- Artsakh: People of the Forest
- Antiquity & Early Middle Ages
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Artsakh, the ancient Kingdom of Armenia’s 10th province, covered most territories of the modern Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh played an important role in the kingdom’s feudal system and its geopolitical positioning in the region.
Artsakh in antiquity
The first records about the province come from the Bronze Age, in form of cuneiform inscriptions of the biblical Kingdom of Ararat, known to academics as Urartu. In one such lithographic inscription, King Sardur II of Urartu (760-735 BC) reports about the conquest of the province of Urtekhini, which geographically corresponds to the western part of historical Artsakh . Since Urartu’s – and other civilizations’ – cuneiform writing system did not include vowels, many historians recognize in the term Urtekhin or U[a]rtekhin[i] the early medieval Armenian geographical name Artsakh.
The territory of modern Nagorno Karabakh was part of the province of Artsakh when the Yervanduni (Orontid) dynasty first established the Kingdom of Armenia immediately after the decline of the Kingdom of Urartu in the sixth century BC. This notion is inferred by academics from the History of Armenia, the first comprehensive text on the history of Armenia written in Armenian by the 5th Century author Movses Khorenatsi (c. 410-490s AD). 
When describing provinces of Armenia, including Orchistene – believed to be a Greek version of the Armenian term Artsakh – the Greek historian Strabo mentions in his volume Geography that all provinces of Armenia during his time, i.e. around the year 20 AD, spoke the same language.  Orchistene was described by Strabo as a province of the Kingdom of Armenia known for its superior cavalry force. Strabo’s reference highlights a key notion that cavalry played an important role in the Kingdom of Armenia, which expanded to its largest-ever size during the reign of King Tigran II the Great (95–55 BC).
King Tigran II is Armenia’s most well-known monarch. His life and deeds are described in multiple Greek and Roman texts. Tigran II founded several cities named Tigranakert in his own honor in different parts of his large, if short-lived, empire. One Tigranakert, set up in the southwestern portion of his kingdom – known as Tigranocerta in Roman sources – became the capital city of Armenia in the 1st Century BC. Its ruins are located near the present-day city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. The easternmost Tigranakert was established in Artsakh and the northernmost Tigranakert – in the neighboring province of Utik; it is located near the town of Shamkir in the Republic of Azerbaijan. An international group of archeologists has been coordinating the excavations of the Tigranakert of Artsakh. The archeological examinations show that the Tigranakert of Artsakh was a well-developed Hellenistic metropolis, which after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the year 301 AD became a vibrant regional center of Christian life. Although Artsakh’s Tigranakert did not survive into the Late Middle Ages, the area where the settlement once stood retained its name, appearing in written records and remaining in public memory as Tikrakert.
A key primary early medieval source about the Tigranakert of Artsakh is Sebeos, an Armenian historian of the 7th Century whose main work is called History of the Emperor Heraclius. 
Artsakh in early medieval Armenian cartography
The most extensive description of the Kingdom of Armenia’s province of Artsakh can be found in the seminal work of the Armenian polymath and natural philosopher Anania Shirakatsi (c. 610-685 AD) called Ashkharatsuyts (“Geography”).
One of the world’s important early medieval texts on global geography and cartography, Shirakatsi’s Ashkharatsuyts describes Artsakh as the Kingdom of Armenia’s 10th province that stretched from present-day Georgia in the north to the River Araxes in the south. It divided into 12 districts: Vaikunik, Mius Haband, Berdadzor, Metz Kvank, Metz Arank, Harchlank, Muhank, Piank, Pantskank, Sisakan-Vostan, Kusta-Parnes, and Koght. The territory of the present-day Republic of Artsakh fully or partially overlaps with 8 out of these 12 provinces. 
Artsakh in the hierarchy of feudal lands of ancient Armenia
The position of Artsakh in the ancient and early medieval hierarchy of Armenian feudal lands was determined in two state registers: one was called Gahnamak (List of Thrones) and the other – Zoranamak (List of Armies). 
Gahnamak regulated aristocratic seniority among the landed nobles of the country. Zoranamak determined the number of servicemen, which the princely houses of the country were supposed to furnish in support of the army of the sovereign, the King of Armenia.
The original manuscript of Zoranamak features as an addendum to Anania Shirakatsi’s second most well-known work, The Chronicle (686-680 AD), and is at display at the Matenadaran, The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia. The first written Gahnamak, avaialble as a physical document, was prepared by Sahak I Partev, Katholikos of Armenia (354–439) – one of the most iconic leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who helped St. Mesrop Mashtots invent the Armenian Alphabet in 405 AD.
According to the requirements of Zoranamak, Artsakh – the Kingdom of Armenia’s 10th Province – was expected to provide up to 5,000 troops to the royal army in time of war.
Artsakh as the centerpiece of the Kingdom of Aghvank
When the Kingdom of Armenia was partitioned between Persia and Byzantium, in 387 AD, similarly to many other Armenian and non-Armenian feudal lords of the time, Artsakh’s rulers broke away from the control of Armenian kings and soon reinvented their possessions as a separate Armenian-ruled realm – the Kingdom of Aghvank.
The kingdom emerged on the territory, which – after the partition of Armenia – Persians tried to reorganize as an administrative unit of the Sassanid Empire that fused parts of Armenia (including Artsakh) with Caspian and Caucasian lands into a single super-province called marzpanate. It was ruled by a marzpan – imperial governor – appointed by the Persian Shah. The idea of merging Armenian and non-Armenian lands was probably inspired by the divide-and-rule logic that is characteristic of all empires. The marzpanate, however, proved to be administratively unsustainable in the longer run, since it lacked sufficient authority to operate outside of the established mechanism of local feudal relations. As a result, the territory that the marzpanate was supposed to rule was gradually reappropriated by local feudal lords who convinced the Persians that having a nominally autonomous Kingdom of Aghvank on the orbit of their empire was much more practical than maintaining an artificial governing body that did not work.
Although Aghvank styled itself as an independent kingdom, Armenian historians and statesmen continued treating it as part of historical Armenia. The key source about that period of history is a text in Classical Armenian attributed to the 7th Century author Movses Kaghankatvatsi and known as the History of the Land of Aghvank. It was complemented in the 10th Century by another Armenian author, Movses Daskhurantsi. Movses Kaghankatvatsi called himself a native of the town of Kaghankatuyk (hence his name), a settlement located on the territory of the present-day Republic of Artsakh.
Kaghankatvatsi’s History was translated into modern Armenian, Russian, English and other languages. The English translation was provided by Dr. Charles J. F. Dowsett of the University of Oxford and is available in print. 
After eroding the marzpanate into a mere formality, the next step for the new kingdom was to extend control of the Armenian-controlled capital city of Partav to the new country’s Caucasian and Caspian provinces. The power of Armenia’s new monotheistic religion, Christianity, became instrumental to reach that goal. By helping promote Christianity in non-Armenian lands located to the north and east of the traditional border of the Kingdom of Armenia on the River Kur, Armenian feudal lords of Artsakh and neighboring Utik acquired a method to rule the kingdom’s non-Armenian tribes by putting them under the command of one large ecclesiastical system of organized religion. In a sense, Aghvank was an Armenian-ruled mini-empire, consisting of two parts: Armenian-peopled lands detached from Armenia – with Artsakh at the core – and provinces that fell under Armenian clerical influence in the process of Christianization of Southeastern Caucasus by Armenian evangelizers.
In its largest extent, as described in detail by Movses Kaghankatvatsi in his History of the Land of Aghvank, the kingdom stretched from the shores of the Lake Sevan in Armenia in the west all the way to the Caspian Sea in the east, and from the Great Caucasus Mountains in the north to the River Araxes in the south. As such, the Kingdom of Aghvank – ruled from Artsakh an Utik by the Armenian Arranshahik dynasty – controlled a landmass that by around 80 percent overlapped with the territory of the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan.
The History describes Aghvank as a large country ruled from and dominated by Armenia’s provinces of Artsakh and Utik and also encompassing territories located to the east and north of the historical Armenian border on the River Kur. 
Modern scholars designate these eastern and northern extremities of the kingdom as “Albania” or “Caucasian Albania,” a name deriving from the Classical Greek mispronouncement of the Armenian term Aghvank. It is well known that not only did ancient Greeks routinely adapt foreign toponyms to the phonetic model of their language, they also tried to nudge such toponyms to sound like geographical names in their own neighborhood. Hence “[Caucasian] Albania.”
Kaghankatvatsi’s History suggests that country’s name Aghvank originates from the name of a great-grandson of Haik Nahapet – or, Haik the Forefather – the semi-mythical early Bronze Age national patriarch and eponym of Armenians, in whose honor Armenians call themselves Hai (also spelled as Hye). The same information confirms the 13th Century Armenian historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi in his History of Armenia. 
The History dedicates a lot of attention to the topic of Christianization of Artsakh and other eastern lands of Armenia by St. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 257 – c. 331), the saint who baptized Armenian king in the year 301 AD, making Armenia the first state that adopted Christianity as a state religion. St. Gregory the Illuminator is credited with founding the Amaras Monastery, the venue of the first Armenian schools where the Armenian alphabet was taught by its inventor – St. Mesrop Mashtots. The History describes that St. Gregory’s grandson, St. Grigoris, continued his grandfather’s evangelizing mission, taking it one step further with the desire to spread Christianity in the lands of the Massagetae tribesmen living on the territory of present-day Dagestan. When the mission failed and St. Grigoris was killed by Sanesan, the king of the Massagetans, St. Grigoris’ pupils brought his body to Artsakh and buried it in what is now the underground vault of Amaras’ Church of St. Grigoris.
The theme, brand, other cultural specifications as well as political mythology related to the Kingdom of Aghvank left a deep impact on Armenian culture and civilization. For example, an element of the enduring legacy of ancient Aghvank – Caucasian Albania, in Western sources – is Aghvan, a popular first male name used among Armenians to this day. In post-Soviet Armenia, there were at least two senior state officials with first names as Aghvan: Mr. Aghvan Hovsepyan (Prosecutor General) and Mr. Aghvan Vardanyan (Minister of Labor).
Artsakh: birthplace of Armenian constitutional thought
An especially important episode in the history of Artsakh and Armenia was the Kingdom of Aghvank’ s adoption of the first-ever known Armenian constitutional edict – the Constitution of Aghven or Canons of Aghven. The full text of the Constitution featuring 21 canons can be found in Movses Kaghankatvatsi’s History of the Land of Aghvank. The Consitution was introduced by Aghvank’s ruler King Vachagan II the Pious around the year 410 AD and signed in the settlement called Aghven (spelled Աղուէն in Classical Armenian) by a group of feudal lords, clan chieftains, gentry, and notable commoners. Aghven was located not too far from Artsakh’s religious center, Gandzasar Monastery.
The Constitution was a seminal legal document that served as a blueprint and reference for the majority of Armenian medieval legal texts. Among them are: Resolutions of the Council of Shahapivan (444 AD), Armenian Book of Canons commissioned in c. 610 AD by the head of the Armenian Church Hovhannes III Odznetsi, and the Lawbook of Mkhitar Gosh (1184 AD).
The Canons of Aghven were an inspiration behind Armenian constitutional initiatives in the late medieval period as well. The case in point is the 23-point Covenant of Gandzasar, a document that labored to define the status of civilian, military and clerical powers in the province of Artsakh. The Covenant was proposed in 1714 by Yesai Hasan-Jalalian, Katholikos of the Holy See of Gandzasar, and a prominent leader of Armenian national liberation movement.
Another major constitutional experiment – related to Katholikos Yesai Hasan-Jalalian’s Covenant – represented intellectual efforts of Armenian diaspora to infuse the liberation movement in the homeland with the political ideals of the Enlightenment. Movses Baghramian, a native of Artsakh, became an active participant of the Armenian national liberation movement led by Armenian princes from Artsakh and Syunik in the 1760s. In 1776, in India’s city of Madras, Baghramian published his famous work called New Notebook that Calls for Exhortation, where the author suggests a liberation strategy based on anti-monarchism and mass education. As a member of the India-based Shahamir Shahamirain’s diasporan intellectual circle, Baghramian took part in the creation of an entirely new constitutional platform designed to support a legal system for Artsakh and Syunik. A copy of his New Notebook and his constitutional ideas were sent to Artsakh – to Hovhannes Hasan-Jalalian, Katholikos of the Holy See of Gandzasar (reigned 1763-87).
In this sense, early medieval Nagorno Karabakh / Artsakh can be regarded as the birthplace of Armenian constitutional thought. The Constitution of Aghven predates many Western experiments in constitutionalism – such as England’s Magna Carta or the Constitution of San Marino – by many centuries.
Artsakh: Armenian alphabet and the roots of Armenian schooling system
Armenians are among the few peoples in the world who have their own unique alphabet. The Armenian alphabet was engineered between the years 405 and 406 AD by the medieval linguist and statesman Mesrop Mashtots (362-440 AD). After translating the Holy Bible into Armenian, Armenian Church raised Mashtots to the rank of saints.
The story behind the invention of the Armenian alphabet is found in the biographical text Life of Mashtots written by St. Mesrop’s pupil Koryun, and in the writings of St. Mesrop’s students, e.g. in History of Armenia by Movses Khorenatsi (c. 410–490s AD). The English translation of this text is widely available. The History of the Land of Aghvank features chapters dedicated to St. Mesrop’s missions to Artsakh and the neighboring Armenian province of Utik, where St. Mesrop began setting up schools that used his newly-created script. According to historical records, the first of such schools was opened at the Amaras Monastery in Artsakh. In its March 2004 issue, the National Geographic Magazine featured an article dedicated to Amaras and the first school. 
The spread of Christianity and the introduction of a unique Armenian alphabet gave a new impetus to Armenian culture and civilization in the Kingdom of Aghvank: important architectural monuments, such as the Amaras Monastery were built; social peace was reinforced through the Constitution of Agven; and lyricists, such as the seventh-century author Davtak Kertogh, took Armenian poetry to new heights. Davtak Kertogh’s poem Elegy on the Death of Grand Prince Jevanshir is part of Movses Kaghankatvatsi’s History of the Land of Aghvank. 
An important detail about Aghvank is that the kingdom included not only the Armenian-peopled lands of Artsakh and Utik but also regions in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, in the north, where Armenians were in minority in some territories. These northern lands that currently stretch from Zaqatala to Shaki to Shamakhi in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan were populated by an assembly of some 22 tribes most of which spoke Caucasian or Iranian languages. This notion can be found in the works of the ancient Greek historian Strabo. The Armenian translator and evangelist St. Mesrop Mashtots, who invented the unique Armenian alphabet in the year 405 AD, was also asked to develop an alphabet for the so-called Gargareans, who appeared to be the largest of the northern tribes of Aghvank.
The invention of the Gargarean alphabet was described in several Armenian medieval texts, such as the History of Armenia by Movses Khorenatsi (c. 410-490s AD) and the History of the Land of Aghvank by Movses Kaghankatvatsi. Gargareans have not survived as an identifiable ethnic group. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear if they existed in the first place. Some modern scholars speculate that the Udis, a tiny indigenous minority in Azerbaijan most of whom belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, could be the descendants of the mysterious and erstwhile Gargareans.
The Gargarean alphabet was considered to be a myth until the day it was supposedly discovered, in the 1950s, in an Armenian manuscript at the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, in Yerevan. The Gargarean alphabet is also known in Western academic literature as the Caucasian Albanian script.
- Г. А. Меликишвили. Урартские Клинообразные Надписи, Вестник древней истории, 1953-77.
- Movses Khorenatsi (Moses of Khoren), History of the Armenians, translated into English by R. Thomson (Cambridge, MA, London, 1978), book II, chapters 44-5, pp. 184-5.
- Strabo, op. cit, Book XI, chapters 14, 5 (Bude,vol. VIII, p. 123). Also, Strabo. Geography, (V). Cambridge, MA, 1969, pp. 187, 223, 321, map XI.
- The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, translated, with Notes, by R. W. Thomson, historical Commentary by J. Howard-Johnston, Assistance from T. Greenwood (Translated Texts for Historians), 2 Volumes, Liverpool 1999
- Robert H. Hewsen. Armenia: a Historical Atlas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 118-119; maps 69, 94
- Nikoghaios Adonts. Armenia in the Period of Justinian: The Political Conditions based on the Naxarar System. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 1970, p. 34-41
- Movses Dasxurançi. The History of the Caucasian Albanians. Translated by C. J. F. Dowsett. London: Oxford University Press, 1961, and Мовсэс Каланкатуаци, История страны Алуанк. Перевод с древнеармянского, предисловие и комментарии Ш. В. Смбатяна, Ереван, 1981.
- Kirakos Gandzaketsi. History of Armenia (in Rus). Moscow. Nauka. 1976, chapter 10. Киракос Гандзакеци. История Армении. Москва, Наука. 1976.
- See: Viviano, Frank. “The Rebirth of Armenia,” National Geographic Magazine. March 2004