Layer by layer, the excavated ruins of one of the ancient Armenian cities of Tigranakert is revealing evidence of a once-thriving Armenian settlement that dates back to before the time of Christ.
This Tigranakert is located in Artsakh, and the uncovering of precious Armenian artifacts,khatchkars, and foundation stones here has fueled excitement about both the cultural and political significance of the site.
This isn’t the Tigranakert that you studied in Armenian school.
The fabled Tigranakert that most Armenians are familiar with is the one that’s trapped inside the borders of modern Turkey, in historic Western Armenia.
The unheralded Tigranakert of Artsakh is a world away, and just a short drive from Karabagh’s capital and largest town, Stepanakert.
Unlike its more famous counterpart in historic Armenia, this Tigranakert had become largely forgotten until about a decade ago. The site is located in the Askeran region and, as with most places in Artsakh, the lands nearby were the scene of heavy fighting during Karabagh’s war of independence.
A handful of rusted tanks still litter the nearby hills. Aghdam, a now-abandoned community that had been used by the enemy as a base from which to attack Armenian towns and villages, lies a short distance away, opposite a narrow highway.
The international community identifies the sovereignty of the region as disputed. Azerbaijan, which had laid siege to the region until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and which didn’t permit excavations here during the Soviet era, claims the site for itself.
This territorial dispute lends added significance to the antiquity of the Armenian settlement, since its existence is an overwhelming counterweight to the Azeri contention that Armenians are new arrivals to the region.
The ruins of Artsakh’s Tigranakert are evident today to any visitor. But the archaeologist Hamlet Petrosyan, Ph.D., recalls the time, not so long ago, when their existence was little more than a hypothesis.
Petrosyan is the head of the department of cultural studies at Yerevan State University, and the director of the Archaeological Expedition of Artsakh. His studies of ancient Armenian history, and of archaeology, had led him to believe that there might be significant ruins in this area north of Askeran, and at the base of the mountain where the Armenian church Vankasar stands. He believed the site might be one of the lost Tigranakerts. Others weren’t so sure. And prior to Karabagh’s independence, scant resources were committed to finding out.
Tigranakert is named for Tigran the Great, a leader revered in Armenian history for presiding over Armenia’s greatest expansion in ancient time, from 95-55 BC. In Tigran’s honor, at least four settlements are known to have been built and named for him. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. He was, after all, Great.
The possibility of a Tigranakert in Artsakh intrigued many, including Petrosyan. I met with Petrosyan in Artsakh while I was researching and writing my book, Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide. He walked the site with me and explained how, years earlier, he had seen what he believed were remnants of walls.
Even as we hiked amid the ruins and the remnants of the fortress walls, Petrosyan was scanning the fields for further hints that something else man-made might lay beneath the soil. He saw large depressions in the topography that didn’t appear to be natural. “We can suppose that here we will find something,” he told me, while pointing to a field that appeared to be just a field—except for a modest depression that might hide the long-buried foundations of civic buildings.
Petrosyan and his team of archaeologists from the Armenian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology began excavating the site in 2005. They discovered that this Tigranakert had a citadel, a central business district, churches, suburbs, and cemeteries.
Petrosyan and I walked amid the ruins of one of the Armenian churches that he had uncovered. The church had been built in the 5th century, but by the 18th century its stones had been used as a quarry for materials for the nearby castle. All that remains of the church structure today is its massive foundation, now exposed, at several feet below ground level.
The church foundation reveals a structure that was 29 meters long—one of the largest churches of the Caucasus from this era. Excavations have revealed Armenian inscriptions on the church, as well as a primitive khatchkars (Armenian stone cross).
The city was built entirely from the local white limestone, and Petrosyan’s research suggests that it was occupied until the 14th century. He and his team of archaeologists also determined that the site was founded in the first century B.C.
The excavation of the site thus presents evidence of a continuous Armenian civilization here for more than 2,000 years.
In 2008, the area was designated the Tigranakert Historical-Cultural Reserve by the government of Karabagh. Vast areas of the 2,136 hectare site remain unexcavated, however, because of limited funding for the project.
A medieval-style castle is located within the fortified area of Tigranakert, and was restored several years ago. Today this castle is the most prominent part of Tigranakert, and houses the Tigranakert Museum of Archaeology.
To be sure, the most famous Tigranakert is the one that’s located in historic Western Armenia. But the 2,000-year-old Tigranakert of Artsakh might just prove to be more significant to the future of the Armenians, since it demonstrates their ancient and continuous history here. And if you are already traveling in Yerevan this year, then the Tigranakert that you’ll want to add to your itinerary is the one that’s in nearby Artsakh.
About the Museum
The State Archaeological Museum of Tigranakert is located within the walls of the castle (open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily). To learn more, visit www.tigranakert.am. Check at the museum for information about walking the site and viewing the ruins.
To get there, travel about 35 kilometers north of Stepanakert on the road that leads past Aghdam. The castle of Tigranakert is on the west (left) side of the highway. Tigranakert is best visited as a half-day excursion from either Stepanakert or Shushi, which are the two towns that have the best selection of tourist-class hotels and which draw most of Artsakh’s overnight visitors.
‘Stone Garden Travel Guide’
Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide (Stone Garden Productions, $24.95) was recently featured in the Los Angeles Times, which calls the book “a fresh view on ancient Armenia.” This 320-page guide includes essays on nature and conservation, archaeology, Armenian history, and the cultural sites of Armenia and Artsakh, as well as comprehensive travel information.
The book is the winner of three national book awards, including an award for Best Travel Guide by the Independent Publishers Association, and is available for purchase in Watertown, Mass., from the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA).
Matthew Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif. He is the author of Armenia and Karabakh: The Stone Garden Travel Guide, the best-selling English-language guide to Armenia. The third edition of this book was published this year.