Editors Note: This article is an overview from the Office of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Washington DC. More articles about Nagorno-Karabakh can be found at: 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 Armenia’s, 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 movemen’s 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 elemen’s 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 Armenia.
The Artsakh Armenia’s 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 monumen’s witnessed Artsakh’s long-lasting struggle for survival, which continues even today.
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 Armenia’s 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 disagreemen’s 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.