What is the etymology of the word Karabakh?

In the ancient and early medieval centuries, Karabakh was part of the ancient Azerbaijan state-Caucasian Albania that existed from the end of the fourth century B.C. until 705 A.D. According to Strabon, 26 tribes who spoke different languages lived in Caucasian Albania. Some scholars who have conducted scientific research into the ethnic and linguistic origin of the Alban tribe claim that the etymology of the word “alban” has not yet been properly explained. However, the current usage of the words “alban” and “alpan” in Azerbaijan, as well as in Turkmen, Kazakh, and other Turkic languages, proves that this word has its origin in Turkic languages. The word Albania gets its origin from the words “alp” and “alb” in the ancient Turkic language, where it means the “land of braves and heroes.”[1]

During the rule of Caucasian Albania, Karabakh territory was divided into four administrative units: Artsakh-Khachyn, Uti, Sunik, and Paytakaran. Although Armenians have tried to relate the origin of the word Artsakh to Armenia, this link has not been proven in scientific literature, as it is stated in the following paragraph:

As far as the so-called “Armenian” toponym Artsakh is concerned, it has nothing to do with the Armenian language or the early history of Armenia. The thesis, voiced by the President of Armenia in Goris, is amazing in its level of ignorance: “The Armenian name of this area – Artsakh – was mentioned in the 8th century BC, and it was mentioned by the son of the founder of Yerevan, Argishti I – Sarduri II.” Firstly, Argishti I and Sarduri II were Urartu kings, not Hay. Urartu and Hays were different nations and spoke in languages that belong to different language families. Obviously, Armenia decided to grab not only Albanian cultural and historical heritage, but also Urartian. Secondly, why did this name suddenly become Armenian? The Urartian king mentioned the name of Artsakh, but did not refer to it as an “Armenian” toponym! He only noted that there was such a region, and that’s it. It would seem that if the existence of a region called Artsakh in the Caucasus had been mentioned by Egyptian pharaohs or Chinese emperors, this toponym would immediately have become Egyptian or Chinese.[2]

It should be mentioned that two different opinions about the origin of the toponym Artsakh are widespread among historians. Like Farida Mammadova, a well-known historian of Albanian matters, some historians associate the toponym Artsakh with the “Avesta,” the Zoroastrians’ sacred scriptures. In their view, the toponym was used in the “Avesta,” meaning “country or territory of winds.”[3]

However, most historians are sure that the toponym has its roots in the Sak and Skif tribes. Thus, even historians with a biased view of Azerbaijan are convinced that the toponym Artsakh comes from the Sak and Skif tribes, not Armenia.[4] Researchers maintain that the toponym Uti, like the origin of the toponym Artsakh, is related to the name of different Turkic tribes that settled in this area. Research conducted in recent years has proved that the etymology of each toponym has a meaning only in Turkic. The toponym Uti means “black people” or the “place where black people live.” However, while referring to the Turkic tribes that settled in this territory, it was stated that the meaning of the toponym Artsakh has its root either in the combination of er (hero-in Turkic) + sak (a Turkic tribe) or in (mountain place, highland) + sak.[5] The region was called Artsakh until the occupation of Azerbaijan by the Arab Caliphate.

After the defeat of the Sasanid Empire (226-651) in the mid-seventh century, the Arab Caliphate began to gradually take the northern part of Azerbaijan under its control (705). During the Arab rule, the territory between the Kura and Aras rivers was called Arran and covered a large swathe of territory, including today’s Karabakh region. In the latter part of the seventh century and the early years of the eighth century, Islam spread rapidly to Azerbaijan as well as to Karabakh. Only in some parts of the highlands and the foothills the spread of Islam was not widespread. This was related to the living conditions of Arabs in the desert or the steppe, meaning that they found it difficult when they tried to get used to live in a mountainous area. The Christian Albanians living in Upper Karabakh replaced the name Artsakh, which had previously been used to refer to this territory, with Agvan, and called the territory they settled in “land of Agvan.”[6] In the ancient and early medieval centuries, the historical territory of Karabakh, therefore, covered the Uti and Artsakh regions of the Azerbaijan state-Caucasian Albania. During the rule of the Arabs in Azerbaijan, Uti and Artsakh were renamed Arran and Agvan, respectively.

The name Karabakh, referring to the inseparable part of Azerbaijan, originates in the words “black” and “garden” in the Azerbaijani language. The combination of “black” and “garden” has an old history. It is undeniable that the combination of these words was accepted as a name for the specific territory of Azerbaijan all over the world. The name Karabakh was used for the first time in Azerbaijan’s historiography in the thirteenth century as “Arran Qarabağı/Arran Karabakhi-Karabakh of Arran,” by Rashiduddin Fazlullah (1247-1318), Grand Vizier of Hulakues (Elkhanies) state (1256-1357), in his Jamiʻuʾt-tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles: A History of the Mongols), when talking of the events of 1284.[7] Scholars maintain that historians of that period named this region “Arran Karabakh” to avoid confusing it with other Karabakhs outside Azerbaijan, especially “Bagdis Karabakh,” which is situated in the south-east of Turkmenistan and the south-west of Afghanistan.[8]

Upper and Lower Karabakh, which have shared close economic and cultural ties throughout history, were part of Arran geographically. Although in some historical sources, Karabakh and Arran were presented as the same territorial unit, as a greater administrative-geographical unit Arran was part of Azerbaijan, and according to Azerbaijani historian Abu Bakr al-Gutbu al-Ahri, Karabakh was considered to be a “capital of Arran” or, more precisely, as a center of it.[9] In the latter part of the fourteenth century and the early years of the fifteenth century, Karabakh was used alongside the word Arran, and it sometimes even replaced it. However, as an administrative unit, it covered the central part of the territory of Arran. As a territorial unit, it consisted of a territory that comprised highlands and foothills areas.

During the Middle Ages, it was possible to come across various villages and cities in Azerbaijan called Karabakh. In the mid-seventeenth century, Evliya Celebi, an Ottoman traveler, stated in his Seyahatname (Book of Travels) that besides the historical Karabakh region, there was a Qarabaglar (Eng: Karabakhlar, Karabağlar, Karagaglylar) village in Nakhchivan and a city called Karabakh, with approximately 10,000 inhabitants, in the Arasbar region of South Azerbaijan.[10]

Opinions and ideas vary regarding the meaning of Karabakh [Black Garden]. People called Karabakh because of the “black grape” planted in its fertile soil or the existence of various “black-leaved gardens” in this area.[11]

The history of how “Garabag/Karabakh” became a name for the specific region and area of Azerbaijan requires further, better scientific explanations concerning its etymology because, in addition to the meaning of color, the word “gara” (black) in Azerbaijani and other Turkic languages has other meanings, such as “sih” (dense), “galin” (thick), “boyuk” (big, large), and “tund” (strong). The word Karabakh, therefore, acquires such meanings as “gara bag” (dark garden), “boyuk bag” (a large garden), “six bag” (a dense garden), “galin bag” (a thick garden), and “safali bag” (a picturesque garden).[12] According to some scholars, the spread of “Karabakh” as a name within the territory of Azerbaijan was due to the Pechenegs (a semi-nomadic Turkic people), who lived in the territory known as Artsakh, the Upper part of today’s Karabakh, between the fifth and the tenth centuries. Afterward, this name referred also to the lower or steppe side of Karabakh.[13]

Kitabi-Dede Gorgud (The Book of Dede Korkut), a legendary and heroic epic poem of the Azerbaijan and Turkic world, also proves that Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, and various Turkic ethnos have lived in this region since ancient times. The heroic stories in the Book of Dede Korkut were spread widely around all territories of Azerbaijan, including Karabakh and the region around Goyche Lake, during the sixth and seventh centuries. In addition, the famous Oguzname (Oguz epic) in the name of “Kitabi-Diyarbekriyye,” written by Abu Bekr al-Tehrani al-Isfahani at the request of the great statesman of Azerbaijan Uzun Hasan (Hasan the High) (1468-1478), the emperor of Agqoyunlu (White Sheep Turkmen) Empire, shows that the summer mountain pastures around Goyche Lake and Karabakh belonged to ancient Oguz Turks; Oguz Khagan, who was considered the ancestor of Oguz Turks and was buried on the shore of Goyche Lake; and Bayandur Khagan lived and was buried in Karabakh on the pastures around the Goyche Lake.[14]

[1] Гейбуллаев, Гиясаддин, К этногенезу Азербайджанцев (Баку: Элм, 1991), p. 74.

[2] Mehdiyev, Ramiz, Gorus-2010: Season of Theater of Absurd (Universal, 2010), p. 40.

[3] Мамедова, Фарида, Кавказская Албания и албаны (Баку, 2005), p. 647.

[4] Худадов, В.Н., Закавказье. Историко-экономический очерк (Москва-Ленинград, 1926), p. 32.

[5] Məmmədov, Tofiq, Qafqaz Albaniyası ilk orta əsrlərdə (Təhsil nəşriyyatı, 2006), p. 49.

[6] Qeybullayev, Qiyasəddin, Qarabağ-etnik və siyasi tarixinə dair (Bakı: Elm, 1990), p. 136.

[7] Рашид-ад-дин, Фазлуллах, Сборник летописей, Том III, (Перевод с персидского А.К. Арендса. Под редакцией А.А. Ромаскевича, Е.Э. Бертельса и А.Ю. Якубовского), (Москва-Ленинград, 1946), p. 104.

[8] Mahmudov Y.M., and Şükürov K.K., Qarabağ: real tarix, faktlar, sənədlər (Bakı, 2009), p. 11. See also: Nəcəfli, Tofiq, “XV-XVII yüzilliklərdə Qarabağın ictimai-siyasi həyatı,” in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), p. 65.

[9] Əl-Əhəri, Əbu Bəkr əl-Qütbü, Tarix-e Şeyx Uveys (Translation from Persian language, preamble, comments, and notes by M.D. Kazımov and V.Z. Piriyev) (Bakı, 1984), p. 57. See also: Nəcəfli, “XV-XVII yüzilliklərdə Qarabağın ictimai-siyasi həyatı,” p. 65.

[10] Çelebi, Evliya, Seyahatname (Book of Travels), Vol. 2 (İstanbul, 1314), pp. 235-242.

[11] Sami, Şemsettin, Kamusu’l – A’lam, Vol. 5 (Kaşgar neşriyat, 1996), p. 3621.

[12] Piriyev, V. Z., Azərbaycanın tarixi-siyasi coğrafiyası (Bakı, 2003), p. 98.

[13] Гейбуллаев, Г. А., Топонимия Азербайджана (Баку, 1986), p. 145. See also: Piriyev, V. Z., Azərbaycan XIII-XIV əsrlərdə (Bakı, 2003), p. 98.

[14] Mahmudov and Şükürov, Qarabağ: real tarix, faktlar, sənədlər, p. 19.