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20 May 2024

The Martyr Museum of Azerbaijan—Kalbajar History and Ethnography Museum

Kalbajar's History and Ethnography Museum was once one of the most visited museums in Azerbaijan. However, after the Armenian armed forces occupied Kalbajar in 1993, the museum was destroyed and looted.

Kalbajar Museum of History and Ethnography in 1991

Kalbajar Museum of History and Ethnography in 1991, prior to occupation. Image: Khalid Asgarov

On a cold March day in 1993, 64-year-old Shamil Asgarov, a resident of Kalbajar, looked at his books, which he has collected and carefully preserved over the years, for the last time:

“My only wealth is these books,” he says emotionally, while his son, Reuter’s reporter Khalid Asgarov, captured the moment.

Shamil Asgarov left behind not merely the 30,000 books he had amassed over the years but also the Kalbajar History and Ethnography Museum, which he referred to as his child and devoted 14 years of his life to its development.

“It's okay if my house remains abandoned; it's okay if it falls apart. The museum is like my other child. There are such relics that could adorn the museums of the world,” said Asgarov with pain in his voice. Asgarov knew that their time was limited as Armenian armed forces could enter the city at any time.

“Hurry up, we have to go,” urged his son Khalid. At that moment, he hurriedly took three to four books from the floor and bid farewell to his home, his books, his museum, and his beloved Kalbajar. These were the final moments he spent in the city, moments he would never witness again.

The concept of establishing the Kalbajar History and Ethnography Museum, which Shamil Asgarov subsequently called the ‘Martyr Museum’ after the occupation of Kalbajar, first arose in 1975 during the Azerbaijani     Geologists' Congress at the Azerbaijan National Academy. An exhibition showcasing local historical materials prepared by teachers and students from schools attending the congress garnered significant acclaim. This led to the recognition of the necessity for a history and geography museum in Kalbajar. This thrilled both the residents of Kalbajar and Shamil Asgarov, a mathematician, poet, linguist, translator, and candidate of philological sciences—who was also one of the respected names of Kalbajar. The museum’s construction started in 1980 and the museum was opened in 1982.

The museum’s extraordinary exterior walls were adorned with mosaic patterns crafted from Kalbajar’s mountain rocks. Shamil Asgarov took an active role in the construction, personally gathering over 2500 stones of different colours from the Kalbajar mountains and the Terter river to embellish the museum's façade.

 The museum had 30,000 unique antiquities—stone bowls, mauls, knives, nephrite adze blades, ancient pottery, copper tableware, ancient household items, and hundreds of hand-woven carpets. Additionally, it contained 25,000 rare or one-of-a-kind books, poetry collections, and manuscripts.

Interestingly, 150 million-year-old petrified snail samples found by Shamil Asgarov in the Terter river were also exhibited in the museum.

Barzani Asgarov. Image: courtesy

Shamil Asgarov’s son Barzani Asgarov mentions that the museum also served as a sound museum, showcasing recordings of over 300 renowned Azerbaijani poets, writers, and ashiqs.

Kalbajar’s residents played a significant role in the museum's growth by donating ancestral souvenirs, ensuring their preservation at the museum.

“Entering that museum was like traveling to historical times. I was a kid then, and when I found something in the mountains, I would bring it to the museum, thinking it might be useful,” remembers Hikmet Asgarov, Shamil Asgarov's nephew.

Now, there are only ruins where the museum once stood.

Following the massacre of Agdaban village’s residents by Armenian Armed Forces in 1992Shamil Asgarov realized that the occupation of Kalbajar was imminent.

His son Barzani Asgarov says that despite his father’s appeals to various authorities, including then-President Abulfaz Elchibey, to transport the relics to Baku by car, his efforts went unanswered.