Medieval Armenian City of Agulis

Agulis – Ագուլիս or Վերին Ագուլիս. In the past, a large medieval Armenian city was located in a valley surrounded by rocky mountains from the east and west, stretching from north to south, the Agulis (Ayli) River in its middle course.

The extension from north to south was 6-7 km, and from west to east — 1-1.5 km. It was located in the south of Nakhichevan, on the border of Armenia with Iran, in the valley of the Ayli River (a tributary of the Araks), surrounded by rocky mountains from the east and west.

In ancient times, the territory of Agulis was part of the province of Goghtn, which at different periods belonged to the Syunik region of Greater Armenia or to the Vaspurakan region.

In the 5th century, Koryun in his tales about the travels of Mesrop Mashtots mentioned visiting the capital of Goghtn, probably referring to Agulis.

The city is mentioned under the name Agulis from the XI century. In 1010, Catholicos Sarkis called the city “Argulik”, the same name is used in the XIII century by Stepanos Orbelian.

In the Middle Ages, Agulis was a center of literacy and a trading center, having extensive connections with Russian and Western European merchants. In the X-XIII centuries, Agulis, along with Ani, Kars, and other Armenian cities, experienced a heyday.

In the XVII century, Zakaria Aguletsi called the city “Agulis” and “Akulis”. After the destruction of Djugi, Agulis became a major city, the population of which by the end of the century reached 10 thousand people.

The indigenous population of Agulis – Armenians-Zoki, speaking a special Zoki dialect, on it Agulis was also called Igulis, Yugal, Ugyulis, Igalis, Egalis.

According to the most common version, the toponym “Agulis” (“Argulik”) comes from the Armenian Aygeok-Lik (Այգեոք-լիք) – full of gardens.

In 1829, the city consisted of 10 districts, of which 8 were Armenian, in Agulis there were 122 Armenian houses and 50 Caucasian Tatars (in documentary sources of the Russian Empire of the XIX – early XX centuries, today’s Azerbaijanis are mentioned exactly like this), in 1873 there were 170 Armenian houses and 54 Caucasian Tatars.

According to the census of 1897, 649 people lived in Lower Akulis, all Armenians. In Upper Akulis, 1325 – Armenians and 639 – Caucasian Tatars, in 1904 – 256 houses (2205 residents) of Armenians and 68 houses (731 residents) of Caucasian Tatars.

Read the testimony of a certain Mozalan Bek, after his visit to Agulis (in Turkish – Ayli) in 1909 (printed in “Molla Nasreddin” on June 7, 1909): “Yesterday I visited the Armenian village of Ayli, located nearby. And what did I see? It seems that even fools would have been dumbfounded.

First of all, I want to say that this village is like a well-kept district of Tbilisi. Beautiful mansions, clean streets, many large and beautiful bridges, numerous schools, libraries, reading rooms, educational buildings and facilities with amazing decor. I swear by Allah, I was stunned.

The people are completely unrecognizable, as if they had just arrived from France, their clothes, behavior, impeccable cleanliness (talking about cleanliness, I mean the appearance of people, don’t think of anything else). Truly, I was amazed….”

In 1919, Agulis was destroyed, and the Armenian part of the population was cut out by Turkish troops. The Armenian part remained uninhabited for some time, after which several families of Caucasian Tatars settled here.

And now I will cite one material that I read from Lilit EPREMYAN, for which I bring her my sincere thanks. So:

“…………… In December 1919, terrible events took place in the ancient Armenian city of Agulis. They are told in the book “Goghtan Gavar” (“Goghtan County”) by Ovanes AKHNAZARYAN (1900-1978), published in Armenian in Lebanon and Iran.

The author testifies to the genocide of Armenians in historical Goghtan – the cradle of ancient Armenian literature, on that land where Mashtots had the idea of creating an alphabet.

“If there was not a single witness left to the massacre of Armenians in Nakhichevan,” said Akhnazaryan, “these lifeless rocks and gorges would have told the world the truth about the crimes of the Turks.”

But there are witnesses, and there are many of them, and as long as this memory is alive in us, faith in the revival of this part of historical Armenia is not in vain, despite the fact that the learned minds of Turkey and Azerbaijan do not spare efforts in falsifying the history of the region.

Ovanes Akhnazaryan, who miraculously escaped the massacre, fled to Iran, from where he moved to Czechoslovakia, graduated from Prague University, received the title of Doctor of History and Philosophy, and also conducted research in the field of comparative linguistics.

Then he returned to Iran, where he taught in Armenian educational institutions and also gave lectures at Tehran State University. This book is his confession. He died just after putting the last period in it…

………… “ After the February Revolution of 1917 with the fall of the tsarist regime in Agulis and other settlements of Goghtan (which at that time was part of the Yerevan province of the Russian Empire) the people ceased to obey the viceroys of Nicholas. Local self-governments of Armenians were formed together with the Turks living here.

While the Russian army on the Caucasian front was not completely demoralized, the opportunity for free movement to the central Caucasian cities was still preserved, railways remained free.

There was peace in the Goghtan county, and relations with the local Turks – at least outwardly – remained neighborly. However, in centers predominantly populated by Turks – in Shakhtakhti, Ordubad, Yaji, Nigram and Nakhichevan, the Turks showed open hostility to the Armenians.

The situation was favorable for the Turks: the Russians gave away their weapons and ammunition for pennies, the railway line Julfa – Nakhichevan – Shakhtakhti turned into a vast fair. The Turks did not spare money, they bought up all the artillery equipment of one of the divisions along with the cavalry.

While the Armenian military leadership was trying to find funds, the Askaris transported several more guns to Nakhichevan. The Turks often simply took weapons away from the Russians by force.

Thanks to such a turn of events, the Turkish village of Yaji turned into a military fortress and the road Julfa – Aza – Agulis, like the railway paths to Yerevan, were blocked.

It was now possible to move from one village to another only in armed groups, grazing cattle or cultivating land in the fields became dangerous to life.

Despite all this, the peaceful and civilized Armenian population of Agulis did not spare efforts to maintain friendly relations with the local Turks, promising to take the Turks under their protection in case of danger – and we will see that the people of Agulis remained true to these assurances.

The situation, although somewhat tense, but without extraordinary incidents, was maintained in this regime until 1918.

In the same year, at the beginning of summer, Andranik passed through Nakhichevan to Julfa. Without any military action, the commander crossed Julfa into Iran with a numerous unarmed stream of people, hoping to unite with the British troops.

However, failing to break through the Turkish “chain”, the commander returned to Nakhichevan at the end of June. During this period, according to an agreement between Armenia and Turkey, 25 km of railway on this stretch were supposed to go to Turkey.

Taking advantage of some military advantage and the presence of Andranik, the Armenian authorities of Nakhichevan decided not to give up this stretch of the road, organizedly opposing Khalil-Bey.

To secure his rear and unblock the Nakhichevan – Julfa road on the eve of the Turkish offensive, Andranik decided to seize the Turkish settlement of Nigram. Unfortunately, after a bloody 24-hour battle, Khalil-bey won the battle against Andranik and forced him to retreat from Nakhichevan.

Part of the local population joined the retreating Armenian army. The rest, remaining in their homes, surrendered to the Turkish authorities, like, for example, the large Armenian village of Astabad.

After some time, under the pretext of deportation, part of the village population was exterminated, and the youth of Astabad, numbering several hundred people, who had been kept on hard road work for months, were all killed to the last man.

…Andranik’s military victories terrified the Turks. The rapid capture of fortified Yaji plunged them into utter despair and spread panic. The Turkish National Assembly of Ordubad sent a special delegation to Agulis asking for help.

The Turks promised to feed Andranik’s army and the people who joined it for a whole month on the condition that no military actions would be taken against them. They also promised to unblock the Ordubad – Kartchevan road.

Agulis was in a difficult situation. After a failed attempt to unite with the British troops and defeat in Nakhichevan, Andranik aimed to return to Armenia.

Attacking the bandit Turkish villages along the way, the commander swiftly advanced. He had no intention of defending Goghtan. Armed Turks, fleeing to the mountains or to Iran, after Andranik’s departure, returned to their settled places, fortified their positions, and resumed their raids on Armenian houses with tenfold strength.

And if after capturing the Turkish villages and Ordubad, Andranik had left Goghtan, it would not have ended well for the Armenians, especially since Khalil-Bey’s units were approaching every day. The people of Agulis, led by Ashot Melik-Musyan, asked the commander to leave about 1500 people for the self-defense of Goghtan, but he was adamant.

Then the delegation insisted that Andranik abandon his intentions to capture the Turkish villages, believing that as a result of the agreements reached with the Turks, it would be possible to keep Goghtan from bloodshed.

The people of Agulis showed generosity to their neighbors, the peaceful Armenian people could not understand the continuous interethnic massacre, which was the result of incitement by the Turkish military command.

Andranik was extremely displeased with the intervention of the National Assembly of Agulis, however, in the end, he agreed. Bypassing Ordubad, he moved through the mountains of Kaputjugh to Zangezur, leaving a multitude of weakened and exhausted people on the impassable roads.

As soon as Andranik left with 15-20 officers for Gokhtan, Khalil-Bey arrived, most likely in preparation for a massive strike on Armenia. The heroic population of Arevik and Zangezur defended their positions in an unequal battle with the Turks.

In this desperate situation, the people of Agulis, led by Ashot Melik-Musyan, decided to make peace with Khalil-Bey.

In response, he demanded the complete disarmament of Armenian villages. Purely symbolically, 40-50 firearms and some ammunition were surrendered to him, while the latest weapons were securely hidden.

At the same time, to ease political tensions, the National Assembly of Agulis organized a lunch in honor of Khalil-Bey and the officers of his army.

The guests were amazed by the rich decoration of Agulis’s life, the beauty of their homes and gardens. Khalil-Bey made a toast in which he promised to protect the region, assuring that Turkey had already signed a peace treaty with Armenia.

And because the local Armenians protected the Turks from Andranik’s army, he will do everything possible to ensure that Agulis is not attacked by Turkey. Khalil-Bey spoke in Turkish, then in French and German, and his speech was translated into Armenian by the present Agulis.

This bore fruit – during Khalil-Bey’s stay in Agulis, robberies on the roads ceased, and the Armenians were even able to resume trade with Turkish villages. Khalil-Bey remained in Ordubad until October 1918.

During this period, he summoned several Armenian craftsmen who dressed and shod his young wife according to the latest fashion. But after the retreat of the Turkish army along the entire front line, Khalil-Bey left Ordubad for Turkey, where he died of cancer a few years later.

After the retreat of the Turkish army and the return of the British, the Nakhchivan region was reunited with the newly formed independent Armenia. Gevork Varshamyan, the head of the Yerevan province and the Nakhchivan region, was received in Agulis with great enthusiasm, on behalf of the local Turks, a certain teacher Vahab in a lofty speech assured the governor of the desire for peaceful coexistence…

And it was this teacher who was the one who led the pogroms during the Armenian massacre, calling to save bullets and kill only with cold weapons…

…As soon as representatives of Armenia arrived in Agulis, the Turks of Nakhchivan, at the instigation and by direct order of the Musavatist leadership of Baku, stood against the Armenian authorities.

The Armenian armed forces, under the leadership of General Shelkovnikov, were forced to retreat to Daralagjaz. The peaceful Armenian population, having just returned to their native homes after the annexation of Nakhchivan to Armenia, was again forced to flee.

Part of the Nakhchivan population, which managed not to lag behind the army, reached Daralagjaz, but several thousand Armenians were brutally killed near the Turkish village of Sust.

The Armenian villages of Gokhtan were once again caught between life and death. Communication with the outside world was only possible through the mountain paths of Kaputdjukh-Alangyaz, passing between Gokhtan and Zangezur, which became completely impassable during the winter months.

Hundreds of people disappeared there on their way from Arevik to Zangezur or trying to carry sacks of wheat and other products from Zangezur on their backs.

From the summer of 1919, the Turks of the Gokhtan district, under the leadership of the Turkish army officers who had settled there after the retreat of Khalil-Bey, began more organized massive attacks on the Armenians.

The Armenian population was pressed almost to the very Kaputdjukh mountain range and was mainly concentrated in the villages of Allah, Mesropavan, Bist, Paraka, Tskhna, Ramis, which formed a unified line of defense.

Much more difficult was the position of scattered settlements – Agulis, Tanakert, Kagakik, Dera, Verin and Nerkin Azy. Their history of resistance can be compared to the heroic resistance of Musa-Dagh. But the forces were too unequal. Kagakik was the first victim.

…The author of these lines was on post that day in the fields of the village of Dasht, guarding the peasants in the field. Suddenly, I noticed huge plumes of smoke from Kagakik. I immediately descended from the mountains to Agulis, and together with two of my comrades, as mad as me, we rushed to help the neighbors.

We soon reached the Turkish village of Tronis, through which we would not have been let through without a fight. We threw a couple of grenades, no one showed up – as always, the Turks balked at the force and retreated, assuming that they were attacked by an entire squad.

When we reached the middle of the village, from where the road to Kagakik went, we heard crying and moaning from the barn. A huge lock hung on the doors, reinforced with a massive chain. We immediately broke the doors – and 40-50 young girls and girls from Kagakik poured out.

At the same moment, guys from Tanakert, whom we entrusted the prisoners, came to our aid. Shaken by what we saw, but also happy that we were able to save half a hundred young lives, we continued on our way.

…Kagakik was dead. All houses were looted and set on fire. I tried to extinguish the fire in my aunt’s house, but several women who had joined us in the hope of finding relatives hurried me with the news that all the inhabitants of Kagakik were driven to the school and the church – perhaps they could still be saved. …

A horrific scene was revealed to us. The school and church were burning, and in the courtyard lay the bodies of dozens of men, women, and children, slashed by cold weapons. Among the dead, I recognized my cousin with her newborn son.

All lay absolutely naked, the bellies of pregnant women were ripped open, children pulled from the womb were thrown on their mothers’ dead bodies. Some were still breathing. I had never experienced such horror in my life.

However convinced I was of the barbarity of the Turks, I couldn’t explain to myself such cruelty to Armenians, who had lived side by side with them for centuries and never once lifted a hand against them… But time was pressing, they could catch up with us.

We dug a pit and buried the bodies in a mass grave – by that time all the wounded had expired. With heart-breaking pain, at the onset of darkness, we left this once-flourishing land forever.

Then Tanakert fell. Given the important strategic significance of this village, the commander of the local army, Melik-Musyan, concentrated a certain number of militiamen from nearby Armenian villages in this village.

This had catastrophic consequences. People who were ready to fight for their native villages to the last drop of blood did not show particular valor in defending the “alien” Tanakert and abandoned the village at the first attacks…

The only hope for the people of Agulis were the false promises of the local Turks to protect the Armenians from the aggression of their brethren, just as the Armenians had protected their neighbors from the army of Andranik.

At that time, the raids of the askyars and the Turkish villages bordering Armenia on Kapan and Arevik took on such an aggressive character that Garegin Nzhde’s army attacked enemy positions, and the local Turks retreated to Nakhichevan and Erndzhak without significant losses.

However, the Muslim Nakhichevans were by no means inspired by the prospect of settling the devastated Armenian villages with stinky, lousy compatriots who had arrived.

Everything was done to ensure that the bandits driven from their established places directed their anger towards Kagakik, Tanakert and Agulis, thereby bolstering the ranks of the regular army under the command of the Turkish military.

On the morning of December 24, the roads to Agulis simply turned black. Thousands and thousands of Turks, armed to the teeth, driving oxen loaded with plundered goods, rushed to Agulis, thirsty for blood and immeasurable wealth.

The townsfolk, numbering about two thousand, in a panic, leaving all their property to be devoured by these beast-like creatures, gathered in the city center where Edif Bey was with his officers, ostensibly called to protect the Armenians from the invasion….

On December 23, 1919, having dealt with the village of Dasht (Nerkin Agulis), the armed horde gathered in front of the city gates of Agulis.

By evening, around nine o’clock, the Turks had already entered the city and, starting from the outskirts, were ransacking and burning houses, killing those who had not had time to take cover……………………”

The population of the modern villages of Nizhny Agulis or Ashagy Ayli, located 3-3.5 km west of the city of Ordubad in Nakhichevan, today numbers about a thousand people and these are only Caucasian Tatars, who are now called Azerbaijanis.

All the churches and Armenian cemeteries, by order of the leadership of Nakhichevan, were destroyed in 2006……

by Alexander Bakulin

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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