By Rachel Avraham
The Azerbaijani government now is operating regular tour buses to Shusha and Agdam in the recently liberated Karabakh region. Although presently only Azerbaijani citizens can go on these tours, in the future, hopefully foreign tourists will be able to partake in these tours as well. An online search at yolumuzqarabaga.az reveals a bus tour between Baku and Shusha costs only $6. If you are a veteran of the Azerbaijani military or had a family killed in any of Azerbaijan’s wars, you can go for free.
Last summer, I accompanied former Israeli Communication Minister Ayoob Kara on a bus from Baku to Shusha on a special tour for mainly Russian journalists. Ayoob Kara was the first major Israeli political figure to visit Shusha, Azerbaijan’s cultural capital city in the recently liberated Karabakh region.
During three decades of Armenian occupation, the city was completely and utterly destroyed. More than 300 historic monuments lay in ruins. When we got there, many buildings still consisted of nothing more than debris, there was only one hotel in the city and there were no restaurants, except for one that was part of the city’s only hotel. However, slowly, that reality is beginning to change.
When we were there, the Azerbaijani government was laying the finishing touches on the Shusha Fort, whose history spans back to 1751, when the area was ruled by Panah Ali Khan, the first ruler of the Karabakh Khanate. He built the Shusha Fort to protect the area against foreign invaders.
According to Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Urban Planning and Architecture, “In the first stage of the restoration work, the stones of the fortress walls and Ganja Gate, distinguished by high architectural features, were cleaned of foreign cement-sand plaster applied in recent years, and the seams of the stones were filled with lime-sand solution in accordance with international conservation standards.”
“The upper part of the outer arch of the door, as well as four damaged parts of the fortress walls, the destroyed side of the buttress, and 9 rifle butts intended for defense were restored in the facade of the fortress walls,” they explained. “At the same time, the walls of the basement under the guard tower and the auxiliary room were cleaned of cement-sand plaster and filled with lime-sand mortar, the upper edge of the wall between the two guard towers was leveled and foreign inscriptions were removed. Foreign metal elements existing in the outer and inner yards of the historical monument were also dismantled, and part of the soldier’s road was cleaned and restored.”
They added that “the famous inscription “Shusha”, which once existed on the walls of the fortress of the city of Shusha but was demolished by the Armenian armed forces during the occupation, has been restored.” And now, it is possible for tourists to come to Shusha and to enjoy seeing the Shusha Fort in a close simulation of what it looked like in the 1700’s.
Furthermore, it was reported that Azerbaijan now has fully restored the Tomb and Museum Complex of Molla Panah.
Molla Panah Vagif was a prominent poet, statesman, and diplomat for the Karabakh Khanate. Under the Soviets, a museum was built to accompany the tomb of this famous Azerbaijani cultural icon.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture stated, “About eighty museum pieces reflecting the period of M. P. Vagif’s life in Shusha was exhibited there.” However, in 1992, the Armenians destroyed the museum and many of its exhibits, while transporting some of its movable exhibits back to Armenia in violation of international law.
Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyev attended the opening ceremony of the newly restored Tomb and Museum Complex of Molla Panah together with her husband Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. She discussed the history of the project.
“The restoration and reconstruction works on the mausoleum were performed by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. Starting from March 2021, the mausoleum was subjected to structural examination in the primary stage, and reinforcement works were carried out on the required parts and working designs developed within this framework. Based on the working designs, structural restoration of the parts was performed using the chemical materials recommended by foreign specialists, taking additional measures against corrosion.”
According to her, “Using the data obtained as a result of topographical works, together with acquiring broken and destroyed facing materials by carrying out search works on the territory, architectural working designs were developed aiming to restore preliminary dimensions of the monument. And, based on these designs, walls of the interior parts and the façade were covered with marble, returning the monument’s historical appearance.”
“Moreover, all ornaments and decorative patterns, including the entry door, were made of aluminum by casting method – based on the working designs developed on the basis of cast aluminum ornament samples found on the territory, keeping the original dimensions – and were installed according to the design, after they were brought to Shusha city,” she added. “A tombstone made of black marble was placed over the grave in the center of the salon, and a bust was prepared of white marble, considering the preliminary form’s restoration.” And now, tourists can visit this great historic landmark.
“Like all other historical and cultural monuments of Azerbaijan, the Gazanchy Church will be restored on the basis of historical documents and archival materials, in accordance with its original artistic and aesthetic appearance; it is a scientific-practical-research activity and includes a comprehensive analysis of the monument, and the study of architectural and historical features” explained the Culture Ministry.
The restoration project will allow the monument to be returned to its original appearance, as it was in the 19th century. In addition, the said project will be discussed and approved by a Scientific Council consisting of experienced architects and restorers. Moreover, the opinion of foreign experts with extensive experience in the relevant field, who are aware of the international preservation and restoration standards approved by UNESCO, is being obtained with regard to the restoration project.” Pretty soon, tourists will be able to visit this renovated church as well.
The region of Shusha is renowned for its natural beauty and it’s beautiful springs. During the Soviet era, Shusha was a tourist resort town. The Azerbaijanis hope to restore Shusha to its former glory.
A second hotel has been built in the city, an airport has been built in nearby Fizouly, and a road connecting Fizouly and Shusha has been constructed. When I was there, the airport was not yet constructed, and I had to travel on a landmine infested dirt-road around the region. Yet slowly and gradually, this bleak reality is beginning to change and now, tourists coming to Shusha will have an easier experience.