Middle Ages to the 20th Century: Invasions, Occupations, Achievements

Middle Ages to the 20th Century: Invasions, Occupations, Achievements

In 451, in response to the policy of compulsion by Persia to convert to Zoroastrianism, Armenians rose to a powerful revolt known as the Vardanants Sacred War (Vardan Mamikonyan is a popular Armenian hero: he was the leader of the Armenian forces, who was later made a Saint by the Armenian Apostolic Church). Artsakh also took part in this war, its cavalry notably distinguishing itself. In Artsakh, the struggle against foreign rulers was headed by Aranshahiks (or Aranshahs, meaning shahs or lords of Arran), the local princes who at the end of the century declared Artsakh-Utik a kingdom and received a King’s title from the Persians. Under King Vachagan the Pious (AD 487-510s) culture and science flourished. According to the legend, Vachagan built over three hundred and sixty churches, one for each day of the year. Although the number is hard to ascertain, his impact on the history and culture of Artsakh has been significant. 

Despite successive foreign invasions and occupations by a number of empires, kingdoms and tribes, Armenian princes of Artsakh succeeded in preserving Armenian statehood until the 19th century, albeit in the form of various independent or semi-independent kingdoms, princedoms, principalities, etc.

On the boundary of the 6th-7th centuries, the Albanian marzpanate broke into several small principalities which were no longer collectively referred to as “Albania”. In the 7th century the Armenian Aranshahiks were replaced by the Mihranyans’ dynasty of Persian origin which, becoming related with the Aranshahiks, turned to Christianity and rapidly Armenized, particularly due to a significant number of intermarriages.

In the seventh and eighth centuries much of the Armenian provinces of Utik, Syunik and Artsakh were conquered by Arabs, who unsuccessfully tried to convert the population to Islam. Despite the Arab invasion, in the second half of the 7th century the political and cultural life in Artsakh continued to develop. A distinctive Christian culture was shaped in the 7th-8th centuries. The monasteries of Amaras, Kataro, Horek, Jrvshtik or St. Yeghishé (Elisha) and others acquired pan-Armenian significance.

From the beginning of the 7th century, the noble houses of Khachen and Dizak gathered strength. The Prince of Khachen, Sahl Smbatian, and the Prince of Dizak, Yesayee Abu Mousseh, spearheaded the struggle against the Arabs. They, and later their heirs, succeeded in making their borders unconquerable. 

From the 10th century on, the Khachen principality began to play a very big political and cultural role in Artsakh, the ruling family’s political centre moved to the basin of the Khachenaget (Khachen river) and the name Khachen came to replace Artsakh for a while. 

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Artsakh (Khachen) was subjected to the invasion of nomadic Seljuk Turkic tribes but managed to maintain its independence. These tribes had emerged from Central Asia, conquered Iran, and founded the Seljuk Turkish dynasty, which first raided, then invaded Armenia. The invasions destroyed much of Armenia, including Artsakh, and especially the lowlands suffered greatly. Although by the mid-eleventh century the Armenian kingdom was destroyed, the feudal principality of Syunik (sometimes spelled as Siunik or Siwnik, which is the present-day Syunik region of the Republic of Armenia) and Artsakh survived and became beacons to the rest of Armenia. In the following centuries, thousands of Armenians found refuge in Artsakh, under the protection of the native lords.

At the end of the 12th century and during the first half of the 13th century, Artsakh saw the foundation of such valuable architectural ensembles as the Hovhannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) church and the narthex of the Gandzasar Monastery (1216-1260), the Dadi Monastery Cathedral (1214), and Gtchavank Monastery (1241-1248). They are all regarded as masterpieces of Armenian architecture to this date. 

In 1230-1240 the Tatar-Mongols conquered Transcaucasia. Due to the efforts of the Prince Hasan-Jalal of Khachen, Artsakh partially succeeded in saving itself from destruction. However, after Hasan Jalal’s death in 1261, Khachen also fell to the Mongols. The situation worsened in the 14th century during the Turkic rule of Kara-Koyunlu (the Black Sheep) and Agh (Ak)-Koyunlu (the White Sheep) tribes, which replaced the Tatar-Mongols. During that period many monuments and architectural wonders were destroyed. It is in this period that the area began to be known as Gharabagh. It is usually believed that the name has a Turkic origin and means “Black Garden”, although it has been variously suggested also that ‘Ghara’ is of Mongol origin and means big as in some other similar nouns with “Ghara-” long known in the area (Gharachinar –big chinar (platane tree), Gharakilisa –big church, etc). The name for some time referred also to the Province of Utik, as well as to Albania. Later Gharabagh/Karabakh was applied to a smaller area. Today’s Karabakh covers only a part of historic Artsakh. Mountainous or Nagorno Karabakh and Lower Karabakh names have also been used. The first roughly corresponds to the territory of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh while the second refers to the lowlands of Karabakh or Mughan. The name Artsakh has been back in circulation since 1988.

In the 16th century, a number of unique administrative-political entities called melikutyuns (principalities) were formed in Karabakh. The rulers of melikutyuns were called meliks. Meliks maintained castles, had roughly 1,000-2,000-strong infantry, had sovereign rights over their subjects and collected taxes. 

In Persian Armenia, the Safavid rulers formed two provinces, of which one encompassed Erivan (Yerevan) and Nakhijevan, while the other, Karabakh, included Zangezur (Syunik) and Ganja (Gandzak in Armenian). Each region was placed under a beglarbegi (governor-general). 

At the end of the 16th century and in the 17th century, after treaties between the Safavid Persia and Ottoman Empire, large parts of Armenia passed to Ottoman rule.

In the 16-17th centuries, Artsakh and Syunik meliks spearheaded Armenians’ liberation struggle against the Persian and Ottoman Empires. Along with the armed struggle, the meliks despatched diplomatic envoys to Europe and Russia asking for help from the Christian West. Israel Ori, archimandrite Minas, the Catholicos of Gandzasar Yesai Jalalyan, military leaders Avan and Tarkhan were ambassadors of this cause. During the 1720’s, the rebellion of the Armenians of Syunik and Karabakh, led by Davit Bek, achieved notable though temporary success.

Nevertheless, the promises of the Russian Tsars to help never materialized, and their campaigns often greatly harmed the Armenians. When the Russians marched to Persia in 1721 and occupied Derbend and Baku, Peter I of Russia advised the Armenians to leave Artsakh and to relocate to territories he occupied. In 1724 the Russians signed a treaty with Turkey which gave the latter a free hand in all of the Transcaucasia. The same year the Ottoman troops invaded the land and caused great harm to the Artsakh Armenians.  Under the successive Russian rulers, the policy towards Armenians did not greatly change and soon Northern Karabakh  broke again into separate principalities.

“Melikutyuns of Khamsa” (Principalities of Khamsa, meaning five’).

Under Nadir-Shah of Persia, who ascended to throne in 1729, Armenians acquired certain privileges, since they carried on the struggle against Ottoman Turkey, a sworn enemy of Persia. Numerous principalities of Artsakh-Karabakh united, forming five larger principalities (Varanda, Khachen, Dizak, Jraberd and Gyulistan), which ruled over the country.  These became known as the “Melikutyuns of Khamsa” (Principalities of Khamsa, meaning "five”). They stretched from the Gandzak province borders to the south as far as the river Araks (Araxes). Principalities were headed by dynasties: the Melik-Beglaryans in Gyulistan; the Melik-Israyelyans in Jraberd; the Hasan-Jalalyans in Khachen, the Melik Shahnazaryans in Varanda and the Melik-Yeganyans in Dizak. 

Although with time the Principalities became rather strong, thanks both to the character of the people and their geographical position, they did not avoid internal strife, and outsiders did not fail to take advantage of the situation.  In the middle of the 18th century, Panakh, a Turkic tribe leader, was able to invade Northern Caucasus and, having gained a foothold in Shushi with the assistance of a local melik, proclaimed Karabakh a khanate and himself, a khan. This move was supported by the Persians. Soon the Jraberd, Gyulistan and Dizak princes were killed in successive plots, the rights of the local princes were restricted, and alien ethnic elements entered the region. As a result, the principalities of Khamsa were finally broken down.

The Russian Empire, expanding southwards in the Transcaucasia annexed the territory of Karabakh in 1805 in the course of the Russian-Persian War of 1804-1813.

The Russian annexation of Artsakh (“Khanate of Karabakh”, along with other areas in Eastern Transcaucasia, such as Gandzak) was officially recognized by Persia in the Treaty of Gyulistan (a village and a fortress near it in Artsakh) on October 12, 1813. Thus Karabakh came into the Russian Empire earlier than the areas of Yerevan and Nakhijevan, which were ceded to Russia from Persia by the Treaty of Turkmenchai on February 10, 1828 (following the Russian-Persian war of 1827-1828). This earlier annexation benefited Karabakh in some ways, but also created a major problem for the future. Because of the time that it came into the Russian empire, Karabakh was made part of the Elizavetpol Province, which in the 20th century became a new country, Azerbaijan. Administratively, then, Karabakh could not be joined in 1813 to the as-yet-not-annexed Armenian territories of which it was historically a part. Yerevan and Nakhijevan, when they were attached to the Tsarist Empire in 1828, were organized into the Armiansky (“Armenian” in Russian) region, later the Yerevan province. Here, as in other empires, decisions made by colonial administrators laid the foundations for future difficulties.  The treaty of Turkmenchai completed the annexation of almost the entire Eastern Armenia to Russia. 

In 1840 Imperial Russia carried out an administrative division of Transcaucasia: the Georgian- Imereti region with the centre in Tiflis and the Caspian region with the centre in Shemakh were formed. Most of the eastern Armenia territories were included into the Georgian-Imereti region, the rest of, including Karabakh, into the Caspian region.

The December 9, 1867 Charter of the Tsarist Russia divided the Transcaucasia into Kutaisi, Tiflis, Yerevan, Yelizavetpol and Baku provinces. Some parts of Eastern Armenia were incorporated into the Yerevan province, the others into the Yelizavetpol and Tiflis provinces. Nakhijevan province was incorporated into Yerevan region and Nagorno-Karabakh was basically incorporated into Yelizavetpol region. This administrative division with small changes remained until 1918. 

The advent of capitalism into the region in the second half of the 19th century brought about radical changes in the society. Adapting well to the new realities, Armenians soon took leading roles and together with Russians became the captains of trade and industry, proprietors and skilled labours. Development of industry created a demand of unskilled labour and at the end of the century about 30-35,000 Turkish-speaking Iranians migrated to these provinces from the southern part of Araks river, the Iranian Azerbaijan. These people lacked a national identity: they were Shia Muslims, spoke Turkish and descended from a double origin: Iranians and Turkic nomads. At first they were considered Persians, however were later called Caucasian Tatars. Up to the end of the 19th century the newcomers considered themselves as bearers of Iranian culture and national identity. 


Meliks’ Manors of Artsakh 

Armenian medieval architecture is more famous for its churches, while secular architecture is less known. The reason may be because relatively fewer examples have survived. Those remaining have not been studied that well, particularly those in Artsakh, where research for obvious reasons was not easy to conduct. On the other hand, it is in Artsakh where most Armenian principalities (melikutyun, i.e. melikdom) have existed in relatively recent centuries and where Armenians have enjoyed considerably longer periods of sovereignty that one can find an usually high concentrations of castles and meliks’ aparanks or darapases (palaces or manors). It is true that many castles were built in earlier periods and many of both the castles and manors have survived in ruins. Many have disappeared completely either because they fell into disuse for long periods of time or because traces of an Armenian presence needed to be erased. Nevertheless, those that remain provide significant material for research into their design and building features. An important source of information on these palaces is the body of lapidary inscriptions that the builders (sponsors and architects) have left in abundance both on secular and ecclesiastical edifices.

The fate of monuments under Azeri occupation since 2020 is unknown,
 Melik Haikaz’s 15th century manor in the Kashatagh region of the NKR (Republic of Artsakh) functioned as a hotel before the 2020 aggression.
The fate of monuments under Azeri occupation since 2020 is unknown,
Melik Haikaz’s 15th century manor in the Kashatagh region of the NKR.
The fate of monuments under Azeri occupation since 2020 is unknown,
Melik Haikaz’s 15th century manor in the Kashatagh region of the NKR.
The fate of monuments under Azeri occupation since 2020 is unknown,
Melik Haikaz’s 15th century manor in the Kashatagh region of the NKR.
Ruins of Melik Beglaryans’ manor in the Martakert region of the NKR, 18th century.
Ruins of Melik Beglaryans’ manor in the Martakert region of the NKR, 18th century.
Ruins of Melik Beglaryans’ manor, near Horeka monastery, 3-4 kilometers from the village of Talish in the Martakert region of the NKR, 18th century.
The fate of the monuments in the village is unknown after Togh was occupied in the Turkish-Azeri occupation in 2020.
The ruins of Melik Yeganyans’ manor in the village of Togh, Hadrut region of the NKR, 18th century.
The fate of the monuments in the village is unknown after Togh was occupied in the Turkish-Azeri occupation in 2020.
The ruins of Melik Yeganyans’ manor in the village of Togh, Hadrut region of the NKR, 18th century.                                                              
The fate of the monuments in the village is unknown after Togh was occupied in the Turkish-Azeri occupation in 2020.
The ruins of Melik Yeganyans’ manor in the village of Togh, Hadrut region of the NKR, 18th century.

Palace-fortresses were built by the princes of the Artsakh and Syunik provinces in earlier times and many built in the 13-14th centuries are known. Later these provinces comprised melikdoms or principalities ruled by meliks. Despite the fact that meliks were subordinate to the Persian shah, they had a significant degree of independence in their realms and although wars were not uncommon in the times when melikdoms prospered, the period has left a rich cultural inheritance.

Name of the melikdom






Tsar, upper basin of the Tartar river

At the end of the 17th c. Tsar merged with the melikdoms of Jraberd and Sodk

Melik-Shahnazaryans, who have descended from the Dopyans

Earlier, Aranshahiks and Smbatyans


Seats in Tsar town and Akanaberd


Stronghold: Handaberd fortress

15-17th c

Sodk or Gegharkunik

Verin (Upper) Khachen, southern and south-eastern shores of Lake Sevan

Seats: towns of Mets Mazra and Sodk

15-18th cc


Central Nerkin (Lower) Khachen, from the  Khachen river valley to the Baluja river


Seat: Khokhanaberd (Tarkhanaberd) fortress

15-8th cc


North-eastern Verin Khachen,

between the Kurak and Tartar rivers


Seats: Horekavan (Talish) and Gyulistan                                           Stronghold: Gyulistan fortress

17-18th cc


Northern Nerkin Khachen, the Tartr river basin, later also Tsar area


Seats: Kaghaqategh (place of a city) also called Mairaqaghak (capital city) and Mokhratagh,                Stronghold: Jraberd fortress

17-18th cc


From the Karkar river valley to the Kirs-Dizapait mountains,


Seat: the Avtetaranots fortified town

17-18th cc


From the Dizapait mountains to the Arax river,

Melik Yeganyans

Seat: the town of Togh (Dogh)

17-18th cc


Central and upper basin of the Aghavno (Hagari) river,

Melik Hajkazyans, descendants of Khaghbakyan-Proshyans of Syunik

Seats: Kashatagh(Kshtagh) and Khonatsakh (Khnatsakh)

15-18th cc

Voskapat and Barsum little melikdoms

From the northern slope of the Mrav mountains to the valley of Gandzak



17-18th cc