Pre-history: From Ancient Times to Christianity

The Eastern Parts of Armenia (a historical collective name for Artsakh and Utik) play an extremely important role in Armenia’s history. Artsakh (Karabakh), an integral part of historic Armenia, was the tenth Province of Greater Armenia and was referred to under a variety of names during different periods of history, such as: Urtekhe-Urtekhini, Orkhistene, Artsakh, Tsavdek, Khachen and Karabakh (Gharabagh).                                          Before the 4th century Artsakh also included the eastern shores of the Lake Sevan (Tsavdek or Sodk).

Artsakh occupies the eastern and south-eastern mountainous regions of the Caucasus Minor (Lesser Caucasus), which form the north-eastern part of the Armenian Highlands (or Armenian Plateau). It stretches from the mountains that surround Lake Sevan to the east to the Yeraskh or Araks (Araxes) river. Thus, the northern and central parts of Artsakh belonged to the Kura river basin and the southern part to the Araks river basin.

The country’s mostly mountainous area includes the mountain ranges of Artsakh/Karabakh and Mrav. As a province of Armenia it bordered the provinces of Utik (in the north and east), Syunik (in the west), and Paitakaran (in the south). Artsakh had twelve gavars (regions, districts): Myus Haband, Vaikunik, Berdzor, Metsirank, Metskunk, Harjlank, Moukhank, Piank, Parzkanq, Kusti Parnes, Kotak of Sisakan and Kokht. 

As a part of Armenia Artsakh is mentioned in the works of Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, and other ancient authors. The Greek geographer Strabo (1st century BC), for instance, mentioned that Karabakh, which then encompassed both the mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh of today and the larger lowlands surrounding it, had a highly developed economy and was famous for its cavalry ( geographyofstrab05strauoft#page/n5/mode/2up).

The earliest evidence of the ancient history of the region dates back to the Acheulian period of the early Palaeolithic (500,000 – 100,000 years ago). Ancient tools and Osteological materials, found in the caves of Vorvan-Azokh, Tstsakhach and Khoradzor date back to that period. The maxilla of a Neanderthal man, discovered in Vorvan-Azokh, holds special significance in tracing anthropogenic processes. 

Excavations of settlements and burial grounds of the bronze and iron ages (now Stepanakert, Ivanian (former Khojalu), Krkzhan, Amaras, Mataghis, the valleys of the Khachenaget and Ishkhanaget) testify that this territory was part of the area where the Kura-Araxes culture originated and thrived in the 4th-3rd millennium B.C. 

Large burial mounds (Stepanakert, Khachenaget valley) dating to the 3rd millennium BC are extremely important for the Indo-European studies of the Caucasus region and are said to represent primary evidence on the ancient activities of the Indo-Europeans. 

One of the cuneiform inscriptions of the Urartu king Sardur (Sarduri) II                                              Museum of History of Armenia, Yerevan

Having been in Assyria’s and Urartu’s sphere of political and cultural influence, Artsakh was known during the Urartian era (9th-6th centuries BC) as Urtekhe-Urtekhini. A bead, and a carnelian bearing the Assyrian king’s name (Adad-Nirari) discovered in Artsakh and a cuneiform inscription of the Urartu king Sardur (Sarduri) II, discovered near the village of Tsovak, Republic of Armenia, point to the fact that the latter’s troops reached the country of Urtekhini (Artsakh). 

The Kingdom of Urartu (Van), which was referred to as the Ararat Kingdom in the Holy Bible, is a particularly important period in the history of the Armenian people. The first Armenian kingdom known as such dates back to the fall of the Urartu Kingdom in the early 6th century B.C.  Having to confront the ancient Median State from its early days, the Armenian kingdom, which included Artsakh, fell under the rule of Achaemenid Persia in the 6th-4th centuries BC and was ruled by the Yervanduni (Euranduni or Orontid) family. 


Orontid (Yervanduni) Armenia, 4th-2nd centuries BC                                                                                                                                                                                       The map clearly shows that even if data on some tribes from that time is not precise, the borders of Armenia, including Artsakh, have been clear.                                              Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen 

The borders of Armenia, under the Artashesean or Artashesid (Artaxiad) dynasty in the early 2nd century B.C., followed the Kur (Kura) river and also incorporated Artsakh, thus covering the area where ethnic Armenians inhabited. Artsakh was ruled by the Aranshahiks: according to a legend regarding the origin of Armenians, Aran, the patriarch of this family, was a descendent of Haik, the forefather of Armenians. 

Artashesean or Artaxiad Armenia, 180 BC—AD14                                                                                                                                                                                    Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen
Armenian Empire under Tigran the Great, 95-66 BC                                     Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen

In the middle of the 1st century BC, Armenia became the most powerful state in the larger region. The Armenian King Tigran Mets (Tigranes the Great), attached great significance to Artsakh and built the town of Tigranakert (Tigranocerta) in Artsakh, one of the four towns bearing his name. Ruins of this town were discovered in Karabakh after the area was liberated in the war of 1991-94 and ongoing excavations provided sufficient material for the new museum nearby, before the town site and the museum were occupied as a consequence of the 2020 Turkish-Azeri aggression. 


Tigran the Great (95-55 BC) founded four cities in his name; however their locations were not very clear. The Artsakh archaeological expedition of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, headed by Dr. Hamlet Petrossyan has carried out excavations on the site of Artsakh Tigranakert since 2005 . The expedition has unearthed a section of the Citadel, the rocky foundations of the Fortified district, the Central district, from a later period - a basilica church in the early Christian necropolis, and some other sections. The excavations have shown that Tigranakert was built according to a single plan, using modern methods and skills of Hellenistic construction, and was a town of many districts built in white stone.

Findings from the site were housed in the Tigranakert Museum located on the foot of the hill on which the foundations of the city walls have been unearthed. Modern and well organized, the museum displayed many exhibits from the ancient town and gives a good idea of the Armenian culture during the time of the great Armenian king, before it was occupied in the Turkish-Azeri occupation in 2020. (See the Museums of Artsakh chapter for more information).


The excavations of Tigranakert.
The city site on the slope of the hill, right. The Vankasar church on top of Vankasar, and the Tigranakert museum at the foot of the hill.

The fate of the archaeological site and the museum are unknown after they were occupied as a result of the Azeri-Turkish aggression in 2020.

Caucasian Albania with Armenian lands under Persian rule  Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen

Albania (which Armenians call Aghvank proper, excluding Armenian regions temporarily attached to it under Persian rule) was the generic name given to the twenty-six tribes living north of Artsakh. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, they lived north of the river Kura to the Caucasian Mountain Range and from Virk (Iberia) to the Caspian Sea. These tribes unified into one kingdom in the first century of our era but never turned into one nation. 

In AD 66-428, Artsakh was a part of the Arshakuni (Arsacid) Armenian kingdom. After AD 387, Armenia was partitioned between Byzantium and Persia. Eastern Transcaucasia, including Artsakh and Utik, came under Persian rule. This did not affect the ethnic borders of the region until the late Middle Ages; the right bank of the Kur (Kura river), along with Artsakh (Karabakh) continued to remain Armenian inhabited. After the fall of the Arsacids in AD 428, Artsakh, with other parts of Armenia, was annexed to the Albanian kingdom, situated to the north of the Kur (Kura) river (see the map above) . In AD 469 the kingdom was transformed into a Persian marzpanutyun (marzpanate, “marzpan” meaning a governor) retaining the name Albania (Aghvank  or Aghuank in Armenian, Aran in Persian). 

Armenia as known to the Romans, AD 63-299 Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen

In the early 4th century Christianity spread in Artsakh as in other parts of Armenia. The creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century, led to an unprecedented rise of culture in all of Armenia, including Artsakh. Tradition has it that Mesrop Mashtots founded the first Armenian school at the Amaras Monastery of Artsakh, in the Martuni region of the present Republic of Mountainous Karabakh. The monastery itself, had been founded by Grigor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator), the person credited with making Armenia Christian and the first Catholicos of Armenian. 

Armenian missionaries spread Christianity among the Albanians in 370s AD. In the fifth century, the Albanians too adopted the Armenian brand of

The Amaras Monastery

Christianity. Historians state that based on the language of the Gargars (one of the many Albanian tribes) Mesrop Mashtots created the Albanian alphabet. Unfortunately, because of lack of material written in that language, scholars have been unable to decipher it this far. The majority of Albanian tribes converted to Islam when Arabs conquered the region and were later assimilated with invader Turkic tribes. Some, as Lezgis, escaped to Daghestan, presently a republic in the Russian Federation. 

Only some, like the Udis, have retained their national (Christian) characteristics to some extent. Given the centrality of religion to social life during that period, it is not surprising that in the following two centuries some of the Albanians merged with the Armenians. The nobility intermarried, the region’s bishops were often Armenians, and by the seventh century the separate identity of the Albanians in the region was lost.