Karabakh is a land of celebrated writers and poets that influenced Azerbaijan’s literature tremendously. They became leaders in the advancement of literary realism, satire, drama, and theatre.  Among them are Molla Panah Vagif (1717-1797), Kasim bey Zakir (1784-1857), Mir Movsum Navvab (1833-1918), Najaf bey Vezirov (1854-1926), Abdulrehim bey Hakverdiyev (1870-1933), Firidun bey Kocharly (1863-1920), Yousif Vezir Chemenzeminli (1887-1943), Ahmed bey Agaoglu /Agayev/ (1869-1939).  

In the XIX century, the Azerbaijani literary environment included several influential women poets: Khurshidbanu Natavan, Fatma Kamina, Ashig Pari. One of the reasons for the emergence and flourishing of their innate talent undoubtedly was Karabakh’s land, especially the town of Shusha, the cradle of Azerbaijani culture that inspired.

Poetess Natavan, a progressive female thinker of her time, left behind a vast number of valuable poems expressing her love for her native Karabakh, its nature, touching upon women’s social status and narrating her personal journey of grief. 

Date of birth August 15, 1832

Place of birth Shusha, Karabakh

Date of death October 1, 1897 (age 65)

Place of death Shusha, Shusha district

Burial place Imarat cemetery, Aghdam

From the Dynasty of Javanshirs

Khurshidbanu Natavan, one of the most striking and empowered women of the 19th century, was a princess and the only child of Mehdigulu Khan, the Karabakh Khanate’s last ruler of the Javanshir dynasty.  She was well educated, fluent in multiple languages, engaged in philanthropy, bred famous Karabakh horses, built the water main in Shusha.  Loved and respected by many in the Karabakh region, Natavan was known as Khan Gizi (daughter of the ruler) or Durru Yekta, (only heir of the only pearl).  Most of all, she excelled in her interest in poetry and music and was a master in writing poems in the ghazal genre, short and graceful lyric poems typically dealing with love themes.  She has surrounded herself with talented people and established the literary Assembly called Mejlis-uns (Assembly of Friendship) in Shusha and became a patroness of the arts and artists.  The Assembly met weekly and played a significant role in Karabakh’s cultural and intellectual life in the nineteenth century.  

Through her first marriage with the well-educated Dagestani aristocrat Hasay khan Utsmiyev, who spoke fluent Russian and French, she traveled to and lived in Dagestan, Tiflis, and Baku. She got acquainted with Russian Georgian philologists, writers, actors, and painters during these travels, including the founder of the family dynasty of prose writers, monsieur Alexander Dumas-the Father. The story was well documented in Dumas’ book Voyage au Caucase (Adventures in the Caucasus) in 1859.  By 1860 Natavan returns to Shusha and separates from Hasay Khan Utsmiyev, with whom she had two children: daughter Khanbike and son Mehdigulu.  

K. B. Natavan with her children Mehdigulu Khan and Khanbike Khanum Author is unknown. Photo retouching is by Rasul Hasan

Under societal pressure as a single woman in Shusha, Natavan married a poor craftsman Said Husein Agamirov, and had five children.  The marriage to Agamirov was believed to be harmonious, and the latter provided her with much-needed societal security and helped manage finances and daily responsibilities.

As a poet, Natavan began her career in the 50s of the XIX century, initially writing under the name of Khurshid.  Only a small part of her work has reached us from that period.  In 1870, the poetess took the nickname of Natavan (helpless, weak, sick) and composed ghazals that began spreading in manuscript form during her lifetime. Natavan’s poetry can be divided into four parts:

  • Romantic poems
  • Poems dedicated to nature and its beauty
  • Dedication Poems
  • Sorrowful poems

Romantic poems touch upon ideas of love, yearning, aspirations.  Poetess denounces loveless marriages of her contemporaries, including reflects on her union with Utsmiyev.  Natavan dreams of pure love, harmony, complain about life and destiny.  She mirrors Azerbaijani woman’s image living in the XIX century, with her struggles, anxieties, and longing.  


Beloved, how could you break the oath to me you swore?

Beloved, am I today not the same as I was before?


You seek new company, love, with other women you meet,

Have you forgotten me, the one that you once called sweet?


Yes, you have found another before whom you bare your soul;

She is receiving the joy which from my life you stole.


My life is now a nightmare of infinite, black despair.

People talk of my madness always and everywhere.


Your heartlessness, o beloved, is driving me insane.

Have pity on me, have mercy, come back to me again.


O Destiny, how cruel, how ruthless you are to me!

Who does he give his love? “Who can the lucky one be?


Life overflows with anguish, with tears overflow my eyes;

But he, my fickle lover, turns a deaf ear to my sighs.*


The description of nature has been one of the recurring subjects in poetry.  Shusha, Karabakh, its landscape was a source of endless inspiration for Natavan.  She drew energy from it, enjoyed searching for beauty, surrendering herself.  Poems about Flower, Moth, Nightingale, Carnation are great examples. Thus, Lilac depicts her fascination with the image of a fragrant flower – a symbol of love.  


O flowering lilac, whose was the skilful hand that drew you?

O Radiant-Featured, was it a loving slave that drew you?


Chancing to penetrate into your palace, garden,

O poppy-cheeked, was it a skillful gardener drew you?


In this flowerbed world, there were all too many plain faces;

Was that the reason why the almighty keeper drew you?


The flowers take their colours and fragrance from you,

As a flower the hand of the world’s creator drew you.


What a wealth of gentleness shows in your beauty!

With her gift of fancy bestowed by God, perhaps it


was Natavan that drew you?*


Two significant incidents in Natavan’s life gave impetus for writing poems about loss, grief, pain, and sorrow.  Both concerned her sons: Mehdigulu, the oldest from the first marriage, who, under pressure from family members after the divorce of parents, decides to leave and wanders away to join the Imperial Russian Army.  Mehdigulu also wrote poetry under the pseudonym Vafa.  In 1885, Natavan’s oldest son from the second marriage, Mir Abbas Aga, dies of illness at 17.  These personal calamities find their way to Natavan’s writings and infiltrate the content of her poems.  I Cry, Without You, Gone, I am Dying are examples of this lyric craftsmanship.   


Parted with you, I burn night and day,

Like a thoughtless moth in a candleflame.


Like a rose you were destined to fade and die;

Like a nightingale mourning its rose sing I.


My heart aches with longing to see you, my star,

I roam like Medjnun in search of Leili.


I whisper your name, for your presence I sigh,

Like a grief-stricken dove on a bough sing I.


Like Farhad from the source of my happiness banned,

At the foot of the mountain of parting I stand.


Your name all these days I have chanted and sung

Like a parrot with sugar under its tongue.


Haunted with sorrow, all day I wander;

Burning with grief like a Salamander.


My heart, that once soared in a heaven of love,

Broke its wings and was dashed to the earth from above.


Blind to the light of the sun and the moon,

Like a moon eclipsed, I am shrouded on gloom.


Through my tears your image I always see,

You dried up so soon, o my cypress-tree!


Oh, would I was blind not to see you dead.

The sun now scorches the earth, your last bed.


My hopes were frustrated; you left me and died,

I did not live to see you join your bride.


Your brown eyes expectantly looked at me;

Was it only that mine your shrine should be?


I weep tears of blood, to sunlight I’m blind,

As a lost soul I wander, Abbas, my child.


The anguish of losing your gnaws at my breast,

Tears flow from my eyes without respite or rest.*


Portrait of K. B. Natavan by O. Sadigzade, distinguished portrait artist, Azerbaijan National Museum of Art

* English Translation of Natavan’s Poetry is by Dorian Rottenberg

Dorian Rottenberg was a noted translator of Russian literature, specializing in the translation of poetry and children’s books.