The Nature to Azeri Claims to Artsakh (Karabakh)

The Nature to Azeri Claims to Artsakh (Karabakh)

During the early 20th century the Ardebil, East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces of Iran were collectively known as the Province of Azerbaijan. It lay south of the Araks (Araxes) river. This Azerbaijan was known as Lesser Media (or Medes) in ancient times.

The territory which today is under the rule of present-day Republic of Azerbaijan spans the area north of the Araks river and south of the Caucasian Range, including the territory of one-time Caucasian Albania (called Aghvank in Armenian or Arran in Persian and Arabic). Caucasian Albanians, a Christian nation having no relation to today’s Albania or its people, lived on that territory from the early centuries of our era to the Middle Ages. Arran/Albania bordered the Armenian provinces of Artsakh (known today primarily as Karabakh), Utik and part of Syunik, which were also collectively known as Eastern Armenian Provinces or Lands. The Caucasian Albanians were much influenced by the Armenian civilization and culture of that time.

In the beginning of the twentieth century Turkey was ruled by the Committee of Union and Progress, a militaristic party aimed at establishing a Pan-Islamic belt of nations in the region of the South Caucasus (Transcaucasia). To meet this objective, the “Musavat Democratic Islamic Party” was founded in Baku in 1911. In 1917 it merged with the “Turkish Federalism Party” and was renamed into “Turkish Federalist Musavat Party”. After the Bolshevik Revolution the Russian Empire showed cracks, and the territory north of the Araks river became independent. Although originally the various tribes and minorities living in the area (called collectively Turks or Tatars) intended to name the country “Eastern and Southern Transcaucasia”, the Musavat Party succeeded in calling the newly established country “Azerbaijan”. The name that for over two millennia belonged to a region south of the Araxes inside the territory of Iran, was given to a country that came into being in another location. Although this action took many in Iranian circles by surprise, they did not go any further than a formal diplomatic protest and took no serious action against the move. The naming of this new country “Azerbaijan” was such an artificial move that for a long time its inhabitants were continued to be called Tatars/Turks and only in around 1936 became “Azerbaijanis” or “Azeris”. Thus, the people inhabiting a country were named after it, not the other way, which is the prevailing practice.

The “Azeris” were quick to start the task of inventing a history. It was easier to lay claim to Islamic monuments built following Arab, Tatar and Mongol invasions, however difficulties arose with the other, bigger part of the cultural heritage, since majority of the monuments on the land were Christian, built by either Armenians or Albanians. This situation was unacceptable for the authorities of Azerbaijan from the very beginning of their republic. They set about to prove that the rich cultural heritage on the territories that they now ruled was the creation of their forefathers.  This difficult task entailed two stages of “proof”: 1) that they were the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians and 2) that all Christian monuments were Albanian and not Armenian. 

It is needless to mention that the government propaganda machine soon generated a vast amount of texts in all varieties of print media trying to “scientifically” confirm what this “research” was meant to reveal. Common sense shows that the very concept of an “ancient culture, architecture and history of Azerbaijan” is a logical non-starter. Azerbaijan as a country exists only since 1918, and anything else related to that name before that date can only have to do with the Azerbaijan province of Iran (Persia) south of the Araxes river, not the current location of the country called Azerbaijan. 

Humanity to this date has not invented any better way of showing the exact locations and relevant positions of countries than by drawing maps. There exist countless maps across the libraries and private collections on various continents that show the boundaries of the countries in South Caucasus since the times of first cartographers of the ancient world to our days. 

Robert Hewsen’s maps elsewhere on this site show how modern cartographers see historical borders in the region. They leave no room for misrepresentation. These maps are by far not the only ones. A few maps drawn by contemporaries in earlier times also provide a clear picture of the geographical positions of contemporary states.

Ibn Hauqal – The map of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Arran (Caucasian Albania) , AD10th century                Copy from the book “Surath ul-Ardh” kept in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul                          Maps on this and the next page are courtesy of Rouben Galichian, author of “Countries South of Caucasus in Medieval Maps” and other books on maps of the region.
Main FeaturesCities of ArmeniaCities of AzerbaijanCities of Caucasian Albania
A     Armenia1.    Dvin, the Capital10.  Ardebil, Capital20.  Bardaa, the capital
B    Azerbaijan2.    Nakhijevan11.   Jabervan21.  Shamkhur
C    Albania3.    Berkir12.  Khunj22.  Qabala
D    Araks River (blue)4.    Arjish 13.  Zanjan23.  Tiflis
E     Kura River (blue)5.    Khlat14.  Urmiya24.  Shamakhi
F     Mount Sabalan (brown)6.    Bitlis15.  Tabriz25.  Shirvan
G    Mount Ararat (brown)7.    Arzan16.  Maragaha26.  Shabaran
H    Lake Khlat (Van - green)8.    Miafarqin17.  Marand27.  Bab-ul-Abuab (Derbend)
J      Lake Urmiya (green)9.    Region of Van18.  Barzand28. Shaki
  19.  Varzaqan 


Ptolemy’s map of the Southern Caucasus  entitled: Map of Armenia Major, Albania, Iberia and Colchis. From Ptolemy’s Geographia printed in Ulm, 1482. Tabula III Asiae.           From Historic Maps of Armenia by R. Galichian (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.


Part of Senex’s map of the Caspian sea, 1742

The map above shows Aderbaijan (Azerbaijan -purple), various regional khanates (green), Armenia (yellow) and Georgia (red). The area known today as the Republic of Azerbaijan consists of the former khanates of Daghestan, Derbend, Shamakhi, Ganja and Shirwan (all green). Aderbaijan (purple) is shown inside the territory of Iran, south of the Araks river. 

These are just a few examples of maps of the region. They show the boundaries of Armenia, Albania and Azerbaijan at different times in history. A selection of many more could be found in R. Galichian’s “Countries South of Caucasus in Medieval Maps” (Gomidas Institute and PrintInfo Art Books, London-Yerevan 2007)․ 

One illustrious example of the Azeri efforts to ascribe to themselves the Armenian ownership of cultural heritage is quoted by R. Galichian in his book “The Invention of History: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Showcasing of Imagination”. He refers to an Azeri writer who went as far as to rename the world famous Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) into ‘khach-dashes’. “Khach” means “cross” in Armenian and “kar” means “stone”. The Azeri “expert” decided to keep the Armenian “khach” but changed “kar” into “dash’ which is “stone” in his language.

It comes as no surprise then that even when khachkars were considered by UNESCO for inclusion in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November, 2010, the Azeri government did its best to hinder that recognition. This time they claimed that khachkars were samples of the national art of the ethnic Udi minority, who in small numbers (an estimated from 4,000 to 10,000 persons) live in Azerbaijan. That the aim of such actions is to prevent the recognition of Armenian national culture by all means, is self-evident and was clear for UNESCO member-states as well, who decided in favour of recognizing khachkars as an Armenian art form valuable to all mankind. The logic remains somewhat unclear though that if khachkars were of Azeri or Albanian origin, and so dearly cherished by the Azeris, then why did Azerbaijan destroy the tens of thousands of unique khachkars on the territory of Nakhijevan?

Armenian Khachkar Art and Symbolism as Cultural Heritage of the Humanity 

The UNESCO Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is an Intergovernmental Committee established within the framework of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, decided that the symbolism and craftsmanship of Khachkars, Armenian cross-stones satisfy the criteria for inscription on the Representative List and inscribed the symbolism and craftsmanship of Khachkars, Armenian cross-stones on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (17 November 2010)

Khachkars are outdoor steles carved from stone by craftspeople in Armenia and communities in the Armenian Diaspora. They act as a focal point for worship, as relics facilitating communication between the secular and divine and as memorial stones among 

A khachkar from Sanahin Monastery

other functions. They usually have an ornamentally carved cross in the middle, resting on a symbol of the sun or wheel of eternity, accompanied by vegetative-geometric motifs, carvings of animals and people. They are erected in a small religious ceremony and after being blessed and anointed possess holy powers and can provide help, protection, victory, long life, remembrance, mediation toward salvation of the soul. Among the 50,000 Khachkars in Armenia each has its own pattern and no two are alike.

Khachkars are predominantly free-standing and rectangular-shaped, although they can be embedded in church walls or carved on the rocks around monasteries or shrines. Funerary stelae of feudal families and abbots could be placed on high pedestals or on their mausolea.

The Vandalism in Nakhijevan       

In 2005, the destruction of the thousands of historically valuable and beautifully-carved cross-stones in the medieval Armenian Cemetery of Julfa in a single act, preceded by the slower yet methodical destruction of thousands following the break-up of the Soviet Union, was a sheer act of barbarism. It caught the attention of the international public and was discussed at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2006 and by the European Union structures in 2008, who demanded that their fact-finding missions be allowed to inspect the scene. The European Union even passed a resolution condemning the act and the Council of Europe also decided to send a team to the site. No permission has been granted to either of these organizations or to the diplomats of different countries who also were alarmed by the report.

When Shah Abbas of Persia exiled 300,000 Armenians from Armenia to Iran in 1603-4, Nakhijevan lost a major portion of its population. In 1581-82, only the city of Julfa had had a population of ten thousand souls, all of them Christians. Nakhijevan survived and in the beginning of the 20th century had over 200 Armenian monasteries, churches and chapels (and only six mosques). Even though most of the Armenian population was ousted by the Azerbaijani administration during the 70 year Soviet period, a considerable number of Armenian monuments survived in some state or another.

Gravestones-khachkars (cross-stones) in the medieval Armenian cemetery of Julfa, Nakhijevan. Photo by Zaven Sargsyan
Gravestones-khachkars (cross-stones) in the medieval Armenian cemetery of Julfa, Nakhijevan. Photo by Zaven Sargsyan
Gravestones-khachkars (cross-stones) in the medieval Armenian cemetery of Julfa, Nakhijevan. Photo by Zaven Sargsyan

However, the destruction campaign, silently launched a few decades ago, came into full swing after the Azeris gained full control of the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union and soon all Armenian monuments, even the cemeteries were razed to the ground. The largest of Armenian cemeteries located in Nakhijevan, on the bank of the Araks had over 10,000 khachkars and tombs in 1648, of which 5,000 had survived by 1905. In 1998 a planned action of destroying the remaining tombstones was launched: they were dislodged and broken into pieces. Observers noticed this from the Iranian side of the border, across the Araks. According to ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments, the government of Azerbaijan removed 800 Khachkars (Stephen Castle. Azerbaijan ‘flattened’ sacred Armenia site. The Independent, London, 30 May 2006, App B). After protests from the United Nations and UNESCO the vandalism stopped to be only renewed with vengeance in 2005. The remaining Khachkars were broken into pieces, loaded onto dump trucks and then dumped into the river.  The cemetery was flattened and a military shooting range was built on its place.

Azerbaijani soldiers destroy grave-stones-khachkars and throw them into the River Araks.
Azerbaijani soldiers destroy grave-stones-khachkars and throw them into the River Araks.
A shooting ground built on the site of centuries-old Armenian graveyard.


Such has been the influence of official propaganda and falsification of history in a wide range of textbooks, history books, official documentation, and in other media for several consecutive decades, that generations of Azeris grew up believing these fictitious claims and fallacies. Following the initial chaos in the country after the gaining of independence in 1991, considerable oil revenues started flowing into Azerbaijan and more resources were invested in this campaign. Previously bound mainly to publications in Baku for the home audience and sometimes for the general Soviet reader, the Azeri propaganda now targets a global audience. No means are spared to prove the Azeri claims to both the lands and the cultural heritage which they insist have always been their own.  The numerous books, electronic publications and websites created to falsify history are full of “facts” that are untrue, mistakes and deliberate falsifications. They lack credibility to be seriously considered by the scholarly community and the educated public but create a “cloud” of distorted or untrue “knowledge” for the uninformed reader/browser. 

There is an apparent clash of logic in the Azerbaijani ideology: they claim to be of Central Asian Turkic origin and, concurrently, the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians who were Christians. Although a nation can derive from more than one origin, these origins logically cannot be distinctly separate and geographically that distant. This is even without mentioning that according to Strabo and other historians 26 tribes lived in Albania and merely referring to Albania is not precise enough. The confusion deepens further with the issue of heritage: if the Caucasian Albanians had converted to Islam by the tenth century or amalgamated with other ethnic groups, how could they still build the multitude of Christian churches, monasteries and cross-stones after that period and well into current times?

Even a DNA-based research carried out for London University proves that the ancestors of the Armenians of Syunik and Karabakh have been living in the same area since the Palaeolithic times, for nearly 40,000 years (M.E. Weale, Yepiskoposyan L., Jager R.F. Hovhannisyan N., Khudoyan A., Burbasge-Hall O., Bradman N., Thomas M.G., “Armenian Y chromosome haplotypes reveal strong regional structure within a single ethno-national group” (Human Genetics, 2001) Vol. 109, 659-674).   

It is well-known that Albania, which was converted to Christianity in the 4th century, lost its independence and came under Sassanid rule in the 6th century. The country disappeared from the maps and books altogether in period between the tenth and twelfth centuries. Since 1106 the Armenian Khachen family ruled the territory. This Armenian province stayed intact even under Mongol invasions as its Armenian rulers were able to establish good political relations with the Mongol overlords. 

The Armenian Meliks (princes) of Khamsa (a quintet of principalities) lived in the mountainous region of Karabakh and due to its invincible positions mainly remained autonomous.

After the rule of the Turkoman tribes during the 14th century, the Persians ruled most of the Caucasus from Caucasian Albania to Armenia to most of Georgia for nearly four centuries. The Persian rule came to an end after wars with Russia, particularly after the Treaty of Gyulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828 when these territories became part of the Russian Empire. 

The present day population of Azerbaijan is a mélange of Albanian, Persian, Turkic, Tatar and Mongol ethnicities. The only people living in the territory who are true descendants of the Albanians are the Christian Udis, living mainly in the northern district of Shaki and the Lezgis who converted to Islam in larger numbers and now live in the Daghestan Autonomous Republic of Russia and northern Azerbaijan, rather far from Armenian-populated areas.  When they existed as a separate state, Caucasian Albanians were well under Armenian influence, their spiritual leaders being appointed by the Armenian Catholicos, and Armenian being the language of their Holy Mass, etc.

Neither in terms of geography, nor political dominance, nor cultural heritage can Azerbaijan claim Karabakh.  However, they did and do, and create an everlasting source of confrontation and human suffering.