles to the northeast of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s present-day capital of Stepanakert. Between Tigranakert and Stepanakert, and elsewhere in Artsakh’s lowlands, it was common to find well-preserved silver currency minted by the Artashessians. One side of these coins feature profiles of the kings who are depicted in traditional Armenian royal tiaras embellished with the symbol of the House of the Artashessians — an eight-beam star guarded by two eagles.

Shushi town overview
Shushi town overview

There is a little town square with the slogan “The Armenians only salvation lies in their unity” painted above one of the buildings in Armenian. The original writer of that sentence is said to have been jailed for it. The square has a convenience store, a restaurant, a park, and the government building. It is also near the post office where you can mail letters and postcards with Karabakh postage stamps from and make international calls from as well.

Shushi big canyon - Tdjrdyus
Shushi big canyon - Tdjrdyus
Shushi city historical-geographic museum: Hasan-Jalal's statue
Shushi city historical-geographic museum: Hasan-Jalal's statue

The Destruction of the City of Shushi by Muslim Fanatics in 1920’s

Events in the Southern Caucasus that followed the 1917 October revolution in Russia have had a devastating effect on the fate of the city of Shushi and on its architectural marvels. After the entry of Turko-Islamic nomads to Artsakh, in the 1750s, the city became divided into two parts: Armenian and Muslim. While the Islamic Turkic tribesmen (known since the 1920s as “Azerbaijanis”) constituted less than five percent of the population of Artsakh’s highlands, their largest concentration was in Shushi, where they developed difficult relations with the city’s autochthonous Armenian residents. They city was a venue of sporadic inter-communal violence since 1905, but it was in March 1920 when it received the deadliest blow of all. Aided by expeditionary Ottoman forces, armed Turkic (“Azerbaijani”) bands burned and destroyed all Christian quarters of the city, murdering most of its Armenian residents in the process — some 20,000 people in total.

The city’s three out of five Armenian churches were totally destroyed: Holy Savior “Meghretzotz” (1838), Holy Savior “Aguletzotz” (1882) and Kusanatz Anapat (1816). The Cathedral of the Holy Savior (1868-1888) was desecrated and severely damaged. With as many as 7,000 buildings demolished, Shushi has never been restored to its former grandeur. Instead, it shrank, becoming a smaller town peopled primarily by Muslims (14 thousand residents in 1987 versus 42 thousand in 1913). It stood in ruins from 1920 up to the mid-1960s, when remnants of the city’s Armenian half were bulldozed by the orders from Baku.

Stepanakert city overview

Stepanakert – Capital of Artsakh Republic (Nagorno Karabakh Republic)

Stepanakert city center - "Pyatachok" park in the heart of the city, near the government buildings
Stepanakert city center - "Pyatachok" park in the heart of the city, near the government buildings
Nowadays Stepanakert's streets
Nowadays Stepanakert's streets
Stepanakert city - lights in front of the "Armenia" hotel
Stepanakert city - lights in front of the "Armenia" hotel
Stepanakert - new business center building
Stepanakert - new business center building

Nestled in a bowl of mountains, Stepanakert (Ստեփանակերտ) is the capital of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. It was originally known as Vararakn (Վարարակն or “rapid creek” in Armenian). City’s present name was assumed in 1923 and was derived from Stepan Shahumyan, an Armenian Bolshevik. 1923 is also the year Stepanakert was made the capital of Karabakh autonom-region.

Stepanakert - the new building of children-center
Stepanakert - the new building of children-center

In Stepanakert there are a number of places to stay. A well known hotel is the Hotel Lotus in the southern part of the town, close to the end of the Goris-Stepanakert highway. At about $35-45 a night, you will get normal accomodations which you are accustomed to in the west.

Artsakh State University building - Stepanakert
Artsakh State University building - Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh Republic
City lights - Stepanakert
City lights - Stepanakert