Suitcase and World: A Day in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Day in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).

"We Are Our Mountains", by Sargis Baghdasaryan, 1967 is widely regarded as a symbol of the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh.

We spent today visiting a part of the world that few people outside of this region know exists and if they've heard of the place, they unlikely know anything about it.

I created this blog with the sole intention of documenting my travels so I that in my old age, I could recall the places I've been so lucky to travel to.  I deliberately have avoided making any political statements about the places I've been to as I do not want to state my views for the world to see.  I prefer to discuss politics rather than write about them.

However, I found it difficult to describe Artsakh without delving into politics.  I will try to be as impartial as I can though I admit that I do make the occasional harsh comment.

Artsakh or as it's better known to the world - Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, lying between Lower Karabakh and Zangezur and covering the south eastern range of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The region is mostly mountainous and forested and has an area of 8,223 square kilometers (3,175 square miles). 


When the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was created in 1920, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated into the Azerbaijani SSR as an autonomous oblast (administrative division or region). When the USSR dissolved in 1991, a referendum was held in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and the neighboring Shahumian region. The overwhelming majority of residents, who were ethnically Armenian, voted for independence from Azerbaijan.  That did not happen.  Although Nagorno Karabakh declared its independence, it remains internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan though Azerbaijan has not exercised administrative power over most of the region since 1991.

Prior to 1991, Azeris and Armenians lived together in the territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  How peaceful that coexistence was would probably be debated by both Armenians and Azeris.  That's what you do when you don't get along now - you claim even your predecessors were mistreated by the other side and each will point their fingers to the evidence of such.  But I can imagine that there were Armenians and Azeris happily living side by side and many probably even intermarried with children carrying the heritage of both sides. 

Whatever peaceful existence there may have been changed when the war broke out in 1991.  Both sides returned to their homelands and people who once got along with each other just fine now started to hate each other. 

So pretty much starting from the moment the *country* declared independence, Nagorno-Karabakh has at war with Azerbaijan with backing from Armenia.  In 1994, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia and the OSCE Minsk group was also established in 1994, consisting of Russia, France and the US, with an aim to resolve the conflict through negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Since the ceasefire in 1994, most of Nagorno-Karabakh and several regions of Azerbaijan around it remain under joint Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh military control.

Ceasefire agreement or not, there remains constant fighting at the front line and there is loss of lives everyday. The most recent conflict took place just a little over three weeks ago as both sides traded accusations over violations of the 1994 ceasefire agreement.  Fighting broke out on April 1st and a mutual ceasefire agreement, between Azerbaijan and Armenia, was reached four days later on April 5th.

What I find truly sad is that this is a conflict fueled entirely by sheer hatred of people who really don't know anything about each other.  I think what people know has been largely fed to them by the media
who constantly report their sides of the story and their take of the events.  There are plenty of biased recounting of historic events that are not only written up in newspapers and on websites.  I'm sure biased words have also ended up in the history books that school children read.  After all, you must be taught, from a young age, to never forget.  Yes, you must remember but must you be taught to hate??

We were most certainly witness to the power of the press in both countries and as a result, the extremely biased views that both Armenians and Azeris have of the conflict and the absolute vitriol they feel for each other.

As you would expect, both sides also constantly portray themselves as the victims - that the other side is the villain. But let's be honest, both sides have an equal hand in the conflict for there is no such thing as a fight that can go on for this long if one side is always winning.  It also does not help that both sides are being supplied arms by Russia.  Each country has a formal contract to purchase arms from Russia and each protests that the other is getting arms from Russia.  As long Putin is making money on the deal, why will he stop?  In fact, Armenia escalated purchases following the April 1st incident this year and it would not surprise me if Azerbaijan did the same.

As long as the long standing hatred, between the two countries, is fueled by the press and their respective governments and each country is willing to spend on weaponry and has people to literally go to the front lines and fight, I don't see an easy resolution to the matter.  I just wish the area could somehow slip into peace and that one day, both Armenians and Azeris can happily live side by side once again.
The flag of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Setting aside the conflict for a moment, Nagorno-Karabakh functions as an independent country. They collect taxes, have their own postal service and ministries. In fact, they just held parliamentary elections, which were deemed fair by OSCE observers (according to Armenian media), but were not recognized by the US, EU, Azerbaijan and not surprisingly, Turkey - the other country that Armenia is in dispute with at the moment.

Now, for my harsh comments.  Firstly, it also does not help matters that a region that wants to be treated as independent carries a flag that is clearly a variation of the Armenian flag.

The white zig zag portion indicates the split of Armenians in Artsakh from those in the motherland.

If you want to truly be independent, you need a flag that clearly indicates that and not one that seems to imply allegiance to another country.  Most recently, South Sudan split from Sudan.  The two flags have a similar inspiration in design but they don't look alike because South Sudan declared its independence and is determined to exist as a separate nation even though it has not really changed its name.  Sudanese people of all heritage, live in both countries.

What is the name of your country?
Secondly, as a country, you have to decide what you want to call yourself, especially if you want the world to know about you.  Are you Artsakh Republic or are you the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic?  Even the official website of the President of the country can't make up its mind.  What do you want the world to know you as?  We're confused and you're not making things better.

Okay, that's more political prose than I've written in all my other postings, combined!  Back to my travels.

Per the US State Department's travel advisory for Azerbaijan:

While we obviously did not heed the State Department's warning to stay away from the region, the thought that perhaps we should not be here, for safety reasons, did occasionally cross my mind.  Thankfully, there were no threats to our safety today.  By the way, thousands of Americans and Europeans come to the region every year.  There were two more Americans who visited this year!

Since we traveled with Armenians today, I will refer to the region as they refer to it as  - Artsakh.

I woke up, well rested, after a good night's rest.   I think our room was a smoking room and the lingering stench of smoke had started to bother me last night so I opened the balcony door to try and air out the room.  Best thing I did because that left the room comfortably cool for me but not so much that Pat would be uncomfortable.

Pat was still asleep when I made my way out of bed.  I was curious to see the view outside our window.  We overlooked a small city  park.

Though the park was empty except for a woman sweeping the pavement, the occasional group of children would pass by on their way to school.  It was nice to hear the sound of happy chatter.  Not everyone here is fighting :-)

We met Gurgen and Anush down the hotel's dining room for a quick breakfast.  Definitely nothing fancy but we'e been eating so much lately, it's good to have a light meal once in a while.

After breakfast, Pat and I went back to the room and got our luggage.   By the time we returned to the lobby, Gurgen was seated at a table starting to fill out a visa application form for one of us.  He was writing down all the responses in Armenian.  Since rightfully the form should be filled in by the applicant and neither Pat nor I know Armenian, I decided to fill in a form in English.  I had Pat do the same.

We would drop off the completed forms at the Ministry of Affairs in Stepanakert.

Before we left the hotel, Pat went off to a nearby conveniece store to buy some water.  It didn't even dawn on me, until after she got back, that she made her purchase with Armenian drams.  The fact that she used drams did not surprise me as using one country's currency in another is not unusual.   I just read that Artsakh does have its own currency called the Nagorno-Karabakh dram.  Although it is legal tender, it is not as widely used as the Armenian dram.  I wish I had known about this earlier because I would have wanted to get some bills - they would be the most unusual bills in my collection.   Perhaps I'll get Gurgen to get me some on his next trip here.

Our first destination of the day were the fortress walls that once surround Shushi.

According to some sources, Shushi (or Shusha as it's also known) was founded in 1752 by Panah Ali Khan, the founder and ruler of the first Karabakh Khanate.   In its heyday, Shushi was the historic capital of the region and one of the cultural capitals of the Caucasus.

The fortress was an Armenian medieval castle-settlement that Panah Ali Khan had built to defend northern part of the plateau that was geographically the most vulnerable part of a city. The fortress walls are about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) long, and there is a secret exit from the fortress leading to the nearby gorge.

Today, we just saw the remnants of the wall.  After Gurgen parked the van, we just took a quick stroll along a short section of the walls.

Our next destination was Tigranakert.  As we drove through Shushi, I couldn't help but wonder where the cultural city of years gone by had went.  Shushi is barely a shell of its former self.  Perhaps much of its grander past is now in rubble as a result of the decades of war.  Very sad.

On the way to Tigranakert, we skirted Stepanakert, the capital city.  We would return later to get our official entry visas.

The flags are strong reminders of the ties this region has to Armenia.

A Soviet-era sculpture outside a children's clinic that serves as a reminder of the amity that once prevailed in this region.

We soon were on country roads.  I've never been in a war torn region before.  I always imagined there would be bombed out buildings and military personnel and vehicles everywhere.  I saw some damaged buildings and a few soldiers but otherwise, the vistas were as lovely as any other place on earth.  It's very green here; the soil is very fertile.  I did wonder if there were landmines here.  I made a note to always follow in someone else's footsteps.  Being a little overly paranoid, perhaps.

On our journey, we also whizzed by Askeran Fortress, located in the town of the same name. The fortress, which was also built by Panah Ali Khan, is situated on the banks of the Qarqar River. Glancing at it, it reminded me of a section of the Great Wall.

Gurgen stopped the van at the sight of a cute baby donkey. was so adorable.  He was chained to a rock so it was obvious he belonged to someone.  Despite Gurgen's gentle gesture to try and pet it, the shy creature nothing to do with us.  We went on our way.

It was about an hour's drive from Shushi to Tigranakert.  Gurgen parked the van.  There were no other cars around us; we were the only ones here.

The ancient city of Tigranakert is named for Tigran the Great, a leader revered in Armenian history for presiding over Armenia’s greatest expansion in ancient time, from 95-55 BC. In Tigran’s honor, at least four settlements are known to have been built and named for him.  To distinguish itself from the other three Tigranakerts, the place we visited today is known as Tigranakert of Artsakh.

Unlike its more famous counterpart in historic Armenia, this Tigranakert had become largely forgotten until about a decade ago mainly because of the fact that it is located in a war zone - the lands nearby were the scene of heavy fighting during Karabagh’s war of independence.  That all changed in 2005 when an Armenian archaeologist by the name of Hamlet Petrosyan and his team of archaeologists from the Armenian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology began excavating the site. They discovered that this Tigranakert had a citadel, a central business district, churches, suburbs, and cemeteries.  Ruins of those structures can be seen scattered about the landscape.

Tigranakert of Artsakh was built entirely from the local white limestone, and Petrosyan’s research suggests that it was occupied until the 14th century. He and his team of archaeologists also determined that the site was founded in the first century BC, presenting evidence of a continuous Armenian civilization here for more than 2,000 years.
Our entry ticket.

In 2008, the area was designated the Tigranakert Historical-Cultural Reserve by the government of Artsakh. However, vast areas of the 2,136 hectare site remain unexcavated because of limited funding for the project.

A medieval-style castle within the fortress walls. The castle several years ago and today, houses the Tigranakert Museum of Archaeology.

Gurgen got our entry tickets and we followed him, walking uphill on a cobblestone road, to the castle.

I broke my "only walk in someone else's footstep" rule to take this photo.  Thankfully, no landmines.....that I knew of.

Standing outside the walls and looking up the castle looked very much like a medieval castle.  You could make out original sections of the wall from the restored parts.

Can't read the sign :-(  Welcome to Tigranakert??

Inside the castle walls was very different story.  It has obviously been very heavily restored; I couldn't tell what was old from what was new.

In the center was a small courtyard.  Steps led up to the upper level of the wall.  Before I ventured up, Gurgen warned me to not take any photos of the countryside.  Oh.....usually, it's the other way around.  You can take all the photos you want of the outside of a place but nothing of the inside.  I presumed there is some security concerns, not for the safety of the photographer, but to make sure us photo takers do not deliberately take images that could compromise *national* security in some way.

Looking back down at the courtyard.

Around the walls.

Gurgen did ask me to take his photo.  I am not bad photographer but I am not a portrait photographer.  Not by a long shot so I always get a bit nervous taking people's photos.  I have no idea really how to make them look good.  My Nikkor 108-200mm zoom lens tends to produce *softer* photos which I'm used to seeing but a lot of people don't like.  Personally, this was not a bad photo as far as I was concerned - helps to have a good looking subject :-)  Notice that there is no clear view of the surrounding area.

After strolling about the walls, Pat and I followed Gurgen inside the small museum which I would best describe as a regional museum as the artifacts seemed to mainly be things recovered from nearby.

Small as it is, the museum has taken great care to display and describe the artifacts in its collection.

A pair of birds call the museum home. :-)

The newest item in the museum's collection has to be these pieces of shell splinter, recovered less than a month ago!

From the castle, we headed down to another structure, nestled among trees and situated next to a small spring.  I don't know what it is or was.  Maybe it was small chapel??  Whatever it's purpose, it's situated in an idyllic spot.  All I could think of was how perfect this place would be for a picnic!

Next, we drove to the 10th century Gandzasar Monastery, where the Armenians believe that relics belonging to St. John the Baptist and his father St. Zechariah are kept.  As such it is considered to be one of Artsakh’s most venerated shrines. 

Pilgrims believe that the monastery was founded on the place of a shrine holding the skull of St. John the Baptist, which was brought to the land of Artsakh directly from Palestine during the Crusades. At that time, the Armenian nobility of Artsakh maintained strong contacts with the royal families of the maritime Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, which aided the Crusaders.

Not a whole lot of visitors today.

Gandzasar is a walled abbey with both ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical buildings, the centerpiece of which is the Cathedral of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist), a large church with a cupola in the inscribed cross plan.

Cathedral of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist).

The foundations of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist were laid in 1216 by Prince Hasan Jalal Vahtangian, a powerful Armenian feudal lord  who to one of the most ancient aristocratic families in Armenian history—the Arranshahiks.  Construction of the cathedral was completed in 1238 and it was consecrated in 1240.

On our way to our next destination, we passed through the small village of Vank, the birthplace of a Moscow millionaire lumber baron called Levon Hayrapetyan.  Hayrapetyan had a vision to develop tourism in the area and so he poured much of his own much into his home village - building a school, a lumber mill and a one very odd looking hotel.  Called the Titanic Hotel, it's shaped like a ship.  We didn't go inside - just snapped a photo from the road.

We also stopped to take a photo of Vank's entrance monument, a very whimsical looking feline.

If you can't take the photo, Gurgen will be glad to do it for you.  Just hand him your camera :-)

We were making our way back to Stepanakert.  Along the way, we stopped at what most would consider to be the symbol of the Armenian heritage of Artsakh - the large monument titled, "We are Our Mountains" by Sargis Baghdasaryan.  The monument, which was created in 1967 is carved from tufa and depicts an old man and an woman, representing the mountain people of the region.  The monument is prominent in Artsakh's coat of arms.

A pair of very proud Armenians posing before the monument.

We didn't climb up the hill to see the monument up close.  The thing is so big it's really better appreciated from a distance.

At the base of the hill were several vendors selling trinkets.  It was all about Christian Armenia here.  There is no doubt that the people we encountered here have strong pride for their heritage.  I admire that.

Pat and I, like thousands of other American and European tourists, made it Artsakh this year!

Next, we made our way to the capital city - Stepanakert or Khankendi (Azerbaijani: Xankəndi), originally called Vararakn (Armenian: Վարարակն).  Confused? 

Well, according to medieval Armenian sources, the settlement was first mentioned as Vararakn (meaning "rapid spring" in Armenian), a name that remained in use until 1847, when it was renamed Khankendi.

Azeri sources generally say that the settlement was founded in the late eighteenth century as a private residence for khans of the Karabakh Khanate, and was thus called Khankendi (Turkic for "the khan's village").

After the conquest of the Karabakh Khanate by the Russian Empire the name Khankendi was charted on Russian maps.

In 1923 Khankendi was renamed Stepanakert by the Soviet government to honor Stepan Shahumyan, ethnic Armenian leader of the 26 Baku Commissars.   After the Shusha pogrom had resulted in major destruction at Shusha aka Shushi, the former regional capital, Stepanakert was made the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. In time, Stepanakert grew to become the region's most important and populous city.

With an estimated population of around 55,000 people, Stepanakert is a big city by Artsakh standards but it's small by US standards.  It's not a city of wealth - I didn't notice fancy cars on the streets or posh stores.  In fact, it pretty looked like any other city in the Caucasus.  On thing did stand out - it's another remarkably clean place; not a speck of litter anywhere.

Gurgen had to ask for directions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  I realized we were probably the first Americans he's ever brought to the region.  It took a few stops, asking for instructions plus some turning around but eventually, we got to the office.

Gurgen parked the van and while Anush stayed behind, the rest of us headed inside the Ministry's small office.  

Nagaorno-Karabakh Republic Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Photo by Marcin Konsek licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

There, we sat in front of an officer who spoke perfect English.  He took our passports and application forms and began to review everything and record information into a log.  Pat and I patiently waited.  Our visas cost us 6,000 Armenian dram each.  We just paid what we were told.  Pat handed over the money but the officer was not able to make change so I went back out to the van to get my wallet as I knew I had smaller bills.  When I got back to the office, Pat informed me that she had instructed the officer to affix the entry visa to a page in our passport vs. handing it to us separately.  Hmmm....with the exception of the fact that I am now blacklisted from entering Azerbaijan (at least with my current passport), I don't know what the impact of this move will be.  I just hope other countries will ignore the stamp.  We were also handed a separate registration paper that we will have to carry with us at all times, not lose, and return to the security at the border.  Our entry visa is valid for exactly one day (my shortest entry visa ever!) and we're only allowed to travel to Stepanakert, Shushi and Gandzasar.  I presume you can stop along the way as you travel from one of these destinations to another.  The visa clearly stipulates that we are not allowed on the front line not that Pat or I had any intentions of doing that nor even know where the front line is?  Exactly where is the front line?

With our administrative duties out of the way, we could now explore a bit of the city.  We started in what looked to be the town's main square, Renaissance Square, formerly Lenin Square.  A few minutes after I took the two photos below, I was told by someone that photos are not permitted. I guess the buildings here are mainly government buildings and they don't want you taking photos of them.

I read somewhere that it was just a few years ago that this place was severely damaged in the war with Azerbaijan.  Wandering about today, you would never know that fighting had taken place here - everything looks neat and it's relatively quiet place. 

Presidential Palace on the left, National Assembly on the right.

Adjancent to Renaissance Square is a small park.  I couldn't get over the very odd sculptures flanking the steps.  Hmmm.....headless mannequins, some of which were wearing lampshades.  Then there were the strange teepee looking art pieces. Since I don't know better, I would say those art pieces were fabricated from colored scraps of metal retrieve from war torn areas.  Unfortunately, so few people travel to Artsakh that there's little written up and barely any photos about Stepanakert on the internet.

Since we had some time, we strolled around a few more streets.  Anush really wanted a cup of coffee so as we walked along, we kept our eyes out for a nice cafe.   Here are a few photos I took on our walk. 

From Stepanakert, we headed back to Shushi.

Stepanakert's World War II Memorial.  Took this photo as we drove by.

From up in the mountains, we had a nice view down on Stepanakert.  Didn't realize that it's nestled in a valley.  Lovely location.

The sight of the fortress walls was our signal that we had reached Shushi.

We were here to visit Ghazanchetsots Cathedral also known as the Cathedral of Christ the Holy Savior.  If you couldn't already tell because it's not a medieval looking structure, it's an Armenian church.

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was built between 1868 and 1887 and has a facade of white limestone. Its architect, Simon Ter-Hakobyan, intended the church to resemble Etchmiadzin Cathedral. In front of the west entrance is a freestanding three-story bell tower, constructed in 1858.

The cathedral has seen a number of uses over the years.  However, its use as a functioning church ended following the Shusha massacre in 1920.  The Shusha massacre was the mass killing of the Armenian population of Shusha that followed the suppression of the Armenian revolt against the authorities of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. It resulted in the complete destruction of the Armenian-populated quarters of Shusha and the elimination of the town's Armenian population. Once again, the conflict was over ownership of the region by Armenia and Azerbaijan and this time, the Armenians paid a heavy price.

Armenian boroughs of the city of Shusha destroyed by Azeri armed forces in March 1920.  A defiled Ghazanchetsots Cathedral
stands tall in the background.

During the Soviet period, the cathedral was used as a granary, and then as a garage. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijani forces used the cathedral as a GRAD munitions storehouse until May 1992, when Shusha was captured by Armenian forces.

I found this photo of the church, taken after the capture of Shusha by Armenia.  It had suffered great damage in the battle.

In the years after that capture the church was repaired and renovated. In 1998 it was re-consecrated as a church, and now serves as the main cathedral and headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church's Diocese of Artsakh.

The bell tower.

Gurgen pointed out a plaque that was defaced.  Reminds me of all the defaced Christian images I saw in the cave churches at the Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia, Turkey. Islamic religious art prohibits the depiction of both human and animal forms so it's common to see faces scrubbed out. As far as I am concerned, if you want to incite violence, just damage or destroy a community's beloved religious structure.

This is for certain a modern Armenian church.  In some ways, it looks like every other church I've been in.  I much prefer the medieval churches.  I know you can't build them that way anymore.

Like so many modern day churches, the interior feels cold and empty.  Something is missing but I can't put my finger on it.

I was surprised to see pews!

In some ways, leaving that which was destroyed in conflict as a kind of scar on the building is a good reminder of the violence and bloodshed that this building as *seen*.  It's similar to how Jerusalem did not repair the bullet ridden section of wall above Zion gate, one of the eight gates leading into the old city.  Baku also left bullet holes in the wall of the Shirvanshah Palace, in memory of a battle with Armenia.

Broken out windows and cracked sections of wall.  Results of recent skirmishes with the Azeris.

Looking at the neighborhood.

Now, it was time for us to leave Artsakh.  On our way out of the region, we stopped for a quick picnic lunch. It was late in the afternoon and we were all hungry.  Gurgen found a spot with a nice view and Anush pulled out the leftovers from yesterday's lunch.  Everyone just grabbed what they wanted and made a sandwich with the lavash.  It wasn't anything fancy but was enough to tie us over to dinner.  It will be a family feast tonight so I kept my meal pretty light.

We only spent a day in Artsakh so I can't claim to know the place or its politics well.  I can only recount what I experienced and today what I experienced was Armenian.  I did not see or feel or taste or hear anything of Nagorno-Karabakh - the Azeri side of the picture and sadly, I don't think I will ever be able to.

Perhaps I am being naive and idealistic but I think it is unrealistic for either country to claim the region as wholly theirs as there can be no doubt that throughout its history, the land was inhabited by peoples from both heritages - Islami Azeri and Christian Armenian.  Azeris and Armenians should be allowed to live side by side in peace in this shared land.  No side should try to annihilate the other under the claim that the territory is theirs.

My idealistic wish is for the the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan to be given the chance to get over their victim rhetoric so they would no longer harbor blind hatred for each other.  Only then would the longstanding conflict finally come to an end - there would be peace and people can move on with their futures.

Now....someone has to stop the governments and media for inciting the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia to continue to hate each other. 

May the people in Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh live in peace.

In the meantime, we are on our way to meet a very special man. I shall put all the politics behind me and spend the rest of my time in Armenia as a happy tourist!!

Artsvanik, here we come!