Agulis – This City Was Once Armenian

Agulis – This City Was Once Armenian

“Agulis is no more, but there is a need to talk about it. To my shame, living in Azerbaijan, I did not know that there, in the Nakhichevan region, this early medieval city used to be preserved until 2010. However, not a word was officially spoken about this city in Azerbaijan because it was Armenian.

Agulis was founded in ancient times. King Tigran evicted the Jews from Syria to Armenia and allocated locations for future cities in the area of the present Nakhichevan. So appeared Agulis.

After the adoption of Christianity by Armenia, this city became a religious center where monasteries and churches arose simultaneously with Etchmiadzin, but if the cathedral in Etchmiadzin would be repeatedly rebuilt and decorated, three of the eleven churches of Agulis right up to the 19th century would look exactly like they have in the 4th century. Agulis was on the outskirts and remained virtually unchanged.

There used to be 10 thousand inhabitants in Agulis, and it was the most significant city in this part of Armenia. But after the invasion of Afghans in the 18th century, the city became deserted. Later, its population did not exceed 3-4 thousand.

The city’s inhabitants were an isolated group with a special dialect called ‘Lezun Zoki’, in which many Persian and Aramaic words remained. Armenians from other regions did not understand this language well and considered it ‘Jewish.’

In 1919, the city was captured by the Turks. Its surviving residents fled to Zangezur, a mountainous region where the hero of the Armenian people Nzhdeh would manage to organize self-defense and which the Turks wouldn’t manage to invade.

After the establishment of Soviet power, Agulis along with the entire Nakhichevan region was transferred to Azerbaijan under a treaty between the Bolsheviks and Atatürk. The people of Agulis were not allowed to return to their lands, and nomadic Turks settled in their houses instead. But the ancient churches of Agulis, deserted and closed, remained, as did three cemeteries with khachkars, traditional carved Armenian gravestones.”

Above was an excerpt from the book “Nagorno-Karabakh. Facts Against Lies” authored by Arsen Melik-Shahnazarov, the son of a diplomat and grandson of the legendary member of the Nemesis group Zareh Melik-Shakhnazarov.

He writes that for more than one and a half millennia, the Persians, the Arabs, the nomadic Turkic tribes, the Mongols, and the Ottoman Turks have tried to conquer Nagorno-Karabakh.

“However, never in its entire history have the monuments of Armenian history and culture, the very spiritual heritage of past generations of Karabakh Armenians, been subjected to such undisguised plunder and destruction as during the period when the region was part of the Azerbaijani SSR.”

Melik-Shahnazarov writes that after the inclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh into the Azerbaijani SSR, the spiritual life of Armenians of Karabakh actually fell under the double oppression of Bolsheviks-atheists and Azerbaijani nationalists. After 1932, absolutely all Armenian churches and monasteries in the region were shut down.

The post-Stalin “thaw” did not help the Armenians either. The Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I, who held the position of Catholicos from 1955 to 1994, has repeatedly appealed to the government of the Azerbaijani SSR with the request to open at least one church in Nagorno-Karabakh, but he has been always refused.

Monuments of Armenian architecture have been always destroyed by Azerbaijanis, directly or indirectly, when, for example, road construction works have been carried out 100 meters away from an Armenian temple.

At a meeting with proletarian poets in Rostov-on-Don on February 7, 1926, Vladimir Mayakovsky, speaking in general about the poems read, indicated that poets should not rush to cover world topics but should instead write more about what is well known to them and not included in the literature – about Rostov and Nakhichevan, in which many treasures for poetry are hidden (for example, the very word “Nakhichevan” is a magnificent word that has not yet been used by anyone in poetry).

He did not know that this word, which to him, truly, seemed somehow futuristic, had been interpreted by Jewish historian Josephus in the first century. This Armenian toponym signifies the place of the first “landing” of Noah’s Ark. German linguist Max Vasmer and German philologist and professor at the University of Strasbourg Heinrich Hübschmann agreed with this.

In the toponymic dictionary “Geographical names of the world”, author E. M. Pospelov indicates that in the earliest written form of the toponym “Nakhtchavan”, “Nakhtcha” was a tribal name in ancient Armenian, and the element “van” (or “vani”/“vana”), which was a commonly used element in the ancient toponymy of the Transcaucasia and Asia Minor, meant “place”, “house”, “land”, “country”, and also was a property suffix.

According to a legend, the city of Nakhichevan was founded by the biblical Noah. It was established in 1539 BC according to Persian and Armenian sources, while modern encyclopedic sources trace the history of the region and the city from about 1500 BC.

In the 1990s, Russian-speaking Azerbaijani sources and later Roskartografiya (a Russian governmental organization specialized in cartography and geodesy) began to use the spelling “Nakhchivan”, with the use of the letter combination “chi” (чы) which is incorrect according to the rules of Russian spelling. In the media of other countries and literature, the traditional Soviet toponym “Nakhichevan” is commonly used.

Of course, after the end of the Karabakh confrontation and the region’s transition into a zone of frozen conflict (during which several dozens of soldiers from both sides have been killed annually), it was impossible to hope that Armenian Agulis would survive, especially after a cemetery of medieval Armenian khachkars was finally destroyed in Nakhichevan.

Ancient Agulis was the birthplace of the ancestors of a famous artist from Tbilisi Gayane Khachaturian. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli, who became famous for his requiem novel “Stone Dreams”, was born in the village of Upper Agulis (called “Aylisli” in Azerbaijan) in 1937.

Aylisli is renowned not only for urging his countrymen to repent of the atrocities of Sumgayit and Baku but also because he translated the works of many world-famous writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Colombian writer’s craving for metaphysics is probably related to the fact that the “topoes” that had existed here for centuries turned into ghosts, a kind of Azerbaijani Macondo (a town in one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels).

It should be noted that the city of Shusha, which Azerbaijanis call the cradle of their culture, was brought by the Azerbaijanis into the state of medieval ruins during the anti-Armenian pogroms in March 1920. The Azerbaijanis have been throwing corpses into the wells, depriving themselves of clean water and causing a plague. The plague in the city of Shusha was the subject of a poem by Osip Mandelstam.

Now, let’s look at the fate of villages that yesterday were Armenian.

Julfa under the Armenians housed a cemetery of medieval khachkars, the Nakhichevan Matenadaran (library-archive of manuscripts), and temples. Under the rule of Shah Abbas I the Great (16th century), the land of Julfa was turned into scorched earth.

The city’s population was forcibly relocated to Iranian Isfahan. After the eviction of the Armenians, Julfa degraded. After the demolition of the khachkar cemetery in Julfa by people in military uniforms using heavy construction equipment (fragments of monuments were loaded into trucks and dumped into the Araks River), this place was turned into a shooting range.

In the once beautiful Armenian village of Chovdar is now extreme poverty, but it is one of the most profitable gold mines in Azerbaijan.

The Armenian village of Banants with its rich architectural and carpet traditions was settled by Azerbaijanis, immediately losing its remarkability.

The Armenian villages of Shahumyan and Khanlar districts from where Armenians had been expelled during Operation Ring and earlier were also turned into a depressive zone.

At the same time, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (now the Republic of Artsakh), Stepanakert, under the Armenians has become a beautiful European city with cultural centers, a city which has given birth to stars of singing, numerous cafes, and fountains.

Famous opera divas have arrived here with concerts, among them Montserrat Caballé and Lyubov Kazarnovskaya. Here, young writers from the “Obraz” club have received the blessing of the International AS Pushkin Foundation (Brussels, Belgium). The Annual International Philosophical Readings of Students and Young Scientists dedicated to the memory of Pavel Florensky was held here on April 14, 2018, at Mesrop Mashtots University in Stepanakert.

It will be unfair to stay silent about the tragic fate of the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. Today, you can only see scarcely placed houses surrounded by ruins here. The city of Stepanakert destroyed by the Azerbaijani rocket hail (which also targeted civilians) was restored from the materials of the ruined Aghdam houses.

A few people know that in those years, Armenians have been most actively killed not in Sumgait or Baku but in Askeran a few dozen kilometers from Aghdam.

Nevertheless, the Armenians haven’t destroyed either cemeteries or religious shrines here. The famous mosque of Aghdam today is a symbol of the ghostly city. Thomas de Waal in his book “Black Garden”, where he generally takes a balanced position, calls Aghdam “Caucasian Hiroshima.”

How could you name Agulis that has been razed to dust? And why are masterpieces of architecture built by Armenian architects, including Nikoghayos Bayev, still standing in Baku? And why destroy the Seljuk and Albanian churches if there is no place for Armenian ones?

Yes, the fate of Agulis has been decided long ago. But why has its death been delayed so many times – after all, it could be destroyed in 1998 when the khachkars of Julfa were first demolished?

But the cause is still the same – powerlessness to prove anything to the world. Powerlessness to establish a higher-order life on the acquired lands, for which so much Azerbaijani blood was shed, where an ax and a pickax are working instead of a stylus. Meter by meter in battle with life itself, mountains of exploded ore, radioactive background, and devastation arose in the place of temples and gardens.

This was a confrontation between two main types of management – agriculture and cattle breeding – about which billions of pages have been written.

Valeria Olyunina

Ancient Agulis wiped out




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