Architecture of Karabakh: History and Reality

azerbaijan culture karabakh

Sabina Hajiyeva

Science Doctor in Architecture

November 21, 2020

Above, old stone works in Azerbaijan written in the Arabic script, show that the roots of Muslims in the region are deep. “azerbaijan” by Retlaw Snellac Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Since ancient times, Karabakh, like the entire interfluve of the Kura and Araks rivers, has been a center of civilization and culture. The world-famous site of ancient people in the Azikh cave, Taglar, Damjily, Zar, Shikhlar caves, and others keep traces of the activities of people from the deepest layers of the Stone Age. In the Eneolithic period, Karabakh was already a densely populated region by the standards of that period. Archaeological excavations have revealed numerous ancient settlements, such as Garakepektepe, Khantepe, Kultepe, Sheherjik, and others. Early monuments of the Bronze Age include Garakepektepe and Uzerliktepe. The Iron Age left us the remains of the fortified settlements of Uzerliktepe, Sheherjik, Zargartepe, and others. The settlements of Seyidli and Goytepe in the Aghdam region, the settlement of Shergala (1 century BC – 1 century AD), and others belong to the ancient period.

Preserved up to now monuments of architecture in Karabakh let us note several stages in the Karabakh’s history that affected its architecture. 

The first stage is connected with the big period of existence of Caucasian Albania Christian State and active religious construction (IV-the beginning of the VIII-the centuries). 

In the 4th century BC. the state of Caucasian Albania arose on the territory of Northern Azerbaijan. Having adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century, the Albanian rulers had strengthened the independent, apostolic Albanian church with all their power, giving great importance to its role in preserving political sovereignty and opposing the assimilationist policies of Persia and Byzantium. In 551, the capital of Albania was moved from Kabala to Barda. This fact also entailed the relocation of the cultural center of the country to the right-bank regions (of Kura river), among which were the lands of Karabakh.

One-nave and three-nave basilicas were the most widespread types in Albanian religious architecture, but small central domed churches and chapels were already built at the same time starting from an early period. The most revered religious building of this period was the church in the monastery complex in Amaras (Karabakh). Remains of early medieval basilicas such as Tazakend and Barda basilicas have been preserved in the plain part of Karabakh. An excellent example of three-nave basilicas of the 6th century has been preserved on the Agoglanchay River in the Lachin region. 

The economic and cultural development of Caucasian Albania was interrupted by the Arab invasion. That period can be described as the second stage in the architectural history of Karabakh. The Arabs were tolerant to Christians, therefore, part of the population of Caucasian Albania, especially its mountainous and foothill regions, to which most of Karabakh belonged, retained its old religion, avoiding Islamization. In the cities of former Caucasian Albania, Muslims and Christians coexisted peacefully, as evidenced by many Arab historians. Arab authors report on the baths and covered markets for which Barda, the largest city in the Caucasus of that period, was famous, the developed systems of closed urban pottery water pipes and wells. The History of Alban reports on the location of a Christian cathedral next to a mosque in Barda.

The collapse of the Arab Caliphate contributed to the emergence of many feudal emirates and principalities in the Near East. The Artsakh-Khachen Albanian principality, which was formed in the mountainous part of Karabakh and was part of the Azerbaijani states, was ruled by the dynasty of Albanian Mihranids. Albanian princes invested a lot in the construction of palaces, defensive and religious buildings. In the medieval period, the construction of religious buildings in large monasteries, which served at the same time as ancestral tombs, was considered especially prestigious. The name of the most famous person of that time, the Albanian prince Hasan-Jalal, is associated with the construction of the Ganjasar monastery (1216-1238), in which the throne of the Albanian Catholicos was located for many centuries, until its abolition. 

The largest monastic complex of Azerbaijan – Khudavank is located in the Vank village of the Kelbajar region. At the end of the 12th century, the Church of Hasan the Great was built here. The main church of the complex was built in 1214 by Princess Arzu-Khatun, the wife of Prince Vakhtang (Bahram). Her 19-line ktitor’s inscription occupies part of the southern wall of the church. The monastery of St. Elisha, known in the early Middle Ages as the monastery of Ners-Mihr, is located on one of the spurs of Mount Murovdag. 

In the “History of the Albanians” by Moses Kalankatuisky, there is information according to which this monastery existed already in the 5th century and was part of the possession of the Albanian king Vachagan the Pious. He was buried in one of the chapels of the monastery, built of rough stone. Khatiravank is a monastic complex located on the Terter River below Khudavank, known as the burial vault of another Albanian Khachen princely family, which remained in history under the name of its ancestor Dofi. In addition to these largest monastic ensembles on the territory of Karabakh, other cult complexes have been preserved, interesting both for their architecture and history. These are the monasteries of St. Jacob, Gutavank, and others. All of them were built by Albanian craftsmen by order of the Albanian princes, as evidenced by historical sources.

Albanian architecture had developed following the common patterns of Eastern Christian architecture. It has features of similarity with the architecture of neighboring Christian nations. At the same time, Albanian architecture and, in particular, the Christian architecture of Karabakh has striking features of originality in the art of building, such as a variety of building materials, and in the decorative solution, which is characterized by the interweaving of motifs of Christian iconography, Muslim decor, and pagan symbols. This feature can be traced in the architecture of the monuments of Karabakh, both Christian and Muslim.

The Islamic architecture of the XI-XIV centuries in Karabakh is most vividly represented by the mausoleums. The mausoleum in Barda, one of the most remarkable monuments of this type in Azerbaijan, was built in 1322 by the architect Ahmed, the son of Eyyub al-Hafiz from Nakhchivan. One can name the mausoleum of Melik Azhdar in the village of Dzhijimli, Lachin region (XII-XIII centuries), the mausoleums in the villages of Baba and Akhmedalylar, Fizuli region. In the village of Khachyn Turbatly, Aghdam region, a valuable monument of the Ilkhanid era has been preserved – the mausoleum of Haji Musa oglu. According to the epigraphy, the monument was erected in 1314 by Ustad Shahbenzer. Not far from the city of Fizuli, in the village of Veiselli, there is the Mir Ali mausoleum dating back to the late 13th-early 14th centuries. There are two more cylindrical mausoleums in the Jebrail region, similar in time of construction, material, and nature of the architectural solution to the mausoleum of Mir Ali.

Thus, the XIII-XIV centuries left several Muslim memorial monuments – mausoleums in Karabakh. The scale and quality of engineering construction are eloquently indicated by the bridges on the Khudaferin bridges, built in the XII and XIII centuries.

As it can be seen from the above, the architecture of Karabakh and the surrounding territories of the Middle Ages has come down to us both in Christian religious monuments, and in Muslim memorial monuments – mausoleums and in monuments of civil architecture. Historical sources and epigraphy of monuments are called the builders of Christian churches and monasteries of Albanian kings and princes. Time and numerous wars have wiped out most of the monuments from the face of the earth, and especially mercilessly those that were in the plains. However, both Albanian – Christian and Muslim monuments that have come down to us eloquently testify to the high level of the building culture of this region of Azerbaijan.

The third stage in Karabakh architecture can be characterized by construction activity on the territory of Karabakh in the 18th century. The formation of the Karabakh Khanate in the middle of the 18th century opens a new page in the history of architecture of Karabakh. The city of Shusha became the center of the khanate. The construction of the Shusha fortress began in 1753. Not far from the main gate on the hill was the citadel-palace of Panahali Khan. The urban development consisted of blocks – mechelle.

Residential buildings in Shusha were built in a style characteristic of Karabakh – mostly two-story, facing the courtyard, with deep verandas on wooden columns. The combination of rubble masonry with wooden structures of verandas and colored stained-glass windows, multi-colored interior decor created a unique colorful appearance of residential buildings – imarets of Shusha. Many of them, such as the house of the poetess Natavan, the manor of Haji Gulular, the houses of the Mehmandarovs, Ugurlu bey, Asad bey, the houses in which the outstanding composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov, singer Bulbul, and others were born and raised, are monuments of the history and architecture of Azerbaijan. There were dozens of mosques in Shusha in the 19th century, of which the most significant is a mosque built at the expense of Govkhar Agha, the daughter of Ibrahim Khan, by the famous architect Karbalai Sefi Khan Karabagi. Shusha, built by Panahali Khan 250 years ago, is the largest monument of history, culture, urban planning, and architecture of Azerbaijan, an open-air museum, which was protected as a historical and architectural reserve.

That stage can be characterized also by the mass resettlement of Armenians from Iran and Turkey, who begin to explore new territories and the monuments located their Armenian families were resettled to our lands in Karabakh, Irevan, and Nakhchivan by Russia to increase the number of Christian families after the annexation of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country surrounded by other Muslim countries, and by the way, divided as a result of the Russian-Iranian wars into two parts. Russian writers Griboyedov, Velichko, and Glinka write about this.

The decision of the Tsar Synod, which abolished the Albanian Ganjasar Catholicosate and subordinated its parishioners to the Echmiadzin Catholicosate, gave a powerful impetus to these processes. From this period in Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan, with the support of the Tsarist government, the construction of Christian churches, both Orthodox and Gregorian – Armenian, began.

Thus, the historical and architectural monuments of Karabakh and adjacent territories are an interesting and diverse heritage in terms of construction time, style, construction equipment, and cult affiliation. The Christian part of this heritage has always attracted the attention of the Armenian Church, Armenian historians, and politicians – supporters of the idea of ​​”Great Armenia”, who used it to substantiate territorial claims to Azerbaijan.

In the Albanian churches and monasteries subordinated to the Tsar’s decree of 1836 to the Armenian Catholicosate, purposeful work was carried out to destroy the traces of the Albanian church. Not only manuscripts were taken out, but also medieval epigraphy was destroyed. The Armenians resettled by the Russian Empire to the lands of Karabakh from Iran and Turkey repaired local Albanian churches, introducing their own innovations into them, replacing epigraphy and inscribing their names in medieval monuments. Many churches in Karabakh have come down to us with epigraphy dating back to the time of perestroika and renovation. The Armenian Gregorian Church not only absorbed the Albanian Catholicosate but also did everything possible to assimilate the Albanian population and appropriate the Albanian heritage.

The war in Karabakh can be noted as the fourth stage. The war unleashed by Armenia against Azerbaijan and the subsequent occupation of 20% of the territory of our country, including most of Karabakh and the regions adjacent to it from the south and west, became a real disaster for the cultural heritage in general and architectural monuments as well. According to materials published in the Armenian media at different times, satellite footage, reports of OSCE missions on the situation in the occupied Azerbaijani territories, as well as according to data from other sources, hundreds of historical monuments have been completely destroyed in these territories. The remaining monuments are certified as Armenian. 

In violation of international conventions, in particular the 1954 Hague Convention “On the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” and the Protocols thereto, as well as the UNESCO Convention “On the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, the Armenian side destroys or falsifies architectural monuments as Armenian, takes away the monuments of applied art, which are then presented as their own.

As a result of military operations in Karabakh, many architectural monuments of Aghdam, Agdere, Fizuli, and other regions of Azerbaijan were seriously damaged. Research by the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the amount of destruction that occurred after the ceasefire is much higher than that recorded during hostilities. Monuments of Islamic architecture, which cannot be Armenianized, are purposefully destroyed. Especially great damage was inflicted on the Shusha Historical and Architectural Reserve, where the mosques of Yukhari and Ashagi Gevkhar Agha, Mardinli, Juma, Saatly, the Natavan Palace and most of the residential buildings – imarets of the 19th-20th centuries, which were associated with the names of prominent persons of the culture of Azerbaijan, as well as tombstones and springs.

The same barbaric actions were taken against the monuments of the Aghdam region – Juma mosque, imaret, and Panakh khan’s mausoleums of the 19th century in the vicinity of Agdam, a complex of monuments in the village of Shahbulag, etc. In the Jebrail region, mosques and mausoleums of the 17th-19th centuries were destroyed, in Kelbajar the Ulukhan fortress and many other architectural monuments. It should be noted that this is the result of a purposeful policy to destroy traces of Azerbaijani culture in the temporarily occupied lands. Another direction of this thoughtful policy is the armenization of the historical and architectural heritage of Karabakh and, first of all, the monuments of Christian religious architecture. 

Now, in the 21st century, Armenians are using the occupation of Azerbaijani lands to continue the process of armenization, which began 200 years ago. Illegal actions of the Armenian authorities concerning the Albanian – Azerbaijani historical and architectural heritage cause irreparable harm to the monuments of Albanian architecture.

The “restoration” work that they carry out on the monuments violates not only international conventions but also modern requirements for the scientific restoration and conservation of monuments. All the works carried out demonstrate gross interference in the architectural appearance and destroy the historical authenticity of the monuments. Not being able to see these monuments, based on the statements of eyewitnesses and materials from the Internet, I want to give several examples of these works. Most of the Albanian churches, which have undergone barbaric restoration, have renewed roofs and are covered with metal tiles or other modern materials. (villages of Chanakhchi, Gochaz, and others). The facades were renewed, the walls were dismantled and restored with modern building materials, and sometimes entire premises were added (Gyutavank, Sultan Ahmed Saray, and others). The parts of the fortress walls of the Amaras, Ganjasar, Khudavank monasteries were built anew. This remake is rudely striking in all photographs. New walls were rebuilt in the Shahbulag fortress and partly in the Askeran fortress.

The most majestic and famous from the historical and architectural points of view, Christian complexes of Caucasian Albania –Azerbaijan- Khudavang and Ganjasar have been in the hands of the Armenian invaders for more than 27 years. Despite the declarations of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of a Military Conflict, in force since 07.08.1954 [1], and the 1972 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, as well as Architectural Monuments, the Armenian invaders, under the guise of restoration work, falsify history and the architecture of our monuments in the occupied territory.

Azerbaijani scientists R. Geyushev, D. Akhundov, G. Mammadova, and others studied the history and architecture of these monasteries.

Khudavang or Dadavang is one of the largest and most beautiful monasteries in Azerbaijan. Already in the first centuries of our era, a small church was built here, and in its place later, in the early Middle Ages, a one-nave basilica, one of the oldest buildings of the monastery was built. Archaeological research shows that the monastery was founded in the 6th-7th centuries. The complex continued to be the religious center of the Albanian Khachin principality, which was founded in the mountainous part of Karabakh in the ninth century, a century after the collapse of the state of Caucasian Albania.

The complex housed the residence of the Albanian bishop and the center of religious education. In the 13th century, the monastery was repaired, additional buildings were built at the expense of the Bahram’s (Vakhtang) family, the son of Hasan the Great, Prince Khachin from the Mehranid dynasty. Here, to perpetuate the memory of her husband and sons, his wife Arzu Khatyn in 1214 had built a beautiful cross-domed temple with rooms in four corners, a gallery-shaped corridor, a large corridor in front of a one-nave basilica, and a small church south of the main group of buildings. Residential and outbuildings were located to the south of the cult buildings, on the hillside. The Temple of St. Gregory and the Hasan Jalal Church, which were later added to the complex, is also striking architectural monuments.

Khudavank has undergone a complete renovation and falsification during the occupation, in which the roofs of many buildings are covered with modern materials, the walls have been completed in places, the rubble wall surrounding the complex is concreted. The entrance gate, one might say, was rebuilt anew, with completely new building material, the shape of the entrance arch was also changed – from a pointed one it became a semicircular one. The restoration of the unique frescoes of the monastery began in 2014. You can imagine what this unique Albanian monastery complex looks like after all the false “restorations”, how many historical features it has lost, and how many new “historical” features it has acquired. 

Ganjasar Monastery is located on a high picturesque plateau on the banks of the Khadzhinchay, near the village of Vangli. This is one of the most famous monasteries in Albania, which until 1836 was the seat of the last Albanian Catholicos. The monastery complex consists of a church and a narthex of excellent work, as well as a group of utility and residential buildings adjacent to the northeast corner of the almost square courtyard of the monastery complex. The complex has a central composition.

The Ganjasar complex, surrounded by high walls, includes the main church built in the style of Albanian Christian architecture. The Ganjasar cathedral, built-in 1216-1238, has a cross-domed composition. The building of the cathedral is covered with a rich stone pattern, full of symbolic sound. Built at the time of the rise of the Christian Albanian principality on the land, where Islam had been spread for several centuries and at the same time peacefully coexisted with Christianity, the patterns of Ganjasar are a vivid example of this commonwealth in stone. Doctor of Architecture D.Akhundov, in his book, analyzed in detail the symbolism in the decorative design of the Ganjasar Cathedral for the mutual influence of Christian and Muslim symbols.

The drum of the dome is decorated on the outside with a particularly rich decor. Sculptures and carved stone patterns are real works of decorative art. Ganjasar Temple stands out among other Albanian churches for its exquisite beauty. Despite the similar architectural, planning, and design solutions with the main cathedral of the Khudavank monastery, the beauty of the interior and exterior, the subtlety and high quality of Ganjasar parts surpass the Arzu Khatyn temple.

The cross-domed composition of the main temple, the 16-sided drum of the dome, and the pyramid-shaped stone dome that covers it adds special splendor and beauty to this last residence of the Albanian believers. At the peak of his political power, the Albanian prince Hasan Jalal managed to build a temple worthy of being called the main temple of Caucasian Albania, and it is no coincidence that Ganjasar for many centuries was the center of the Albanian Catholicosate. The architectural-planning and compositional solution of the temple complex, sculptural elements confirm the belonging of this monument to the centuries-old tradition of the architecture of the Caucasian Albanians.

For many centuries, until the Albanian Catholicosate was abolished by the Russian Synod in 1836, Ganjasar was the center of the Albanian Catholicosate. Therefore, the goal of the Armenian “scientists” is to call this monument Armenian. After the resettlement of a large number of Armenians to the lands of Azerbaijan in the 19th century, these actions were encouraged, the famous inscription made by Hasan Jalal during the construction of the temple in the Albanian language was replaced. Over the long years of systematic appropriation of the Albanian heritage, books and articles falsifying history and culture have been published that this Albanian pearl is an Armenian historical monument.

Since the main goal is not to study the architecture of monuments, but to make them an integral part of the Armenian heritage, books and articles by Armenian authors full of falsifications and false information, of course, cannot be called scientific. However, they spread false information among people ignorant of the history and culture of Caucasian Albania.

Big unacceptable changes were made to the architecture of the main monastery of Caucasian Albania – Ganjasar. Ancient inscriptions engraved on the outer walls of the Ganjasar complex during the existence of numerous Albanian patriarchates were of historical importance. These inscriptions, as well as the inscriptions on the inside of the temple, underwent Armenian “restoration” and were changed several times in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the 1980s, and some of them survived under new facing stones in 2011.

As a result, the Albanian cultural layer was completely lost. This situation was reflected even on Armenian websites, and several Armenian “researchers” expressed their disagreement with the loss of the history of the monument. This created a problem for the inclusion of Ganjasar in the UNESCO list. So, It turns out that there are no other obstacles to including the occupied monument of Azerbaijan in the UNESCO list. Thus, an architectural monument belonging to the Albanian Azerbaijani architecture and located on the territory of Azerbaijan, illegally occupied by the Armenians, only because of improper restoration, was not included in the UNESCO list. Does it mean that any construction or restoration activity on the territory of a war conflict prohibited usually for all other countries is allowed for Armenians? So they not only “restored” that masterpiece but also tried to add to the list of UNESCO.

The fate of these two most important and famous Albanian monuments is shared by other monuments in the occupied territories. Christian monuments are being falsified and our Islamic monuments are being destroyed. The Lachin Basilica, which is covered with new orange tiles, has undergone the same barbaric restoration. The organizations and institutions involved in the protection of monuments remain silent. 

Unfortunately, we do not have complete information about the state of architectural monuments in the occupied territories. But even fragmentary information leaked to the press and the Internet, as well as testimonies of foreign visitors to Karabakh, speak of hundreds of destroyed monuments and unprecedented falsifications.

These actions are a gross violation of UNESCO’s requirements for the protection of monuments and the requirements of the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted on March 26, 1999. This document quite clearly defines the obligations of the parties to the conflict to protect cultural property. According to Article 9 of this Protocol, the party occupying part of the territory of another state must prohibit:

a) any illegal export, other seizure, or transfer of ownership of the cultural property;

b) any archaeological excavation, unless required solely for the protection, registration, or preservation of cultural property;

c) any modification or alteration in the use of the cultural property that is intended to conceal or destroy evidence of a cultural, historical, or scientific nature.

2. Any archaeological excavations of cultural property in the occupied territory, their modification or change in the type of their use, shall be carried out, if only the circumstances permit, in close cooperation with the competent national authorities of the occupied territory. But we can see that the Azikh cave was excavated and artifacts were sold out.

All these requirements have been grossly violated for 27 years and, unfortunately, so far remain unpunished. 

P.S. For about 30 years, Karabakh was under occupation. Historical cities and settlements, which were built by the efforts of our ancestors for a peaceful life, have been desecrated by the invaders. They call Karabakh theirs, however, they destroy its cultural and architectural heritage, because they never created it, did not own it, and therefore cannot value it. They destroy the monuments of Karabakh in the way that only the enemy can do, erasing the traces of history, falsifying its monuments.

The Christian heritage is falsified and shamelessly appropriated, and the Muslim one is destroyed. Sometimes, to prove to the world its high culture, Muslim architecture is also falsified under the guise of so-called “restorations”. Foreign specialists are also involved in such restorations, even though the above documents on the protection of heritage in the territories of military conflicts must be observed by all countries claiming the title of culturally civilized countries. So, recently one of the pearls of Muslim architecture in Azerbaijan, the Gevkher Agi Mosque, was “restored”. It is not enough to say that the restoration carried out without the involvement of Azerbaijani specialists is incorrect. It is completely unacceptable.

I sincerely believe that very soon our Azerbaijani flag, the flag of the true owners of the land occupied for so long, but spiritually undefeated, will again proudly fly over all the cities and villages of Karabakh. The events of the last days give a firm conviction of this. We will return to our cities and monument after monument, quarter by quarter we will measure and examine, restore, and restore.


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