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Baba-Hadji, symbol of ethnic harmony

The complicated relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan that have erupted since the break-up of the USSR belie the fact that in the past the two nations often coexisted more or less harmoniously. Maxim Edwards visited the mountain mausoleum of Baba-Hadji, an ancient symbol of erstwhile good relations

Maxim Edwards
19 November 2013

When you reach Meghri railway station, you have come to the end of the line in the most literal sense. The main building stands abandoned on the Iranian border, in the shadow of the mountains. To the east lies the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated by ethnic Armenians but de jure part of Azerbaijan. To the west lies the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, an exclave of Azerbaijan. The rusting locomotive and its empty Russian Border Service passenger carriage are going nowhere fast.

This is Syunik Province, Armenia’s far south, home to some of the country’s most stunning scenery. With the Armrosgazprom pipeline from Iran and a temperate climate, Meghri yields two of Armenia’s most crucial resources – natural gas and pomegranates. Russian soldiers patrol the southern border with Iran and Farsi-language rest stop signs are not uncommon along the northerly road to Yerevan. The Iranian truck drivers, after all, are hungry and thirsty.

Sandwiched between Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan and Iran, the town of Meghri is located in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of Armenia. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

Yet Meghri’s relative isolation is not simply for geographical reasons. The main road from the capital Yerevan to Meghri along the Aras River valley passes through Nakhichevan, Azerbaijani territory, and has long since been closed. Going from Yerevan to Meghri now involves a long detour across mountain passes with hairpin turns, and there are plenty of families in Meghri who cannot afford the five thousand dram (about £7.50) it costs to visit the capital.

A portrait of Garegin Nzhdeh is painted on a wall near Meghri’s barracks in the centre of town. At the beginning of the 1920s, the Bolsheviks announced that Syunik province was to be transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan. Nzhdeh, a Fedayee [commando] leader from the Armenian revolutionary Dashnak party led a guerrilla war in these mountains, only capitulating after assurances that it would remain Armenian territory. The historical symbolism, it would seem, is not lost on some. The Azeris from this region of Armenia, too, are long gone. That is, the local Azeris. The adjacent Iranian province to Meghri is Āzarbāijān-e Sharqi – East Azerbaijan – and ethnic Azeris can be counted among Iranians crossing this border.

‘Elderly people in Shvanidzor to this day will swear on Baba-Hadji rather than on their mother or father.’  

Local guesthouse owner Lusine Zakaryan can tell the difference. ‘Persians, that is, ethnic Persians, are tall, clever and beautiful, with lighter features.’ In Northern Iran, she adds (‘and don’t just think I’m saying this because I’m Armenian’) ‘there are also Azeris: darker, ruder people’. But as she always says, she adds in a hurry, ‘there are no bad nations, only bad people.’ I meet an Iranian (perhaps an Azeri?) quite by chance in a shop in the town centre. He is inquiring, in English and with hand gestures, as to the merits of various brands of cognac. I translate into Russian, and owner Hovannes invites us to try his homemade grape samogon. From under the counter he pulls out a plastic canister of a lethally clear liquid. We grimace in unison, eat Basturma and I sneak a glance at the label. ‘Soy Bean Oil – Gift of the World Food Programme.’ One canister left over from thousands shipped to Armenia during the darkest years of the Karabakh War, explained Lusine. There’s a metaphor there, but my head is reeling too much to find one. We walk out into the balmy night. ‘I don’t know any Persian,’ Hovannes says ‘other than “khoda hafez” – goodbye.’ He lights another Ararat cigarette and sighs deeply. Khoda Hafez, says the Iranian.

Shvanidzor refugee

A Shvanidzor resident who fled a 'fine apartment' in Baku when the war started. In 1989, there were almost 180,000 Armenians in Baku (10% of the population). Today there are less than 100. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.  

In the village of Shvanidzor, some seventeen kilometres to the east of Meghri, a few traces of Azeris can still be seen - and memories of Azerbaijan still be heard. A settlement of some three hundred people, it has much in common with other towns in Armenia’s far south. Townhouses with carved wooden balconies and curtains of fruit hung out to dry in the sun line the streets. Many show the ingenious methods used by local builders to protect the houses’ foundations from earthquake damage. ‘That house’ remarked one Shvanidzor resident ‘never collapsed because its owners never sinned.’ The speaker had left a ‘fine apartment’ in Baku and had fled to Armenia. How old, she asked, did we think she was? Mid to late eighties? We never had a chance to reply. ‘I’m seventy-two’, she declared, her creased face breaking into a grin of gold and yellow teeth, ‘but I wouldn’t look like this if we hadn’t left Baku.’

Located some 17 kilometres east of Meghri, the mountain town of Shvanidzor still maintains traces of a time when Azeris and Armenians lived together peacefully. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.

The Meghri Region of the Armenian SSR, according to the 1989 Soviet Census, had a population of 14,690, including some 2,242 Azeris (15.3% of the overall population). According to former Armenian Presidential Advisor and Ethnographer Hranoush Kharatyan, there are still a few Azeris in Armenia, many of whom have changed their names and do not want to speak openly about their ethnicity.

Baba-Hadji

Older Armenians often have fond memories of their good relations with local Azeris. Shvanidzor is unique in that, high in the mountains above the village, it still has visible proof of this erstwhile harmony. ‘Elderly people in Shvanidzor to this day will swear on Baba-Hadji rather than on their mother or father’ says Hovhannes Oganyan, 62-year-old mayor (and biology teacher) of Shvanidzor. Baba-Hadji is not the name of an Azeri. It is a remote mausoleum in the heavily forested mountains nearby, whose occupants, one Armenian - Baba, and one Azeri – Hadji, were buried together at the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century. Oganyan has been mayor of Shvanidzor (and before that, head of the local collective farm) for over twenty years – ‘longer’ he adds with a wry smile ‘than Azerbaijan’s entire existence.’

Baba-Hadji does not appear to have been thoroughly researched, and the sole accessible Armenian source online, a small description by researcher and journalist Gohar Isakhanyan, acknowledges the complications in doing so. ‘To this day’ she concludes ‘the inhabitants of Shvanidzor do not know whether Baba-Hadji is of Azerbaijani, Persian, or Turkish origin, as all local Muslims used to be called “Turks.”’ Ishakhanyan recounts two of the legends surrounding Baba-Hadji’s origins.

Ask the young in Shvanidzor today and they will not know Baba-Hadji – the way there is a hard one and there is nobody there to greet you.

In one account, which Oganyan finds more credible, the Armenian villagers of Shvanidzor and the Azeri villagers of Nyuvadi (now Nrnadzor) fought against each other, until two village elders, Baba and Hadji resolved the conflict by becoming blood brothers. Together they built a shrine in the mountains between Shvanidzor and Nyuvadi, and thereafter the two villages lived peacefully side by side.

A second account holds that, fleeing from Turkish attacks, Armenian villagers from Shvanidzor took to the mountains, where they only survived due to an underground system of pipes designed to carry spring water to their hiding places. One village elder, however, betrayed the Armenians, telling the Turks of their method of survival. This legend states that the location of the pipes was discovered with the help of horses, who, upon hearing the sound of running water, began to dig into the soil with their hooves (a subterranean aqueduct in Shvanidzor of unknown origin is used for irrigation to this day). Left without water, the Armenians surrendered, and the Turks built Baba-Hadji as a sign of their victory.

Once tended to by a local Azeri who offered visitors food and tea, the Baba-Hadji mausoleum, a symbol of Azeri and Armenian friendship, has fallen into disrepair since the war. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.

The mausoleum in the mountains

Oganyan has vivid memories of the pilgrimage to Baba-Hadji from his childhood, and describes it as having been a mausoleum. He draws a rough sketch of the interior, describing a small square enclosure within covered in black cloth, surrounding two standing stones.

One bore the Armenian inscription ‘Baba’, with the arevakhach, the Armenian eternity symbol. On the other was an inscription ‘in Arabic script – probably Hadji’, with a star and crescent. A mullah, he recalls, occasionally came over from Azerbaijan to lead prayers. He also recalls an Azeri who lived permanently near the shrine and collected donations for its upkeep. Food and water were offered to visitors, as was tea from ‘good quality samovars.’ These mountains were far from the reach – or rather, the bother – of the local authorities. ‘Everybody knew about it but nobody bothered us’ adds the mayor. ‘Everybody climbed up to Baba-Hadji to pay their respects and do matakh [religious sacrifice of animals] with the Azeris. I saw some in officers’ tunics, epaulettes and peaked caps climbing like animals, on their hands and knees, alongside old women and village elders.’ Ask the young in Shvanidzor today and they will not know Baba-Hadji – the way there is a hard one and there is nobody there to greet you. ‘Even cats and dogs can eat from the same bowl’ observes Lusine ‘but humans still haven’t learnt to. So it is with Armenians and Azerbaijanis.’

‘After Sumgait [a 1988 pogrom targeting the Armenian population of a town in Azerbaijan] we left their monuments standing. You saw what happened to our Khachkhars [cross stones] in Julfa? There wouldn’t be any road visible if we didn’t still go up there, to Baba-Hadji.’

‘Road’ may be a generous term, but with persistence and a trustworthy Lada car, it is navigable. Heading north along the road into the Shihakogh Reserve, you reach the ruins of a village, Old Shvanidzor, the predecessor to the modern village further down the valley. This place has not been permanently inhabited since 1780, and the resettlement was, according to Shvanidzor residents, connected with the then improved relations with the Muslim community. A sparse seventeenth century church keeps watch over the mountains. Villagers say that the local granite is too tough to carve Khachkars. A dirt track through Old Shvanidzor eventually reaches Baba-Hadji, through fields, forests, and with dizzying views of the valleys below.

‘Even cats and dogs can eat from the same bowl, but humans still haven’t learnt to,’ says Lusine Zakaryan, a local guesthouse owner. Though a ceasefire has held since 1994, dozens of Azerbaijanis and Armenians are killed each year in skirmishes on the border between the Nagorno-Karabkh Republic and Azerbaijan. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.

The mausoleum sits on the crest of a hill, encircled by the arm of an oak tree. It is conical (‘like an ancient Russian warrior’s helmet’, remarks Lusine) with a diameter of roughly six metres and a height in the inner chamber of just under four. It is gradually sinking into the hillside as its outer walls collapse, and a large crack spreads ominously over the ceiling. The interior is a sorry sight. Hunters’ cooking pots have replaced the samovars, and the two standing stones remembered by Oganyan are nowhere to be seen. Fragments of a newspaper from 2011 cover the ground, and small fragments of a clay tube lie in one of the alcoves along the inner wall. The modest stuff of legends. In the centre of the chamber, its walls supported by pointed arches, is a large hole in the ground. Anahit, Hovhannes Oganyan’s wife and director of the secondary school in Shvanidzor, supposes it to be the work of wild animals. She photographs a nondescript section of wall from the tomb’s interior. This photo, she declares, will show the face of Christ. At her suggestion I do the same, and see nothing. Next time, I promise, I shall return with an SLR.

‘After the collapse of the USSR, people would steal anything and everything to sell. Baba-Hadji was no exception. They dug for gold, but found nothing.’

Anahit Zakaryan has brought flowers, candles, and prayers. She kisses the lintel over the entrance (its elaborately carved doors, remembered by Oganyan, are nowhere to be seen) and adds that she is a child of Baba-Hadji. Some of the stones surrounding Baba-Hadji are said to commemorate children who died young or in childbirth and were buried near the mausoleum. Only two of these stones bear inscriptions, both of them illegible. Anahit’s parents, who visited Baba-Hadji at least once a year, prayed for a child here, after which she was born. She had last visited the site some two years ago, with a group of local schoolchildren. Neither Lusine nor Artur Hambardzumian (the Shvanidzor resident whose Lada we have to thank for getting us here) had visited Baba Hadji for five years. From the direction of Karabakh, menacing clouds gather and it starts to drizzle. We return to Shvanidzor.

Armenian locals used to place stones around Baba-Hadji to commemorate children who died young or in childbirth. Today only two are still identifiable. Young people in Shvanidzor are largely unaware of the mausoleum's history. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards.

Hovhannes is sad to hear of what has become of Baba Hadji – he hasn’t been up there for a few years now. He pours homemade wine and drinks a toast – first to his guests, thereafter to Baba and Hadji. The mayor’s father, who had died in 2012 at the age of 103, had been a faithful communist (‘though that didn’t matter’), and a skilled hunter. Many were the nights, recalls Oganyan, when he slept in Baba-Hadji to keep safe from hailstones. In 1981, the Azeri villagers of Nrnadzor requested cement and building materials, and Hovhannes Oganyan of the Shvanidzor Kolkhoz (collective farm) joined them in repairing Baba-Hadji. Some ten years, later during the Karabakh War, Armenian Fedayee took shelter in this mausoleum. ‘After the collapse of the USSR, people had nothing. They would have done anything for a slice of bread. They would steal anything and everything to sell. Baba-Hadji was no exception. They dug for gold, but found nothing.’ These historical cracks may well be irreparable. Today, in 2013, is the Mayor of Shvanidzor optimistic for the future of Baba-Hadji, where it stands, and whatever it still stands for?

‘Who will restore it?’ he sighs ‘who can restore it? Everything needs restoring. Our village church needs restoring. And that must be our priority.’ 

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