Monastery of Three Youths
- Artsakh: People of the Forest
- Antiquity & Early Middle Ages
- High Middle Ages
- Late Middle Ages
- 19th Century
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Historical timeline
In the Late Middle Ages, emperors of Persia granted the feudal lords of Artsakh a large measure of autonomy in the matters of defense, internal politics, justice, and taxes. Five of these feudal entities formed a coalition in the mountains of Artsakh, and in the eighteenth century became known as the Melikates of Khamsa or Melikdoms of Khamsa.
The Five Melikdoms: Artsakh in the late Middle Ages
At the conclusion of the devastating Ottoman-Persian wars in the 16th Century and after incessant attacks and counter-attacks which ruined and depopulated a large part of Southern Caucasus, Artsakh came under the nominal authority of the Safavid Shahs of Persia. The campaigns of Shah Abbas I at the start of the seventeenth century were decisive in the Persian Empire’s anti-Ottoman struggle. Part of Persian Empire’s strategy was large-scale ethno-demographic and ethno-geographic re-engineering of Armenia and southern Georgia. Armenian population in the border regions, such as Nakhichevan, was deported to Iran by the tens of thousands, under harsh conditions, during the winter of 1604-1605. As a result, part of southern Georgia was cleansed of its native Georgian and Armenian population and large territories of Eastern Armenia – Yerevan, Nakhichevan, Kotaik, Shirak, Gegharkunik and other regions – were emptied of Armenians who were uprooted and sent to Iran. In their stead, the Safavids transposed from Iran into Armenia and Georgia tribes of Muslim nomads of mostly Turkoman and Kurdish origin.
Territories of the Southern Caucasus were gerrymandered into governorates or beglarbegates, ruled by beglarbegs – late medieval Persia’s imperial administrators. At the same time, the Persian authorities established or recognized a series of Muslim-ruled principalities, called khanates. But in the mountainous areas of Syunik, Artsakh and Utik, Persians confirmed the authority of the Armenian lords who were spared of the fate of other Christians of the Caucasus. That happened chiefly because Armenian mountain lords were in possession of capable armed forces, which could be used both for self-defense and as a resource offered to Iran in times of imperial wars.
In 1603, the Armenian nobles received official confirmation of their titles as meliks from Shah Abbas I. In contrast to most meliks in other territories of Eastern Armenia, who, if only partially, depended on the Persian governors in the beglarbegates, the feudal lords of Artsakh were granted a large measure of autonomy in the matters of defense, internal politics, justice, and taxes. In this way, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries these Armenian families from Artsakh and some neighboring provinces of Syunik and Utik held contiguous areas of factual independence. Five of them formed a coalition in the mountains and in the eighteenth century became known as the Melikates of Khamsa or Melikdoms of Khamsa, with khamsa being the Arabic word for five.
The union of Melikdoms of Khamsa represented the following five feudal mini-states:
* Principality of Khachen. The principality of Khachen was the hereditary domain of the Hasan-Jalalians princely family. Hasan-Jalalians remained the masters of Central Khachen and kept their hereditary monopoly over the Holy See of Gandzasar, which gave them particular prestige among other meliks. The Hasan-Jalalians ruled their territory from the fortresses of Hohanaberd, Havkakhaghats, Kachaghakaberd, Andaberd and Akanaberd.
* Principality of Giulistan. Related to the Hasan-Jalalians, the Dopian princely clan engendered the Melik-Beglarians as meliks of Giulistan. Giulistan, also known under its original name as the Melikdom of Vardut or Melikdom of Tarindj, was named after the Giulistan Fortress, an unassailable fortification built on a vertical limestone rock in the foothills of the Mrav Ridge Mountains.
* Principality of Varanda. Principality of Varanda was ruled by the Melik-Shahnazarian family, a branch with links to dukes Dopian of Tzar and, probably, to the ancient Gegharkuni nakharar dynasty from the shores of the Lake Sevan.
* Principality of Dizak. The southernmost principality of Dizak was ruled by the Yeganian-Avanian princely clan, who were related to the rulers of the Principality of Ktish-Baghk. In the 18th Century the Yeganian princes were considered as the most senior clan vis-à-vis other four melik dynasties. The principal fortifications of the principality were the fortresses of Toghaberd and Goroz.
* Principality of Jraberd. The principality of Jrabed was located in the northeast portion of the melikdoms’ territory, which corresponds to the eastern part of today’s Mardakert province of the Republic of Artsakh. The main strategic resource of the principality of Jraberd was the Jraberd Fortress, which in Armenian means water fortress. It was called so because it stood – and still does – at the confluence of two rivers: Trtu (Tartar) and Trghi.
The relatively large Melikdoms of Khamsa, which covered the area between 10 and 14 thousand square kilometers, weren’t the only Armenian feudal formations in Artsakh. Further in the north – between Khamsa’s principality of Giulistan and the city of Gadzak (modern Gandja), there were other several smaller Armenian principalities whose adjoining territories corresponded to Artsakh’s northern county of Gardman.
The most notable of them were:
* Principality of Getashen. This principality centered on the town of Getashen, known for its multiple watermills. It bordered by the Principality of Giulistan and was ruled by the Melik-Mnatsakanyan family.
* Principality of Voskanapat. This principality bordered on the Principality of Getashen and was ruled by the Melik-Shahnazarian family, which related to the Melik-Shahnazarians of Khamsa’s Principality of Varanda and the Melik-Shahnazarians of the Lake Sevan’s region of Sotk.
* Principality of Khachakap. This principality was included the important fortress of Parissos, known from the early medieval times, and was ruled by the Melik-Movsesian family.
Artsakh and the rebirth of the idea of Armenian independence
In the 18th Century, an important attribute of autonomy of Armenian feudal states in Artsakh in the late Middle Ages were their armed forces. Headed by centurions, they have traditionally relied on capable cavalry regiments known throughout history for their reach and mobility. Supportive of the armed forces of medieval Artsakh was military infrastructure – a system of forts, hideouts, training camps and recruiting centers assembled into so-called syghnakhs. The syghnakhs also included rural settlements whose population was obligated to form the core of the prince’s armed force in times of war. In times of peace, syghnakhs cultivated, trained and housed battle horses, sheltered weapons-forging craftsmen, and tended to the interconnected system of mountaintop fire beacons.
Under such conditions, the meliks constituted the only authority in Eastern Armenia capable of opposing external threats and maintaining national traditions. Artsakh, where the Armenian nobility survived up until the modern period, became an important reference point for Armenian national identity. It is often referred to as a bastion of the Armenian political and cultural self-awareness.
The importance of Artsakh in Armenian political and religious life was indeed very high. Near the end of the fourteenth century, when the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, an independent Armenian state on the Mediterranean Sea, was conquered by the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, the idea was born – and nearly realized – of transferring to Artsakh’s Holy See of Gandzasar the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, then in Cilicia.  Despite the muted displeasure of the Mother See of Saint Echmiadzin, in the 18th Century Artsakh’s Holy See of Gandzasar was recognized by the Russian imperial court and European statesmen as the sole representative of all Armenian Christians – in both Eastern and Western Armenia.
It was under the influence of the Holy See of Gandzasar that the leaders of Armenian nobility of Artsakh wrote their famous appeals to the Russian Tsar Peter I the Great, in 1699 and 1703, asking him for assistance in their struggle against Muslim domination.  Katholikos Yesai Hasan-Jalalian of the Holy See of Gandzasar (reigned from 1702-1728) played a key role in the consequent Armenian national liberation movement, assuming not only religious and administrative but also military leadership of eastern provinces of Armenia.
In 1711, Gandzasar’s Katholikos Yesai accompanied the Armenian patriot Israel Ori (a prince from the Proshian family, related to Hasan-Jalalians through common Arranshahik ancestors), by traveling to Russia to help build support for an army that could fight alongside Tsar Peter the Great’s Russian troops. Ori, however, died during the journey, and Katholikos Yesai soon took over the diplomatic mission. He continued negotiations with Tsar Peter I, and in a letter sent to him in 1718, promised to raise a 10-12,000-strong Armenian army and secure support from neighboring Georgia. 
In 1714, Katholikos Yesai invited Artsakh’s meliks and clergy to his residence near Gandzasar’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in order to discuss and sign a 23-point Covenant of Gandzasar, a document that defined relations and status of civilian, military and clerical powers in the province of Artsakh. 
There is specific evidence about the power of the Holy See of Gandzasar in the 1700s and its centrality in Armenian politics. It comes from Archimandrite Minas Tigranian, an abbot from Gandzasar’s neighboring Metzarank Monastery and one of key figures of Armenian national liberation movement. Minas Tigranian was later ordained archbishop by Katholikos Yesai and appointed as Armenia’s envoy to Russia. After completing his secret mission to Persian-controlled Armenia he stated in a report dated March 14, 1717:
“The “[Gandzasar] patriarch has under his [religious] authority 900 villages, and these are big villages, with 100, 200, 300, 400 and more households. It is a five-day journey on packed horses from Gandzasar to the monastery of Echmiadzin, where the other patriarch resides (i.e. Katholicos of All Armenians). The latter has even more villages under his authority than the Patriarch Yesai has, but he [i.e. Minas] does not know their exact number. Altogether, under the authority of these two patriarchs there are some 200,000 [households] of Armenians, the merchants and the peasantry.” 
The army organized and inspired by Katholikos Yesai and led by Armenian centurions from Artsakh and Syunik never received the promised Russian support, largely because of Tsar Peter’s unexpected death in 1725. However, virtually without any external assistance, that army successfully fought against the invading Ottoman Turks during Eastern Armenia’s self-defense war of the 1720s-1730s. During this time period, an average of 10,000 permanently mobilized men led by centurions from the melikates for the purpose of repulsing Ottoman and Persian troops in the hope of an advance by Peter the Great’s army, or for joining Persia to fight the Ottomans.
While the promise of the Tsar of Russia at that time failed to materialize, the Armenian meliks of Artsakh were promoted by the Persians, especially by Nader-Shah Afshar (1688 – 1747), for their role in defeating Ottoman troops. The coalition of the five Armenian princes of Artsakh, with Melik Yegan Melik-Avanian of the Principality of Dizak as the elder melik, was officially given a new administrative status, distinct from the beglarbegates of Yerevan, Gandzak, and Shirvan, and linked directly to the central Persian authorities. 171
While the national liberation movement in Artsakh and Syunik in the 18th Century fell short of achieving institutional, internationally-recognized independence of Armenia, it firmly anchored the idea of struggle for independence, and demonstrated the growing importance of the Russian factor in the destiny of the region.
Artsakh’s constitutional thought in the era of the Enlightenment
The Canons of Aghven – Artsakh’s constitutional edict adopted in the 5th Century – 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 that unfolded in parallel with the Covenant was part of the intellectual effort of Armenian diaspora to infuse the liberation movement in the homeland with the political ideals of the Enlightenment. An active diasporan participant of Armenian national liberation movement led by Armenian princes from Artsakh and Syunik in the 1760s was Movses Baghramian, a native of Artsakh. In 1776, Baghramian published his famous work called New Notebook that Calls for Exhortation, where the author suggests a liberation strategy based on the ideals of anti-monarchical reform 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 that were in struggle for freedom against Persian rulers and Ottoman invaders. A copy of Baghramian’s New Notebook was sent to Artsakh – to Hovhannes Hasan-Jalalian, Katholikos of the Holy See of Gandzasar (reigned 1763-1787).
Mid-18th Century: the entry of Turkomans into Artsakh
First mentions of the term “Karabakh” go back to a period between the 16th and mid-18th centuries. “Karabakh” commonly designated Artsakh’s extension in the eastern lowlands of Armenia, which experienced the incursion of nomadic Turkoman tribes from the Central Asia in the Middle Ages.
Some specialists, such as the American historian Robert Hewsen, believe that the term Karabakh is of Armenian origin, meaning “Great Baghk” and pointing to the Kingdom of Baghk that in the period between the 10th and the 13th centuries occupied the southern portions of Armenia ’s provinces of Artsakh and Syunik. However, the Turkic nomadic migrants came to use this term for referring to the land of Artsakh because of its phonetic similarity to what appears to be a combination of the Turkic word “Ghara” (meaning “black”) and the Persian word “Bagh” (meaning “garden”). Such phonetic misconstructions appear when an ethnic group that arrives to a new land from elsewhere tries to adapt local toponyms to their own language. Similarities are multiple: from the ancient Greek adaptations of toponyms in Anatolia, Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean, to the Anglicization of Celtic toponyms in Britain, to German and Hungarian modification of Latin, Celtic and Slavic toponyms in Central Europe, to the Arabicization of native Aramaic, Hebraic and Iranian toponyms in the Middle East, and to, finally, massive phonetic “recycling” of native Armenian, Greek, Slavic, Georgian and Albanian toponyms of Armenia, the Caucasus, Asia Minor (Anatolia) and the Balkan Peninsula by the Ottoman Turks.
As the Turko-Islamic colonization expanded, 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, as they assumed control of the plains. As a result, the central and eastern regions of what is now the Azerbaijani Republic lost most of its aboriginal Armenian population who migrated westward and found refuge in the impregnable Christian strongholds populated and ruled since the Roman times by Artsakh’s Armenian mountaineers.
However, the economic life of the Turkic nomads, which required access not only to lowland areas but also to hilltop pastures, and their values, which derived from supremacist and exclusivist misinterpretations of Islam, denied Christians most political and social rights while legitimizing banditry and looting. This eventually pitted the nomadic newcomers and Islamized Armenians against the Christian highlanders, and established the basis of the historical confrontation between the Armenian natives of Artsakh and the Turkic tribesmen of the Southeastern Caucasus, some of whom chose to be called “Azerbaijanis” in the 1920s.
In the 1720s-30s, a war with Ottoman invaders ravaged Artsakh while internal disagreements further weakened its administration. As a result, in the early 1760s, the Armenian dukes (meliks) of Artsakh succumbed to the pressure of the Muslim tribes, which nearly succeeded in penetrating the region and establishing a parallel Turkic-Armenian rule over the province. The consequence was the proclamation of so-called “Karabakh Khanate,” a short-lived Armeno-Turkic principality in Artsakh that in 1805 was absorbed into the Russian Empire, after 40 years of existence, and abolished. The effect of the Khanate’s collapse was a century of relative stability in regional Muslim-Christian relations. In this period, the regional capital of Shushi developed into an important trade center and produced dozens of outstanding musicians, historians, writers and engineers.
Despite the relatively quick demise of the Karabakh Khanate, some Turkic settlers chose not to return to the eastern steppe, from where they had arrived. Instead, they stayed in Artsakh, limiting their presence to the Muslim quarter of the city of Shushi but turning that settlement into a hub of latent inter-communal tensions.
The Armenian-Turkic conflict in Artsakh was ignited once again with the ascent of the era of nationalism, when in the beginning of the 20th century the Caucasus was plunged into inter-ethnic strife accompanied by pogroms and incidents of mass murder. The largest of such clashes took place in 1905-1906, and is known as the “Armenian-Tartar War” (as mentioned above, the term “Azerbaijanis” was invented in the 1920s; instead, they were referred to as “Tartars” by Russians and “Turks” by Persians, Armenians and Georgians). 
- Source: Bournoutian, George A. Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: A Documentary Record. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2001, p. 86.