image of a cavalryman
from Artsakh (1215 AD)
- Artsakh: People of the Forest
- Antiquity & Early Middle Ages
- High Middle Ages
- Late Middle Ages
- 19th Century
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Historical timeline
The High Middle Ages saw the rise of the Principality of Khachen and its subsequent transformation into the Kingdom of Artsakh during the reign of Grand Prince Hasan Jalal Vahtangian (1214-1261 AD). Artsakh’s most important architectural monument and religious icon, the Gandzasar Monastery’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, was consecrated in 1240 AD.
Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh)
in the High Middle Ages
The Arab invasion of the Caucasus and Iran in the 7th Century coupled with the unstoppable force of feudal fragmentation partitioned the Kingdom of Aghvank into several separate Armenian kinglets and principalities, such as Khachen, Gardman, Ktish-Baghk, and Tzar. By the mid-9th century, these feudal entities recognized the authority of the Bagratid dynasts who reestablished the Kingdom of Armenia in 885 AD in the aftermath of the collapse of the Arab Caliphate and the departure of the Arabs. The largest of the successors of the Kingdom of Aghvank was the Principality of Khachen – the largest of these feudal domains, and also the most politically important of all of them because it was ruled by the Arranshahik dynasty – direct descendants of the kings of Aghvank.
The Kingdom of Khachen included most of historical Artsakh and the southeastern basin of Lake Sevan (nowadays within the borders of the Republic of Armenia).
Arranshahiks are one of the world’s oldest princely houses. Their descendants exist today, as representatives of the Hasan-Jalalian family of Artsakh. Arranshahiks are described by several medieval historians, especially Movses Kaghankatvatsi (7th Century) and Kirakos Gandzaketsi (1203 – 1271), as having a direct connection to the epic Bronze Age Armenian ancestral patriarchs Haik the Forefather and his grandson Sisak, and through them — to key figures of the Old Testament, including Japheth, and, ultimately, Noah.
The name of Artsakh’s core province of “Khachen” (Armenian: Խաչեն) originates from the word “khach” (Armenian: Խաչ), which means “Cross” in Armenian. That attests to the fact that for medieval Armenians Khachen was a land of great spiritual symbolism. Movses Kaghankatvatsi, the seventh century’s Armenian historian of Artsakh and Utik, tells the story of how the house of Arranshahiks came into being. In his seminal work History of the Land of Aghvank (Պատմութիւն Աղուանից աշխարհի), Kaghankatvatsi repeats a legend originally reported by Movses Khorenatsi – the fifth century author of the “History of Armenia” and the celebrated “father of Armenian history.” When writing about the bloody conflict between the native Arranshahiks and the clan of Mihranians (Mihranids), Armenian-assimilated lords from Persia who captured Utik’s county of Gardman, Kaghankatvatsi calls Arranshahiks “a Haikazian dynasty,” i.e. deriving from Patriarch Haik Nahapet (Haik the Forefather). Kirakos Gandzaketsi, the 13th century author of yet another version of the History of Armenia, reiterates the legend by confirming that kings of Aghvank—Arran, Vachagan, Vache, Urnair and others—all directly descended from Patriarch Haik Nahapet.
The rise of the Kingdom of Khachen began with Sahl Smbatian (Sahl ibn Sunbat, in Arab sources), lord of northern Artsakh, who in the first half of the ninth century was mentioned as the governor of all of “Arminia” — a prefecture of the Arab Caliphate consisting of central and eastern Armenian lands and the former Armenian-ruled Kingdom of Aghvank (“Caucasian Albania” in the writings of several modern Western historiographers). Sahl Smbatian was succeeded by his son Atrnerseh, Prince of Khachen, who married Princess Spram Mihranian of Gardman, thus inheriting power over the entire eastern lands of Armenia.
Another principal figure of the second half of the ninth century was Grigor-Hamam “Areveltsi” (“the Oriental”), Sahl Smbatian’s grandson. Movses Kaghankatvatsi’s “History …” reports that at the time when Prince Ashot I Bagratuni restored the Kingdom of Armenia in 885 AD, Grigor-Hamam fully instituted the Principality of Khachen as an Armenian vassal state linked to Bagratid Armenia. Grigor-Hamam extended his authority from the shores of Lake Sevan to the city of Partav on Artsakh’s eastern plain (modern day Barda in the Republic of Azerbaijan), as well as to certain territories on the east bank of River Kura, e.g. the Armenian-controlled Kambechan (Cambysene in Graeco-Roman sources).
King Grigor-Hamam was also celebrated as an important Armenian man of letters – a grammarian, poet, theologian, and musician. The four sons of Grigor-Hamam divided his possessions. Atrnerseh II (910-956 AD) founded the Kingdom of Shake-Kambechan (Hereti, in Georgian), on the east bank of the River Kura. Another son of Grigor-Hamam, Sahak-Sevada, established himself at the castle of Parissos, in the Arstakh’s northern county of Gardman. But by extending his possessions he encroached upon the royal domains, drawing the ire of his suzerain, King Ashot I Bagratuni of Armenia. Finally, the two other sons of Grigor-Hamam held some territories in Artsakh’s core province of Khachen.
All these small kingdoms and princes were, in principle, vassals of the larger Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia, whose monarchs would periodically re-impose their supremacy by force over territories which extended to the River Kura, and beyond. The fact that the tenth-century Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905-959 AD) would send his correspondence to “Prince of Khachen, in Armenia” shows that Khachen was viewed as part of Armenia by major regional powers. 
Artsakh’s resistance to Seljuk Turk invaders
In the mid-eleventh century, a centralized Kingdom of Armenia was undermined by consecutive attacks from the Byzantine Empire, which tried to secure and expand its borders in the aftermath of the Great Schism of 1054. The Byzantines, who became masters of Armenia’s capital of Ani in 1045 AD, left Armenia defenseless against a formidable danger: the advancement of the Seljuk Turks – marauding nomads who began arriving from Central Asia. These Turks, Islamized since the tenth century, took control of Persia around the mid-eleventh century, and after seizing Baghdad in 1055 AD, attacked Byzantium. Led by the Turkish warlord Alp Arslan, the Seljuks stormed Armenia’s capital city of Ani in 1064 AD and defeated the armies of Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes in the Byzantine-held portion of Armenia during the battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD.
Armenian nobles from Artsakh and Utik courageously defended their lands but, after containing the advancement of the Turkish troops, had to give up the lowlands and eventually retreat to their mountain strongholds and rainforest hideouts to fight, and win, another day. Inscriptions in Armenian by Queen Arzu of Upper Khachen that cover external walls of the Dadivank Monastery in Artsakh’s historical county of Upper Khachen provide evidence of Artsakh’s difficult struggle against Seljuk Turks. Queen Arzu informs that her son Hasan fought heroically and martyred in battle protecting the homeland.
After the partition of the centralized Seljuk Empire during the reign of Melik-Shah – son of Alp Arslan – at the end of the eleventh century, there came a troubled period for the Turks, marked by continual confrontations among Seljuk warlords, emirs, and sultans, as well as between indigenous princes of Armenia, Caucasus and Anatolia and Turkish chieftains. This situation would last until the second half of the twelfth century.
The Seljuk Turkish invasion brought a new ethnic element to the Southern Caucasus: Turkic-speaking nomads from Central Asia. These migrants occupied lowlands east of the River Kura but began their attempts to move westward, in small groups, on seasonal basis, in hope to gain access to large mountaintop pastures of Armenia’s lands of Artsakh and Syunik which stay fresh in the summer. Most Seljuk Turks moved westward to modern-day Turkey, but some apparently remained, paving way for new waves of migration from Central Asia in subsequent centuries.
The Kingdom of Artsakh
In the second half of the twelfth century, the decline of the Seljuk Empire allowed the Georgians to move in the direction of Armenian lands, and a grand Georgian-Armenian military alliance was forged. Beginning with the end of the twelfth century, the Zakarian princes (Armenian: Զաքարյան), ethnically Armenian dignitaries in the Georgian royal court, liberated the major part of Bagratid Armenia on behalf of the Kingdom of Georgia, and assumed effective control over it. Because of their leadership and vast clout of influence, Georgians called the Zakarian dynasts Mkhargrdzeli, meaning long-armed.
The Georgian-Armenian army re-conquered, among other areas, all of Armenian-ruled Artsakh and Utik with the exception of the city of Gandzak (Gandja), which remained in the hands of the Sheddadids, a newly-Turkified, Muslim lords of Kurdish origin. Armenian nobles and generals in the service of the Zakarians dynasts were confirmed in their old domains or were granted new ones for their participation in military campaigns against Seljuk Turks. The three princely branches of Khachen — Tzar, Haterk and Hohanaberd — were re-established or confirmed in their rights. Another notable regional family, the Hahbakians, migrated from Artsakh some 150 miles westward and installed themselves in province of Syunik’s country of Vayots Dzor (now a province in the Republic of Armenia).
The inscription left by Prince Hasan of Haterk on the walls of the Dadivank Monastery in 1182 AD seems to indicate that some Armenian lords did not await the call of the Zakarians to liberate themselves from the Turks. The Dadivank inscription informs that Hasan of Haterk had fought, victoriously, for 40 years, or since 1142 AD, as did his grandson and namesake. Probably this was also the case for the lords at Hohanaberd, in the south, whose principality of Lower Khachen is confirmed by the famous Armenian legal philosopher Mkhitar Gosh as autonomous already in the second half of the twelfth century, with its spiritual center at the Gandzasar Monastery.
Prince Vahtang, who reigned during the first half of middle of the twelfth century, was followed by his son Hasan (the use of Arab first names was something of a fashion among the Armenian nobility both in Artsakh and the rest of Armenia) until about 1200 AD. Hasan was succeeded by his son, Vahtang-Tangik, who died in 1214 AD.
Hasan Jalal Vahtangian, Grand Prince of Khachen (1214 – 1261 AD)
It was at this moment, when the post-Seljuk revival of the land of Artsakh reached an important milestone: the expansion of the Principality of Khachen, and its transformation into the Kingdom of Artsakh that merged all of Artsakh’s princely domains into one larger feudal state. The considerable importance of Artsakh’s Principality Khachen in the Georgian-Armenian political ensemble is confirmed by the fact that the main Armenian figure in this period, the Grand Prince Sarkis Zakarian, supreme commander of the Georgian-Armenian armed forces, gave two of his daughters in marriage to princes from Artsakh. One of them, Khorishah, had married Vahtang-Tangik, Prince of Khachen.
Vahtang-Tangik son is known in history as Hasan-Jalal Vahtangian or Hasan Jalal Dola. Hasan-Jalal’s name is mainly associated with two major achievements of the time: expansion of his native Khachen to engulf entire Artsakh, and the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist of the Gandzasar Monastery – one of the most iconic and celebrated examples of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture of all times.
The expansion of Khachen is revealed from an engraved inscription of 1240 left by Hasan Jalal on the internal walls at the Gandzasar Monastery. The text can be seen today when entering the main chamber of Gandzasar’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Hasan Jalal describes himself as the “native potentate of the high and broad province of Artsakh, King of Hohanaberd.” When Hasan Jalal married Mamkan, the daughter of the Arranshahik king of Baghk – a land that bridges southern Artsakh with Syunik – he also expanded to his father-in-law’s lands up to the River Araxes, and assumed his title of “Grand Prince of Artsakh and Baghk.”
Grand Prince Hasan Jalal Vahtangian’s ancestry is also directly linked to the highest-order aristocratic dynasties of ancient Armenia, kings and nakharars. The works of several medieval Armenian authors show that in the male line Hasan Jalal directly relates to the Arranshahik princes and kings of Syunik – Armenia’s province bordering on Artsakh from the west. Through his mother Khorishah, sister of the Zakarian princes who liberated Armenia from Seljuk Turks, Hasan Jalal related both to two Armenian royal families: Bagratuni (Bagratid) kings of Ani, and the Artsruni kings of Vaspurakan (whose domain was in the region around Lake Van, presently in Turkey). In addition, through his Mihranian ancestors from Artsakh’s northern district of Gardman, Hasan Jalal could trace his roots to the Sassanid imperial dynasty of Persia. Modern scholars, such as Robert Hewsen, an American historian specializing in medieval Armenia, confirm these findings in his works on Artsakh.  The above-mentioned linkages show that present-day descendants of Hasan-Jalalians are the only surviving Armenian family that can claim a direct bloodline to the Bagratids, a royal dynasty that restored Armenia’s independence in the ninth century.
While the Hasan-Jalalians’ royal origin is of tremendous historical and political value, an even more interesting fact is that their bloodline stretches back all the way to the world of Biblical patriarchs and epic heroes of the ancient world. Arranshahiks, whose name means “shahs” (monarchs) of Arran’s lineage,” are one of the world’s oldest princely houses. The central figure in this story is Arran, a semi-mythical ancestral patriarch directly related to Syuni dynasts, eponymous and hereditary rulers of the Province of Syunik. The story of how Vagharshak I, King of Armenia, entrusted to Arran the control over the northeast extremity of his kingdom, is found in Chapter Four of Book One of the History of the Land of Aghvank, Chapter Five of Khorenatsi’s History of Armenia and in the writings of Kirakos Gandzaketsi – author of the History of Armenia. Both authors point to Arran’ direct connection to early Armenian ancestral patriarchs, Haik Nahapet and his grandson Sisak, and through them—to the legendary characters of the Old Testament, including Togarmah, Japheth, and, ultimately, Noah.
Apparently, a tribute to a long Arab political tradition and cultural influence, all of Hasan Jalal’s names, but his family name, are Arabic: Hasan (handsome), Jalal (glorious), and Dola (wealthy). Kirakos Gandzaketsi, the contemporaneous author of the History of Armenia, described Prince Hasan Jalal as “Great Prince Hasan, who is flatteringly called Jalal, a man pious, honest, and Armenian.”
Hasan Jalal was equally a great builder, not only in Khachen (where he erected monasteries Gandzasar and Vachar), but also in central Armenia where he financed the restoration of the Kecharis Monastery, in 1248, which had suffered from the Mongols. Kecharis is located about 15 miles north of Armenia’s present-day capital of Yerevan.
Hasan Jalal was certainly one of the principal figures in Armenian political and cultural life in the thirteenth century. He succeeded his father in 1214 AD. When news about the Mongol invasion reached Khachen in around 1236 AD, Hasan Jalal, together with nearly the entire population of his core region, found refuge in a fortified territory supported by the Havkahaghats, Hohanaberd and Kachaghakaberd fortresses. Unable to take the fortresses, enraged Mongols ravaged Khachen’s countryside.
In order to stop the devastation, Hasan Jalal submitted to the Mongols around 1239 AD, and worked hard to establish good relations with them in return for their goodwill. That implied the participation of Hasan Jalal’s Armenian troops in Mongol military expeditions on the territory of Western Armenia, some portions of which were controlled by the Seljuk Turks. In these expeditions, Hasan Jalal acted as an intermediary between local Armenian communities and Mongol generals. His mission resulted in the saving of thousands of Armenian lives, protection of Armenian churches and monasteries as well as punishment of the old enemies: Seljuk Turk chieftains who ruled over some regions of Western Armenia.
Hasan Jalal’s particular strength was in the area of diplomacy where he played the role, to a degree, of representative of all of Armenia. Kirakos Gandzaketsi, contemporaneous author of the History of Armenia, writes that, as a diplomat, in 1244, Hasan Jalal facilitated contacts between the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, on the Mediterranean Sea, and the Mongols, who accepted an embassy from King Hethum I (1226-1269), the first of Cilicia’s Hethumid dynasty. Interestingly, the Hetumid dynasts hail from Prince Oshin of Lambron, who migrated to Cilicia from Utik’s castle of Parissos, and, as such, shared with Hasan Jalal the same Arranshahik bloodline of ancient Armenian kings and patriarchs.
Artsakh after the Mongol and Turkoman invasions
The first Mongol occupation had disastrous socio-economic effects on Armenia. The peasantry was exterminated or deported; the aristocracy was decimated or undermined economically. The cities were in ruins. Ethnic integrity was weakened through the emigration of indigenous Christian Armenians, and the settlement of nomadic Muslim tribesmen in lowland territories bordering on the River Kura.
The reign of the Mongols was followed by invasions by the Central Asian warlord Tamerlane (1386-1405) and the Turkoman tribesmen known as the Black Sheep or the Kara-Koyunlu (1410-1468).
While Khachen was not spared from these calamities, its mountain lords preserved their autonomy and their armed forces. When landed nobility gradually disappeared from the political arena in the rest of Armenia, the two branches of the princes of Khachen, the north-easterners and the southerners, continued to exist. The inscriptions and the colophons of the contemporaneous manuscripts show that the descendants of Hasan Jalal Vahtangian of Hohanaberd, who began calling themselves Hasan-Jalalians after their celebrated ancestor, remained in possession of Lower Khachen during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Hasan-Jalalians also inherited the right to be elected as ecclesiastical leaders of the Holy See of Gandzasar – as bishops and katholikoi.
The princely family of Dopians retained authority over the lands of Tzar and Haterk, and the upper portion of the valley of the River Trtu (Tartar). Prince Grigor Dopian of Tzar (in modern-day Kelbajar region claimed by the Republic of Azerbaijan), as declared in a colophon at the beginning of the 14th Century, called himself “Prince of Armenians, Lord and Baron of Little Syunik (alternative name for Artsakh), Handaberd and Akana, and the Mountain Range of the Lake Gegham (i.e. Lake Sevan). More or less the same description can be found from a document of 1430.
The reign of the Turkoman ruler Jahan-Shah (1437-1467) brought a relative lull to Eastern Armenia. Deciding to temporarily favor certain Armenian regions, Jahan Shah allowed the re-establishment of a pan-Armenian Katholikosate (Mother See) in Echmiadzin, in 1441. He also confirmed the possessions of the princes of Khachen and accorded them the title of melik (“king” or “prince,” in Arabic).
By the late 1500s, the Hasan-Jalalian family had branched out to establish melikdoms (duchies) in Giulistan and Jraberd, making them, along with Khachen, and two other melikdoms, Varanda and Dizak, a part of what in the 18th century became known as the Melikdoms of Khamsa—a union of five Armenian principalities of Artsakh-Karabakh. Not only did noble descendants of princes of Khachen become meliks, they also retained hereditary spiritual leadership of all of Artsakh and Utik by manning the throne of Katholikoi of Aghvank at the Holy See of Gandzasar up to 1815, and later – as metropolitans and bishops of the Diocese of Karabakh of the Armenian Apostolic Church.