St. John the Baptist Church in Gandzak. During one of the public meetings in Yerevan in 1988, it was told how a large part of the local Armenians, who had distanced themselves from their native religion and culture to some extent, took refuge in a church, and a newborn boy named Andranik was baptized there.

Armenian Gandzak: Historical Background


By Henrik Bakhchinyan

Translated by Artsvi Bakhchinyan from the Armenian 2018 original published in Azg.

Gandzak (from the Armenian word gandz – treasure; Persian-Turkish pronunciation is Ganja) is located in the Utik province of Greater Armenia. It is both historically and geographically part of the eastern region of Armenia, in particular, the historical Gardmank and Northern or Plains Artsakh provinces.

Naturally, the main information about Gandzak is provided by Armenian sources. According to them, the city was founded in 846 and was surrounded by many Armenian villages and monasteries. The Dasno monastery, built earlier (in 751), where the great scholar, writer, Mkhitar Gosh (1130–1213) wrote his “Judgment Book” codex, was especially famous.

Thanks to Armenian creative builders, skilled merchants and talented educational and cultural figures, Gandzak quickly developed and became the administrative and economic and spiritual center of the region, which Armenian historians (Vardan Areveltsi, Kirakos Gandzaketsi) called “Gandzak Hayots” (Gandzak of the Armenians/Armenian Gandzak) or “Gandzak Arani” (Gandzak of Aran).

From the end of the 9th century to the 12th century, the See of the Armenian Catholicosate of Aghvan (Caucasian Albania) was established in Gandzak. The city was first included in the Bagratuni kingdom, then, like other provinces and cities of Armenia, was subjected to raids and domination by the Arabs, then the Seljuk Turks.

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At the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the next century, Gandzak was liberated from the Seljuks and was included in the Zakarid Armenia principality, becoming, according to the sources, a rich and strong fortress-city with Armenian population.

During this period, the region was destined to play a very significant role in the life of Armenian people. When the Turkish Seljuk raids stopped the first renaissance movement in the Christian world, particularly in Gandzak and its surrounding educational and cultural centers, a new life-giving wave of Armenian education and culture spread throughout Armenia. Let us remember the most prominent ones from the many writers and figures descended from there: Hovhannes Sarkavag Imastaser – a theologian, philosopher, historian, calendarist, hymn writer, art theorist, who especially pushed the Armenian aesthetic thought forward; major legists David Alavka Vordi and Mkhitar Gosh, who was also the founder of Armenian fable writing and raised Armenian legal thought to an unprecedented level; and famous historians Kirakos Gandzaketsi and Vardan Areveltsi, who brought medieval Armenian historiography to a qualitatively new level.

Unfortunately, the finest hour of Gandzak did not last very long. In 1236 the city was destroyed by the Tatar-Mongols. Nevertheless, Armenian educational and cultural life continued in the surrounding monasteries. Many manuscripts are known, which were copied in the 14th-15th centuries “in the land of Gandzak.”

Gandzak was rebuilt in the 16th century and passed to Safavid Persia as a separate khanate center until the beginning of the 19th century. During this period, according to Armenian and other sources, the population of Gandzak and its environs was mainly (if not entirely) Armenians. They continued to develop their homeland, building many civic and church buildings. Thus, in 1633, St. John the Baptist Armenian Cathedral was built in Gandzak. The Armenian churches of Holy Saviour, Holy Mother of God, Saint Sargis, and Saint Thaddeus are 18th century structures.

From 1804 onward, Gandzak was included in the Russian Empire. It was renamed Elizavetpol and later became the center of the province of the same name. During this period, too, the number of Armenians in and around Gandzak formed the majority. According to statistics, about 400,000 Armenians lived in Elizavetpol-Gandzak province. The Armenians of Gandzak continued their prosperous national educational and cultural life. There were Armenian schools, theater groups, books and newspapers were published, some churches were rebuilt, and a new one, St. Gregory the Illuminator Church was built.

Gradually, especially after the Armenian-Tatar massacres of 1905-1906, which took many lives, the number of Armenians in Elizavetpol-Gandzak province decreased considerably, and the number of Oghuz Turks increased. This tribe, that has penetrated the territories of Aghvank and the Eastern Armenia along with the Seljuks, were called Caucasian Tatars or Caucasian Turks.

In 1918, when the artificial Musavat Republic of Azerbaijan was formed, a number of settlements of historical Armenia, including Gandzak, were included in it. Especially with the support of the Ottoman Turks who invaded the Transcaucasia, in order to create a new Turkish state, that fake country was handed over to their Caucasian Tatars, who were later called Azeris.

The Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan not only affirmed Gandzak as part of its territory, along with the whole Northern Artsakh, but also appropriated Mountainous Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet formulation) and Nakhichevan. Elizavetpol-Gandzak was renamed Ganja, then Kirovabad (in 1935), which became the second city of the republic. In Soviet times it was still full of Armenians. It had a population of about 40,000 Armenians who, despite national legal restrictions and pressures, continued their Armenian national life. It is noteworthy that a number of buildings in the city were created by the designs of Armenian architects. The city had Armenian schools, press; in 1935-1949 there was an Armenian theater.

In 1988, when the Artsakh liberation movement began in Nagorno Karabakh and Armenian SSR, after the massacres of the Armenians in Sumgait city of Azerbaijan, the Armenian-populated districts of Kirovabad-Gandzak were also attacked; massacres and destructions began. Only due to a well-organized self-defense did most of the local Armenians escape physical destruction and move to Armenia and Artsakh. Armenian Gandzak was completely emptied of Armenians, and especially after the liberation of Nagorno Karabakh, in already apparently Turkified Gandzak (which was again renamed Ganja) and its environs, as well as in all settlements of Azerbaijan in general, all Armenian traces began to be eliminated through state programs.

Through monstrous historical falsification, which started in Soviet times, Baku historians considered all the Armenian chroniclers from Utik-Artsakh to be of Caucasian Albanian or Azeri (!!!) origin, and the local churches were considered Albanian. However, many Armenian churches did not escape destruction. The hands that smashed thousands of khachkars in Jugha (Julfa), also destroyed or damaged the churches of Gandzak and its environs. Thus, Azeri vandals completely destroyed the churches of Holy Saviour, Holy Mother of God and St. Thaddeus. The St. John the Baptist Cathedral, where the Armenian liturgy was celebrated until 1988, was turned into a club, desecrated by mughams, after the Armenian inscriptions were removed. St. Sargis Church was renovated in Turkish style and turned into a museum. As for St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, as it withstood Turkish artillery volleys in 1918 and could not be destroyed, by erasing all the Armenian symbols, it became called Albanian (about this see Samvel Karapetyan’s book Northern Artsakh (Armenian-language, Yerevan, 2004).

It should be noted that the destructive hand of the Turks hit local Persian culture as well. According to the most accepted opinion (which is nonetheless disputable), Nizami, a great Persian poet, was born and lived in Gandzak. A mausoleum was built in his traditional shrine in 1947 by the design of Armenian and Russian architects. For a long time, the Azeris appropriated the greatest Persian classic poet that had not written a single line in Turkish, and moreover, despised the Turkish language (due to their petrodollars the Azeris even erected his statue in the park of Villa Borghese in Rome in 2012 as a great Azerbaijani poet). The Azeris also sought to replace Persian inscriptions on the shrine with Turkish ones.

This infuriated Iran a lot. In an official protest Bahman Dari, the Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation of Iran said: “Having no cultural values, Azerbaijan is forced to attribute to itself the values ​​of other countries. Such a step by Azerbaijan cannot be called anything, but cultural theft” (see Azg daily, 2013, No. 151). Meanwhile, when Azerbaijan, in incomparable proportions, not only stole, but also ruthlessly destroyed Armenian cultural values, the world remained and still remains indifferent…

It is sad and symbolic that today Kars and Smyrna, which suffered the same fate, are declared sister cities of Gandzak. At the same time, I must say that the warm feelings we have for our cherished places in Kars, Mush, Van and Western Armenia in general, should also be directed to the occupied territories of Armenian Gandzak and all the Eastern Armenian sites too, as integral parts of our homeland. Therefore, it is necessary to know well and keep alive the historical memory of the lost homeland, so to be ready and competent to make up for our losses in case of opportune time. In the case of Gandzak during the Artsakh liberation war, there was such an opportunity, which, unfortunately, we could not use.

I am sure that the future will provide new opportunities for the return of our losses. The witness of it is liberated Artsakh.

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