Nagorno Karabakh (the historical name "Artsakh") occupies the eastern and southeastern mountainous regions of Caucasus Minor, which forms the northeastern part of the Armenian Highlands. It stretches from the mountains that surround Lake Sevan to the east to the Yeraskh (Araks) river.
Nagorno Karabakh has been referred to under a variety of names during different historical periods: Urtekhe-Urtekhini, Orkhistene, Artsakh, Tsavdek, Khachen and Karabakh.
The first evidence of the ancient history of the region date back to the Acheul period of early Palaeolith (500 - 100 thousand years ago). Ancient tools and osteological materials, found in the caves of Vorvan-Azokh, Tsakhach, Unot and Khoradzor date back to that time period. The maxilla of a Neanderthal man, discovered in Vorvan-Azokh, holds special significance in tracing the anthropogenes process.
Excavations of settlements and burials of the bronze and iron ages (Stepanakert, Khodjalu, Krkzhan, Amaras, Mataghis, the valleys of Khachenaget and Ishkhanaget) testify that this territory was part of the area where the Kuro-Araks culture originated and functioned in the 4-3 millennium B.C.
Large burial mounds (Stepanakert, Khachenaget valley) dating to the 3rd millennium B.C. have a unique value for the Hindo-European studies of the Caucasus region. According to a number of researchers, these burial mounds represent the first shred of evidence regarding the ancient activity of the Hindo-Europeans.
Artsakh was in the Assyria's and Urartu's sphere of political and cultural influence during the beginning of the first millennium B.C. A bead and a carnelian bearing Assyrian king's name, Adad-Nirari, have been discovered. A cuneiform inscription of the Urartu king Sardur II, discovered near the village of Tsovk, is proof that his troops reached the country of Urtekhini (Artsakh).
The state of Urartu, which was referred to as the Ararat Kingdom in the Holy Bible, and its tribes are particularly important in the history of the Armenian people. After the fall of the Urartu Kingdom in the early 6th century B.C., Armenian ethnic groups began to play an active role in the region. Formation of the first Armenian kingdom dates back to this time. From its creation, the Armenian kingdom was forced to resist the Mediyan rule. In 550-331 B.C., the kingdom, which included Artsakh, fell under the rule of Akemenid Persia.
The borders of the state of Armenia, formed by the Artashesid dynasty in the early 2nd century B.C. fell followed the Kura River. According to a number of Greek-Roman and Armenian ancient authors, these were also the northeastern borders of the Armenian ethnic element. The Aranshahiks ruled Artsakh, which was a part of the Armenian kingdom. According to a legend regarding the origin of Armenians, Aran, the patriarch of this kin, was a descendent of Haik, the forefather of Armenians.
In the middle of the 1st century B.C., Armenia became the most powerful state in the Asia Front. Armenian King Tigran Mets (Tigran the Great), attached great significance to Artsakh and built the town of Tigranakert in Artsakh, one of only four towns that bore bore his name. Ruins of this town are in the vicinity of the present-day town of Agdam. Burial mounds, stone sculptures and holy sites carved into rocks survive today.
In 66-428 A.D., Artsakh was a part of the Arshakids Armenian kingdom. After its collapse, and Armenia's division between Persia and Byzantium, Artsakh was annexed to the Albanian kingdom, situated to the north of the river Kura. In 46,9 the kingdom was transformed into a Persian marzpanutyun retaining the name Albania (Aran in Persian).
In the beginning of the 4th century A.D., Christianity spread in Artsakh. The creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century, led to an unprecedented rise of culture in both Armenia and Artsakh. Mesrop Mashtots founded the first Armenian school in the Artsakh monastery of Amaras.
In the 5th century the eastern part of Armenia, including Artsakh, remained under Persian rule. In 451, Armenians waged a powerful revolt, known as the Vardanants war, in response to Persia's policy of conversion of Armenians to Zoroastrism. Artsakh took part in the war, during which its cavalry distinguished itself. After the suppression of the revolt, a considerable part of Armenian forces took shelter in the unreachable fortresses and thick forests of Artsakh to continue thier struggle against the foreign Persian yoke. At the end of the same century Artsakh and neighboring Utik united under the rule of Vachagan the Devout, an Aranshahik (487-510 A.D.). During his reign, Artsakh experienced a considerable growth in culture and science. As evidenced by one of the authors of that period, as many churches and monasteries were built as days in a year.
At the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries A.D., the Albanian "marzpanutyun" broke into several small principalities, which were no longer collectively referred to as "Albania."
Artsakh and Utik create a separate Armenian principality of the Aranshahiks. In the 7th century, Armenian Aranshahiks were replaced by the Mihranian dynasty of Persia, which converted rapidly converted to Christianity due to significant intermarriages.
In the second half of the 7th century, the political and cultural life in Artsakh continued to develop. In the 7th-8th centuries, a distinctive Christian culture was being shaped in Artsakh. The monasteries of Amaras, Orek, Katarovank, Djrvshtik and others acquire significant importance for Armenians.
From the beginning of the 7th century, noble houses of Khachen and Dizak gathered strength. The Prince of Khachen, Sahl Smbatian, and the Prince of Dizak,Yesayee Abu Mousseh, spearhead the struggle against Arabs. They, and later their heirs, succeed in making their borders unconquerable.
From the 10th century on, the Khachen principality began playing an immense political and cultural role in Artsakh. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Artsakh or Khachen was subjected to the invasion of nomadic Seljuk Turks, but managed to maintain their independence.
At the end of the 12th century and during the first half of the 13th century, Artsakh flourished. Valuable architectural ensembles such as the Hovhannes Mkrtich (John the Baptist) church, the portico ofGandzasar Monastery(1216-1260), the Dadi Monastery Cathedral (1214), and Gtchavank Cathedral (1241-1248) were built. All of these churches continue to be regarded as masterpieces of Armenian architecture.
In 1230-1240 the Tatar-Mongols conquered Transcaucasia. Due to the efforts of the Prince Hasan-Djalal, Artsakh partially succeeded in saving itself from destruction. However, after his death in 1261, Khachen also fell victim of Tatar-Mongols. The situation became worse in the 14th century during the Turkic rule of Kara-Koyunly and Agh-Koyunly tribes, which replaced the Tatar-Mongols. In that period many monuments and architectural wonders were destroyed. During this time period, the area began to be known as Karabakh.
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 (a Semite word, meaning "crowned head"). Further melikutyuns were united into five larger ones: Varanda, Khachen, Dizak, Jraberd, Gyullistan and became known as "Melikutyuns of Khamsa" (Arabic word for five).
In the 16-17th centuries, Artsakh Meliks spearheaded the liberation struggle of the Armenians against the Shah of Persia and the Sultan of Turkey. Along with the armed struggle Artsakh, meliks sent envoys to Europe and Russia asking for help from the Christian West.
In the middle of the 18th century, Panakh, one of the leaders of a Turkic tribe took advantage of the feudal struggle among the Karabakhi meliks and bunkered down in the Shushi fortress with the assistance of Varanda Melik Shahnazar II. He proclaimed Karabakh to be a khanate and himself - a khan. The Persian Court supported this move. The rights of local meliks were restricted. Penetration of Artsakh by foreign ethnic elements began, which later led to the change of its ethnic composition.
In the late 18th - early 19th century, the Russian Empire began to play a more active role in the region. As a result of the Russian-Persian war of 1804-13, Persia forever surrendered most of the Caucasus to Russia, including the Karabakh and Gandzak khanates. The treaty affirming this was signed on October 12, 1813, in the Artsakh fortress of Gulistan. This treaty which the groundwork for Russia's presence in the Transcaucasus.
The new Russian-Persian war of 1827-28 ended with the treaty of Turkmenchay on February 10, 1828. According to the treaty, Yerevan and Nakhichevan khanates, as well as the Ordubad province were given to Russia. This completed the annexation of almost the entirity of Eastern Armenia to Russia.
In 1840, Czarist Russia changed the administrative division of Transcaucasia and as the result, the Georgian-Imeret gubernia (Russian word for "province") centered in Tiflis, and the Caspian gubernia centered in Shamakha emerged. The Georgian-Imeret province included the bulk of the eastern Armenian territory, while a smaller part, including Karabakh, was incorporated into the Caspian province.
In the second half of 1840s, as a result of yet another administrative division, the Tiflis, Kutaisi, Shamakha and Derbent provinces were created. The Eastern Armenian territories were incorporated into the first three provinces, each with the status of a separate province. Derbent province included some parts of the Transcaucasus.
The December 9, 1867 Charter of the Czarist Russia divided the Transcaucasus into Kutaisi, Tiflis, Yerevan, Yelizavetpol and Baku provinces. Some parts of Eastern Armenia were incorporated into the Yerevan province, the others into the Yellizavetpol and Tiflis provinces. This administrative division remained until 1918.