Alley of Martyrs

[Ken Lin]

The Alley of Martyrs, known in Azeri as Shahidlar Hiyabani, is situated on one of the highest hills in Baku overlooking the Caspian Sea. Flanked by dwarf cypress and pine trees, a long marble wall stretches the length of the memorial, with a portrait of each martyr standing above the tombstone and grave of their final resting place. Hundreds of the Azeris who lost their lives in the Karabakh hostilities and the events of Black January lie in repose, and an eternal flame underneath a large dome stands adjacent to the wall.  Just across the street from the memorial’s location is the Parliament building – thus the cemetery serves as a constant reminder to the nation’s leaders and policymakers of the immense sacrifices that earlier generations made in order to secure the nation’s freedom. The history of the memorial site is one that seeks to bring peace to some of the most tragic and senseless acts of violence to befall the Azerbaijanis in the twentieth century, bookended by the social upheavals during the aftermath of the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the unrest that erupted during the twilight years of the Soviet Union (Cornell 127, Payvand).

Prior to the end of Imperial Russian rule, the Azeris and Armenians had not coexisted peacefully in the city of Baku, where Azeris were far outnumbered by Armenians, but controlled nearly all of the city’s oil fields. Ethnic tensions between the two had also strained relations, and the fall of Imperial Russia led to a struggle for control over territory and oil holdings in Transcaucasia. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, recognized the strategic importance of the Caucasian oil fields, and also launched a military invasion into the area in 1918, while simultaneously backing the Armenians in the conflict because they believed that the ruling Azerbaijiani Islamist Pan-Turkic Musavat Party would align itself with the Ottomans. In Baku a fierce battle erupted in March 1918 when the outnumbered Bolsheviks banded together with other Russians and Armenians to put down a so-called “revolt” by Azeris. Urban fighting intensified with the arrival of Muslim Azerbaijani soldiers from the former Imperial Russian army, and ended only when Red Army forces entered the city and massacred over 70,000 Azerbaijanis, nearly half of them civilians, in just a few days. These series of events, known as the March Days, led to the forced exodus of the Azeris from Baku and the beginning of the strained relations between Azeris and the Russians and Armenians. The deceased Azeri Muslims were temporarily buried in the present-day site of the Alley of Martyrs, before the site was excavated and all the remains removed with the complete Bolshevik takeover of Baku, when the land was turned into an amusement park (Yahoo! Voices, Touristlink).

The recent history of the site is grounded in two events in Azerbaijan at the close of the Cold War and Soviet domination: The Nagorno-Karabakh War and Black January. The former broke out in February 1988 when the Armenian-dominated Soviet in the Nagorny Karabakh province in Azerbaijan boldly tried to have control of the province moved to Armenia. Protests erupted after Politburo officials and Premier Gorbachev denied these requests, as both Armenians and Azeris openly denounced Soviet control and began committing acts of violence against each other in both countries. A series of population exchanges followed, in which Armenians in Azerbaijan and Azeris in Armenia were forced out or willingly left their homes and crossed the border. Armed conflict was inevitable by 1990, as both countries cast off the Soviet reins and became stirred up by nationalistic and ethnic fervor. Armenia began arming rebels in Nagorny Karabakh, leading the Armenians there to declare independence from Azerbaijan in September 1991, and war began not long afterwards. Fighting would rage on until May 1994, by which time thousands had been killed and many more had been uprooted from their homes (De Waal 109-24).

Prior to the events known as “Black January,” the Azerbaijani Popular Front had gained considerable support from the Azeris for their platform of a sovereign Azerbaijan with worker ownership of capital. During a demonstration in mid-January 1990 in Baku, the crowd became whipped into an anti-Armenian frenzy and descended into chaos as protestors began rioting and targeting Armenians living in the capital city. Popular Front members began erecting blockades around the city, fearing Soviet intervention in Baku. The growing power and violent tendencies of the nationalist Azerbaijani forces greatly worried the Soviet Union, to the extent that Premier Gorbachev and the Supreme Soviet Presidium declared a state of emergency in Baku and authorized the deployment of Red Army soldiers into the city to clamp down on the public demonstrations and put a halt to the violence (Kushen 5-10).

On January 20, an event now commemorated by Azeris as “Martyrs’ Day,” Red Army forces entered Baku and launched a violent crackdown on Azeri activists and civilians alike. A report by Human Rights Watch lays down some of the more startling findings of the Red Army actions that day: soldiers employed tactics more akin to assaulting defensive military positions rather than civilian settlements; Azeri medical personnel and vehicles, clearly identified, were attacked with automatic weapons fire; fleeing civilians were run down and crushed by armored cars or were bayoneted; and many imprisoned Azeris were tortured and executed without any legal recourse. The official casualty figures were 132 Azeris killed and over 700 wounded, based on the findings of the Supreme Soviet Commission. The wanton disregard for civilian life, coupled with the attacking soldiers’ lack of proper levels of force with regard to the situation, resulted in one of the greatest atrocities committed under Gorbachev’s regime and left a stain on the recent history of Azerbaijan (Kushen 15-31).

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, plans were drawn up to restore the original tenets of the 1918 cemetery to recognize Azerbaijan’s heroes. The Soviets had not only constructed an amusement park on the site after removing the cemetery, but had also installed a large statue of the Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov and named the area “Kirov Park.” The Azeris tore down the amusement park facilities and the statue and designated an area for the graves of the Black January victims. Since then the memorial and cemetery have been expanded to include prominent Azerbaijani leaders and political figures, as well as fighters who fell during the Nagorny Karabakh hostilities (Touristlink).

A controversy erupted in September 2003 when the British-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission sought to install a memorial to the 47 British soldiers under the command of Major General Lionel Dunsterville who were killed in action during an Allied expedition to prevent the Turks from seizing the Baku oil fields in mid-1918. The graves of the British casualties had been among those removed during the Bolshevik conquest of the city in the post-war years, and the Commission had sent over a small memorial in 1997; however, the Azerbaijani government kept the memorial in storage for six years before allowing it to be erected. Many Azerbaijani scholars and political figures argued that the British should not be recognized at Alley of Martyrs because the British were fighting on the side of the Dashnaks, who many Azeris regard as chief instigators and participants of the Azerbaijani massacre during the March Days. The question then becomes whether or not it is appropriate for a memorial of this stature to recognize merely those participants whose cause is to be honored, or whether all of the fallen should be given recognition regardless of which side they fought on – for the Azeris, the Alley of Martyrs should remain exclusive for the true martyrs who lost their lives fighting for Azerbaijani interests (Payvand).

The site has become the largest of the numerous war cemeteries and memorials that dot the Caucasus region, but is certainly significant both for its grandeur, history and proximity to the Azeri nation’s ruling seat. The Azeris underwent a tremendous amount of social upheaval and violence that shaped the country and that continue to plague them to this day. The Alley of Martyrs, aptly named to denote the sacrifices that previous generations made to establish modern Azerbaijan, is more than a tribute – it is also a symbol of Azeri resilience and tenacity, against external oppression and internal discord. The presentation of the deceased fighters and activists as martyrs is a way acknowledging the fact that their cause was just and was not in vain, for the mere existence of a country for the Azeris testifies to that.


Works cited:

Payvand Iran News. “Azerbaijan: Planned British War Memorial Raises Hackles.” Last updated September 20, 2003.

Robert Kushen, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan. (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991).

Svante E. Cornell, Azerbaijan Since Independence. (M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2010).

Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Touristlink. “Martyrs’ Lane.” Accessed March 30, 2012.

Yahoo! Voices. “March Days:The ‘Azerbaijani Genocide’.” Last updated June 25, 2009.