Monument and Society: Tigranakert of Artsakh

Some of the excavations underway in Tigranakert


The Hellenistic city of Tigranakert is located in the internationally unrecognized republic of Nagorno Karabakh (old Armenian name of which is Artsakh), which has proclaimed its independence at the beginning of the 90s of the last century after the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The discovery of Tigranakert is one of the most successful undertakings of the Armenian cultural heritage in terms of inclusion of this heritage into the current cultural processes. The initiative to discover the city was a civic initiative to reveal to the Armenian and international scientific and political circles, that “historical excursus” of Azerbaijan about the idea the Armenians came to Nagorno Karabakh only in the 19th century, was a political hoax, via ignoring the presence of Armenians during last two thousand years in Nagorno Karabakh and surroundings, witnessed by many Greek and Roman (Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Dio Cassius), Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Georgian historians, several thousands of Armenian inscriptions of the 7th-18th centuries, and so on.

Prof. Hamlet Petrosyan, Chair of the Department of Cultural Studies, Yerevan State University

Before the archaeological research only legends were known about this city. Despite on certain bibliographic data and some citations by certain authors of the 19th century about the remnants of a city built by Tigran the Great (95-55 BC), in the first century BC, located 30km north-east from the city of Stepanakert, in proximity to the former Azerbaijani city of Aghdam, only two structures were visible on the location: a fortress built in 18th century and a small building with an open hall.

During the first stage of the research I have collected all the bibliographical data that was available about the location. Turned out that Armenian sources starting from the 7th century are citing not only one, but two Tigranakerts in this territory, moreover the citations are not in stories about Tigran the Great, but in descriptions of events of the 7-8 centuries. It was obvious, that irrespective of after what Tigran they were named (several kings are known by the name of Tigran – from 6th century BC to the 1st century AD) in the 7th century there were two settlements at this location that were called Tigranakert. The comparison of this data with the folk legends as well as with travelers’ portrayals made possible to assert that Tigranakert that interests us is located on the border of merging of Artsakh mountain range with steppe, on the road to ancient Georgian kingdom Iberia’s capital city of Tbghis-Tbilisi, in the current of the second largest river of Artakh – Kahchenaget. Based on this research in 2005 an expedition formed by my initiative consisting of experts of archaeology of bronze age, ancient and middle ages set for an archaeological research of the area. The expedition examined the territory with radius of 10km where Khachenaget gets out into the steppe, photographing in detail every monument, describing visible structures and archaeological layers and the archaeological material on the surface. Based on all of this the archaeological map of the area was created with presentation of all monuments by type and chronology. This data and the comparative analysis of previously organized archaeological research, including research done by Azerbaijanis, gave us the ability to pinpoint two large settlements – Shahbulagh and Gyavur Kala, that could be the remnants of ancient Tigranakert. The third stage was the topographical, architectural-archaeological examination of the remnants in the area, as a result of which in the south-eastern slope of Vanqasar mountain, directly above the Shahbulagh (Royal) springs, exactly at the spot where 19th century’s travelers were locating Tigranakert traces of an ancient settlement were verified. Thee traces were in the form of foundations of a fortification walls 200m in length, dug into the rock, as well as large depositories of ancient pottery.

A clay vase, one of the many unearthed artifacts at Tigranakert

This data was sufficient enough for organization of investigatory two week excavations in 2006, as a result of which the “swallow-like” ties wall of the Fortified area,  terrace support wall and early Christian basilica were discovered.  The excavation of the subsequent years lasted two month annually and uncovered almost 60 hectares of a city of 1st century BC to 14th century. Excavations of the six years uncovered the foundations of the southern fortification wall dug into the rock of the Fortified area 450 m of total length, the Citadel located directly above the Fortified area, a portion of the northern fortified walls that have 5m height and up to 185m of length, of the same area, the single-domed basilica church of the central area and the surrounding area. Investigative excavations were organized in several areas of the Fortified and Central areas, Early Christian necropolis, in the surrounding area of the Royal springs. As a result of the investigative excavations of 2010-2011 the Ancient area of the city as well as one of the Helenistic necropolis have been uncovered. In 2012 we have organized large scale excavation of the newly discovered Hellenistic area. In the surrounding areas the Cave sanctuary complex, the Canal dug into a rock that passes through the slope of the complex, as well as the Early Medieval fortress located on the left bank of Khachenaget river were also researched.

The excavations are fairly large, the monument is being cleaned to make sure that it is visible from a distance. We are trying to preserve the landscape look of the monument, which means exclusion of installation of any modern object on the whole territory of the monument, if it could disrupt the landscape perception of the monument.

The next component of the cultural initiative is the publicity efforts that include organization of almost a dozen exhibitions in Artsakh, Armenia and one exhibiton in Switzerland, publications, including in French and English, creation of a website, creation of Facebook page, several dozens of TV and radio interviews, organization of cultural events, and finally the establishment of archaeological museum of Tigranakert on the territory of the monument. As a result, today Tigranakert is the most known to the public and most visited monument in Artsakh with wide representation on the internet. It is important to note that throughout the whole publicity process only one event has been sponsored by the state – an exhibition in Yerevan, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of Armenia. Among the steps toward publicity the establishment of the museum on the territory of the monument in 2010 is particularly important. In the course of two years the museum had 45 thousand visitors, for comparison Armenia’s largest and the most visited museum – the State Museum of History of Armenia, has approximately 40 thousand visits a year. Despite on the fact that Nagorno Karabakh is not internationally recognized country and a lot of countries advice their citizens against visiting the region, almost eight thousand five hundred visitors of the museum were diasporan Armenians, while four thousand five hundred were non-Armenians, mostly citizens of Switzerland, USA, Canada and France. The museum has already filled two books of  impressions and one of my students has completed a study based on the notes in these books which confirms that Tigranakert not only facilitates the publicity of the cultural heritage of Nagorno karabakh, but also reinforces the pride of the local population, connecting them further to the geographic area, becoming the holly center for the people who live in the region.

The government of the Nagorno Karabakh allocates 35 thousand euros annually for excavations the bulk of which go toward organization of two month excavations. The expedition does not have any other means of financial support. All digital equipment used during excavations – the computers, digital SLR cameras, printers, scanners, projector, GPS, belong to a member of the expedition. The same can be stated about the site, which is supported by us. After winning the fierce competition of the State Committee for Science of Armenia the financial support for the scientific topic we were able to purchase a computer and a printer, as well as one camera. We can say that the publicity of Tigranakert is successful, but as you can see it is difficult to qualify it as a state publicity.

The examination of the Azerbaijani responses is noteworthy in this context. It can be characterized from silliness to sobriety, from neglect of facts to the process of acceptance and interpretation, the examination of which helps to understand the reasons of success and failures of our own undertakings. The first is efficiency, in 2006 right after the excavations the Azerbaijani media and websites reported about the excavations. This is true today as well, from financial support to duration of excavations, to conclusions of the expedition, although with obvious avoidance to use images that show the monument in full, for example today you will not find a Azerbaijani website that has a photo of the full fortress walls that are widely popular on the Internet. At the beginning only jokes, disparagement that can be named as the first stage. During the second stage they were trying to get serious and find political answers in our undertakings. The Azerbaijani academy joins with a special decision about Tigranakert, which has been also placed on the website of the National Security of Azerbaijan. By the way the same media has mentioned also about the cautious behavior of Armenian government and the Academy of Sciences of Armenia and interpret that as a sign of not-seriousness. A reality has been created where I am personally responsible for anti-propaganda of Azerbaijan. And we continued to respond with circulation of new facts and new excavations. Today the results of the recent excavations of Tigranakert are presented on different websites with dozens of comments among hundreds of images and structural photos. And it is difficult for an Azerbaijani researcher to state that there is no city there, it is impossible to assert that this is not an ancient city, furthermore they write articles today that the city of Tigranakert existed but it was not an Armenian settlement and was located in a different location. [3, 31-33]. Meaning they accept that Armenian archaeologists have discovered a city built during the era of Tigran which is not Tigranakert. I regard these last comments as our obvious success which has been achieved without stepping aside from academism, adequate representation of archaeological facts and as a result of avoidance of boastful or tendentious examination.

Azerbaijani opponents often mention that foreign researchers and scientists do not cooperate with us because they do not trust our scientific integrity. Azerbaijani our colleagues of course realize that the lack of cooperation is pure political, the international organizations that deal with cultural heritage and appropriate state institutions of certain countries avoid this cooperation because Nagorno Karabakh is not internationally recognized state. UNESCO has rejected two of my proposals to create a neutral, pure vocational Internet portal with the database of all the monuments located in the liberated territories, specifically in the surrounding areas of Tigranakert, which will contain all monuments, including those of Muslim origins with only one reasoning, the monuments of these territories cannot be accepted for discussion. Of course we cooperate with some of the specialist of the area, as an example I can point to the cooperation with professor of Paris 4 University Giusto Traina, who visited Tigranakert twice. In June of 2012 a group of architects  from the polytechnic of Milano that is busy with restoration of the archaeological environment have visited Tigranakert. However these visits are of personal matter. I have received several letters from Adam Smith, a proffessor of the Chicago University, urging me to halt the excavations, that supposedly do not facilitate the “reconciliation of the two nations”. Turns our the political situation deprives the people of Karabakh from the right to live a cultural life, a right that is stated in the universal human rights convention a component of which is transformation of the cultural heritage into a part of everyday life.

As opposed to the unified rejection of the Azerbaijani government and the academy Armenian scientific society in the case of Tigranakert is diverse. The Presidium of Academy of Sciences of Armenia, which is a state body has not reacted to excavations of Tigranakert on any level, despite on the fact that the excavations are organized by an expedition whose members belong to the Institute of Archaeology and ethnography which is part of the Armenian Academy of Sciences. Certain cautious behavior is also visible in other government agencies.

There are also quit a few cases of scientific scepticism. For example, a famous armenologist, the head of the Armenian history chair at the Yerevan State University finds that Tigranakert has been established by Tigran Yervandyan and not Tigran the Great. He talks about this in a film about the excavations of Tigranakert. It is worth to mention that that the excavations have uncovered a city built in the first century BC, and stating that the city has been built several hundred years earlier without hard scientific evidence is incomprehensible for me, especially in a movie dedicated to the city of Tigranakert. This puts the Tigranakert of Artsakh under a direct suspicion. There are also quit a few amateur or ridiculous approaches. An employee of the state department for tourism Slava Sargsyan states that the local name for Tigranakert – Tkrakert, has nothing to do with the name of Tigranakert. It is a city built by Mongols in the 13th century and is called Daranyurt. Tigranakert frequently is a topic for political scientists, who either underestimate or overestimate the role of historical truth in solution of political issues, for nationalists, who dream of a king as powerful as Tigran the Great was, for comedians, who announce that the excavations have uncovered computer parts from Tigranakert, etc. All of this, first of all means that the society is aware about our discoveries, accepts it as a significant monument, which is in my opinion is the desire of any archaeologist.

The cultural policy in the recent decades is shifting its meaning and direction in the world. The cultural right of a human being and the perception of cultural democracy as a policy are getting wide attention. In this context the largest result of the discovery and research of Tigranakert is the wide publicity that this monument has, its the stream of thousands of people that come to see the monument disregarding if it is a part of the state policy or how serious arguments pro and con of the scientist. A lot of them care about the return of their cultural heritage. One of my students is working on a topic “the society and the Tigranakert”  and several months ago made a presentation on the book of impressions of the museum of Tigranakert at a student conference. The main expression used in that book is pride, people who see Tigranakert first of all feel proud that they are Armenians, that they have a liberated homeland and that they have such a cultural heritage. Today Tigranakert is a location where diplomas and medals are granted, competitions are held, concerts and festivals are organized. The population of the surrounding villages brings their guests to Tigranakert, sends books, images and brochures about Tigranakert to their relatives who live abroad, etc. And isn’t the increase of the role of cultural heritage in shaping of the identity the main goal of a cultural policy?

At the beginning the discovery of Tigranakert for me and my friends was an initiative to prove wrong the president Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan who stated that Armenians have moved to the territory of Karabakh in the 19th century. Today, after witnessing the regard toward the monument of the thousands of people, the pride, I think it is one of the components of the current cultural development and identity making and any policy – local or international – should take into consideration this phenomenon.


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  1. GB said:

    If tatar turks get in Artsakh, first thing will do, blow up all churches and monuments, erect KGB man statue in the center of Stepanakert and claim that Haidar Aliyev was born before even prophet Mohammed!!

  2. Artoush said:

    Thanks very much for such an informative article. Been there last year and enjoyd the climb and now I am doing my resurch on the subject.
    Thanks again