Shusha – the Pearl of Azerbaijan

022 is declared the “Year of Shusha” in Azerbaijan by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev. The city of Shusha, which is also known as the Conservatory of Caucasus and the cradle of the culture of Azerbaijan, was founded in 1752 by Karabakh ruler Panahali khan, therefore this year marks the 270th anniversary of this glorious history. Located in the historical Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, at the altitude of 1,400–1,800 meters, Shusha is known for its unique beauty, nature, stone towers, ancient monuments, springs, endemic Karabakh flower named “Kharibulbul” (Ophrys caucasica) and rare and famous Karabakh horses. Shusha has also given many historical figures to Azerbaijan and the world and is regarded as the city of music and poetry.  This city is the homeland for the prominent figures of Azerbaijan history, such as  the poet, the founder of the realism genre in the Azerbaijani poetry, the statesman and diplomat, vizier of Karabakh khan – Molla Panah Vagif, General of the Artillery and the Minister of Defense of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic – Samad bey Mehmandarov, the composer and the author of the first opera in the Orient world – Uzeyir Hajibeyli, playwright and satiric, Creator of the Theatrical Writers Society in Azerbaijan – Abdurahim bey Hagverdiyev, famous opera tenor, folk music performer, and one of the founders of vocal arts and national musical theatre in Azerbaijan – Bul-Bul, author of the music and libretto of the first ballet in the Orient world Afrasiyab Badalbeyli and finally Khurshidbanu Natavan, the daughter of the last ruler of Karabakh khan, Azerbaijani poet and philanthropist.

Situated in the Great Stone Fortress, at a military and strategic height, Shusha has been the scene of combats by many rulers since the ancient times. During the feudal wars, Shusha successfully overcame the challenges and the rulers of different dynasties in the region, as well as the subject of battles during the Russo-Persian wars, but could not be captured.

In 1747, the Karabakh ruler Panahali khan declared himself the khan of these lands and decided to build defenses and a perfect fortress in the most strategic positions of the khanate in order to protect the khanate from enemy attacks in the future. The first Fortress was built in 1748, followed by the second Fortress in 1752. In the first years, the new fortress was called “Panahabad” after its founder and later “Shusha”. Today there are different opinions about the origin and meaning of the name of Shusha city. However, according to folk legend, the air of these places was called “Shusha” (“glass” in Azerbaijani language) because it was as pure and healing as crystal.

Ibrahimkhalil khan (1721–1806), the second ruler of Karabakh khanate, was one of the most prominent and political statesmen of his time. During his reign, the khanate became even stronger and developed. In the 18th century, Shusha became one of the most important cities in Azerbaijan. A large and strong barrier was erected around it, and numerous artisan neighborhoods were created. Shusha merchants maintain trade relations with Persian cities and Russian Empire, where a silver coin called Panahabadi was minted.  The poet and politician Vagif became the vizier of Ibrahimkhalil khan, and was in charge of foreign affairs of the khanate. He took part in the development and planning of Shusha, organizing the defence of Shusha during the foreign incursions and played an important role in establishing political relations between the Karabakh and Iravan Khanates, Georgia and Russian empire.

In order to prevent the destruction of the Shusha fortress, in May 1805, Ibrahimkhalil khan began negotiations with the Russian Empire. He retained his power, but undertook to end relations with other states. The Gulustan and Turkmenchay peace treaties of 1813 and 1828 strengthened Russia’s control over the Karabakh khanate.

The special role in the building of cultural, educational and humanitarian life of city Shusha as well in all Karabakh is attributed to the daughter of the last Karabakh khan Mehdigulu –   Khurshidbanu Natavan. She was born on August 15, 1832 in Shusha. As Khurshidbanu was the only child of the family and the last heir of the Karabakh khanate, she was called “Single pearl” in the palace, and “Khan gizi” (khan’s daughter) among the people.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shusha became the cultural center of the Caucasus. Shusha was called “Little Paris”, “Caucasian Art Temple”, “Cradle of Azerbaijani Music” and “Transcaucasian Conservatory”.  Khurshidbanu Natavan was also considered one of the most valuable musicologists of the 19th century. Natavan paid serious attention to the enlightenment of the people, the development of literature, the improvement of Shusha. She created a literary assembly and took over all the expenses of the assembly. Various literary classes were also held here. There were talks about the writings of the great Nizami, Fuzuli, Navai and other classical poets, and poems were written. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the art of music in Azerbaijan, including Shusha, was developed primarily by singers and musicians.

Khurshidbanu Natavan was a gifted lyric poet and woman with the ideals and mindset ahead of her time. She left deep traces in Azerbaijani culture and public life. Natavan began writing her poems in the 1850s. The poems of that period that she wrote under the name “Khurshid” disappeared, and only a small part has reached us. She began writing under the penname “Natavan” beginning 1870s. Along with her mother tongue Azerbaijani, she fluently spoke Arabic and Persian, Natavan read the works of ancient classics, and was inspired by those works. Her works reflected her inner world as well. Humanism, kindness, friendship and love were the main themes of Natavan’s works. Unfortunately, Natavan had several tragic events in her life; these sentimental romantic poems express the feelings and sufferings of a woman who was devastated by the death of her young son.  She dedicated her poems “I’m crying”, “It happened”, “Gone”, “Without you”, “I’m dying” to her son. The pessimistic tone of these poems opens up the “hurricanes in her heart”. Many of these poems are used in folk songs nowadays. It is not surprising, that the life and works of Natavan create interest worldwide, and in the Netherlands too, by the National Theatre of the country. Natavan was also a talented artist. Proofs of this are the paintings in her album “Flower Book” dated 1886.

One of the interesting facts in the life of Natavan was her meeting in 1858 in Baku with the famous French writer Alexandre Dumas. Information about this meeting is also reflected in A. Dumas’ book “Journey to the Caucasus” and was the source of different legends about the meeting. Natavan was very attached to her homeland, to the land where she was born and also to her lineage. She was remembered as a philanthropist and active public figure.  In 1873, she built a water pipeline to Shusha, this water pipeline is still known as “Khan gizi spring” (Spring of khan’s daughter) and initiated the construction of a water pipeline from the Araz River to the Mil Plain.

Natavan also did a lot for the development and popularization of the famous breed of Karabakh horses. Karabakh horses took part in the World Exposition of 1867 in Paris and one of them was awarded a silver medal.

Natavan died on October 1, 1897 and was buried in the family cemetery in the city Aghdam of Karabakh. As a sign of respect, the inhabitants of Shusha followed the funeral of their beloved Khan gizi from Shusha to Agdam on foot.

Today, there are several streets, libraries and schools named after Natavan in Azerbaijan. Also, there are monuments of Natavan in the center of Baku, as well as in Waterloo city, Belgium and Evian city, France. The heritage of Natavan is the strong voice of a woman, a poet and public figure that was not oblivious to the events and people surrounding her. This is the example of devotion, role model that encourages many young people, especially girls in Azerbaijan nowadays too. This is the national treasure of Azerbaijani people.This year Azerbaijan will celebrate the 190 years birth anniversary of Khurshudbanu Natavan.

Today, the city of Shusha restores its own historical and cultural appearance. The city is now under generally reconstruction and rebuilding. The Government of Azerbaijan paid a great attention to the preservation of all traces and heritages of ancient history of the region. Along with reconstruction and rebuilding of old Muslim monuments and mosques, the ancient Christian churches are also being renovated. The second large and oldest city in Karabakh, Shusha have got its new breath and life. Therefore,  the ancient art of weaving Karabakh carpets is also be restored, and the breading of world-famous Karabakh horses, along with the traditional Karabakh horse riding game – ‘’Chovgan’’ – that is inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. It should be mentioned that the Karabakh horses were gifted to the Queen of United Kingdom and the annual show of Karabakh horses are presented at the birthday of the Queen.  As the cradle of the Azerbaijani culture and music, the annual “Kharibulbul” festival has been revived, as well as the traditional poetry days in homage to Molla Panah Vagif.

Also for next year, Shusha is also nominated to be cultural capital of the Turkic world in the framework of The International Organization of Turkic Culture.  Due to the rich history and cultural heritage Shusha, in perspective, is considered to be a favorable place for different international events and meeting point of different cultures.