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History of Nakhchivan

The name Nakhchivan comes from Nukkhtchikhan - 'colony of Noah', or perhaps meaning 'first descent' implying much the same thing. Noah's ark is supposed to have grounded itself upon the slopes of Mt Ararat (or Nakhchivan's Mt Gamigaya according to some Azeri sources). However, the first time the ark struck land was when its hull crunched into the submerged summit of Nakhchivan's Ilan-dag ('snake mountain'). This collision is the legendary source of the cleft in that very dramatic mesa-style peak.

Known to ancient historians as Naxuana, Nakhchivan City as well as Ordubad, Culfa, Karabaglar and Yengija (now a virtual suburb of Sharur) were powerful trading cities on the international caravan routes. In the second century BC, Ptolomy describes Nakhchivan as an already well-developed city. Sixth-century coins have been discovered embossed 'Nakhtch', suggesting that the region retained a high degree of autonomy during the Sasanid era. In 654 Nakhchivan was invaded by the Arab forces of Emir Habib. Locals put up a considerable fight and thereafter the region became a major centre for the Khuramid resistance. (see Babek/Balabur)

In a movie version of the Babek story the Nakhchivan village of Camaldin was used as the setting for the great Bazz Castle as much for the village's spectacular back drop as for any historical connections.

In the 9th and 10th centuries Nakhchivan was an independent kingdom surviving until 1064 when conquered by Alp Arasan and incorporated into the Seljuk Turkish empire. Atabeys, an increasingly autonomous part of that empire in central/ north-western Azerbaijan, became virtually independent from Seljuk rule under the great governor Eldegyz who moved the regional capital from Ganja to Nakhchivan in 1137. He built the impenetrable fortress of Alinja (still a very impressive site above Xanagar Kolkhoz) and, during 40 years of his strong-armed rule, enriched Nakhchivan with great madrassahs, public buildings and tombs - the most impressive remnant of which is the Momine Khatun Mausoleum in Nakhchivan City. In 1175 Eldegyz died at Alinja. His successors were less competent at balancing the growing power of the Georgian and Persian kingdoms.

The Mongol invasions which destroyed so much of the region had a relatively minor impact on Nakhchivan. Despite some damage in 1221 and 1235 the region retained some of its monuments, libraries and reputed craftsmen allowing a relatively quick rebound. Timur was rather harsher when he stormed through in 1386.

On today's map, Nakhchivan is a disconnected raft floating away towards Turkey. This politically-contrived isolation has come from a series of relatively recent historical quirks and for much of the 15th to 18th centuries Nakhchivan was at the heart of greater Azerbaijan - the collection of autonomous or nominally independent mini-states which united under the Safavid dynasty. Russian colonial rule over the Nakhchivan Khanate and the Ordubad sultanate was only formalized in 1828. This created a split with southern (Persian) Azerbaijan which has remained ever since. Nonetheless, Nakhchivan remained firmly joined to the rest of northern Azerbaijan throughout both the Tsarist era and the brief 1918-20 independent republic. Following the Bolshevik take-over, the Soviet government considered giving Nakhchivan to Armenia as a 'fraternal symbol', a plan which displeased 90% of local residents in a 1921 referendum and was prevented by the insistence of Kemal Ataturk's nationalist Turkey. However, as part of the December 1920 treaty sealing the Russian re-conquest of Armenia, the Soviets presented Armenia with the previously Azerbaijani province of Zangezur, the sleeve of land which had attached Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan. As a result many ethnic Azeris fled from Zangezur to Nakhchivan. Nakhchivan's isolation was sealed when Stalin gave up on the Trans-Caucasian SSR. The reinvented Armenian and Azeri SSRs were defined within the 1924 borders while Nakhchivan ASSR was left in limbo, administered directly from Moscow for two decades.

Throughout the period, Turkey maintained at least a nominal concern for their increasingly isolated brother Turks in Nakhchivan. A footnote to the post WWI Treaty of Kars allowed Turkey the right of intervention if Nakhchivan were threatened by a third force (ie Armenia). In 1932, Turkey also arranged a land swap with Iran to provide it with the long thin nose of land which today forms the main trade route to Nakhchivan. This was remarkable foresight considering that for 60 years there was no bridge across the border river.

The eventual construction of this bridge ('Umud' opened 28 May 1992) provided Nakhchivan with a crucial lifeline once the Armenian blockade cut off all road and rail connections from Baku. That Armenia didn't invade the enclave could be credited to several factors: the Kars Treaty defence agreement with Turkey, the relative impenetrability of the border except along two roads, or the strong and decisive leadership of the then Nakhchivan parliamentary speaker - none other than Heydar Aliyev. Thomas Goltz recounts a great story of Aliyev rallying morale in Sharur when an Armenian bombardment had caused inhabitants to flee there from nearby Sadarak. His mere presence, it seems, smoothed a virtual riot into a pro-Heydar rally.

With heavy pressure from Turkey Armenia backed down from further attacks (except for the seizure of the small, disconnected village of Karki). Aliyev's popularity in Nakhchivan is deep. The bust in Nakhchivan's central park long pre-dates his 12-year spell as national president.