Once again, links with our ancestors are being broken on land that has always been ours—Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh). Whether the links can be repaired depends mostly on us, and to a degree upon how the world turns.
Armenia is one of the world’s oldest civilizations with a “recorded history of more than 3,500 years,” and its people are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands, located between Anatolia, Persia, and south of the Caucasus…” It is one of six countries on the sixth century Babylonian Clay Tablet, “the oldest world map known to us.” Based on a great many archaeological findings, ancient manuscripts and scientific research, “The Armenian Highlands are the very Cradle of Civilization.” Some of the world’s oldest things have been found in Armenia. Examples, in alphabetical order, are as follows:
- Agriculture – 7,500 years old: Depictions of ancient petroglyphs.
- Human Brain – 6,000 years old: “…Oldest of the human brains so far discovered in the world.”
- Metal Smelting Foundry – 6,000 years old: “The first iron in the ancient world was probably forged here.” It was discovered in Central Armenia near Metsamor.
- Shoe – 5,500 year old leather shoe: (“1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and 400 years older than Stonehenge.”) The shoe, known as Areni-1 shoe, was found in a cave in Vayots Dzor and looks like the traditional Armenian shoe called “charokh,” a type of traditional Armenian moccasin still popular in Armenia.
- Shirt – 5,900 years old: Made of reed, the clothing item was found in Southern Armenia in the Areni-1 cave.
- Sky Observatory – 7,500 years old: Known as “Carahunge” or “Zorats Karer,” it is a “Megalithic stone circle” located near the town of Sisian in the Syunik Province of Southern Armenia. The holes in the structure point at the sun, the moon, the stars, etc.
- Stone Age Tools – 325,000 years old: Discovered at the archaeological site in Nor Geghi, Armenia, a village in the country’s Kotayk Province, nearly 14 miles north of Yerevan.
- Wagons – 4,000 years old: four-wheeled and two-wheeled, as well as two-wheeled chariots.
- War Horses – 4,500 years old: “…Oldest burial place of a horse… (‘domesticated horse used for military purposes’)” located at Nerkin Naver (meaning Lower Grave in Armenian), nearly 19 miles west of Yerevan, close to Ashtarak.
- Winery – 6,100 years old: The Areni-1 winery in a cave complex in the province of Vayots Dzor is “important and unique because it indicates large-scale wine production, which would imply that the grape had already been domesticated.”
In his book The Armenians, John M. Douglas writes of the numerous invasions of Armenia: “The Seljuk Turks were warlike and predatory with no knowledge of farming and agriculture, and no appreciation of statecraft… They appeared around the 10th century… The fields of Armenia became a magnet of the Seljuk nomads…raiding towns and villages and killing thousands of Armenians…” The Kurds joined in the atrocities when the Seljuks invaded Ani, the capital city, in 1021.
“For 1,500 years Armenia was conquered by the Achaemenid Persians, Alexander the Great, the Byzantine Greeks, the Arabs, and then the Turks.” Eventually, the various conquerors left, but when the last of them—the Turks—came, they remained, causing, until today, the greatest harm of all to Armenia and her ancient civilization.
“The Turk has trodden this land; all is in ruins.” —Victor Hugo
The region of Artsakh has been a part of historic Armenia, as was Nakhichevan. The Armenian name Artsakh was derived, some sources state, from the word “Tsakh,” which in old Armenian means “woods,” for in Artsakh there are many thick forests. The Armenian word Nakhichevan means “the place of descent, in reference to the descent of Noah’s Ark on the adjacent Mount Ararat.”
At the beginning of the fifth century after the creation of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrob Mashtots, an extraordinary period of cultural development began in Artsakh. The people built “churches, trading centers, cultural institutions, and a capital at Shushi, with clusters of villages scattered all around the valleys.” The first Armenian school was founded by Mesrob Mashtots at the Amaras Monastery, (established in the fourth century by St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted Armenia to Christianity in 301 AD), in the south of Artsakh. “Artsakh’s architectural treasures as Hovhannes Mkrtich Church and Narthex at Gandzasar (1216-1260), Dadivank’s Cathedral Church (1214), and Gtchavank Monastery (1241-1248) were built in those days, and all of them are considered to be Armenian architectural masterpieces of the Middle Ages. By 1813, the Artsakh Diocese included 1,311 monuments and churches.”
Suffering domination and invasion after invasion, by the 15th century, Artsakh, under the yolk of nomadic tribes, numerous monuments and churches, built in previous centuries, were demolished. It was during this period that the name Nagorno Karabakh, from the Turkish word “black” and Persian word “garden,” began to be used by the invaders instead of the Armenian name Artsakh. In the 16th century, five Armenian Melikdoms (meaning principalities, while “melik designates an Armenian noble title in various Eastern Armenian lands…”) were formed: Dizak, Gulistan, Jraberd, Khachen, and Varanda in Artsakh and known as the “Khamsa Melikdoms.” These dynasties lasted until the 19th century and were able to mediate with aggressors. They also “posed an obstacle to the attempts of the Ottoman Empire to invade the region.”
Culturally and linguistically, Artsakh is related to nearby Syunik, and in both areas the dialects spoken are the “earliest ever recorded dialects of Armenian.” In May of 1918, when the Armenian Republic was formed, Armenia’s policymakers worked to reunify Artsakh with Armenia. The Turks, however, vehemently stated that the region be surrendered to the Azeris, a Turkic people once known as Tatars. Earlier, in 1915, not long after the Genocide of the Armenian people by the Turkish government, the Azeris not only wanted Artsakh, but also Zangezur (Syunik). One of the meanings of the Armenian name Zangezur given by the locals is “ringing in vain,” after a story about a bell).
Today, the killings of Armenians, the forceful takeover of their ancestral homeland both in Artsakh and Armenia’s Syunik region, and the malicious destruction and eradication of Armenian ancient cultural and heritage sites, including churches, as well as the confiscation of property and means of livelihood, continues. Artsakh’s population is 145,000; Armenia’s population is 2.9 million; and Azerbaijan’s population is 10 million, with a “GDP of $45 billion.” On August 16, 2021, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev stated, “We are ready to teach them another lesson!” The statement was made during a television interview in which Aliyev was referring to the Azeri-initiated unprovoked attack on Artsakh, which began on September 21, 2020 and ended on November 10, 2020. Seventy percent of tiny Artsakh was taken over by the aggressors with the aim of confiscating the remainder of Artsakh and Armenia’s Syunik region, located in the southern part of the country. “Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly described Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) and other parts of Armenia as ‘historical Azerbaijani lands.’”
As the unprovoked attack continued by Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey, sophisticated drones, weapons and foreign mercenaries were used to kill Armenian men, women and children, as well as the destruction of their homes and various places, I was reminded of the book by William Watson titled The Purple East—a series of sonnets on England’s desertion of Armenia (1896, London). The first of the sonnets is titled “The Turk in Armenia.” The author writes:
“…Thou canst hear the wail of women martyred by the turbaned crew
whose tenderest mercy was the sword that slew,
and lift no hand to wield the purging flail? …”
And, in his sonnet, titled “The Plague of Apathy,” Watson writes:
“…Indifference like a dewless night hath come…
The unconcerned, they flourish: loud are some,
And without shame.
The multitude stand dumb…”
In the online article by Hovsep Kanadyan titled “The Real Perpetrator of the 2020 Artsakh War,” dated October 9, 2020, he writes that President Emmanuel Macron of France stated that the “confrontation was launched by Azerbaijan and that the attack was not justified.” Francois Hollande, former president of France, stated: “This is a war initiated by Azerbaijan with Turkey’s support,” while Argentina’s foreign minister stated that “Armenia is not an aggressor.” Earlier, in July of 2020, the Azerbaijani authorities “threatened to strike Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant.” Fortunately, they did not go through with the perilous threat. Artsakh, with its minuscule military budget, could not protect itself from Azerbaijan’s aggression, military tactics and mercenary reinforcements. As for Turkey, Kanadyan writes, “Turkey is interested in both Artsakh and Armenia for two broad reasons: Increasing its influence in the South Caucasus region and contributing to its Pan-Turkic agenda.”
Turning to the pages of history, on July 4, 1921, in Tbilisi, Georgia, “The Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party organized an executive meeting, during which the fact that Nagorno Karabakh constituted part of the Armenian SSR was confirmed.” Early the next morning, however, Moscow, “following Stalin’s personal intervention, a new decision was made, placing ‘Nagorno Karabakh within the jurisdiction of Azerbaijani SSR as an autonomous oblast.’” “A group of Bolsheviks, led by Stalin, decided to pass the territories of one state to another recently created state, which in 1918 had been named Azerbaijan.” Before the middle-of-the-night clandestine meeting led by Stalin, Nagorno Karabakh had “never been a part of independent Azerbaijan.” When the Armenians of Artsakh expressed their wish for independence, the Azeri government responded with harassment, denial of their rights and liberties, killings and destruction. Throughout Soviet rule, the Artsakh Armenians had “appealed to the USSR authorities to re-establish Nagorno Karabakh as part of the Armenian SSR,” with no results.
Under Azeri domination, the Armenian people endured and continue to endure oppression, “large-scale massacres and ethnic cleansing…” As a result, in February of 1988, having reached the boiling point, the Armenians concluded that their only recourse against such extreme tyranny was to fight for freedom, and thus the First Nagorno Karabakh War, a territorial and ethnic struggle, commenced. A few years later, in December of 1991, when the Soviet Union “was dissolved, two independent and legally equal states were formed on the territory of the former Azerbaijani SSR—the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh.” In a legitimate manner, no longer was Nagorno Karabakh under Azeri subordination with its deep-rooted animosity and religious enmity toward the minority Armenian population and their Christian religion. During the First Nagorno Karabakh War, the Azeri government had turned “its policy of ethnic cleansing into full-scale military aggression against the people employing among its regular armed forces, militia and gangs, also more than 2,000 mercenaries from international terrorist hubs…” Despite the odds, the Armenians were victorious in their struggle for self-determination and in May of 1994, a ceasefire agreement was signed. The Artsakh military was able to “reclaim most of the territory that had been taken by the Azerbaijani army…” As the years passed, though always under constant threat, the people of the Republic of Artsakh, with the aid of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora, began to rebuild what had been destroyed during the first Artsakh war.
Then, on the morning of September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, launched an unprovoked attack on Artsakh. Many lives were lost, and 70 percent of Artsakh was taken. But this was not the end or enough, the final phase of the attack on Artsakh by the Azerbaijan government was the destruction of anything Armenian—the seizure of their historic, ancient land, the obliteration of all Armenian cultural and heritage sites—the eradication of all forms of Armenian identity in the region. Monuments, archaeological sites, buildings, in particular Armenian churches and headstones called khachkars (cross stones) are taking place, as they have been for years, and the rewriting of history by eradicating the word Armenian and replacing it with “Caucasian Albanian,” who were a short-lived, “ancient kingdom composed of several tribes…” They eventually assimilated, and today the remnants of the assimilated tribes total “about 10,000 people” and are called Udi. The Caucasian Albanian theory, presented by Azerbaijani historians, “beginning in the 1950s and 1960s has framed Azerbaijani’s history as natives to the land, not as ‘invader’ as previous histories, centered around Azerbaijani’s origins as Turkic nomads, had explained it.” With the current on-going threatening situation in Artsakh following the last war, the Caucasian Albanian theory has gained momentum in Azerbaijan, with the culture minister stating, for example, that the ancient Armenian monastery, Dadivank (named after St. Dadi, and the Armenian word vank meaning monastery), was built by the Caucasian Albanians. Recently, Azerbaijan announced the creation of a new center for Caucasian Albanian studies.
Dadivank, completed in the 9th to 13th centuries, and also known as Khutavank (in Armenian meaning monastery on the hill) is “one of the main monastic complexes of Medieval Armenia.” The monastery was “a famous center of literary production during the Medieval Period.” “The British art historian Anthony Eastmond considers the construction of Dadivank to be an example of female church patronage in the Armenian world of the 13th century.” In 2001, the Muslim population in the region “ruined the monastery as much as it could.” For that reason, the abbot of Dadivank arranged to have the monastery’s relics, bells, crosses and khachkars transported to Armenia to prevent the religious objects from being destroyed by the Azeri government. And now, Armenia itself is being eyed by the Azeris, in particular Armenia’s Syunik region, claiming that it too, just as Nakhichevan, belongs to them.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” — Edmund Burke
The village of Shvanidzor is located in the southern part of Armenia in the Syunik region or Syunyats Ashkhar (ashkhar meaning world in Armenian), as it is also known. Syunik is the most mountainous terrain (Zangezur mountains) in Armenia and Transcaucasia. Because of the mountains, it was in this area and in Artsakh that small Armenian principalities were established to resist Turkish and Persian invaders and to defend their independence. Davit Bek, who was from the area, was “one of the most prominent military figures of the Armenian liberation movement of the 18th century.” It is also the home of Tatev Monastery and its fortifications, “a 9th century Armenian Apostolic monastery…” The complex “played a significant role in the history of the region as a center of economic, political, spiritual, and cultural activity.” In the “14th and 15th centuries, the monastery hosted one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, the University of Tatev, which contributed to the advancement of science, religion and philosophy, reproduction of books and development of miniature painting…”
One of the typical landscape features of the region are the “stone forests,” which were formed in rocks by the sun, wind and water, thus creating “fantastic sculptures in the rocks.” The “stone forests” once served as dwellings. During Armenia’s pagan times, plane trees that grew in the area surrounded the pagan temples. The temple priests used to “prophesy the future by the noise of their leaves.” There are a number of ancient and medieval monuments, along with fortresses, orchards, and vineyards in this rugged yet beautiful region of Armenia. A variety of fruit are grown, including red and yellow pomegranates. Cattle and sheep breeding are an important means of livelihood for the locals.
Several years ago, when I was in Shvanidzor, the birthplace of my father, grandfather and forefathers, I asked some elderly people how long they had been living in the village. They replied, first pointing toward the cemetery in the distance, and then saying, “We and our ancestors before us, have always lived on this land. It is on this land where they are buried and where we will one day be buried. We will never abandon our ancestors and sacred soil!” Similar words were spoken by others, including children, in various parts of Armenia and Artsakh. In a video interview of an elderly Armenian man in Nakhichevan, he stated, “Though this land was ours before it was taken from our people, it is now unsafe for Armenians to live here. Despite the dangers, though, a handful of us remain to protect what is ours, what has always been ours!”
In a small, mountainous region, not well known by the larger world and surrounded mostly by non-Christians, some of whom are extremely hostile and ruthless, Armenia and her people are a fitting example of the term “survival of the fittest.” They have endured countless trials and tribulations over the centuries, lost much again and again, yet they have held fast to their faith, culture, and love of homeland. They continue, as their forefathers before them, to be creators, innovators, builders and thinkers, even during their darkest periods in history.
In the poem “A Song of Fatherland,” by Father Ghevont Alishan (1820-1901), member of the Mekhitarist Congregation, historian, poet and originator of the first modern Armenian flag in 1885, wrote:
“We are the sons of valiant men,
Armenians great and free;
Our grandsires were descended
From a hero ancestry…
…No nation can survive unless
It glows with patriot flame…
Armenia, sit no longer mute
And hidden in the shade…!”
Blackwell, Alice Stone. Armenian Poems, Atlantic Printing Co. Boston, MA. 1917.
Brief History of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), MIA Publishers, Yerevan, Armenia, 2013.
Douglas, John M. The Armenians, J.J. Winthrop Corp., NY, NY. 1992.
Khorenatsi, Moses. History of the Armenians, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Lang, David Marshall. Armenia—Cradle of Civilization, George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1970.
Langer, William L. An Encyclopedia of World History, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1940.
Soviet Armenia, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971.
The Armenian People—From Ancient to Modern Times, (Edited by, Richard. G. Hovannisian), Volume 1 and 2, St. Martin’s Press, NY., 1997.
Watson, William, The Purple East—a series of sonnets on England’s desertion of Armenia, London, 1896, Reprint from the collection of the University of California Libraries.