Tigranakert, Artsakh:Archaeologists Find the Ancient Armenian City in Karabakh

A rock cut water canal passing throw the foot of the early Christian cave sanctuary complex

We reported last year about an archaeological expedition in western Karabakh, which unearthed ruins dating back to the First Century BC. It was the ancient city of Tigranakert, from where King Tigran the Great ruled an empire and established deep Armenian roots. Since a significant portion of this site is in Aghdam, this expedition can become a historical compass on how long Armenia’s have lived in that area. Dr. Hamlet Petrosyan, who led the team of experts from the Institute of Archaeology & Ethnography of Armenia’s National Academy of Science, provided this report on the excavation and findings.


The Archaeological expedition of Tigranakert (Institute of Archaeology & Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Armenia) by Hamlet Petrosyan, Jores Khachatryan, Lyouba Kirakosyan, Hayk Hakobyan, Vardges Safaryan, financed and initiated by “Yerkir” Union for non-governmental organizations for repatriation and settlement, had pin-pointed the exact location of Tigranakert in Artsakh in 2005 and carried out short-term excavations in the city and surrounding areas in 2006.
In 2005, after taking into account a complex methodology of written sources, topography and archaeology, the research team studied the historical and archaeological environment of the lower hills of the Khachenaget river, and came to the conclusion that the ruins of Tigranakert are comprised of fortified sections, vast urban quarters, and two cemeteries found in the surroundings of the Shahboulagh springs.

The Reality
It is very well known that historical and cultural factors play an important role in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
The importance of the fact that Artsakh is a historically-Armenian region and that, up until the 18th century, it had almost a uniform ethnic population, has been recognized more than once in discussions of Karabachos-related issues at different levels and the different approaches towards its resolution.
Any investigations on monumen’s in Artsakh is causing the Azerbaijani authorities to protest, even approaching international organizations.
Accordingly, one of the most important issues of modern Armenian Studies is the revelation, study, and presentation of the mentioned ethnic and cultural unity of monumen’s of Artsakh and the historical facts to governmental bodies, the public and politicians.
The discovery of Tigranakert has utmost significance in this regard. A city that can best witness the ethnic-cultural homogeneity of Artsakh and Armenia from the final centuries B.C. to the 13th-14th centuries A.D., this brings forth an explanation of the basis of locating that settlement, the transparency in finding its exact placement and, last but not least, the archaeological investigative methods.
The available written sources and topographical and archaeological investigations give basis to the assumptions that the ruins of this settlement should be searched in the lower hills of the Khachenaget river, where the Artsakh mountain range rolls into the plains with accented depressions and where, in ancient times, the lands which lay between the south west and south east used to separate the Artsakh and Outik provinces of Greater Armenia.
This was the territory, according to 7th century historian Sebeos, where Tigranakert lay, which was a part of Outik, and Tigranakert Avan, which belonged to Artsakh. In order to pin-point Tigranakert in Artsakh clearly and accurately, the investigative team selected the Khachenaget valley as a conditional centre, and studied the monumen’s of a vast area within a radius of about 10 km. Among the monumen’s in that area, we can isolate two spacious ruins placed at the right and left banks of the Khachenaget river, almost at equal distances, one from the district of Sofoulou and the other from the springs of Shahboulagh.
Research in Armenian Studies considered these as the probable locations of Tigranakert. The vast settlement near Sofoulou, best known as Gyavourkala (“Fort of Infidels”), was partially studied by Azerbaijani archaeologists during the 1960s and 1970s. There, we can still see the ruins of an early medieval church, sarcophagi and the base of an early middle age obelisk.
The pottery in the surroundings is found to be astounding samples of early glazed pottery. Based on this, we can assume that this settlement existed since the 9th century. In this territory, neither our expedition nor the ones of that time could discover any object dating to before that period or the period of Tigran the Great. This constitutes enough evidence to prove that placing Tigranakert in Gyavourkala is highly unlikely.
The expedition also investigated the surroundings of Shahboulagh in detail, which was known to 19th century travelers by the names of Tngrnagert, Taranyourt, or Tarnagyout which sound very close to Movses Kaghankatvatsi’s Tgrakert and, of course, Tigranakert.
The result of this investigation could be considered sensational because it found the traces of spacious fortifications on the slopes of Mt. Vankasar, and ruins of the central area of a city in the field, including the construction of a church made of thick stone walls, and two cemeteries consisting of burials in jars and in stone graves. The most important was the presence of many samples of ceramic ware in the fortified area dating to the first century B.C.
The first step in the investigation was carried out in the rocky edges of the mountain, climbing up from the springs, and the results prove that it was built of about 200 m-long longitudinal ribbons like ascending steps. The marble and basalt rocks of Armavir and Artashat are also cut in the same manner. The longitudinal solid basis of this structure end with semi-circular ruins, which prove that the walls were fortified with semi-circular towers.
Within the pottery pieces found in the solid portion of the wall, different polychrome pieces were noticed. These pieces are designed with a light-colored surface of red ribbons, triangular and ray-like shapes and many other designs which characterize the pottery of the first half of the first century B.C. and which relate to the findings at different ancient Armenian locations dating to the Hellenistic era. Moreover, this section does not lack non-colored pottery and jar pieces.
It seems that the fortified portion is the city’s citadel, while the leveled base is the central unfortified area.
In the unfortified area, the early medieval church ruins and pottery remains from the same period prove that the settlement was active even in the early medieval periods.
The presence of the springs which helped provide the city with water is an important factor in selecting this location.
The archaeological specifications consolidated by the expedition were enough evidence to place Tigranakert, according to man’scripts and topographic specifications, in the lower portion of the mountain which elevates up to Vankasar from the Shahboulagh springs, and in the southern fields next to it.
The investigation results also prove that the lower hills of the Khachenaget river are a unique cultural and natural space which represents the permanence of Armenian ethnic and cultural existence up to modern times.

The short-term excavations of 2006 were scheduled according to this information and the results were more astounding than expected.
The 15-day excavations have resulted in the following:

A. A part of one of the central terrace’s abutment in the city.
The wall consists of 1.7 m-long and 0.5-0.7-m wide roughly-constructed big blocks. In some parts, the wall is protected by a height of 2 blocks (up to 1.20m). The old Hellenistic dry technology is the process used in the construction of this wall (mud mortar was not used), where the solidity of the walls was provided by the weight of the blocks.
The horizontal rows consisted of blocks of different heights. In some portions, the wall was placed on smoothed rocks, in other cases, on a sand base, which has made the wall, in the course of centuries, end up in a residue.
The exterior of the wall is now uncovered. Excavations in the main area, where the constructions lie, could result in more astounding discoveries.
A few pieces of millstones were discovered during these excavations, and this best proves the agricultural economy of the city.

B. One portion of the citadel fortifications, constructed in a “swallow tail” manner.
The wall is constructed by smooth, polished frames and rough pillow-like blocks, which are connected by “swallow-tail” ties, without the use of mortar.
The fence is more than 2.5 m wide, the excavated portion is more than 12 m long, and the main “swallow tail” portion is more than 7 m long.
The remaining parts will be excavated on the next expedition.
This is an essential discovery, which helps in identifying Tigranakert.
Constructions of this nature and technology are known to have existed in the ruins of Armenia in the Hellenistic and late classical periods (Armavir, Artashat, Garni).
This highly-polished fence existing in that ancient settlement is of the nature of grand Hellenistic cities, mainly capitals, and this is an important step in favor of Tigranakert in Artsakh.
The pottery pieces excavated from the exterior of the fence show the city’s Hellenistic and medieval-era objects of that period’s lifestyle, especially the amazingly masterful colorful pottery pieces that without a doubt date to the first century B.C., that is, the days of Tigran the Great.
The city’s fortified area’s fences, dug out of rocky fundamen’s, in their dimensions, the correct manner of construction, perfectly uniform and smoothly polished stones, the latest Hellenistic technology used in this regard (the “swallow tail”) prove without a doubt that they have been constructed by the planning of the united efforts of advanced professional architects and construction workers.
This accumulation of idea, strength, and material in one hand and the ability to realize such a grandiose project for a specific purpose was only possible in certain cases of general governmental mobilization, a circumstance that fortifies the conviction that we are dealing with a royal and governmental initiative.
Therefore, the structures and archaeological material discovered by the excavations, give basis to the facts that they date to the first century B.C., the ruins of Tigranakert in Artsakh, founded by Tigran the Great.

C. A portion of the 5-6th century Christian basilica in the central area of the city.
Excavations of a surface of approximately 30 sq m out of a 10-hectare central area of the city revealed the ruins of a church constructed by huge blocks of smooth mortar.
Until now, portions of the prayer hall and a semi-circular altar have been uncovered, and a disc of limestone carved by cross-designs corresponding to Armenian monumen’s (Yererouyk, Tsitsernavank, Koghb) which characterize early Christian sculptures.
These are important facts, which help prove that, in the early medieval periods, Tigranakert was keeping its significant Armenian nature, and that the writings of early medieval Armenian historians (like Sebeos, Movses Kaghankatvatsi) concerning Tigranakert of Artsakh fully correspond to historical fact.
The archaeological material found in the central regions, which consist of thousands of pottery pieces, parts of different objects and instrumen’s, also prove that the city was founded in the first century B.C. and existed until at least the 13th or 14th century.

D. The early Christian cave sanctuary complex and the rock-carved canal that used to pour through it, in the surroundings of Tigranakert.
The constructions are representations of a complex, dug through the rocky coast of the river, which consist of a church, a narthex and a rocky graveyard.
The path leading to this complex is dug out of rocks and many cross-designed carvings, and a few Armenian and Greek inscriptions surround its walls.
A water canal, which also had a tunnel-like portion, was also discovered.
Most probably, it is related to the water supply of Tigranakert city and the agricultural lands of its surrounding.
The investigation results also prove that the lower hills of the Khachenaget river are a unique cultural and natural space which represents the permanence of Armenian ethnic and cultural existence up to modern times.
In conclusion, it is recommended that complete and thorough excavations of Tigranakert as well as the entire lower hills of the Khachenaget river should be one of the primary issues of Armenia’s and Armenian Studies.

Hamlet L. Petrosyan
Doctor of Archaeology
Leader of the Tigranakert Archaeological Expedition
10th Sept. 2006


Discussion Policy

Comments are welcomed and encouraged. Though you are fully responsible for the content you post, comments that include profanity, personal attacks or other inappropriate material will not be permitted. Asbarez reserves the right to block users who violate any of our posting standards and policies.