Darkness in the Temple of the Sun: Khojaly before the massacre

By | Rachel Brooks

February 18, 2021 

Image credit: “Mitra” by giopuo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. The Zoroastrian deity Mitra, seen above, was a common deity of the ancient Azerbaijani of Khojaly, seen here in a Roman relief of the same deity. Ancient people of the Khojaly region used reliefs of Mitra and fire temple worship to protect their deceased loved ones from evil spirits, which they believed would emerge in darkness. It was of profound significance to the heritage of Azerbaijan, therefore, when the rich culture of Khojaly that was researched over the course of the 19th and 20th Centuries fell into darkness due to the events of the brutal Khojaly Massacre of February 1992. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 613 Azerbaijanis. It likewise forever associated Khojaly with brutality, when it was once the focal point of archaeological curiosity.  

Khojaly has joined a long list of infamous names. Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Treblinka, Wounded Knee. Cities and townships are famous for the doom that befell their denizens. Cities that had their histories written in the blood of massacre. 


Yet, for all of these towns that are hallowed by the sorrow and horror of their history of violence, there is forgotten humanity. We remember the blood that pooled in the snow, yet we forget the mother who was baking bread before that blood was spilled. The shadow of death stands long in history, overwhelming the shadow of life and dignity of those who lived in Khojaly before tragedy struck. Yet, Khojaly was in recent history the spectacle of wonders of the ancient world, which the academic community had extended efforts to research in a collective, unbroken manner, before the war interrupted this work. 


An island in ancient culture 

A research paper from Mohaghegh Ardabili University commemorates the culture of the Khojaly-Gadabay region. It was written by Ph.D. student Ali Karimikiya, and archaeology department Professor Reza Rezaloo, and was published in the Journal of Archaeological Studies. Their research pieces together a shared ancient culture that lived within the area of Khojaly-Gadabay from non-residential cemeteries. It pieced together the use of gray pottery and a culture that lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle. It recalls to mind how once, before it was forever darkened by the sanguinary stains of recent history, Khojaly was entwined in the rich culture of the Karabakh. 


The research paper places the unique culture of Khojaly-Gadabay as part of the distinctive ancient cultures of northwest Iran. It was also known by the names Central Zagafia and Ganja-Garabagh in Azerbaijan. The unique culture described by this research paper dates back to the Late Bronze Age. 


Further early Khojaly culture insight comes from the academic research paper “Critical remarks on archaeological research in the 19th and 20th centuries of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Ages in the Southern Caucasus.” The paper describes artifacts of Khojaly-Gadabay culture that were excavated from Paradise Castle and its surroundings. These artifacts are now found at the State Museum of History in Moscow. Likewise, the paper stated that some of the findings of ancient artifacts from Khojaly are particularly important to existing collections in Vienna, Austria at the time the academic paper was filed. This is due to the fact that the Khojaly-Gadabay culture was prevalent over the South Caucasus in the time of the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age. 


“The spectacular Khojaly-Gedebey Culture which prevailed over the greater part of the Caucasus in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages should be investigated collaboratively by the international scientific community. Although there are some obstacles due to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, foreign scholars could make a huge contribution by organizing joint excavations and discussing problems at international conferences so that ways towards joint research and publications can be found,” wrote Nourida Gadirova-Ateshi, author of the “Critical remarks…” research paper.

A necklace discovered at one of the burial mounds in the greater Khojaly region. 

CC BY-SA 4.0, 2015. Necklace (Agate, carnelian, paste; Inv. 16708). Khojaly. Burial ground. Excavations by E. Resler, 1895. Hermitage Museum.


Temples and tombs of fire in long ago Khojaly 

This prevalent culture of long-ago Khojaly connected peoples was revealed by further research to hold the “Sun” belief. Irada Avsharova of Baku University wrote, “Trace of the Sun Belief in the Tombs of the Bronze Age Azerbaijan” which was published in November 2020. This research paper details the beliefs of the ancient tribal Azerbaijani people who lived along the Ganjachay river region (Greater Ganja), which would become the site of the infamous Second Karabakh war eons later.


From studying graves of the ancestors, Avsharova recalls a deeply mystical tribal culture that held elaborate funerals for their deceased members to please their souls in the afterlife. From these relics, one could observe that these ancient peoples worshiped the sun and the moon, and held animistic views of the world around them. The ancient Khojaly-Gadabay culture built temples to the fire and sun deity Mitra Akhundov. They believed that evil spirits feared fire and light and used temples of fire and busts of the sun god Mitra to protect the resting places of their dead from wickedness. These ancient residents of Khojaly associated the rising of the sun with goodness and the darkness with forces of evil. 


It would cause grave pain and unrest to the Khojaly-Gadabay culture of long ago to learn that their descendants would fall prey to evil one night in February,1992.The mystical culture of a long-ago Khojaly would grieve to learn that their region of the world came to forever be associated with darkness and sorrow. 


Khojaly’s coveted position put it “in the way” 

Khojaly was, in a sense, targeted because of its coveted position in the pathway of cultural islands. Khojaly was like a pearl amid pearls, 12km north-east of Khankandi, between Aghdam and Shusha, the eternal resting place of the poets and cradle of musicians. 


The presidential assistant and professor of science and history Ali Hasanov described this positional targeting in his academic article “Khojaly Genocide: The Gravest Crime Committed By Armenians Against Azerbaijanis in the Late 20th Century.” This research found that the position of Khojaly impeded Armenia’s occupation plans of Karabakh. The research also found that in October 1991, four months before the tragedy took place in February 1992, all the roads into Khojaly were closed. Khojaly was held under siege long before the bloodshed, a fact that stands now like a sharp inhale before the piercing blow dealt history. 

A bead from 911-881 BC discovered in the burial mound in Khojaly, written with the cuneiform inscription: “Palace of Adadnirari, king of the world”.

Bead (Agate, Inv. 16699). Cuneiform inscription of the Assyrian King Adadnirari II (911-891 BC): “Palace of Adadnirari, king of the world”. Khojaly. Burial ground. Excavations by E. Resler, 1895. Hermitage Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0 Interfase.2015

Remembering Khojaly for its humanity, past, present, and future

As the world pauses to remember the Khojaly Massacre of February 1992, one may also pause to reflect upon the humanity of Khojaly and all that her vast wellspring of history has contributed to kindred humanity. Khojaly is ancient, with a treasure trove of culture that was put on pause for the bloodshed of recent history. Today, as the Azerbaijani people return to Karabakh, the roots of the direct descendant culture will once again be laid. Khojaly’s light may dawn yet, and the darkness  may recede from the temple of the sun, and the rich culture once more be researched to the benefit of all people and their pursuit of understanding cultural identity.