Facts about Artsakh History (till 1918)

Facts about Artsakh History (till 1918)

A quick retrospect to the history of Artsakh, a.k.a. Nagorno-Karabakh, from ancient times to the creation of the Armenian First Republic in 1918.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan


The original Armenian name for Karabakh, Artsakh was first mentioned in Urartian cuneiforms (8-7th centuries BCE) and the works of Greco-Roman classical authors, like Strabo (1st century BCE – 1st century CE).
Armenian authors mentioned it as one of the 15 provinces of Greater Armenia. It was mentioned as such in Ashkharhatsuyts, a complete Armenian geography of early medieval times arguably attributed to Anania Shirakatsi (7th century). In the 5th century AD under Sassanid Iran Armenia became a province with a special military governor (marzban) while losing some of its bordering provinces to neighboring vassal kingdoms of Georgia and Caucasian Albania (Aghvank). Thus Artsakh became part of the Albanian kingdom of the Aranshahiks (which in Middle Persian literally means “kings of Aran/Albania”). Medieval sources strongly support the idea that not only Artsakh was part and parcel of the Armenian medieval cultural and religious union but Albania/Aghvank itself was under a strong Armenian cultural and religious influence before partially blending with Muslim nomads, who were of chiefly Turkic ethnic background. 

Strabo

Under the Arab domination Artsakh, along with Utik and Albania were merged into a separate entity – the emirate of Partav – which, in turn, was one of the four provinces of the governorate called “Armina” since the early 8th century. 
Artsakh was an important part of the anti-Arab revolts of the early 9th century, following which the province was finally integrated into the independent Bagratuni kingdom of Armenia (late 9th century – mid 11th century). Artsakh was divided between two vassal principalities in the north and south of the province, both of which survived the downfall of the Bagratuni kingdom of Ani. 
Artsakh managed to preserve its semi-independent status and resist efforts at conquest by the Byzantines and the Seljuk-Turks, yet the region lacked unity and was divided between various principalities, all of which considered themselves direct descendants of the Aranshahiks.

Map of Ani

 

In the 13th century the Georgian kingdom with the general support of the local nobility in the north and east of Armenia made successful wars of conquest against the neighboring Muslim lords bringing new territories under its rule. 
Artsakh principality under Hasan Jalal (Dola), a descendent of Aranshahiks, also was included into the Georgian kingdom’s sphere of influence. Styling himself as a king, Hasan Jalal started a new princely dynasty, called after him Hasan-Jalalians, offsprings of which were ruling in different localities across the province up until its incorporation into the Russian empire in the early 19th century. Hasan-Jalal was a skillful diplomat as he managed to keep his realm out of disastrous Mongolian invasions. He personally travelled to the capital of the vast Mongol empire, Karakorum, where his rule over the province was re-confirmed and guaranteed. 

Map of the Russian Caucasus in late 19th century


Over the course of several centuries the semi-independent status of Artsakh principality/ies was confirmed by different rulers. Thus Jahanshah the Karakoynulu, the ruler of Armenia, Azerbaijan (the region to the south of the Arax river, and not the territory of the modern state) and adjacent regions recognized the autonomous status of the Armenian meliks (princes) in Karabakh (this is how Artsakh came to be known to the Turkic-speaking Muslims of the region).

The tradition of periodically recognizing the princely rights of the Armenian meliks continued under the Safavid dynasty in Iran (16-18th centuries). 
In 1603 Shah Abbas of Iran granted the Khamsa (“five” in Arabic) melikdoms rights and privileges of a Shah’s vassal by a special charter. Later in 1736 the same legal status was reconfirmed by Nadir Shah, who used Armenian support during his victorious war against the Ottomans. This was no coincidence as during an internal turmoil in Iran local principalities became less controllable and prone to foreign influence, while the northwest of the country was subject to an Ottoman invasion.

Nader Shah Afshar

Over the period of 1724-1735 the Armenian meliks fought a desperate, yet successful fight against the Ottomans and Nadir appreciated the military power and prowess of the local Armenian lords in Karabakh.
Yet instability and infighting against bordering Muslim lordships were endemic in the weakening Iran and the Armenian meliks had no choice as to think about embracing a stronger suzerain who could protect them from encroachments from the neighbors.
Such projects, aiming at protecting local Armenian nobility’s rights and privileges at a certain juncture in the mid-17th century found acceptance and were further developed by the emerging Armenian bourgeoisie a bulk of which, oddly enough, had settled down in a considerably remote area – India, on its way of becoming a European colony. One of such outstanding educated middle-class men was Hovsep (Joseph) Emin, who visited Artsakh several times, devising a plan of an Armenian-Georgian coordinated insurrection which could eventually bring about an independent joint Christian state with the local nobility playing a pivotal role in them. Yet the situation in Artsakh turned to be less favorable, as beginning from 1740’s Turkic tribes had been settling in the region, taking into their possession the overlordship over the meliks, with the Armenian noblemen increasingly diminishing in power and prestige. 

Hovsep Emin (1726-1809)

The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century saw a surge of internal turmoil in Iran which resulted in a growing number of Turkic influx into Karabakh and an outward movement of Armenians into neighboring areas, including Georgia.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of this instability in Iran and the Ottoman Empire, increasingly powerful Russia seized the opportunity of extending its southern borders beyond the Caucasus range. The Treaty of Georgievsk concluded as early as 1783 put the Eastern Georgian kingdom (Kartli-Kakheti) under the tutelage of Russia, yet Iran did not concede to this easily, undertaking a devastating military campaign against Georgia via Karabakh in 1795. Nevertheless this could hardly disrupt Russian plans and indeed St. Petersburg soon annexed Georgia and in a new war against Iran took hold of Karabakh in 1805. Tehran had to concede to the Russian tutelage over the khanate of Karabakh in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan between the two powers. However, just like the Russian authorities did in Georgia, St. Petersburg very soon abolished the khanate of Karabakh, making it a simple Russian province in 1822.

Russo-Persian war of 1826-28, battle of Elisabethpol (Gandzak)


After a brief, but intense Russo-Persian war (1826-1828), Iran abandoned all hopes of returning Karabakh under its sovereignty and recognized it as Russian along with other parts of Eastern Armenia in the Turkmenchay peace treaty of 1828. The treaty, among others, included a clause on the possibility for the Armenians living under the rule of Shah of Iran to resettle within the confines of the Russian empire. Thanks to this many Armenians whose ancestors or themselves were living in Karabakh returned to their homes, reinvigorating the Armenian presence in the province and contributing to the improvement of the social and economic life there.

As a Russian province Karabakh, especially its almost exclusively Armenian mountainous part had only a limited social and economic progress.
The region’s capital city was Shushi, which throughout the latter part of the 19th century had been a remarkable center of Armenians in the South Caucasus region, with a large Armenian population with schools, churches, printing houses and industry. In fact the city’s population was mixed with a considerable number of Turkic speakers and the relations between the two main ethnic groups of the city were peaceful enough until the advent of the age of revolution and nationalism into the region in the early 1900’s.
Sparked during the 1905-1907 First Russian revolution the interethnic violence between the “Tatars” (this is how the Turkic-speaking chiefly shi’i Muslims were called, who by that time had not assumed the present ethnonym “Azerbaijani” until 1930’s in the Soviet Union) and the Armenians did not spare the region and in August 1905 Shushi became a scene of some fierce clashes, which left hundreds killed and wounded, with houses burnt and the population of the city dwindled. The situation remained relatively stable in the following years, however the simmering tensions sparked once again after the war-weary Russian Empire was about to fall apart entangled in the internal turmoil of the 1917 revolutions and growing anarchy. 

In 1918 when the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation broke into three independent entities, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter, backed by Turkey, immediately laid claim to vast territories in historic Armenia, including Karabakh. 

Flag of the Transcaucasian Federation

This was the beginning of a new pattern of relations between the two neighboring ethno-religious groups, Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis (or “Turko-Tatars” as they were more often referred to before 1930). This pattern is still valid in many respects up until now and does not bode well either for both nations or the region in general. 

Artsakh on a map of the 17th century among Armenian provinces

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