BY MATTHEW KARANIAN
A group of 12 American tourists had just arrived in Shushi during their first-ever visit to Armenia last month, and they were ready to see the sights.
They had done their research. They knew the tragic history of this town. They knew that in 1920 the city had been torched and cleansed of its Armenian population.
But, guide books in hand, they also knew that the Armenians had recovered Shushi 22 years ago and that there was a revival underway.
So this group of 12 had come to Shushi, at least for a short time, to celebrate the town’s revival.
Their bus stopped at Ghazanchetstots. They got off. They walked a bit under a hot April sun. And that’s when their celebration turned tepid.
“Is this it?,” asked one of them, an Armenian American lawyer from Fresno, Calif. “There doesn’t seem to be much else to see here,” he said.
He was wrong.
But he was also right.
I’ve been visiting Shushi almost every year since 1995—just one year after the cease-fire that ended most of the open warfare between Karabakh and enemy forces—and to my eyes, there’s a wealth of sights to see in Shushi.
There’s the market, the bazaar, and the baths.
There’s the cathedral of Ghazanchetstots, which had been used by the enemy as a munitions depot until Shushi’s liberation in 1992 but which is now, again, a towering cathedral.
There’s the old Persian fortress, and several museums—one for history, one for the arts, and two for rugs and carpets.
And of course there’s the splendor of the views from this mountain-top town.
For someone such as me who can recall the condition of Shushi in 1995, any one of these sites in their current state of restoration is cause for celebration. Even the paved roads are a cause for jubilation.
But for a person who has never before been to Shushi, it may be hard to recognize that there’s real beauty beyond Ghazanchetstots. There’s still so much work yet to be done here.
Some of this work involves completing the infrastructure of Shushi, which was heavily damaged during Artsakh’s war of independence.
But Shushi needs more than just buildings. Shushi needs more people.
Alec Baghdasaryan agrees. He is an Armenian American businessman from Los Angeles who has participated in the revival of Shushi’s infrastructure. He and others from California have invested in the renovation of a hotel in the center of town, and, together with other local and Diaspora Armenians, has helped to rebuild the town’s main square.
He’s so committed to revitalizing Shushi that he purchased an apartment there in 2004 so that he would always have a home in town to which he could return.
When he got started in Shushi he had the philisophy that if you build it they will come. So he and a handful of partners built—or rather, rebuilt—a hotel tower in the center of town.
But the tourists didn’t come.
“I was hoping more people would go to Shushi,” he told me. The tourism boom hasn’t yet happened here. Visitors to Artsakh usually spend the night in Stepanakert, which is the capital city and which is located just 15 minutes away.
Even on Shushi Liberation Day, the town’s biggest holiday, the day when Baghdasaryan’s hotel is apt to sell out, it’s neighboring Stepanakert that ends up attracting more out of town visitors. Perhaps this is simply because Stepanakert has more hotel rooms. Or maybe it’s because Shushi Liberation Day is such an important day in Stepanakert.
It was the liberation of Shushi, after all, that finally stopped the bombs from raining down on Stepanakert. Perhaps Shushi Liberation Day should also be known as Stepanakert Freedom Day.
I mentioned this to Baghdasaryan, and asked him about the work that lies ahead if Shushi expects to be able to attract tourists who will want to linger a bit, and maybe stay in town for a night or three.
I thought I might hear about the need for more construction projects, such as roads, and hotels, and restaurants.
Instead I heard about the need for more activities. Shushi was once a thriving cultural center, and it has many cultural activities now. But the town needs to continue to promote cultural activities if it expects to draw more visitors.
The Naregatsi Art Institute, an organization that is located in Shushi, has already taken the lead in this area.
The Art Institute sponsors projects in both the visual arts and the peforming arts, and operates from a building that the group restored in 2006. The Art Institute also sponsors a summer camp, and has been a leading voice in the revitalization of Shushi’s cultural scene.
In 2012, the Shushi Art Project was launched by a group of contemporary artists from both Armenia and the Diaspora. This two-week-long festival included both performance and visual arts, and helped draw visitors to the town. They skipped 2013, but hope to repeat their project this year and to build upon their success.
To add to the diversity of cultural activities in Shushi, Baghdasaryan helped launch the Avan Shushi Poetry Festival last summer. Ninety-one children from four countries participated in the inaugural event. In August this year, Baghdasaryan says he expects more participants, including students from the US and Russia.
“People need to know that if they make it to Shushi that they’ll be able to participate in cultural activity, too,” regardless of when they visit, he says.
Enjoying year-round cultural events in Shushi, he says, is “one of my dreams.” This is also probably Shushi’s best opportunity for drawing more visitors who will want to use the town as a base during their stay in Artsakh.
Shushi (population 5,126) is the first major town in Artsakh that you drive past when you travel to the Nagorno Karabakh Republic from Armenia.
The topography is stunning, and the sheer cliffs that limit the potential sprawl of the town have also served to insulate and protect it from outsiders. Shushi’s geography has prompted many to refer to it as the Fortress City.
This small town is just 15 kilometers outside of Stepanakert, and it deserves to be on every visitor’s itinerary. You’ll get a good view of Stepanakert from Shushi’s high perch. It was from this same perch that Azerbaijan bombed Stepanakert during the war.
Shushi’s history has been tragic. The town was the capital of Karabakh during the 19th century, and was one of the largest towns in the Caucasus at the time. There were 12 churches here then, but today only two are left standing. As many as 35,000 Armenians had lived in Shushi until 1920, when they were either killed or expelled by invading forces from Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Seven thousand Armenian homes were destroyed. Shushi’s status as one of the region’s leading cultural centers was also snuffed out.
The Armenians recovered Shushi in 1992, a feat that is credited with saving Karabakh since the Shushi highlands controlled access to Armenia and the rest of the world.
The capture of Shushi broke the Azeri siege of Stepanakert. One of the large tanks involved in that battle—the first tank to enter Shushi—now forms part of a monument located on the roadside between Shushi and Stepanakert.
The war that saved Karabakh also destroyed Shushi, and today the town is still struggling from the war, although there’s been some progress recently. Two new hotels have opened in the past few years. The streets have been re-engineered and paved. And a trickle of private investment has begun. But Shushi has been largely overlooked by investors, and there are few jobs.
Sites to See
Shushi is geographically compact, and lends itself easily to a walking tour.
Start at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the center of town. This cathedral is a massive structure with a façade of white stone that dominates its surroundings. It’s also known as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
The freestanding belfry that stands near the front entrance was built in 1858, a decade before construction was begun on the main church.
The church has seen many uses over the years, not all of which have been religious.
During the period of Azeri control of the town, beginning in 1920, the church was used a granary, as a garage, and finally as a munitions storehouse until May 9, 1992, when the Azeris retreated.
Kanach Zham is another Armenian church located uphill from the Cathedral. This church is sometime called Karabakhtsots in honor of the farmers from Karabakh who built it in 1847. More frequently, however, the people of Shushi call it Kanach Zham, which translates to “green church.”
The origin of the name is logical, inasmuch as the church domes were at one time painted green. The ruins of Meghretsots Church are also nearby. Only the eastern wall and two apses remain. There isn’t much left to see, and this is a site that will probably be of interest only to scholars and architects.
The historic market district of Shushi is located just past the Avan Shushi Plaza Hotel at the center of town. The market square, which is mostly empty today, stands between the newly-renovated Tarkhanyan Brothers Medieval Market Building, and the Upper Mosque. The restored market building is slated to open with shops, and to be the centerpiece of a revitalized Shushi.
There are two new museums nearby, on the street leading to Ghazanchetstots, that are dedicated to the rugs and carpets of Armenia and Karabakh.
Shushi was reduced to ruins during the final years of the Soviet Union and during Artsakh’s war for independence. Buildings and roads were destroyed, and the delivery of basic services such as clean water became uncertain.
During the past decade, however, much of Shushi has been rebuilt. As a result, there’s been hopeful talk recently of a revival in Shushi that could once again make the town a cultural capital of the Caucasus.
Armenians from around the world have provided the funding and planning for Shushi’s revival. The Hayastan All Armenian Fund, which is commonly referred to as simply the Armenia Fund, is among the Shushi’s many prominent supporters.
Private business people have also contributed to the restoration of Shushi. Two newly opened hotels, the Avan Shushi Plaza, and the Shushi Grand Hotel, are shining examples of this contribution and have made Shushi a comfortable destination for tourists.
Each year, the town celebrates Shushi Liberation Day on May 9, a holiday that attracts visitors from Armenia and abroad, as well as locally.
Shushi has not been restored to its former glory, and its status as a cultural and economic center are far from certain. But all of the recent activity gives hope that a Shushi Revival is an attainable goal.
Adapted from ‘Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide,’ by Matthew Karanian (www.ArmeniaTravelGuide.com).