Melikdoms of Karabakh

Five principalities of Karabakh (Gyulistan, Jraberd, Khachen, Varanda, Dizak), the last relict of Armenian statehood (16th century)
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The Five Melikdoms of Karabakh were Armenian[1][2] feudal entities that existed on the territory modern Nagorno Karabakh and neighboring lands from the times of the dissolution of the Principality of Khachen in the 15th century and up to the abolition of ethnic feudal formations in the Russian Empire in 1822.

The Five Principalities were also called Principalities of Khamse or simply Khams (meaning “Five Principalities” in Arabic). The principalities were ruled by meliks. The term melik (Armenian: Մելիք) meliq, from Arabic: ملك malik (king), designates an Armenian noble title in various Eastern Armenian lands. The principalities ruled by meliks became known in English academic literature as melikdoms or melikates. There were several Armenian melikates in various parts of historical Armenia: in Yerevan, Kars, Nakhichevan, Gegharkunik, Lori, Artsakh, Utik, Northern Iran and Syunik.[3]

After the erosion of united Armenian statehood under the pressure from invading Seljuk Turks and Mongols, the Five Melikdoms were the most independent of all analogous Armenian principalities and saw themselves as holding onto the last bastion of Armenian independence. [4]

The realm of the meliks in Karabakh was almost always semi-independent and often fully independent. The meliks had their recruit armies headed by centurions, their own castles and fortresses. The military complexes that recruiting organizations, fortification systems, signal beacons, and logistical support were known as syghnakhs. There were two large syghnakhs shared by all meliks of Karabakh - the Major Syghnakh and the Lesser Syghnakh. The Major Syghnakh was located in melikdoms of Gyulistan (Vardut), Jraberd and Khachen and was supported by the fortresses of Gyulistan, Jraberd, Havkakhaghats, Ishkhanaberd, Kachaghakaberd and Levonaberd. The Lesser Syghnakh was located in the melikdoms of Varanda and Dizak, and was supported by the fortresses Shoushi, Togh and Goroz. Both Lesser and Major syghnakhs were parts of a legacy defense system that remained from the times of the Kingdom of Artsakh.[5]

The relationship between meliks and their subordinates was that of a military commanding officer and junior officer, and not of feudal lord and a serf. Peasants were often allowed to own land, were free and owned property.

The Five Melikdoms were ruled by dynasties that represented branches of the earlier House of Khachen and were the descendants of the medieval kings of Artsakh. The Russian Empire recognized the sovereign status of the five Armenian princes in their domains by a charter of the Emperor Paul I dated 2 June 1799.[6]

These five Armenian principalities (melikdoms) in Karabakh[7] were as following:

The Hasan-Jalalyan family that ruled the principality of Khachen was especially important, and was considered the most senior of the Five Melikdoms. They were direct descendents of Kings of Aghvank and symbolized the connection between patriarch Hayk, the eponymous progenitor of the Armenian People, considered as a great grandson of Noah and medical monarchs that ruled Armenia in the Middle Ages.

Hasan-Jalal traced his descent to the Armenian Arranshahik dynasty, a family that predated the establishment of the Parthian Arsacids in the region.[8][9] Hasan-Jalal's ancestry was "almost exclusively" Armenian according to historian Robert H. Hewsen, a professor at Rowan University and an expert on the history of the Caucasus:

Much of Hasan-Jalal Dawla's family roots were entrenched in an intricate array of royal marriages with new and old Armenian nakharar families. Hasan-Jalal's grandfather was Hasan I (also known as Hasan the Great), a prince who ruled over the northern half of Artsakh.[10] In 1182, he stepped down as ruler of the region and entered monastery life at Dadivank, and divided his land into two: the southern half (comprising much of Khachen) went to his oldest son Vahtang II (also known as Tangik) and the northern half went to the youngest, Gregory "the Black." Vahtang II married Khorishah Zakarian, who was herself the daughter of Sargis Zakarian, the originator of the Zakarid line of Armenian princes in Georgia. When he married the daughter of the Arranshahik king of Dizak-Balk, Mamkan, Hasan-Jalal also inherited his father-in-law's lands.[11]

In medieval times, the Hasan-Jalalian family branched into two functionally separate but connected lines: landed princes who ruled the Melikdom of Khachen and clergymen who manned the throne of Catholicos of Aghvank at the Holy See of Gandzasar of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The clerical branch of the family was especially important. In 1441, a top military commander from the Hasan-Jalalyan family in the service of the Kara Koyunlu orchestrated the return of the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church from the Mediterranean town of Sis in Cilicia to its traditional location at Etchmadzin in Armenia.[12] Shortly after the event, Grigor X Jalalbegiants (1443–1465), representing the clerical branch of the Hasan-Jalalyans, was enthroned as the Catholicos of All Armenians at Etchmadzin.[13]

The principalities of Nagorno Karabakh considered themselves direct descendants of the Kingdom of Armenia, and were recognized as such by foreign powers[14]

The autonomous status of Armenian meliks in Karabakh was confirmed and re-confirmed by successive rulers of Persia. In 1603 Shah Abbas I recognized their special semi-independent status by a special edict.

Rivalries among the meliks prevented them from becoming a formidable and a unified power against the Muslims but unstable conditions in Persia eventually forced them to forget their squabbles and seek support from Europe and Russia. In 1678 Catholicos Hakob Jughayetsi (Jacob of Jugha, 1655–1680) called for a secret meeting in Echmiadzin and invited several leading meliks and clergymen. He proposed to head a delegation to Europe. The Catholicos died shortly after and the plan was abandoned. One of the delegates, a young man named Israel Ori, the son of Melik Haikazyan of Zankezur continued on and proceeded to Venice and from there to France. Israel Ori died in 1711 without seeing the liberation of the Armenian lands. In the second half of the 18th century melik Shahnazar of Varanda allied himself with Panah Khan Javanshir, the chieftain of a Turkic tribe, against other Armenian meliks which led to the downfall of the autonomous Armenian melikdoms of Karabakh.

The Armenian meliks maintained full control over the region until the mid-18th century. In the early 18th century, Persia's Nader Shah took Karabakh out of control of the Ganja khans in punishment for their support of the Safavids, and placed it under his own control[15][16] At the same time, the Armenian meliks were granted supreme command over neighboring Armenian principalities and Muslim khans in the Caucasus, in return for the meliks' victories over the invading Ottoman Turks in the 1720s.[17]

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Nagorno Karabakh became an epicenter of the idea of re-creating an independent Armenian state.[18][19] This state, centered on semi-independent Armenian principalities of Artsakh and Syunik, would be allied with Georgia and protected by Russia and European powers.[18] Armenian melik Israel Ori, who served in the armies of Louis XIV of France, was trying to convince Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine (1658–1716), Pope Innocent XII and Emperor of Austria to liberate Armenia from foreign yoke and sent large amounts of money to the armed forces of Karabakh Armenians.[20] Another prominent figure from Nagorno Karabakh who worked to establish an independent Armenian entity in his homeland was Movses Baghramian.[21] Baghramian accompanied the Armenian patriot Joseph Emin (1726–1809), and tried to secure the help of Karabakh's Armenian meliks.[22]

Meliks preserved their rights and privileges after Eastern Armenia became part of the Russian Empire. Many of them became high-ranking military officers in the Russian imperial army.

In literature and art

The meliks of Karabakh inspired the historical novels The Five Melikdoms (1882) and David Bek (1882) by Raffi, the opera David Bek (1950) by Armen Tigranian and the novel Mkhitar Sparapet (1961) by Sero Khanzadyan. In 1944, David Bek the movie was filmed and in 1978, Armenfilm in association with Mosfilm produced another movie about the efforts of David Bek and Mkhitar Sparapet called Star of Hope.


  1. Britannica:"In mountainous Karabakh a group of five Armenian maliks (princes) succeeded in conserving their autonomy and maintained a short period of independence (1722-30) during the struggle between Persia and Turkey at the beginning of the 18th century; despite the heroic resistance of the Armenian leader David Beg, the Turks occupied the region but were driven out by the Persians under the general Nādr Qolī Beg (from 1736-47, Nādir Shah) in 1735."
  2. Encyclopaedia of Islam. — Leiden: BRILL, 1986. — vol. 1. — p. 639-640:"Numismatic Society). were still to be fought on Armenian soil, and part of the Armenians of Adharbaydjan were later deported as a military security measure to Isfahan and elsewhere. Semi-autonomous seigniories survived, with varying fortunes, in the mountains of Karabagh, to the north of Adharbaydjan, but came to an end in the 18th century."
  3. Hewsen, Robert. "The Meliks of Eastern Armenia: A Preliminary Study." Revue des Études Arméniennes. NS: IX, 1972, pp. 297-308.
  4. Hewsen, Robert H. "The Kingdom of Arc'ax" in Medieval Armenian Culture (University of Pennsylvania Armenian Texts and Studies). Thomas J. Samuelian and Michael E. Stone (eds.) Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984, pp. 52-53. ISBN 0-8913-0642-0
  5. Raffi, The History of Karabagh's Meliks, Vienna, 1906, in Armenian.
  6. Robert H. Hewsen. Russian–Armenian relations, 1700–1828. Society of Armenian Studies, N4, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984, p 37.
  7. Raffi, The History of Karabagh's Meliks, Vienna, 1906, in Armenian
  8. Ulubabyan, Bagrat (1975). Խաչենի իշխանությունը, X-XVI դարերում (The Principality of Khachen, From the 10th to 16th centuries) (in Armenian). Yerevan, Armenian SSR: Armenian Academy of Sciences. pp. 56–59.
  9. Hewsen, Robert (2001). Armenia: A Historical Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-2263-3228-4.
  10. Hewsen. "The Kingdom of Arc'ax", p. 47.
  11. Hewsen. "The Kingdom of Arc'ax", p. 49.
  12. Bournoutian, George A. Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: A Documentary Record. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2001, page 397
  13. Bournoutian, George A. Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: A Documentary Record. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2001, page 398
  14. Bournoutian, George A. Armenians and Russia, 1626-1796: A Documentary Record. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2001, p. 330, See: "Letter of Meliks of Karabagh to Prince Petemkin, January 23, 1790"
  15. (Russian) Abbas-gulu Aga Bakikhanov. Golestan-i Iram; according to an 18th-century local Turkic-Muslim writer Mirza Adigezal bey, Nadir shah placed Karabakh under his own control, while a 19th-century local Turkic Muslim writer Abbas-gulu Aga Bakikhanov states that the shah placed Karabakh under the control of the governor of Tabriz.
  16. (Russian) Mirza Adigezal bey. Karabakh-name, p. 48
  17. Walker, Christopher J. Armenia: Survival of a Nation. London: Routledge, 1990 p. 40 ISBN 0-415-04684-X
  18. 1 2 Chorbajian, Levon; Donabedian Patrick; Mutafian, Claude. The Caucasian Knot: The History and Geo-Politics of Nagorno-Karabagh. NJ: Zed Books, 1994, p. 72
  19. George A. Bournoutian. A History of Qarabagh: An Annotated Translation of Mirza Jamal Javanshir Qarabaghi's Tarikh-e Qarabagh. Mazda Publishers, 1994. p. 17. ISBN 1-56859-011-3, 978-1-568-59011-0
  20. Chorbajian, Levon; Donabedian Patrick; Mutafian, Claude. The Caucasian Knot: The History and Geo-Politics of Nagorno-Karabagh. NJ: Zed Books, 1994, p. 73
  21. Life and Adventures of Emin Joseph Emin 1726-1809 Written by himself. Second edition with Portrait, Correspondence, Reproductions of original Letters and Map*. Calcutta 1918.
  22. A.R. Ioannisian. Joseph Emin. Yerevan, 1989, link to full text

External links

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