Homeward Bound

“And the Mountains Echoed...” The Thrill of Return as a Hundred IDPs see Shusha at Last, and Hear Her Timeless Song

Aybaniz Ismailyova

- Hello, is this Ms. Sama?


- Yes, it is.


- Do you want to come to Shusha, your hometown?


- Oh, my dear, of course I want to, I will come barefoot. I have been waiting for this call for 29 years.


Sama Asadullayeva (52) is a nurse who was 23 when she was forcibly expelled from Shusha. Sama’s father, Ali Asadullayev, was killed on May 8, 1992, during one of the battles at Shusha. “I know every tree, flower, street and valley of Shusha. I have been walking around Shusha in my dreams for many years. Now, in these streets, in the Jydyr plain, in the mosque, I put my hand on the stones and talk to them, saying ‘we are back, my Shusha! We came to our house, we came to revive you, we came to stay.’”


During August 2021 more than a hundred displaced residents of Shusha have been able return to their homeland for the first time since the liberation of the city. Although journalists, diplomats and cultural figures have been visiting Shusha since its liberation, it is the first time in nearly thirty years that these native Shusha residents have set foot in their hometown. And their visit will be relatively brief.




Seeing this homecoming brought me to tears. The expression on each of the people’s faces was one I recognized in an instant. It was the look of people who wanted to soak in a place, to smell every flower, hear every birdsong, and listen to the hum of every stream of the land that was – for 30 years – taken away from them. This was only to be a temporary visit, and the desperation to make the most of it strained the emotions. Each stone, every inch of land, every scent must be recalled, matched and memorized again as the city’s realities and its memories meet and come to life.


Any returning refugee will have this familiar look on their face. But the grief of the people of Shusha is – dare I say – a bit different. Shusha itself is in a category of its own.


Every man and woman has their own character, energy, and fragrance. In the same way every place has its melody. There are cities in the world that are so intertwined with music that it’s impossible for them to really exist without it. One of those is Shusha.



After the Karabakh Khanate was abolished and became a province of the Russian Empire, a different epoch began for its capital city. Yet life continued. The city’s elite paid taxes to the Tsar, so their wealth, jobs, and property were not taken away. Most importantly, there were no obstacles in the way of the city's cultural life. Indeed, Khurshidbanu Natavan, daughter of the last khan of Karabakh, became a philanthropic sponsor of the arts as well as a poet in her own right. The second half of the 19th century saw Karabakh become a hotbed of business and cultural life, attracting European travelers, artists, and literary figures. "The Realny School" and several other cultural centres were built in Shusha with Natavan’s support around this time. It was almost as if all the entire resources of the former khanate were being invested into art, literature, and music. Shusha experienced a vibrant cultural renaissance. On the one hand, poetry meetings such as "Majlisi-Faramushan" (Council of the Forgotten) and "Majlisi-Uns" (Council of Friendship) were held; on the other hand, Mir Movsum Navvab launched printing facilities, and a school of carpet weaving was developed. To facilitate communication with European travelers and business circles, a French immersion school was opened in Shusha.


Countless masters taught their mugham to young men in schoolrooms and private homes, blanketing the streets with its sounds. The city was united by music as melodies spread through the lanes and squares, and from there on up to the mountains and diving into valleys.


Shusha rapidly became the spiritual heart of Tsarist Azerbaijan; one of the most important centers of historical and socio-political life in the country. Intellectuals such as composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov and pan-Turkist thinker Ahmad bey Agayev spent their childhoods here. And as they grew to national stature, so they themselves reflected further glory back onto Shusha which became seen ever more as a temple of culture.


In 1977, the government adopted a decree on "the creation of a historical-architectural reserve of the historical part of the city of Shusha" helping to protect its monuments and to immortalize prominent artists. Statues of eminent personalities of the city were erected, museums were created in their houses, and their memoirs were published.


The works of Natavan, Navvab, Fatma Xanim Kamina, Uzeyir Hajibayov and others were studied by researchers (they still are). The "Shusha Renaissance" became an integral part of the Azerbaijani national identity, the people’s “artistic DNA”. For us, Shusha inevitably comes to mind when someone mentions art and music. And music comes to mind when someone mentions Shusha.


In 1992, Shusha’s occupation by Armenian forces came as a terrible shock. The city’s cultural heritage sustained heavy damage. Museums were destroyed, monuments were reduced to rubble, and three fine bronze busts (of Natavan, Uzeyir Bey, and Bulbul) were shot at, dug up and sold in the black market as scrap metal. Almost miraculously, some Azerbaijani businessmen happened to find and rescue these bullet-pocked statues which were finally returned to Shusha in January 2021 after the city was liberated. These war-torn figures will long be a reminder of the occupation, of the land’s native people’s longing to return to Shusha – their cultural temple.


The remains of Natavan's home in Shusha. Image: Aybaniz Ismayilova

Somehow I imagine Shusha to have been music-less for the entirety of the thirty years that it was under occupation. That the tar was not heard on the streets, that mugham did not spread to the mountains. Without Shusha, the Azerbaijani art masters lived in exile. The city lost its distinctive song, and in the images of Shusha taken by foreign journalists, we saw a stranger lost without its own complex notes.


The wait was long. But news of Shusha’s liberation finally plucked the emotional string of every Azerbaijani heart. The cradle of their music and heritage had returned home, the exiled art and music would soon follow. To nobody’s surprise, the first significant post-war event to take place in Shusha was the "Khari Bulbul" Mugham Festival. The sounds of the tar and the kamancha, echoed through the streets, dappling every stone and slope as they diffused towards the misty mountain-scapes.


The return of music to Shusha, performed before some of its once-expelled citizens, symbolically started to cure its wounds, soothe its trees, and revive its springs such that native residents arriving might see the Susha they remember: healed, revived, and rebuilt.


 On May 7 2021, Shusha was once again declared the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, officially regaining a status that, in the people's hearts and minds, it had never lost.


Now, in this trip, 100 native children of Shusha had returned to visit their homes. But only for a moment. Rebuilding is not complete. The waiting is not quite over. But of course it will be. And these people have their expectations, hopes, and plans for Shusha’s future. They expect music and art to be as integral to the townscapes as the houses and streets of the city. And yes, they expect melodies to spread ever outward to the mountains because for us, art and music is the spirit of Shusha. Shusha’s harmony lies in music; music is Shusha itself. And Shusha means the people.





Aybaniz Ismayilova leads outreach and fundraising efforts of the Karabakh Revival Fund to “Build Back Better”. With 20 years of experience in international development, she brings a unique perspective – as a woman and a displaced person from the recently de-occupied Karabakh districts.


Ms Ismailova is an author of more than 50 stories about the region, its people, cultural heritage and socio-economic development.