Western Azerbaijan in Ancient Times

After the fall of the Urartu kingdom in the early 6th century BC, a new phase began in the history of the population living in the territories of Azerbaijan around Irevan. This period, spanning from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC, covers the time from the decline of the Urartu kingdom to the eastern campaign of Alexander the Great. During this era emerged several new settlements of the ancient tribes living in the regions around Irevan. In the western part of Azerbaijan, particularly in the areas around Irevan, a considerable number of material and cultural artifacts related to the Scythian tribes, primarily engaged in seasonal nomadic animal pastoralism, have been discovered. Archaeological investigations have led to the discovery of their traces around Irevan, in the Lake Goycha basin, and in the highlands of Aghbaba, Pempek, and Shoryel.

The presence of abundant fresh water sources, rich flora and fauna, and natural resources in the areas around Irevan were the main factors that facilitated human habitation in this region since ancient times. Dolichocephalic skulls related to the ancestors of modern Azerbaijani Turks have been discovered in various regions such as Goycha, Shoryel, Irevan, Deraliyez, Gernibasar, and others in Western Azerbaijan. Many of the ancient settlement areas around Lake Goycha have an age of over four thousand years. In Shoryel, the discovery of dolichocephalic skulls in burial monuments from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age confirms their affiliation with local Turkic tribes, rather than brachycephalic Armenoids. Information from ancient sources about the settlement of the Scythians in the modern Armenian territory finds its confirmation in the material and cultural artifacts discovered through archaeological excavations, as well as anthropological evidence.

In the Sirak Plain of Shoryel, many kurgans belonging to the Early Iron Age have been discovered, including those in the area of Qara Qala, near Lori Castle, and in the vicinity of Deliqardash village on the right bank of Ayricay River, as well as near Nereduz village. These areas were summer pastures for the productive tribes that laid the foundation of the Kura-Araxes civilization. Numerous dolichocephalic skulls related to the ancient ancestors of Azerbaijani Turks have been found in the burial monuments of this region. Research into the discovered dolichocephalic skulls from various locations across the present-day territory of Armenia confirms that the ancient Turkic tribes were the autochthonous population of the region. Notably, the Armenians, who call themselves “Hay,” possess the brachycephalic (round-headed) skull formation characteristic of the “Armenoid type.” However, the archaeological excavations in Armenia have revealed the presence of dolichocephalic skull formations among the most ancient inhabitants.

While Armenians might have migrated from Anatolia to the Caucasus, they were not the indigenous population of Anatolia either. The prominent Turkish anthropologist M.S. Şenyürek, through extensive research, concluded that Armenians were not the ancient inhabitants of Anatolia. In the 1930s, German researchers conducted studies in the Indus River basin, discovering skull formations related to the Armenoid type. This indicates that the Hays, whose homeland is Northern India, settled in Western Asia at a later stage. Hays did not live in South Caucasus, including around Irevan, either in the pre-BC millenniums or during the early centuries of the AD. From the west of the Caspian Sea to various regions of Azerbaijan, as well as in Kultəpə in Nakhchivan related to the VI-II millennia BCE, in the Xachbulaq highland in Dashkesen dating to the middle of the II millennium BCE, in Qarabagh mounds, and in Mingachevir dating to the early I millennium BCE, dolichocephalic skulls have been discovered. These skulls belong to the ancient Azerbaijani Turks who were the indigenous population of the regions around Irevan. Their anthropological characteristics and genetic makeup align with the same ethnic type. Strongholds such as Senger, Berk Qala, Dashlı Qala, Kolagiren, Yeridar, and Atamkhan in Western Azerbaijan were the most reliable locations where the local Turkic tribes defended against foreign attacks.

The Scythians occupy a prominent place among the ancient Turkic tribes living in the vicinity of Irevan. Archaeological excavations conducted here confirm that the Scythians were the most powerful factor in the military and political sphere in this region during the 7th-6th centuries BCE. In the area of Shamshadin, the discovery of burial monuments dating back to the 5th-4th centuries BCE, located 300 meters west of the Tovuzgala cyclopean fortress, and the findings of monuments in the northern-western part of the Azerbaijan Republic help us to define the borders of a unique cultural area in the region. In the Shorayel region, cultural examples found in the graves from the Post-Urartu period in the village of Chiragli share similarities with materials discovered in various places, including Kirmizitepe (Teishebaini Fortress) near Irevan, the village of Bash Gerni in the north of Irevan, the village of Beshdash (Barmaqsiz) in Borchali, as well as materials found in the areas of Ganja and Mingachevir. These findings, dating back to the 6th-4th centuries BCE, offer insight into the history of ancient Turkic tribes, particularly the Scythian-Sak tribes.

The distortion of the ancient history of the western region of Azerbaijan has been a primary focus of Armenian researchers. Their activities in this field are numerous and often misleading. The real historical facts can be revealed through cultural artifacts uncovered during archaeological excavations or information provided in written sources. Even the Urartian inscriptions from the 8th century BCE, upon careful examination, reveal that there is no connection between the ancient toponyms of Armenia and the region of Irevan and Lake Goycha (Sevan) in Azerbaijan. Irevan and the surrounding territories in Azerbaijan were part of the Scythian-Sak state, particularly the Ishquz and Inner Oghuz, around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. Prominent scholar of ancient Eastern history, I.M. Dyakonov, shows that the northern border of the Median Empire passed through the north of the Araz River, which he refers to as the “territory of the former Scythian state.” He notes that the name Sakasena, associated with this region, means “Homeland of the Scythians” in Iranian languages. The discovery of numerous cultural artifacts related to the Scythian-Sak tribes in Azerbaijan and Eastern Anatolia region confirms their dominance in the military and political sphere.

Ancient sources contain a considerable amount of information about the place names related to the Scythian-Sak tribes in the territory of Azerbaijan. Strabo noted that Sakasena derived its name from the Sak tribe. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder mentioned that the Persians referred to the Scythians as Sak. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder’s work “Natural History” mentioned that the country of the Sakasena (Sak) covered a large geographical area south of the Cyrus River (Kura River). He noted that the way of life, culture, and customs of eleven out of the eighteen provinces of the Parthian Empire, ruled by the Arsacid dynasty, were similar to those of the Scythian tribes.

Arrian, the author of a work about Alexander the Great’s campaigns, used the term “sakasenlar” or “those from the Sak country” to distinguish the Sak tribes living in the South Caucasus from the Scythian-Sak tribes around the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea. Many researchers suggest that the term “sakasen” means “similar to Sak.” Arrian also mentions the Albanians alongside the sakasenlar: “ἐπὶ δὲ Ἀλβανοὶ καὶ Σακεσ[ε]ῖναι”. This indicates their geographical proximity. The Sak Turkic tribes were primarily spread across the region until the Sak Plain, especially from Eastern Anatolia to the confluence of the Kura and Aras rivers. The Sak Plain, known as Balasakan in some sources, covered the flat part of modern-day Karabakh, including the Mil Plain. Arrian also records that the Medes fought alongside the Cadusi, Albanians and Sakasenes at the Battle of Gavgamela in October 331 BC: “Μήδων δὲ ἡγεῖτο Ἀτροπάτης ξυνετάττοντο δὲ Μήδοις Καδούσιοί τε καὶ Ἀλβανοὶ καὶ Σακεσῖναι” (The Medes were led by Atropates and were accompanied by kadusils, Albanians, and sakasens).

After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, its territory became part of Alexander the Great’s empire. Following Alexander’s death, a struggle for central power emerged among his Diadochi, creating conditions for the revival of ancient state traditions in the region. During this time, the Scythian-Sak tribes played a crucial role in the restoration of statehood traditions both in the South Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia.

It’s important to note that the information about the Arsacid dynasty’s Turkic origins was first presented by M.J. Sen-Martin, a member of the “Société Asiatique” in France, in his book “Fragments on the History of the Arsacids,” published in Paris in 1850. He referred to sources that mentioned the Scythian-Sak tribes as Turanians and their lands as Turan. The name “Arsak” is mentioned in Armenian sources as “Arshakuni.” M. Horenatsi, considered the founder of “Armenian history,” wrote that this name was connected to the founder of the Parthian state, Arsak.

In April of 224, in the Battle of Hormozgan, the last ruler of the Parthian Empire, Vardanes V, was defeated by the Sasanian ruler I Ardeshir, who belonged to the Sasanian Persian dynasty. Prior to this, in the northern part of Azerbaijan, the state of Albania existed, and in the south, the region of Adurbadagan was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty. In the second half of the 3rd century, Sasanian sources mention not only states like Albania, Adurbadagan (Atropatene), and Iberia in the South Caucasus but also Sakan and Balasakan territories.

In the 1st century AD, M. Kalankatlı and M. Horenatsi wrote that the Albanian state extended from the south of the Aras River to the north, encompassing vast mountainous and flat lands up to the Hunan fortress. According to their information, the country of Albania was ruled by Aran, descendant of the Great Sak lineage and his brave successors. From 2nd century BC until the 3rd century AD, the coins of the Arsacid dynasty were widely spread in the territories of Azerbaijan and Eastern Anatolia. XIII-century Albanian historian Kirakos of Ganja and Byzantine historian L. Diakon in their works entitled “History” noted that Turkic tribes were known as Scythians in the Middle Ages as well as in ancient times.

Starting from the early 18th century, members of the Armenian Mechitarists movement, who had converted to Catholicism and aimed to promote anti-Turkish propaganda in Europe, began altering grabar sources and publishing them in Venice. From that period onwards, the works of authors like M. Horenatsi, L. Parples, Yeghishe, Koryun, and others were altered by the Mechitarists and published under the title “Hayos patmutyun” (“History of the Armenians”), which was then propagated in European countries as “Armenian history.” The ancient toponyms such as Sakasena, Balasakan (Sak Plain), and Maskut (Massagetae), mentioned in historical sources, have been associated with the Sak tribes, and currently, they correspond to regions like Sheki, Zakatala, the Sisakan (Qarakilsa) district in Zangezur, and the town of Sheki.

Thus, according to the cultural artifacts and written sources discovered as a result of archaeological excavations in the vicinity of Iravan, the western lands of Azerbaijan were part of the Scythian-Sak (Inner Oghuz) state, which was established in the 1st millennium BC, and after the fall of this state, its territory was called “Sakasena country”, as is known from ancient sources. Both written sources and cultural artifacts discovered as a result of archaeological excavations show that the ancient population of the Iravan suburbs, which is an important part of the history and geography of Azerbaijan, was made up of local Azerbaijani ethnic groups.

Tofiq Najafli

 Doctor of historical sciences, associate professor

Rashad Mustafa

PhD in History

Ramin Alizade