On the morning of November 9, I received an email from a university colleague. “We’ve been a bit rattled by the military plane flying at night yesterday above Yerevan,” she wrote. “I hope it’s nothing serious. I am praying for a powerful heart attack for Aliyev and Erdoğan.” She was referring to Ilham Aliyev, the tyrannical president of Azerbaijan, and his ally Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey.
The plane was most likely heading to an outpost in the remote mountainous region where a military conflict was taking place for possession of an enclave known in Armenia as Artsakh, which Azeris call Nagorno-Karabakh. As the war went on into November, the Azeri forces, reinforced by Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, crept closer to the strategic town of Shushi (Shusha to Azeris), forcing the majority Armenian population to flee.
The different names Armenians and Azeris ascribe to the kidney bean–shaped territory that is, on average, 3,600 feet above sea level, speak to the competing claims each side has on the autonomous region. Folk etymology holds that the name Artsakh is derived from King Artaxias of Armenia, dating to 150 BCE. Nagorno-Karabakh is the Russian rendering of a Turkic and Persian portmanteau meaning “black garden.” (Nagorno means mountainous in Russian.)
For centuries, Shushi’s majestic setting, soaring over the surrounding valley, has had a firm hold on the political and cultural imagination of Armenians and Azeris alike. The citadel city became an important hub in the south Caucasus, and its inhabitants were voracious readers. Swiss missionaries opened a print shop in the town in 1827, and in the twilight of tsarist rule, Shushi was home to more than twenty newspapers and journals in Armenian and two periodicals in Russian. The fortress city was then known as the “Paris of the Caucasus.” For the Azeris, the eighteenth-century statesman Molla Panah Vagif, whose poems influenced the folk music of the wandering Azeri minstrels, the ashugs, was a famous resident of Shusha.
Artsakh’s modern troubles began soon after the Russian Revolution, when a botched revolt against Azeri rule in Shushi in 1920 resulted in the ethnic cleansing of its Armenian population. In his essay “Why Autonomy?,” the Armenian-born academic Arsène Saparov describes how, on the morning of March 23, 1920, the Azerbaijani garrison and Turkic population of the city attacked and burned down the wealthier Armenian part of the town in a three-day pogrom, killing thousands and laying the foundation for the current conflict. According to Professor Neil MacFarlane, a regional specialist at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, the massacre shifted Shushi’s “ethnic status from an Armenian-dominated town to an Azeri [one].”