This astonishingly beautiful region, spanning 11,432 square kilometers, is called the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR or Artsakh) and has been an inseparable part of historic Armenia. Throughout history, Artsakh has maintained its Armenian identity. The struggle for its people’s right of self-determination began with the Karabakh Movement in 1988, which led to the Karabakh War, lasting until the 1994 ceasefire. In 1991, NKR declared its de facto independence.
Artsakh currently consists of 8 administrative regions: Kashatagh, Martakert, Shahumyan, Askeran, Martuni, Hadrut, Shushi and Stepanakert. On September 2, 1991, Stepanakert, named after Stepan Shahumyan, became the capital of Artsakh. Stepanakert was first inhabited between the third and second millennia BC as a village called Vararkn, named after the channel flowing through it. Stepanakert was established as a city in the 18th century. In 1847, the city was unofficially named “Shtab.” The reconstruction plan of the city was designed by famous Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan. Currently, Stepanakert, a city of 55,000, is unique in its tidiness and beauty, with hospitable and optimistic residents. The symbol of the city has become the “We Are Our Mountains” (1967) monument, commonly known as Tatik-Papik (Grandma-Grandpa).
The cultural center of Artsakh is Shushi. In the 19th century, this fortress-city was the second largest city, after Tbilisi, in the Lower Caucasus. In its 200 years of existence, Shushi has been a cultural, artisan and trade center for the entire region. Currently, Shushi is undergoing reconstruction aimed at reviving its former glory.
Shushi (population 5,126) is the first major town in Artsakh that you drive past when you travel to the Nagorno Karabakh Republic from Armenia. The topography is stunning, and the sheer cliffs that limit the potential sprawl of the town have also served to insulate and protect it from outsiders. Shushi’s geography has prompted many to refer to it as the Fortress City.
This small town is just 15 kilometers outside of Stepanakert, and it deserves to be on every visitor’s itinerary. You’ll get a good view of Stepanakert from Shushi’s high perch. It was from this same perch that Azerbaijan bombed Stepanakert during the war. The town was the capital of Karabakh during the 19th century, and was one of the largest towns in the Caucasus at the time. There were 12 churches here then, but today only two are left standing. As many as 35,000 Armenians had lived in Shushi until 1920.
The Armenians recovered Shushi in 1992, a feat that is credited with saving Karabakh since the Shushi highlands controlled access to Armenia and the rest of the world. The capture of Shushi broke the Azeri siege of Stepanakert. One of the large tanks involved in that battle—the first tank to enter Shushi—now forms part of a monument located on the roadside between Shushi and Stepanakert.
Two new hotels have opened in Shushi in the past few years. The streets have been re-engineered and paved. And a trickle of private investment has begun.
Artsakh’s history spans millennia, and more information the following websites about its rich culture, traditions and history may be obtained at Karabakh Travel and the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.