... [the region of Nagorno Karabakh] is in Armenia Minor, which is now called Armenian Seghnakhs; all those lands are populated by brave Armenian Christians, who have defended themselves with their own forces against both the Turks and the Persians for the last several years.

(From a report of 14 September 1733, by Pavel P. Shafirov (1669-1739), Special Envoy for Oriental Affairs of the Russian Imperial Court)  >>


... The Armenian meliks [dukes] ... ruled the five melikdoms of Karabakh whose ancestors remained autonomous after the fall of the Armenian kingdom. They remained independent until recent times ...

(From a diary of Peter I. Kovalenskii, Russian envoy to the Georgian court, August-October 1800; source: Kavkazski Kalendar, Tiflis, 1863, p. 212)  >>




Memorial Cathedral (1210-1223)

Dadivank Monastery

- Mardakert District -

 - Nagorno Karabakh -

Photo by Boris Baratov

Click to see detailed description


The essential difference in the cases of Nagorno Karabakh and Kosovo lies in the histories of both regions. Nagorno Karabakh — Artsakh in Armenian — is one of the cradles of Armenian statehood and the birthplace of a late medieval emancipatory movement in Eastern Armenia.[1] Artsakh contains a large number of key landmarks of Armenian history, and is important to the Armenians in the same way Kosovo is important to the Serbs or Jerusalem is important to the Jews.

Armenian settlements and a distinct political entity have existed in Artsakh since the second century BC. Ancient Greek and Roman historians, including Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Ptolemy and Dio Cassius stated in their writings that Armenia's eastern border with the neighboring region of Caucasian Aluania (Aghvank) was demarcated by the River Kur, engulfing Artsakh in Armenia.[2] Greek historian Strabo in his "Geography" mentions Artsakh as a fertile province of Armenia known for its exceptional cavalry.[3]

In the 1st century BC, the ruler of the Armenian Kingdom Tigran II the Great founded one of four cities, named "Tigranakert" after himself, in Artsakh; its ruins are found on the eastern border of the contemporary Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Artsakh, codified as the 10th province of the ancient kingdom of Armenia Major (Armenia Greater or Metz Haik, in Armenian),[4] was brought into focus at the end of the 4th century, when Christianity was spreading to Armenia's eastern provinces, in the aftermath of the missionary activities of St. Gregory the Illuminator.[5]


"Historical Divisions

of Armenia" map by

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Click on picture to enlarge


In the 5th century, Artsakh became the place where the creator of the Armenian alphabet, St. Mesrob Mashtots >>, established the first Armenian religious school, in Amaras Monastery (now in the Martuni district of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic). Amaras became the venue where the newly invented alphabet was probated for teaching purposes for the first time.[6]

Artsakh's cavalry constituted core forces of the Armenian attack regiments throughout the Armenian-Persian War of the 450s (also known as the War of St. Vardan, or "Vardanank"). The author of the 5th century Eghishe notes that Artsakh's Armenian population employed guerilla tactics against the invading army of Persia's King Yezdigerd II (438-457 AD), while the forested terrain of Artsakh served as a hideout for the troops of Armenia's commander St. Vardan Mamikonian.

Later, between 480 and 483 AD, Movses Khorenatsi >>, one of Mesrob Mashtots' students,  wrote his monumental "History of the Armenians" >> under the auspices of Prince Sahak Bagratuni — a manifestation of the importance of Artsakh in Armenian civilization during the reign of Artsakh’s king Vachagan II the Pious.[7]

It is difficult to overestimate the role of King Vachagan II in the history of Armenia. One of the early medieval Armenian constitutions Constitution of Aghven (see a 10th century manuscript edition of the text >> ) — was written under his auspices and adopted in the Eastern Territory of Armenia (Koghmank Arevelitz Haiotz, which included today's Nagorno Karabakh) as an official state-defining document, in the 490s AD. King Vachagan's quest for Christian values resembles the legends about the Old England's King Arthur, and his adventures became folk tales, popular in Armenia (order them with >> ).

After the disintegration of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia into several autonomous feudal entities, Artsakh formed a state of its own, the Kingdom of Khachen. This medieval monarchy, ruled most prominently by the Smbatian, Vakhtangian-Jalalian, and Dopian Armenian royal dynasties and which embraced today's Nagorno Karabakh and neighboring regions at the height of its power between 12th and 14th centuries, was also referred to by European travelers as Lesser Armenia.[8]


An elderly Armenian couple

 from the town of Getashen,

 in traditional attire.

- Shahumian District -

- Nagorno Karabakh, 

Photo by Armineh Johannes

Click on picture to enlarge


It was at that time when the medieval scholar Mkhitar Gosh wrote his legal treatise "The Code of Laws" >> in the newly built Gandzasar Monastery in central Artsakh (currently, in Mardakert district of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic). "The Code of Laws" subsequently became the main official document on the legal principles of the state and a manual for courtroom procedures across medieval Armenia, Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, as well as in the Armenian communities of Poland, Hungary, Crimea, and Russia.  Thus, it was in the land of Artsakh where, following the King Vachagan II's Constitution of Aghven of the 490s AD, the pre-modern legal framework of the Armenian state was conceptualized.[9]

The Kingdom of Khachen, a stronghold of Armenian nationhood in the Middle Ages, existed between the 10th and 16th centuries; its name derived from the Armenian word “khach,” meaning "cross." [10] Armenians from many areas to the west gravitated to the Kingdom of Khachen (and its later successor, Five Duchies), considering it a safe haven. And when the last independent Armenian state — the maritime Kingdom of Cilicia — collapsed in the 14th century, the land of Artsakh remained among the few places on the Armenian Plateau where Armenians preserved their relative independence, until the second half of the 18th century, and were able to successfully defend themselves from the encroachments of the invading nomadic hordes from the East.

Explore medieval Armenian churches and monasteries with  >> and  >>

The regular Armenian armed forces of the commonwealth of the five Armenian principalities of Nagorno Karabakh, known as the Five Duchies (namely: Khachen, Jraberd, Varanda, Dizak and Golestan), and the neighboring principalities of Zangezur (Siunik) in the beginning of the 18th century numbered at 40,000 musketeers and horsemen.[11] They were successful in repulsing and crushing not only the gangs of occasional Turkic tribal infiltrators from Central Asia and Iran — ancestors of today's Azeris — but also the invading foreign armies in periodic Turko-Persian wars.[12] In this respect, Artsakh resembles the Slavs in Montenegro, in the Balkans, who withstood all attempts of the invading Ottoman Turks to conquer their lands. And both Montenegro and Artsakh, at certain points in their history, were ruled by the Orthodox bishops-turned-generals — Vladikas and Catholicoi of Gandzasar, respectively — who not only provided their subjects with spiritual services but also managed the political life of their states and organized national defense.


Amaras Monastery (4th century),

where the Armenian alphabet

was first taught to students in

the 5th century, by its inventor

St. Mesrob Mashtots.

- Martuni District -

 - Nagorno Karabakh -

Photo by Hrair H. Khatcherian

Click to see detailed description


Also, much like in Montenegro, in the 18th century, the rulers of the Five Duchies of Nagorno Karabakh launched a powerful movement aimed at restoring Armenia's independence with Russian and European support. Thus, in the 18th century Artsakh effectively revived its previously held informal status as "Lesser Armenia." To achieve their goals, the Armenian dukes (meliks) of Artsakh-Karabakh maintained direct correspondence with Russia's monarchs, from Peter I to Catherine the Great, as well as with British diplomats, Vatican nuncios and Austrian monarchs. The latter referred to the dukes of Artsakh as "Principes et Primores, Magistratus Armeniae."[13]

The landscape of Nagorno Karabakh and the regions of the former Azerbaijani SSR that lie in between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia is covered by more than 2300 Armenian architectural and cultural monuments, including churches, monasteries and khachkars (memorial cross-stones).

Specific to the region are the so-called sahmanakars (border-stones), found on the eastern fringes of Mardakert district of Nagorno Karabakh. These ancient monuments were used to mark Armenia's frontiers and to date feature well-preserved texts inscribed in Armenian, whose purpose was to notify the travelers of the past that they had reached Armenian borderlands. In total, in Artsakh there are approximately 7,600 ancient stone-borne texts in Armenian (5th-16th centuries), found on the walls of churches and monasteries as well as on the surfaces of more than 1,260 officially registered khachkars.[14]


Tzitzernavank Monastery (4 century) of

Artsakh is one of the world's oldest Christian

monuments. It is located in the vicinity of

so-called "Lachin Corridor" a landbridge

linking Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh.

- Lachin (Kashatagh) District -

- Nagorno Karabakh -

Besides the monasteries of Amaras (4th century) and Gandzasar (1216-1238), among the most important historical monuments of Artsakh are the monastic complexes of: Gaghivank (2nd-13th centuries), Tzitzernavank (4th century), Dadivank (founded in the 1st century, expanded in 1210), Getamej (7th century), Erits Mankants (Three Infants, 14th century), St. Targmanchats (St. Translators, 987-989), Gtich-vank (1241-1246), Khadavank (1188-1204г.), Okhta-Trne (7th century), St. Hakob (St. Jacob, 8th century), Kusanats Anapat (17th century), Khatravank (10th-11th centuries), St. Yeghishe Araqial (St. Elisha the Apostle, 5th-12th centuries), Kusanats (1818), Kataro, Havaptuk and Horek (all three founded in the 5th century); as well as churches: Bri (1270, in Varanda province), Cathedral of Holy Savior (1868-1887, in Shushi), Green Church (1847, in Shushi), Ptkes Berk St. Gevork (St. George, 10th century, in Khachen province), Chartar Church (in Varanda province), Spitak Khach (St. White Cross, in Dizak province) and St. Stepanos (16th century, in Dizak province).

According to renowned Russian scholar A. L. Yakobson of St. Petersburg's Hermitage, the 13th century Gandzasar Monastery is "the encyclopedia of Armenian architecture," while the Gaghivank Monastery is the "oldest preserved Christian monument in the world."


Magnificent St. Hovhannes Mkrtich

(St. John the Baptist) cathedral of

Gandzasar Monastery (1216-1238).

- Mardakert District -

- Nagorno Karabakh -

Click to see detailed description


Professor Charles Diehl of Sorbonne, a prominent French art historian and specialist of Byzantium, called Gandzasar the third most important artifact of Armenian monastic architecture that is on the list of world architectural masterpieces. [15] Hovhannavank Monastery near Yerevan, and Harich Monastery in Armenia's western Shirak Province replicate Nagorno Karabakh's Gandzasar in many important details. 

In contrast to the Yugoslav region of Kosovo, there are no Muslim architectural monuments not only on the territory of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (including its northern Shahumian district and Getashen enclave) but also in the adjacent Kelbajar, Lachin, Qubadli, Zangelan, Jabrail, Khanlar, and Dashkesan districts of the former Azerbaijani SSR. The exceptions are two mid-19th century Persian-built mosques in the town of Shushi (Shousha).

The mountainous part of Artsakh — contemporary Nagorno Karabakh and historic Gardman-Hayots district ("Northern Artsakh"), located to its north — from the ancient times and up to the mid-1930s were the regions with the most homogeneous Armenian population among all Armenian lands, including the territories comprising today's Republic of Armenia. The ethnic composition of 220 historical Armenian settlements in Nagorno Karabakh and Gardman-Hayots remained largely unchanged throughout last two millennia. The comeback of Armenians from Persia and resettlement of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire in the Transcaucasus, which took place under Russian auspices in the aftermath of the Russian-Persian and Russian-Turkish wars of 1826-1829 and later, did not touch the Armenian-populated uplands of Artsakh, while temporarily affecting some of its lowlands. However, those eastern territories, also called Karabakh Steppe, were left outside the borders of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region.[16]

Armenians of Artsakh retained their thick dialect, registered as such since the 5th century AD. This unique, difficult dialect of Eastern Armenian is among the few that gave birth to an independent literary tradition, with several medieval Artsakhi chronicles written in it. The Artsakhi dialect is not spoken anywhere else on the Armenian Plateau and still uses a large number of words and grammar patterns of Grabar (Old Armenian). Several dozens richly illustrated manuscripts produced in Artsakh in the Middle Ages reached us in their full exuberance.


"Prince Vakhtang,

Lord of Upper Khachen."


Armenian miniature from

Artsakh, 13th century. 

 Matenadaran Collection

(Armenian National Institute

of Ancient Manuscripts)

- Matenadaran item No. 155 -

Click on picture to enlarge


Artsakh is the birthplace of several important medieval Armenian scholars. Among them are: Movses Kaghankatvatsi (Daskhurantsi), the 7th century historian and author of "History of the Country of Aghvank (Aluania);" poet Davtak Kertogh (8th century),  Iohannes Sarkavag, encyclopedist of the 11th-12th centuries; Kirakos Gandzaketsi, the 13th century author of "History of Armenia;" legal scholar David Alavkavordi of Gandzak (first half of the 12th century), and historiographer Hovhannes Tzaretsi (16th century).[17]

Artsakh presents a unique example of the homogeneity and continuity of ethnic Armenian statehood in a single historical-geographic area. However, this tradition was breached once when short-lived Karabakh Khanate, a political entity created in Nagorno Karabakh in 1752 by Turkcophone nomads from the plains of Central Iran, emerged on the political map of the Southeastern Caucasus. While the Karabakh Khanate was a phenomenon that flashed briefly in the two-thousand-year-old history of Armenian rule in Artsakh, leaving little trace of material culture, it is still remembered by Artsakh’s inhabitants with bitterness and resentment, as a self-imposed parasitic formation that used to prey on the native population of the region. The chieftains of the Karabakh Khanate were liquidated together with their fiefdom in the course of the Russian military campaigns in the Caucasus, in 1805, never managing to assert direct authority over the demographically preponderant Armenians of mountainous Artsakh.[18]


The survived khachkars of

Bri Church ( 1270 ). Azerbaijani

 authorities used explosives in

several attempts to destroy Bri

Church in the 1960s and 1970s.

- Martuni District -

- Nagorno Karabakh -

Photo by Hrair H. Khatcherian

Click on picture to enlarge


It is still unclear whether, if at all, the migrant tribesmen of the Karabakh Khanate were ethnically related to contemporary Azeris, or were, much like the Hyeroum (or Airum) nomads of northwestern Azerbaijan, the descendants of the previously islamized Greek-Orthodox (Chalcedonite) Armenians.[19]

Similarly to the case of Nagorno Karabakh, the regions of Kosovo and Metohija were an important part of the older Serbian kingdom, which peaked in the 14th century. It is also the area where the most significant Serbian religious and cultural centers are located, including the historical Patriarchate of Pec — the Serbian analogue of Amaras — and the battlefield of Kosovo Polje.

But while the Serbs in Kosovo became a demographic minority, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh preserved their numerical preponderance, comprising, according to the 1989 census, 77% of the entire population. Armenians, however, also suffered a demographic decline compared to the situation in 1928, when they constituted 95% of the entire population within the borders of their autonomous region.[20]

At the same time, as a result of the Azeri government's policy of ethno-demographic aggression directed against Nagorno Karabakh, the number of ethnic Azeri migrants in the region boomed, from 3% in 1923 to 25% in 1988. As for the Serbs, in 1989 they constituted slightly more than one-tenth of the entire population of the Autonomous Region of Kosovo.


[1] The late Turkic word "Karabakh" is a direct translation of Persian "Bagh-e-Siah" (meaning "Black Garden"), a geographic term used by Persians to designate this province of Eastern Armenia in the Middle Ages. The native, Armenian, name for the region is Artsakh; it most probably originated from the compound term Sartsakh,  meaning "Mountains and Woods." These two words ("sar," meaning "mountain," and "tsakh," meaning "woods" or "forest," in Armenian) together best characterize Artsakh's landscape.

As to the widely-used phrase "Nagorno-Karabakh," it derived from Anglicized and phonetically distorted first two words of the USSR's term Nagorno-Karabakhskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast, which in Russian signifies "The Autonomous Region of Mountainous Karabakh."


Artsakh means "The Land

of Mountains and Woods"

in Armenian. 

Picture: Lake Kapouyt-Lich

with the Yeghnasar Range

on the background.

- Shahumian District -

 - Nagorno Karabakh -


[2] See, Pliny the Elder. Natural History of Pliny (II). London, 1890, pp. 17-21; Plutarch. Lives, [V, Pompey]. Cambridge, MA, 1955, pp. 203-209; Ptolemy. The Geography. Frankfurt, 1987, pp. 170-171; Dio [Cassius]. Roman History (III). Cambridge, MA, 1984, pp. 92-93.

[3] Strabo. The Geography of Strabo, (V). Cambridge, MA, 1969, pp. 187, 223, 321, map XI.

[4] See the map of ancient Armenia in the article "Armenia, history of…", Encyclopaedia Britannica online edition. Explore medieval Armenia's capital of Ani with Virtual Ani  >>.

[5] See, Ashkharhatsoyts ("Geography," by Anania Shirakatsi, VII century AD), Classical Armenian Texts series, translated by Robert H. Hewsen, Caravan Books, 1994. Anania Shirakatsi indicates Artsakh as the 10th province of Armenia Greater. 

[6] See Vark' Mashtots'i ("Life of Mashtots," by Koriun, V-VI centuries AD), Classical Armenian Texts series, Caravan Books, 1985, p. 31.

After 70 years of idle standing, Amaras Monastery's Church of St. Grigoris resumed functioning in 1989. In this context, the repeated destruction and rebuilding of the Amaras Monastery symbolizes the resilience and determination of the Armenians of Artsakh. First built around 330 AD by St. Gregory the Illuminator, it has been repeatedly damaged and destroyed by countless invaders — such as Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and proto-Azeri tribesmen — only to be rebuilt again and again by the local population. The Amaras Monastery was last damaged by Azerbaijani armed forces in 1992, during Nagorno Karabakh's war for independence. It has since been rebuilt and its centrality in Armenian religious life restored.

[7] See, Patmowt'iwn Hayots ("History of the Armenians," by Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenatsi, V century AD), Classical Armenian Texts series, translated by Robert W. Thomson, Caravan Books, 1981.

[8] See, 1) Johann Schiltberger. The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427; trans. J. Buchan Telfer. London: Hakluyt Society, 1879; repr., New York: Burt Franklin, 1970, p. 86.

2) Armyano-russkie otnosheniya v pervoy treti XVIII veka (A. Voskanian (ed.). The Armenian-Russian Relations in the First Three Decades of the XVIII Century: Collection of Archival Documents. The Armenian Academy of Sciences, vol. 3, doc. 15, cf. docs 11, 17; 1978) 

About the geographical and political position of the Kingdom of Khachen within Armenia see also a medieval chronicle by Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, De ceremoniis aubae byzantinae (Ed. J.P.Migne. Patrologiae cursiis completus, Series Graeco-Latina, 112), p. 248.


Biblical Adam and Eve

Bas-relief with an inscription

in Armenian on the dome of St.

  Hovhannes Mkrtich cathedral

of the Gandzasar Monastery.

Photo by Hrair H. Khatcherian

- Nagorno Karabakh -

Click on picture to enlarge


[9] See, Mkhitar Gosh. The Code of Law. Translated from Grabar (Old Armenian) by M. Grigorian. Yerevan. 1954.

[10] The kings of Khachen forged strong ties with the rulers of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, which was also occasionally called Lesser Armenia, despite its location on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Jalalian dynasty, founded by the Prince Asan-Jalal of Khokhanaberd (died 1261), used financial support received from the Cilician kings for creating defense infrastructure in Artsakh (e.g. Fort Handaberd in Upper Khachen); in turn, Jalalians provided diplomatic services for the Cilician royal dynasty of the Roubenids. See the Armenian-inscribed tomb of Prince Asan-Jalal  >>  at the vestibule of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John) Cathedral of Nagorno Karabakh's Gandzasar Monastery.

For a sample of Artsakh's famous fortification systems, known as syghnakh(s) (meaning networks of forts and military camps), see Fort Mairaberd near Askeran  >>

See, Bagrat Ulubabian. History of the Principality of Khachen from the 10th to the 16th Centuries. Yerevan. 1991; also, Robert H. Hewsen. "The Kingdom of Artsakh", in T. Samuelian & M. Stone, eds. Medieval Armenian Culture. Chico, CA, 1983.

[11] According to historian Armen Aivazian, the military troops of Karabakh and Kapan (in Siunik/Zangezur) comprised the core of regular Armenian army units in the 1720s. In this respect, a unique report by Parsadan Gorgijanidze (1626-1703), a well-informed Georgian chronicler of the 17th century who served in both the Georgian and Iranian courts, deserves special attention. He referred to 40,000 Karabakhi Armenian "musketeers" who were ready to launch a liberation war as early as 1632. Aivazian compares this report with the fact that exactly the same number — 40,000 — of Karabakhi Armenian soldiers was repeatedly mentioned in the 1720s in several Russian, British and Armenian sources.

See, Armen Aivasian. The Armenian Rebellion of the 1720s and the Threat of Genocidal Reprisal, Yerevan: Center for Policy Analysis at the American University of Armenia, 1997, pp. 7-9, (in English).


St. Mariam Astvatzatzin

( St. Mary ).

13th century fresco at

the Memorial Cathedral.

- Dadivank Monastery -

 - Nagorno Karabakh -

Photo by Boris Baratov

Click on picture to enlarge


[12] The Five Duchies or Five Melikdoms (i.e. the military-political union of Armenian principalities of Khachen, Golestan, Jraberd, Varanda, and Dizak), also known as Khamsayye Melikutyunner or Khamse, were created in the aftermath of the disintegration of Eastern Armenia's medieval Kingdom of Khachen (10th-16th century AD).

The Five Duchies were ruled by hereditary Armenian noblemen, known as meliks (dukes). The Duchy of Khachen was governed by the Asan-Jalalian clan, which is thought to derive form the kings of Khachen; the Duchy of Golestan — by the Melik-Beglarian clan;  the Duchy of Jraberd — by the Melik-Israelian clan;  the Duchy of Varanda — by the Melik-Shahnazarian clan; and the Duchy of Dizak — by the Melik-Avanian (Yeganian) clan. The last remaining Armenian political units of Artsakh-Karabakh were officially disbanded by the Russian imperial administration of the Caucasus, in the beginning of the 19th century.

See, George A. Bournoutian. A. History of Qarabagh: an Annotated Translation of Mirza Jamal Javanshir Qarabaghi's Tarikh-e Qarabagh, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1994, pp. 15-21. See also, Robert H Hewsen. "The Meliks of Eastern Armenia," Revue Des Etudes Armenniennes, IX, X, XI, XIV (1972, 1973-74, 1975-76, 1980).

[13] See, George Bournoutian. "Eastern Armenia from the Seventeenth Century to the Russian Annexation," in Richard G. Hovannisian (ed.) The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, volume II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, pp. 86-87, 91-92.

[14] In Artsakh, the practice of inscribing texts in Grabar (Old Armenian) on the walls of churches developed into a unique form of art. The most notable artifacts of this art can be found on the front and northeastern walls of the Memorial Cathedral of the Dadivank Monastery in Upper Khachen as well as on the western wall of the Hovhannes Mkrtich (St. John the Baptist) Cathedral of the Gandzasar Monastery in Central Khachen.

Explore Armenian khachkars with  >>

See, Shahen Mkrtchian. Historical-Architectural Monuments of Nagorno Karabakh. Hayastan, Yerevan, 1988, pp. 25-27 (in Russian);  Hravard H. Hakobian. The Medieval Art of Artsakh. Parberakan, Yerevan, 1991, pp. 68-81, (in English); Boris Baratov. A Journey to Karabakh: Paradise Laid Waste. Lingvist Publishers, Moscow, 1998, (in English); Hrair H. Khatcherian. Artsakh: a Photographic Journey. AAA Publishing House, 1997, (English and French texts included).

[15] See, A. L. Yakobson. "From the History of Medieval Armenian Architecture: the Monastery of Gandzasar." The Studies of Cultural History of the Peoples of the East, Moscow-Leningrad, 1960, pp. 144-158, (in Russian). Architectural forms used in the Gandzasar Monastery created a separate style of architectural design, which can be found in several other Armenian monastic complexes, such as in the Harich and Hovhannavank monasteries (in Shirak and Aragatsotn provinces of the Republic of Armenia, respectively) and the St. Stepanos Monastery (in Atrpatakan, Iran). For instance, Harich Monastery, located 470 kilometers west of central Karabakh, in the Republic of Armenia, replicates the Gandzasar Monastery in most details.


The rule of Artsakh's Armenian

kingly dynasties at times extended

into the eastern fringes of today's

Republic of Armenia.


Picture: The Monastery and

University of Goshavank (11-13th

century, Gegharkunik Province,

Armenia) built by Artsakh's

Vakhtangian royal family.

 - Armenia, Gegharkunik Province -

Click on picture to enlarge


[16] Questioning the Armenian character of Nagorno Karabakh is an intellectually fruitless if not morally ungainly exercise. However, Azeri nationalists found several ways to do so by manipulating regional historical and geographical terminology. For instance, in a recent effort, Azeri propagandists spread absurd information that, ostensibly, Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh are not native to the region but were brought to "Karabakh" from Iran by Russians, after 1828-1829 wars, pointing to a number of documents of Russian imperial administration of the time.

This and other Azeri propagandist intrusions would have deserved little or no attention at all, had not they been so persistent and politically motivated. The hastily cooked Azerbaijani hypothesis that Karabakhi Armenians are newcomers formed the ideological basis for later ethnic cleansing: if Armenians are outsiders, then they should be driven out, if they are illegitimate occupiers of the land, then repressions against them are justified. 

Azeri nationalists utilize a fact that in the 19th century the term "Karabakh" was often referred to a much larger landmass that comprised both Upper Karabakh (i.e. Armenian-populated mountainous Artsakh) and its Turkic-dominated lowland extension, Lower Karabakh or Karabakh Steppe. Upper Karabakh roughly designates the territory of the late Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) and the Lower Karabakh designates today's Agdam, Ter-Ter, Fizuli, and Agjabedi districts of the former Azerbaijani SSR — located to the east of the NKAR and populated by Turkic (proto-Azeri) majority since the late 17th century.

First, it is important to note that Armenians use the term "Karabakh" in reference to a mountainous territory of approximately 6,000-7,200 sq. km, which belonged in the past to the Armenian duchies of Khachen, Jraberd, Golestan, Dizak and Varanda. Azeri nomads, in contrast, usually stretch the term "Karabakh" to a larger area of some 25,000 sq. km, which, in addition to the Armenian-dominated mountains, also includes vast Turkic pastures located to the east and west of the "Armenian Karabakh," respectively. Thus, it is quite understandable that while in the Armenian-defined "Karabakh" Armenians comprise 90-97% of the general population, in the Azeri-styled "Karabakh" their percentage could be 60% or even less than that. Scholars exploring Nagorno Karabakh's history or demography should take this circumstance into account. 

Explore Nagorno Karabakh's medieval Armenian churches and monasteries with  >>

Second, while it is true that a small number of Armenians from Iran indeed have settled in Lower Karabakh, and only temporarily, they never crossed to the Upper ("Nagorno") Karabakh. The exceptions are three villages on the eastern fringes of Mardakert district and four hamlets in Hadrout district in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, whose inhabitants indeed came in 1830s from the region of Salmast and the district of Gharadagh of northern Iran, respectively. The inhabitants of these three villages in Mardakert to date bear striking linguistic and ethnographic differences from the bulk of Artsakh's original Armenians. In turn, the population of four villages in Hadrut consists of repatriants, whose ancestors were deported from Karabakh to Iran by Persian Shah Abbas I, in the mid-1600s, but came back to Karabakh in 1830s. As to 220 main Armenian towns and villages of Upper Karabakh and the region of Gardman-Hayots (today's Khanlar, Dashkesan, Kedabek and Shamkhor districts of the former Azerbaijani SSR), they never experienced any serious influx of Armenians from other regions throughout last two millennia.

The land of Artsakh was continuously and exclusively populated by Armenians, beginning from the 2nd century BC and until 1752, when the first proto-Azeri tribesman set foot in the region. However, the Turkic migrants never comprised more than 3% of the general population of Upper ("Nagorno") Karabakh until 1928.

For more information about the demography and politics of Nagorno Karabakh in the late medieval period, please consult:

1) Russia and the Armenians of Transcaucasia 1797-1889: a Documentary Record; Annotated translation and commentary by George A. Bournoutian. Mazda Publishers, California, 1998.

2) Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: a Documentary Record. Annotated translation and commentary by George A. Bournoutian. Mazda Publishers, California, 2001.


Queen Arzou's inscription

in Armenian covers the

entire entrance wall of the

Memorial Cathedral of

Dadivank Monastery

( 1214 - 1232 )

- Nagorno Karabakh -

Photo by Boris Baratov

Click on picture to enlarge


[17] See, Moses Dasxurantsi. The History of the Caucasian Albanians. Translation from Grabar (Old Armenian) by C. J. F. Dowsett, London, 1961, (in English); Kirakos Gandzaketsi. History of Armenia. Translation from Grabar and Commentaries by L. A. Khanlarian, Moscow, 1976 (in Russian).

For the seventh and eight centuries there is an account concerning the Armenian dialect of Artsakh: in his grammar book, the Armenian author Stepanos Siunetsi advises those who master the Armenian language to learn the "peripheral vernaculars," one of which is indicated as "Artsakhian." This evidence is later restated by the fourteenth century scholar Yessai Nshetsi. 

[18] More about the Karabakh Khanate see in a Turkic chronicle by Mirza Jamal Javanshir Qarabaghi, in George A. Bournoutian. A History of Qarabagh: an Annotated Translation of Mirza Jamal Javanshir Qarabaghi's Tarikh-e Qarabagh, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1994.

According to Mirza Jamal Javanshir Qarabaghi, the first Turkic pastoral groups (ancestors of Azeris) started gradually penetrating the Armenian-inhabited Artsakhi uplands beginning in the 17th century, driven by search for new pastures. The Karabakh Khanate was set up by certain Panakh, the chieftain of the Jevanshir tribe of Turkic nomadic infiltrators from central Iran. Panakh escaped to the Armenian highlands of Nagorno Karabakh in the late 1740s to avoid prosecution by the Royal Court of Persia, which charged him of rape and murder. While dominant in the Karabakhi lowlands since the 17th century, the Turkic element never exceeded 3% of the general population in the Armenian-held highlands of today’s Nagorno Karabakh until 1928.

[19] Hyeroums (or Airums) are an Azeri-speaking nomadic tribe engaged in seasonal migrations between plains and mountains of northern Artsakh. Their ethno-name derives from words “Hye” (meaning “Armenian” in Armenian) and “Roum” (meaning “Greek” in Old Armenian). Once the inhabitants of the Armenian principality of Gardman-Parisos (today’s northwestern part of Azerbaijan i.e. northern Artsakh), Hyeroums were re-converted from the Armenian into the Chalcedonian ("Greek") version of Orthodox Christianity by the rival Byzantine missionaries in the Middle Ages; hence, their current name as Hyeroums. Thus, alienated from the Armenian Church — pillar of identity of medieval Armenians — they later gradually assimilated with the Turkic nomads, when the latter arrived to the Caucasus from the Central Asia. The example of Hyeroums is not unique in Armenian history. In similar fashion, many Armenians living in the province of Taik (now in Turkey) and in Georgia's districts of Meskheti and Javakheti were assimilated into Turkic culture some ages after they had been converted into Greek Orthodoxy, becoming “Turks” and “Meskhetian Turks,” respectively.

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It is believed that in a larger sense, a great majority of people who today call themselves "Azeris" or "Azerbaijanis" originated from Armenians who — like Bosnian Muslims or Meskhetian Turks — converted into Islam (after the Arabic conquest of the Greater Armenia's province of Paitakaran, southeastern part of contemporary Republic of Azerbaijan). They continued speaking Armenian until the 11th century; however, influenced by the Seljuk Turk migrants from the Central Asia, became Turkophone, altogether losing explicit cultural connection to their Armenian Christian ancestors. The mentioned facts allowed some historians to speculate that the Karabakh conflict may well be endowed with what they vaguely referred to as "fratricidal overtones."

[20] See the demographic reference in "Nagorno-Karabakhskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region)" article, Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1926 and 1931 editions.