The Russian expansion into what is now known as the South Caucasus region in the years from the 1790s to 1820s brought the area to attention of major Western powers, particularly Great Britain. Two memoirs published by British military officers also offer a glimpse into Karabakh, about a decade after it became part of the Russian Empire.
George Keppel traveled from Tabriz in Persia to Astrakhan in Russia in 1824. His route took him through Shushi (then referred to as Sheesha), Shemakha, Baku and over Dagestan. Keppel, incidentally, was a great-great-grandfather to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, of the British Royal Family.
Crossing the Persian-Russian border over the river Araxes, Keppel described the natural beauty of the Karabakh region and passing through its Armenian villages, called them “remarkable for their cleanly appearance.” Keppel described Shushi as a town of about 10,000 people, though recently affected by war-related population decline. By contrast, Baku at the time of Keppel’s visit was twice smaller than Shushi. At the time, Shushi was three-quarters Muslim and one-quarter Armenian, Keppel is nevertheless hosted by a local Armenian leader named Aga Bek.
The town of Shushi was built seven decades earlier, as a political center of the newly-expanded Karabakh Khanate, a semi-autonomous entity within the Persian Empire led by Shia and Turkic-speaking Jevanshir tribe. The expansion involved the colonization of the majority Armenian highlands that were up until then known as Khachen, Aghvank or Artsakh. That period followed the Armenian rebellions of the early 18th century that accompanied the initial, aborted Russian push into the Caucasus under Emperor Peter the Great, and eventual collapse of the five Armenian melikdoms.
The 1820s was thus a period of transition for Karabakh similar in some respects to the 1990s that followed 70 years of its status as an Autonomous Oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan.
The second memoir was authored by James Edward Alexander, a British officer serving as a military adviser to the Persian Shah. That account focuses on the Shah’s failed campaign to regain the South Caucasus between 1826 and 1828 that involved a siege of Shusha and an attack towards Russia’s political center in the region, Tiflis, the modern Tbilisi.
Alexander notes key roles played by Armenians of Karabakh in the campaign. Russian forces were led by Gen. Valerian Madatov, a Karabakh-born Armenian who emigrated to Russia in 1790s and gained prominence during Napoleonic wars. From 1816, Madatov returned to the Caucasus and tooк command of Russian forces in Karabakh that included Armenian and Muslim auxiliaries. In 1826, in addition to their role in the defense of Shushi, local Karabakh Armenian forces also staged guerrilla-style attacks on the larger Persian forces as they advanced through the Kura valley. This led to retaliation against local Armenians, particularly in Ganja, where they were attacked after the Persian army sacked the city.
Madatov subsequently defeated a larger Persian force at Shamkhor, in contemporary Azerbaijan’s northwest, and regained Ganja, while Persians abandoned the siege of Shusha and withdrew over the Araxes river. Following his military defeat in 1828, the Shah ceded Erivan and Nakhichevan Khanates to Russia. The newly acquired area was organized into the Armenian Oblast that eventually emerged as the foundational entity for the Armenian Republic. Karabakh acquired 15 years earlier along with Ganja, Shemakha and Baku was incorporated into the Caspian Oblast, the foundational entity for the Azerbaijani Republic.
In 1829, Russia, defeated the Ottoman Turks, acquiring most of present-day western Georgia, except for Batumi, which would be won, along with Ardahan and Kars, almost fifty years later.
The outcomes of these two wars fought over a three-year period from 1826 to 1829 established the contours of the South Caucasus’ political geography that largely remain in place two centuries later.