Live Bridge by Franz Roubaud.
Live Bridge by Franz Roubaud.

It is probably the best known painting set in Karabakh. Created in 1892 by prominent Russian artist Franz Roubaud (1856-1928) it depicts an episode from the 1804-13 Russian-Persian war. A Russian detachment commanded by Pavel Karyagin is escaping from a larger Persian force and for horse-drawn artillery to overcome a ravine, soldiers pile into it to create a “live bridge.”

Russian military historian Vasily Potto described the history behind the painting in his multi-volume work “The Caucasus War,” published in 1899. In June 1805, the army of Shah Fath Ali (also known as Baba Khan) crossed the Araxes river over Khodaferin bridge with the goal of recapturing Karabakh and its main fortress of Shushi, lost to the Russians just months earlier. With the majority of Russian forces preoccupied elsewhere, the Shah’s army initially had a significant numeric advantage.

Karyagin’s 400-strong detachment was ordered to delay Persian progress towards Shusha and Ganja newly renamed Yelisavetpol, until Russian forces could be assembled and marched from Tiflis. The Russian detachment first engaged Persians near the Askeran fortress, and then holed up at the Shahbulag fortress (now known as Tigranakert) and drew a large portion of the Persian force away from the siege of Shushi.

The area west of modern-day Mardakert where episode depicted in Roubaud’s painting likely occurred in 1805. Soviet General Staff Map.

As Shahbulag came under artillery fire, Russians began to take serious casualties. With the help of their Armenian guide Avanes Yuzbashi, son of the Melik of Kusapat, the Russians left Shahbulag in darkness and decamped towards the fortress (sghnakh) of Mukhrat – in vicinity of the modern-day village of Mokhratag in Mardakert district. According to Potto, the episode depicted by Roubaud occurred during this latter withdrawal, but rather than bodies of soldiers it involved a construction of a flimsy bridge made of rifles that soldiers kept in place manually. The artillery crossed successfully, but two soldiers received fatal injuries in the process.

With the Shah’s army unable to mass in the mountainous area around Mukhrat, Karyagin’s force successfully defended until reinforcements arrived led by commander of the Russian forces in the Caucasus Prince Tsitsianov. Along with others, Avanes Yuzbashi was awarded, receiving a military rank, a gold medal and a lifetime pension. He lived into the 1850s, becoming a key eyewitness for what became known as Karyagin’s raid.

P.S. This blog post was inspired by @Bathscapes, visit his twitter for great photos from throughout the Caucasus.