The ancient history of Karabakh, nestled within the cradle of the South Caucasus, is a captivating journey through the mists of time. Owing to its temperate climate, rich flora and diverse fauna, there are claims that the region was amongst the first where civil society developed. Excavations at the Azikh cave, situated near present day Fuzuli, have revealed ancient traces of human contact through the discovery of fragments of a woman’s skull who lived approximately 350, 000 – 400,000 years ago.

The mysteries of a region whose roots extend deep into antiquity are revealing a tapestry woven with the threads of ancient civilizations, cultural exchange, and a unique heritage that has endured for millennia.

  1. Bronze Age Settlements:Archaeological excavations in Karabakh have unearthed evidence of human habitation dating back to the Bronze Age. The region’s fertile valleys and strategic location made it an attractive settlement for early inhabitants. Discoveries of ancient artifacts, tools, and pottery offer glimpses into the daily lives of these early societies, laying the foundation for the rich history that would unfold over the centuries.
  2. Urartian Influence:By the 9th century BCE, the powerful Urartian Kingdom extended its reach into the South Caucasus, leaving an indelible mark on the region, including parts of Karabakh. Fortresses, irrigation systems, and inscriptions bearing the Urartian language attest to the kingdom’s presence, underscoring Karabakh’s significance as a strategic and cultural center during this period.
  3. Achaemenid Persia:The ebb and flow of empires continued with the Achaemenid Persians, who incorporated Karabakh into their vast realm. The region became a melting pot of Persian influence, contributing to the cultural mosaic that would characterize Karabakh in the centuries to come. Trade routes flourished, connecting Karabakh to the larger Persian world and facilitating the exchange of ideas, goods, and technologies.
  4. Hellenistic and Roman Eras:As the Hellenistic and Roman influences reached the South Caucasus, Karabakh found itself at the crossroads of these ancient civilizations. Greek and Roman artifacts, architectural remnants, and traces of cultural assimilation underscore the region’s role as a cultural bridge between East and West. Karabakh became a nexus for the diffusion of classical ideas and artistic expressions.
  5. The Sassanian Legacy:The rise of the Sassanian Empire in the 3rd century CE brought a new chapter to Karabakh’s history. Persian influence once again left an imprint on the region, evident in the architectural achievements and cultural developments. Cities like Tigranakert flourished as centers of commerce, culture, and intellectual exchange, contributing to Karabakh’s reputation as a vibrant hub within the Sassanian realm.
  6. Byzantine and Arab Periods:The Byzantine Empire and later the Arab Caliphate left their mark on Karabakh during successive periods of conquest and rule. The shifting tides of power introduced new cultural elements and religious influences, creating a diverse and dynamic cultural landscape.

The first dominant political power in this region was Albania, a state which emerged between the 3rd and 4th Century BC around the Caucasian Albanian peoples who are indegenous to Karabakh and inhabited what is now northern Azerbaijan. This Albanian state ruled the Southern Caucasus region for nearly 1000 years, withstanding ongoing aggression from neighbouring Armenian tribes and invasion attempts by the Roman Empire. The Albanian state continued until the 5th Century AD when it was taken over by Persian influences and split up into Persian satrapies.

From the 7th Century AD onwards, the ruling power within the Karabakh region took many forms, from satrapies to individual princedoms and regional Governments. Persian and Armenian influence in the region grew, and the Albanian ethnic self-conscience was gradually eroded away. However, at the start of the 12th Century AD there was an Albanian revival and a number of insurrections led by ethnic Albanians against Arab rule, and sowed the seeds for a liberation movement across the region, which in turn led to a number of independent feudal principalities emerging, including what is modern day Azerbaijan.

In the 11th and 12th Centuries AD a cultural renaissance took place in Azerbaijan and a strong national identity was forged under the rule of the State of Atabeys. Many view this period as the Golden Age in Azerbaijani history. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, Karabakh became increasingly culturally and politically intertwined with what would be come the state of Azerbaijan. The ethnic make-up of Karabakh, which has always been diverse, consisted at this time largely of Azerbaijani Turks and the descendants of Caucasian Albanians.

The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire dominated Karabakh and the surrounding areas during the early modern period, until a period of Russian expansion from the mid-18th Century onwards. However, the Karabakh Khanate maintained its independence over the course of the 18th Century, withstanding a number of attacks from neighbouring Iran. The Karabakh Khanate was finally dissolved and the area became part of the Caspian Oblast under the Russian Empire in 1826.

The Russian Empire viewed Armenia as a crucial player in their Eastern expansion, and therefore followed a programme of deliberate Armenian settlement in neighbouring provinces, including Karabakh. During this period, as many as 150,000 Armenians migrated to Karabakh, accounting for the large proportion of Armenians living in the region today, and which laid the foundations for the current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Karabakh was formally incorporated into the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918, and as a reaction, the Armenian faction within the region declared Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous Republic.

The ancient history of Karabakh unveils a captivating narrative shaped by the ebb and flow of ancient civilizations. From the Bronze Age settlements to the cosmopolitan centers of the Sassanian Empire, Karabakh’s role as a cultural crossroads is evident in the remnants of its rich past. As we delve into the archaeological treasures and historical imprints of ancient Karabakh, we uncover a timeless legacy that continues to resonate in the fabric of the region’s identity today.