Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh):
Historical And Geographical Perspectives
An exclusive overview for www.nkrusa.org
The land of Artsakh, the central and largest part
of which was better known throughout the 20th century as "Nagorno
Karabakh" or "Mountainous Karabakh," is one of three
ancient provinces of Armenia located in the eastern end of the Armenian
Plateau. Buttressed by formidable mountain systems, this region is collectively
called "The Eastern Prefectures of Armenia" (Koghmank Arevelitz
Haiotz). Besides Artsakh, it contains the provinces of Siunik and Utik.
Eastward, near the confluence of the Kura and Arax rivers, lays the
historical Armenia's easternmost land of Paitakaran.
Besides containing the area known today as the Nagorno
Karabakh Republic (NKR), Artsakh extended, as a long, narrow territory,
from the River Agstev to River Arax. Ancient Siunik encompassed the
eastern shoreline of the Lake Sevan and modern province (marz) of Siunik
of the Republic of Armenia, stretching further south toward the basins
of Hagaru (Akera) and Vorotan rivers. Most of Utik and all of Paitakaran
are part of what is now the Azerbaijani Republic.
While Artsakh, in a traditional sense, is a larger
region of some 15,000 square kilometers, its political and cultural
heir-the Nagorno Karabakh Republic-lays within the limits of Artsakh's
five core counties: Giulistan, Jraberd, Khachen, Varanda and Dizak (5,300
sq. km overall). Territorially, NKR defines itself within the administrative
borders of the Soviet Union's former Autonomous Region of Mountainous
Karabakh, the adjacent Shahumian district and the canton of Getashen.
Artsakh's topography, flora and fauna are diverse
and beautiful. Its territory is made up of upland and foothill regions,
much of which are covered with thick forests. The name Artsakh contains
the root "tsakh," meaning "woods" in old Armenian.
The historical roots of Artsakh are traced to the
5th century BC, when the social structure of the Kingdom of Armenia
was centered on local dynastic princes, known as nakharars. The nakharars
both pre-dated and survived the country's various monarchies. In the
eastern part of Armenia, the nakharars were the descendants of tribal
chieftains of considerable antiquity. Their authority guaranteed strength
and continuity in Armenian society, although their conflicts with the
monarchy often weakened the state. With the passing centuries, the number
of princely households in Armenia diminished. Among the longest survivors
were the princes of The Eastern Prefectures, specifically those of Siunik
and Artsakh. Because of Artsakh's location on the periphery of the Kingdom,
the province and its population always had a strong regional identity
and broad taxation and administrative powers.
Artsakh is important for Armenia's history and civilization
in many ways. After the demise of the centralized Armenian state in
the Middle Ages, Artsakh enjoyed the longest period of self-rule relative
to other Armenian regions. In its entirety, Artsakh's political autonomy
lasted without interruption from antiquity to the 1760s. Throughout
this period, either as a kingdom of its own or as a union of self-governed
principalities within regional empires, Artsakh remained a bastion of
Christendom and Armenian nationhood, where Armenia's culture and civilization
resisted alien pressures.
Foreign invasions and the loss of statehood almost
completely destroyed the class of landed aristocracy in Armenia. In
this regard, Artsakh is one of the few places where traces of such dynasties
have endured into modernity. The most ancient of them is the Hasan-Jalalian
princely clan that ruled Artsakh since early medieval times and hereditarily
presided over the Catholicosate of Aghvank of the Armenian Apostolic
Church. Through Prince Arran, the Hasan-Jalalians claim a direct lineage
to Hayk the Progenitor, the forefather of the Armenians, and from him-to
Japheth and, ultimately, Noah, Hayk's supposed great-grandfathers from
the Old Testament.
By the late Middle Ages, Armenian princely clans of
the past evolved in Artsakh into meliks, autonomous feudal lords with
a status codified by the Persian Shah. The meliks defended their self-rule
with the help of recruit-based armies, and it is not surprising that
it was in Artsakh where several of Armenia's national independence movements
emerged. In the 18th century, the meliks and their allies tried to achieve
the reconstitution of the Armenian kingdom with the help of European
powers and Russia. In the late 19th century, the Artsakhians were among
the founders and first commanders of Armenian self-defense units which
moved across the border to Western Armenia to defend its population
from the genocidal actions of the decaying Ottoman Empire.
In turn, this points to Artsakh's other key roles:
its tradition of developing Armenian military cadres and its strong
Armenian and Christian demographic profile. Before the late 18th century,
the population of both Artsakh's highlands and adjacent lowlands was
homogenously and exclusively Armenian. While the appearance of Turkic
nomads somewhat diversified Artsakh's ethnic composition, its Armenian
majority never dropped below 80% of the overall population of Artsakh's
five core counties.
Another aspect of Artsakh's significance relates to
the history of Armenian literature and legal system. The region is the
birthplace of the first Armenian constitutional edict: King Vachagan
II the Pious' "Constitution of Aghven," adopted in
the 5th century AD. The full text of the constitution is part of the
medieval historian Movses Kaghankatvatzi's "History of Aghvank."
Artsakh is also home to Armenia's pre-modern legal code. It was created
in the monastery of Gandzasar, by the 12th-13th century scholar Mkhitar
Gosh, as a list of canons called "The Code of Laws."
From that time and up to the 19th century, the "Code"
was used as the main legal reference both in Armenia and in its medieval
Diaspora, from Poland to Hungary to Crimea and Persia. This tradition
of scholarship in Artsakh dates from the time when the monastery of
Amaras (in today's Nagorno Karabakh's district of Martuni) hosted the
first school where teaching was based on the Armenian script. St. Mesrob
Mashtotz, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, established that school
during his missionary activities in Artsakh and Utik circa 410 AD.
Ethnographically and linguistically, Artsakh relates
to neighboring Siunik and Utik. The Armenian dialect of Artsakh is one
of the earliest ever recorded Armenian dialects. The grammarian Stephanos
Siunetzi first described it in the 7th century AD. Relative to the modern
Armenian literary language, the Artsakhian is one of the isolated and
less intelligible dialects, not least because it contains elements of
Grabar (Old Church Armenian). In contrast to most other Armenian dialects,
the Artsakhian has had its own literary tradition. This and other examples
of Artsakh's distinctiveness, however, do not eclipse the region's common
cultural and political ties with other-however remote-regions of Armenia.
Artsakh's ecclesiastical designs, its architecture, particularly its
castles and dwellings, its school of miniatures, the khachkars (unique-to-Armenia
stone slabs with engraved crosses) as well as its folklore and traditional
attire make Artsakh's part of the continuous cultural environment of
The Artsakh Armenians left an amazingly rich cultural
and spiritual heritage. The region is an open-sky treasure-house of
Christian art and architecture, hosting hundreds of medieval churches,
monasteries and khachkars. These include: the monastery of Amaras (4th
century), founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator who baptized the Armenian
kingdom into the first Christian state in 301 AD; monastery of Gandzasar
(1216-1238), where relics of St. John the Baptist's are believed to
be buried; monastery of Tzitzernavank, assumed to contain relics of
St. George; monastery of Dadivank (1214-1232), the largest monastic
complex in Eastern Armenia; and the Cathedral of the Holy Savior (1868-1887)
in the city of Shushi, which is the most spacious Armenian ecclesiastical
edifice ever erected. Artsakh is also renowned for containing the largest
number of Armenian lapidary (engraved in stone) inscriptions per unit
of territory, dating from the fifth century. Many of these monuments
witnessed Artsakh's long-lasting struggle for survival, which continues
Artsakh is often identified with the term "Karabakh,"
which is a Turkic translation of a Persian name of the region, Bagh-e-Siah
(meaning "Black Garden"). This term is part of the phrase
"Nagorno Karabakh," which is a shortened if inelegant Anglification
of the Soviet term "Autonomous Region of Mountainous ["Nagorniy"]
Karabakh," the name of Artsakh's Armenian autonomy placed inside
of the USSR's Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Until the late Middle Ages,
the term "Karabakh" commonly designated Artsakh's lowland
extension in the east, which experienced the incursion of nomadic Turkic
tribes from the Central Asia. As the Turko-Islamic colonization expanded
in the late Middle Ages, in Artsakh, as in many places throughout the
Near East, Asia Minor and the Balkans, the nomads gradually pushed the
indigenous Christians to the mountains, themselves occupying the plains.
As a result, the central regions of what is now the Azerbaijani Republic
lost most of its aboriginal Armenian population. However, the economic
life of the Turkic nomads, which required access not only to lowland
pastures but also to mountain areas, and their Islamic values, which
denied Christians most political and social rights while legitimizing
banditry and looting, eventually pitted them against the Christian highlanders
too. This formed the basis of the historical confrontation between the
Armenians of Artsakh and the Turkic tribesmen of the Southwestern Caucasus,
who in the 1920s designated themselves as "Azerbaijanis."
In the 1720s-1730s, a long war with the Ottoman Empire
ravaged Artsakh while internal disagreements further weakened its administration.
As a result, the Armenian meliks of Artsakh succumbed to the pressure
of the Muslim tribes which managed to execute their long-coveted goal
of penetrating the region and ruling it directly. The consequence was
the formation of the Karabakh Khanate, a self-proclaimed but short-lived
Muslim principality in Artsakh that in 1805 was absorbed into the Russian
Empire, after only 40 years, and eventually abolished. The result was
century-long tranquility in the regional Muslim-Christian relations.
In this period, the region's capital city of Shushi had developed into
an important trade center and given the region dozens of outstanding
musicians, historians, writers and engineers.
The Armenian-Turkic conflict in the Caucasus was ignited
once again with the ascent of the era of nationalism, when in the beginning
of the 20th century nationalist propaganda plunged Artsakh into inter-ethnic
strife accompanied by pogroms and incidents of mass murder. This situation
degenerated after the demise of the Russian Empire and emergence of
three independent states in the Southern Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia
and Azerbaijan, which from the very first days of their creation disputed
their contrived borders. In this tragic episode, local Turkic Muslims,
abetted by expeditionary Ottoman forces, massacred the entire Armenian
population of Shushi-20,000 people in total-and burned to ashes the
Christian half of the city. Shortly thereafter, the Bolshevik armies
from Russia re-invaded the Caucasus and united the three nations inside
what later became the Soviet Union.
In 1921, responding to economic blackmail from oil-producing
Azerbaijan and threats from Turkey, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly
placed Artsakh under the Azerbaijani rule, as the world's only Christian
territorial autonomy inside a largely Muslim nation. For the next 70
years, Azerbaijan bombarded Artsakh with various forms of ethno-religious
discrimination, economic mistreatment and intentional demographic abuse,
in an attempt to eliminate its Armenian Christian majority and replace
it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers. This policy was damaging to Artsakh
but it failed, unable to shatter the region's resistance to alien domination.
After decades of intermittent protests, the dissolution of the Soviet
Union finally allowed Artsakh to break away from Baku's rule, in 1988,
and, in 1991, re-establish itself as a free and sovereign nation-the
Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
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For a more detailed history of Nagorno Karabakh, please
visit the 'History' submenu at www.nkrusa.org/nk_conflict/index.shtml
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