The Origin of the Name "Shusha"

Emil Majidov
In folk etymology, Shusha comes from ‘Shisha,’ a word for “glass” in local languages. This is thought to symbolize the startling purity of the fresh local air. It’s a pleasing myth.
A famous Soviet era-image of Shusha’s fortress with the town’s name written in Cyrillic script. Photo: public domain

Azerbaijan’s fortress city of Shusha was founded in 1752 by Panah Ali Khan, ruler of the Karabakh Khanate. Panah Ali chose a strategic site for his city to reinforce his power at a location that could simultaneously control both the mountains and the low-lying plains beneath Karabakh. The city was a key military base and provided security for moving cattle between summer and winter grazing areas. During Panah Ali’s rule, the fortress was known as Panahabad in his honour. In the 19th-century, Russia dissolved the Khanate, and the city was known once again by its historical name, Shusha.


In folk etymology, Shusha comes from ‘Shisha,’ a word for “glass” in local languages. This is thought to symbolize the startling purity of the fresh local air. It’s a pleasing myth. There are no sources to indicate its credibility, but none to rule it out.


This very lack of sources allows the imagination to run free… to delve unfettered into historical possibility. For me, I see the name “Shusha” as a reflection from the great human migrations of the Bronze age. I imagine tides of peoples carrying now forgotten languages and mirages of once-great gods across a vast swathe of Eurasia. I imagine them baffling and irrevocably changing the cultures they encountered, leaving fragments of their memory hidden deep in locally cherished names for rivers, mountains and settlements.


Susa of the Elamites

Perhaps the fluttering name of Shusha started its journey at Susa, now a fascinating archaeological site in southwestern Iran. Susa was an ancient city in Elam, a country that existed five thousand years ago on the edge of Mesopotamia. The English pronunciation, Susa, comes to us via a Greek transcription; but originally, the city’s name was pronounced “Shusha,” and the site is still known locally as شوش‎ (Shush).


Archeological site of Susa, capital of Elam and of the Achaemenid Empire, Iran. Photo: Inspired by Maps/Shutterstock

We don’t know much about the Elamites, Susa’s original inhabitants. Scholars believe that their language was an isolate, unrelated to other contemporary languages such as Sumerian, Dravidian, and Aramaic.


But who knows. Could Shusha be an “Elamite” echo? A toponymic traveller to Azerbaijan? Left as one of a myriad of Middle Eastern migrant memories soaked into the depths of etymology?  And if so, did the name carry with it extra meaning? A flower or a Goddess? Why not?!


Lilies and Orchids

The Elamite name Shushan was often associated with flowers -  and to this day, a similar meaning is retained in several languages, notably the word Shoshana for lily in Persian (زنبق) and Hebrew (שׁוֹשָׁן). The European names Susan and Suzanne derive from the same source. Meanwhile, Shusha is also associated with the Khari-bulbul orchid (Ophrys caucasica), a flower that symbolizes night, water and femininity. Coincidence, archetype or myth? We’ll never know.


Shusha as Goddess Inana’s Penname?

Did Shusha, like other ancient toponyms, gain iconic significance from a god or goddess? Returning to Elamite Susa, we discover a pantheon of deities ruled by Inshushinak (‘Lord of Susa’), ruler of the kingdom of the dead, and the mother earth goddess Ishtar (or Inana in Sumerian) to whom the city was dedicated. Changing names, she ventured out of Mesopotamia with her twin brother Shamash. What memories did her followers carry with which to anoint the places that they would found?


The earth-mother goddess Inanna as featured on a 4000-year-old Akkadian cylinder seal. Photo: Sailko, CC BY 3.0


Pray silence as we float across vast swathes of land in search of connections, imagined or implied. We find ribbons of water, symbolic of the great mother goddess’ healing power. The River Shush, a tributary of the Yenisei, flowing through the Siberian village of Shushenskoye to which Lenin was once exiled. The Suså snaking peaceably across Denmark’s main island. The Shosha in the Moscow Region. The Rio Sousa flowing into the Douro, home to Portugal’s classic fortified wines. And still, there’s time to sneak into cities like Sousse (Tunisia) and Sassari (Italy) seeking toponymic footprints.


So how did the name “Shusha” reach Azerbaijan? Of course, we’ll never know. Probably it was in precisely the same way as so many other names like Baku, Guba, Khalkhal, and Tartar, trickling in double syllabled through peaceful contact, pounded home through wars, remembered through exchanges – ever-changing yet ever the same throughout the course of human history.