The Ancient Armenian Land of Artsakh

Continuing the search for authenticity, truth and the origins of the world, I visited the ancient Armenian land of Artsakh several years ago and studied some of its numerous exquisite ancient Armenian monuments.

I was particularly impressed by the architectural and high esthetical value of Amaras Monastery.

By tradition, it was founded as early as the start of the fourth century by St. Gregory the Illuminator (257-331 AD) and served as a major point for the spread of Christianity in the fourth century.

This happened in the context of two historical facts. The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches and was founded in the first century. Armenia is the first country who adopted Christianity as its official dogma in 301 AD.

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Amaras Monastery is also the burial place of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s grandson, St. Grigoris, who died in 338 AD.

St. Grigoris’ tomb still lies in the monastic complex.

Mesrop Mashtots (361-440 AD), who invented the Armenian alphabet in 406 AD, established in Amaras Monastery the first-ever school that used his script at the beginning of the fifth century.

Subsequently, Amaras Monastery developed into a prominent religious and educational center in medieval Armenia, also serving as a center of manuscript production and preservation.

Since the invasion of Arabic (821 AD), Turkomanic (eleventh century) and Mongolian (1223 AD) tribes from the East, the Monastery has been subjected to various attacks. It was raided and plundered in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, destroyed in 1387 during Tamerlane‘s invasion, and demolished again in the sixteenth century.

Apart from its unique esthetical value, Amaras Monastery serves as a historical and cultural symbol.

The founding of Amaras Monastery at the start of the fourth century and its development into a major religious, cultural and educational center where prominent representatives of the Armenian nation have served, created and taught, proves the historical identity of Artsakh as an ancient Armenian land and cradle of Armenian civilization.

A tragic fate and historical injustice has befallen Nakhichevan, usurped by Azerbaijan.

According to Koriun Vardapet, the pupil of Mesrop Mashtots, Nakhichevan is a major place where the Armenian scholar and theologian Mesrop Mashtots worked on the creation of the Armenian Alphabet and founded among the first Armenian schools.

About 1055 AD, the Seljuk Turks captured Nakhichevan, putting an end to its cultural development and prosperity.

I subsequently visited other significant ancient Armenian monuments in Artsakh.

Tzitzernavank, a fifth century Armenian church, stands out with its beautiful three-nave basilica.

The basilica of Tzitzernavank by tradition contains relics of St. George the Dragon-Slayer.

Yeghishe Arakyal Monastery was built in the fifth century. The monastic complex presently barely survives, purposefully left to decay under Azerbaijani control, in an effort to erase the cultural traces and the historical identity of the ancient Armenian land of Artsakh.

Dadivank Monastery (Photo: George Tsangaris/Armenian Weekly)

Dadivank monastery, first mentioned in the ninth century, was founded by St. Dadi, a disciple of Thaddeus the Apostle, who spread Christianity in Eastern Armenia during the first century.

Gandzasar monastery, March 2018 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Yerevantsi)

Gandzasar Monastery, founded in 1216 AD, stands out with its remarkable architecture, its stone-sculptured dome with magnificent reliefs, its impressive gavit, the khachkars and the Armenian carvings insculped on its walls.  

Gandzasar had a large scriptorium where ancient manuscripts have been preserved, reproduced and illuminated.

The Red Gospels of Gandzasar are safe under the preservation of the University of Chicago.

It was in Gandzasar where Mkhitar Gosh, the thirteenth century scholar, compiled his work “Code of Laws,” Armenia’s first compilation of civil legal regulations. 

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Gandzasar by legend serves as the repository of venerated Christian relics, notably the head of St. John the Baptist. 

Gandzasar was raided by Mongol hordes in the beginning of the thirteenth century and by Turkomanic gangs in the eighteenth century. 

Horekavank Monastery, repaired in the thirteenth century, by legend serves as the repository of the Holy Cross, brought by Mesrop Mashtots. 

The Armenian monastic complexes of ancient Artsakh have thus served as major points of the Armenian Enlightenment/Renaissance, where major representatives of Armenian culture have served, worked and taught as early as the fourth century.

They have facilitated the spread and teaching of the Armenian alphabet, the foundation of the first Armenian schools, the spread of Christianity as early as the first century, and the preservation, reproduction and illumination of ancient manuscripts.

They have served as the burial place of ancient Armenian nobility and the refuge of the population within the monastic complex fortifications during the times of Persian, Arabic, Turkomanic and Mongol invasions.    

In all, the Armenian monastic complexes of Artsakh serve as a symbol of Armenian Enlightenment and Renaissance and opposition to the danger from the East, safeguarding the furthest Eastern front of the Western culture. 

Apart from their historical and cultural role and function, they are irrefutable masterpieces of the multiple forms of Armenian architecture, sculpture and art which have evolved over the centuries and coexist in the masterpieces of ancient Artsakh.

Nevertheless, the Armenian cultural and historical treasures of ancient Artsakh have been subjected to hostility, both against the structural complexes and against their historical and cultural identity. 

Due to their precarious geographic location, they have been under constant danger.

Military offensives from Azerbaijan and treasure hunters have caused significant damage to the structural complexes over time, and major political leaders of Azerbaijan have insulted and attempted to usurp the historical and cultural identity of the Armenian monuments of ancient Artsakh.

The Armenian monuments of ancient Artsakh have been given false characterizations, e.g. ‘Albanian-Azerbaijani’ or even ‘part of Azerbaijan’s purported cultural heritage’, purposefully and ridiculously ignoring the Armenian script engraved on their walls, proof of their historical identity.

The Azerbaijani offensive against Artsakh escalated before the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1988-1991). 

Although the vast majority of the population of Artsakh has historically been Armenian, ethnic tensions between the indigenous Armenian majority and the Azerbaijani minority have continued since 1988.

The intense military struggle lasted until the ceasefire of 1994, but hostilities have continued over the years, culminating with the current violation of the ceasefire and the resumption of the Azerbaijani offensive in 2020. 

In all, the resumption of the Azerbaijani offensive against the ancient Armenian land of Artsakh is a continuation of the persecution of the Armenian nation and its geographical, historical and cultural integrity.

The Armenian nation, an ancient Mesopotamian nation stemming from the ancient people of Urartu, primarily settled around Lakes Van/Sevan/Urmia, the sources of the Euphrates River and Mt. Ararat, has historically been subjected to mass persecutions, threatening its very existence.

Indigenous to a very precarious geographical location, the Armenians have been subject to partition and mass movement of population multiple times:

  1. In 387 and 591 between the Greek-Byzantine (Rum) and the Persians. 
  2. In 1555 and 1639 between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians.

This has been followed by the Tatar/Azeri hostilities against the indigenous Armenians in 1905 and the multiple genocides against the Armenian nation, before, during and after 1915, including the massacre of 10-thousand Armenians of Nakhichevan by the Ottoman Turks in 1918, when they captured Nakhichevan.

Hostilities and ethnic and religious prejudice against Armenians continue in Turkey, which continues to deny its responsibility and the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007 is just one more example of the continued persecution of the Armenians in Turkey. 

Pan-Turkic ultra-nationalistic and fundamentalist aspirations are thriving and expanding, using mercenary forces, and taking advantage of the weaknesses of the West to stop them.

The current offensive of Azerbaijan against the national, territorial, historical and cultural identity and integrity of the ancient Armenian land of Artsakh is a continuation of the human, historical and cultural genocide of the Armenian nation.

West and East are clashing again, under the disguise of religion.  

The values of the Western world, including civil rights, democracy, education, freedom of speech and expression, equality of the genders, are in peril.

It is the West’s responsibility to stop this continued genocide once and for all, to oppose the threat from the East and to maintain and protect its cultural and historical roots and integrity.

If not, the West will pay the price of a continued, expansionist and more violent invasion from the East, the consequences of which are already visible with the recent violent fundamentalist episodes in France, Austria and other European countries.

Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis

Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis

A native of Athens, Greece, Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis is a graduate of the University of Athens School of Medicine. He has completed residencies and research fellowships at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He's now a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Mavrakis is fluent in Greek, English, Spanish, German and French and conversational in Turkish. He is interested in the preservation of historical memory and historical conscience and the photography of endangered monuments. A student of ancient Greek, Dr. Mavrakis also takes special interest in the study of the still surviving ancient civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamian-Armenian, Greek and Jewish.
Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis

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13 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this amazing article, with my broken spirt and tears in my eyes I just hope and pray that one day I will be able to visit Artsakh and see these magnificent places.

    • Thank you.
      In order to support the historical claim, you need to place Artsakh in its historical context.
      I cannot understand Artsakh outside Armenia.

    • Thank you Dr. Anastasios Mavrakis for this beautiful article on Artsakh. As the daughter of an Armenian Genocide survivor I did not have the chance to visit Artsakh, however your article took me to a beautiful journey to my ancient homeland.

  2. Thank you for your complete and very interesting article !
    As half greek ,half Armenian living in France (descent from Armenian Genocid 1915) traveling through Armenia I didn’t have the opportunity to visit Artsakh till now. Expecting justice and peace in front of barbary…

    • Thank you.
      It is historical justification and predominance of the civilized world.
      Artsakh is a masterpiece of Armenian culture for all of us to admire.

    • Thank you.
      Historical truth, justice and civilization have to prevail.
      It is every civilized person’s responsibility.

  3. Thank you Dr. Mavrakis for this article! I was fortunate to visit Artsakh in 1994 and 1995. The dirt road to Amaras Monastery was an adventure since it had rained for three days in a row and our Lada got stuck in the mud multiple times but we managed to push it over the cliffs and by the time we made it to the village, we were covered in mud. Amaras Monastery left a deep impression on me. The burial tomb of St. Grigoris which I touched with my own hands was an enlightening moment. Alas its preservation now is in the hands of a culture that doesn’t believe Armenians were the architects who built these historic Christian masterpieces. So sad!

  4. I would like to learn more about Armenia and the Armenians from before the advent of Christianity. How far back does documented history take us? How far back does archaeology? How far back traditions and stories and legends?

    • Thank you for your message.
      Armenians are most probably an ancient Mesopotamian nation stemming from the ancient Urartu.
      There is a lot of Urartu archaeology in Lake Van, the epicenter of Urartu-ancient Armenian culture.
      The Kingdom of Urartu thrived in the 9th to 6th century BCE.
      You may want to look up ‘Urartu’ on the internet for more information.

  5. Dear Dr. Mavrakis,
    Thanks for your very interesting article about Artsakh. Are all the monuments you describe lost to Azebeidzjan now? What a pity.
    Best regards, Herman Keijer

    • Thank you for your message.
      I am very concerned in regards to the fate of Amaras Monastery, Tzitzernavank and Dadivank.
      I do not know what their status will be in the new order.

  6. Thank you Dr Mavrakis for this enlightening look at Artsakh’s precious monuments. It’s devastating to know that they might no longer exist once Azerbaijan takes hold of them. I never got to see Arsakh when I went to Armenia, and I regret it bitterly. I’m praying that Western powers and institutions might be able to prevail on the Azeri government to respect the historical and religious sites of Ancient Armenia. But knowing Azerbaijan’s previous barbaric behaviour does not leave me much hope…

    • Thank you for your message.
      You are describing the need I felt to write this article and to justify the historical claim.
      I cannot understand Artsakh outside Armenia.
      This injustice based on political motives is horrific and dangerous.

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