THE ARMENIAN REBELLION OF THE 1720S AND THE THREAT OF GENOCIDAL REPRISAL
From 1722 to 1735 Safavid Iran underwent deep internal and external crises. In 1722 Afghan rebels overran much of central Iran, including its capital, Isfahan. The multiethnic populations of Transcaucasia and some other peripheral regions of Iran found themselves left without effective central and local administration as well as subject to increasing intercommunal strife and foreign intervention. The Afghan conquest and its repercussions wrought cataclysmic changes upon Iran, leading a perceptive Carmelite orientalist to describe the process as follows:
The break with the past [in the 1720s]... was, however, so complete that to it in more proximate or more remote degree may be ascribed most of the ills of the next two hundred years... In its soul as a nation, it was as if the country had raised round itself a wall of separation from the rest of the world, had elected to develop fanaticism, an intolerance, contempt and ostracism of the rest of the world which exercised their baneful effect well into the twentieth century.3
This assessment, recorded in writing as early as 1939, is all the more thought-provoking in light of the recent developments of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the following institutionalization of the Islamic regime in Iran.
In August through October 1722 Russian troops, led by Peter the Great, invaded and for the first time occupied the Caspian littoral of what was then Iranian Transcaucasia.4 This constituted a historical turning point in Russian policy towards the Near East as well as a completely new strategic reality for the region. The new geopolitical setting that came to life in Transcaucasia (with Russia, Iran, and Turkey as competing regional 'superpowers') has remained strikingly close to its archetype up to the present.
In the years immediately preceding the 1722 'Persian Campaign' of Peter the Great, the Christian nations of Transcaucasia, the Armenians and Georgians, were secretly negotiating with Moscow for the latter's assistance in their bid for emancipation from Iranian rule.5 Hence, the Russian occupation of part of the Caspian coast, accompanied by Peter's promises to provide military support for their liberation attempt, created a real sense of euphoria among these peoples. In September, 1722, a combined Georgian-Armenian army of about 50,000, headed by Vakhtang VI, the king of Kartli (the Georgian principality within Iran), set out from Tiflis and camped near Ganja waiting for the promised advance of the Russians.6 It was promptly joined by 10,000 "crack and well-armed" fighting men from Karabakh, an Armenian-populated mountainous region.7 Both the Armenians and Georgians saw the Russian appearance in Transcaucasia as a sign of their long-awaited salvation from Muslim rule and the restoration of their independence. A few years later, Yesayi Hasan-Jalalian, the Catholicos (Spiritual Head) of the Armenians of Karabakh and a veteran of the Armenian liberation movement, summarized the popular mood of those days with the words, "We thought
that Armenian sovereignty had been reestablished."8 Likewise, appealing to the united Armenian and Georgian troops, Vakhtang VI declared, "Henceforth be courageous and brave as the sons of the Almighty! And do not fear anything or anyone, since the time of the salvation for the Christians has now come."9
However, both the unfavorable international situation and the heavy Russian casualties suffered especially during the first stage of his 'Persian campaign'10 compelled Peter the Great to renege on his promises to the Transcaucasian Christians. Instead, he sought to consolidate the Russian hold on the Caspian coast and to expand it from Darband to Rasht, thus further securing his control over the northern route for the silk trade which, in fact, was the primary incentive and objective of his campaign. Furthermore, a Russo-Ottoman "partition" treaty, signed on 12 June 1724 in Constantinople, assigned all of Western Iran, including Eastern Armenia and Georgia, to the Ottoman Empire and the western and southern coasts of the Caspian Sea to Russia.11 The disheartening effect of this Russian policy on the Georgians and Armenians largely contributed to the first Ottoman military successes in Transcaucasia, in particular the capture in June, 1723, of the Georgian capital, Tiflis, without resistance. Georgian opposition to the Turks faltered further in July, 1724, when Vakhtang VI emigrated to Russia with his entire court and many high-ranking Georgian political and cultural figures (1200 men).12
In contrast the Armenian armed forces, which were principally concentrated in the adjacent mountainous regions of Karabakh (ancient Artzakh, late medieval Khachen)13 and Kapan (ancient Siunik), did not follow this pattern. Although at first opposed to Iranian rule, after the Ottoman invasion of Iran, the Armenians succeeded in preserving their military capability, allied themselves with the Iranian forces without terminating their relationship with the Russians,14 and maintained a fierce
resistance to the Turks until the recapture of all of Transcaucasia by Iranian troops in 1735.
Both Armenian and non-Armenian sources reveal that in the 1720s Karabakh and Kapan alone had standing forces ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 soldiers.15 This powerful and seemingly sudden reemergence of the Armenian armed forces would have been impossible without the existence of Armenian military cadres and structures in the region.16 There were three main military formations around which the Armenian troops were newly organized: First, the military units of the Karabakh and Kapan Meliks (Armenian feudal lords),17 second, the Armenian military serving in Georgia, and, finally, the Armenian military in the Iranian service. Material resources in the region and local manufacture of arms were important factors in this development.
The traditional military units of the Karabakh and Kapan Meliks served as the primary basis for the raising of Armenian troops in the 1720s. In this respect one unique report by Parsadan Gorgijanidze (1626-1703), a well-informed seventeenth century Georgian chronicler who served in both the Georgian and Iranian courts,18 deserves special attention. He referred to 40,000 Karabakh Armenian "musketeers" who were ready to launch a liberation war as early as 1632.19 We may compare this report with the fact that exactly the same number (40,000) of Karabakh Armenian soldiers was repeatedly mentioned in the 1720s.20 It is evident that Gorgijanidze's information reflected a previous historical reality; even if due to
the contemporary adverse regional setting and understandable security reasons this reality was an underground or dormant capability. The Georgian author's earliest information about the equipment of the Karabakh Armenian forces in 1632 had likewise received its near-complete corroboration in the 1720s developments. Thus, according to a report by the Karabakh Armenian envoys to the Russian Court, dated 5 November 1724:
Their army's weapons are muskets and sabers; in addition, the horse-soldiers have pistols. Furthermore, they have sufficient powder and lead; those muskets, and powder, and lead are made by the Armenians themselves, since they possess the relevant ores in sufficient quantity. Yet, although they possess the copper and iron ores, they have no cannons, since they have no cannon-founders.21
On 16 August 1725, Ivan Karapet, the influential Armenian manufacturer from Russia who was sent by Peter the Great as his personal "envoy" (посланник) to Karabakh and Kapan with an intelligence and diplomatic mission,22 reported back from an area where in Karabakh he saw —
...such combative fighters that could be found nowhere else in Iran but only here. Today they number 12,000 cavalrymen, all equipped with muskets and sabers. Besides, their foot-soldiers are so many that only God knows [their number], and all have muskets. Moreover, they make 10 muskets per day (i.e., 3,650 muskets per year). Also, they have copper and iron-works...23
On 21 October 1729 the commanders of the Karabakh Armenian army described their forces as follows:
1. The Armenian army is in four sections; its commanders are Avan-yuzbashi, Tarkhan, Abram, Ohan, Baghi and Avak,24 who have under their authority 30,000 soldiers; these are all soldiers — not farmers or merchants....
2. Their own gunsmiths are locally making their weapons, namely: muskets, sabers, broadswords, daggers, and pistols....
3. ...In addition, they possess iron, copper, lead, and silver mines...
5. Although the Turks launched many full-scale offensives against them, they, the Armenians, up to the present moment, have managed to repel them with all their own forces available...
6. They (the Armenians) hope that, as soon as the Russian assistance arrives, the ranks of the Armenian troops will [again] reach a level of 50,000 men.25
These reports, inter alia, reveal that for the period in question Armenian Karabakh and Kapan maintained a sophisticated system of weapons manufacture, which originated much earlier than the 1720s and even before 1632 when the fire-arms (musket) equipment of Karabakh Armenian soldiers was first attested to by Parsadan Gorgijanidze. In this respect it is noteworthy that prior to their rebellion the Karabakh and Kapan Armenians had been importing the most advanced, European-made fire-arms in addition to producing arms locally. For example, in 1707 Israel Ori (1659-1709), the plenipotentiary representative of the Armenian clandestine liberation movement to the European and Russian courts, arranged the purchase and transportation from Amsterdam of arms and ammunition to a
total value of between 15,000 and 20,000 roubles for the equipment of Armenian soldiers.26 Another contemporary Armenian liberation activist, without releasing the particulars, reports in his memoirs that before 1722 under the pretext of buying books he was actually purchasing "weapons for the soldiers."27 However, with the start of the rebellion the opportunity to organize such operations had been minimized; for example, on 16 June 1724 a Russian spy (an Armenian merchant) reported,
...in the last days of April  in Tabriz, 30 Kapan Armenians were executed by order of the Shah, since they were buying powder and lead and transferring them to Kapan.28
After the Ottoman invasion and occupation of much of Transcaucasia by 1725, supply became one of the most pressing problems facing the Armenian troops in Karabakh and Kapan because importing military equipment in any significant amounts was no longer possible. Although in the course of war thousands of pieces of fire-arms were captured from Ottoman troops, this equipment did not solve the problem. As in the case of the timely concentration of the experienced Armenian military personnel in Karabakh and Kapan (see below), one would expect the whole process of the local manufacture of arms to have been activated and reorganized from the bottom up from at least 1719 onwards and further improved upon to meet the greatly increased needs of constant war.29 The three-step chain of this process clearly started with the exploitation of the relevant mines, then progressed to arms production in small arms factories (which were, most probably, located next to the mines), and culminated in the supply of this equipment to the army. No doubt there was a special delivery system in place.
Those famous copper, iron, lead, silver and other mines so often referred to by the Armenians had been exploited since ancient times in the districts known nowadays as Kelbajar (the original Armenian Karavachar,30 meaning literally a 'precious metal market'), Getabek, and Dashkesan (the original Armenian Karahat, meaning literally a 'precious metal mine').31 The Armenians had exercised control over the same mines before the 1720s as well. Another intelligence report, written in 1699, noted, "...parce que dans l'Armenie il se trouve grosse quantite' de belles mines de cuivre et de fer, que les Armeniens tiennent."32 Furthermore, the effective control of the Armenian armed forces over these mineral-rich regions throughout the 1720s enables us today to plot the north-western boundaries of Armenian self-rule, which at that time extended to the north and north-west beyond the boundaries of the present-day Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (see map on page 4 and endnote 143).
Other material resources indispensable for an enduring war were also available in Karabakh and Kapan. For example, the report of 21 October 1729, quoted above, notes also that:
The country under their control (i.e., Karabakh) produces wheat, millet, silk, cotton. Grapes, and many other kinds of fruits are abundant....Additionally, they have good horses of Persian and Turkish as well as local stock in ample quantities....For meat supplies there were cows, sheep and all kinds of poultry in ample quantities. They also possess all kinds of woods (except pines) in sufficient quantities....if the [Russian] Emperor decides to send any number of reinforcements [to Karabakh], they, the Armenians, would supply them with the bread, meat, butter, vodka, red wine (чихирь), and forage for the horses...33
Thus, the Armenian self-rule in Karabakh and, to a lesser degree, in Kapan was assisted by their agricultural and mineral self-sufficiency.
In the 1720s the Armenian troops were additionally manned by professional cadres from the Georgian military. In the 17-18th centuries, thousands of Armenian commanders and soldiers served in the ranks of the Georgian cavalry stationed both in Georgia proper and in Iran. For example, according to Joseph Emin (1726-1809), a central figure in the Armenian liberation movement in the 1760s-1780s, half of the Georgian trained military personnel in the 1760s consisted of Armenians.34 The situation was probably much the same in the 1720s. When describing the large mobilization campaign organized by Vakhtang VI in Georgia during August, 1722, Yesayi Hasan-Jalalian, an eyewitness and participant in these events, suggests an equal division "consisting of [both] Georgian and Armenian nationalities."35 At some time during the first days of September, 1722, Vakhtang allowed a 2,000-strong all-Armenian division to separate from his 50,000-man army36 which was heading for Ganja and to march under the command of his gifted Armenian general Davit-bek into Armenia, toward Kapan.37 These experienced and competent Armenian warriors from Georgia constituted the bulk of the Kapan Armenian military elite in the 1720s. Interestingly, Vakhtang himself greatly trusted his Armenian soldiers, especially those of Tiflis.38
The third component of the Armenian professional military constituted many hundreds of Armenian musketeers, who served in the detachments of the Shia Iranian rulers of Yerevan39 and
Shamakhi40 and probably elsewhere in Eastern Armenia. Some of the Armenians reached the highest military positions in Iran. One of them was Allahverdi-khan, the renowned Iranian commander-in-chief during the reign of Abbas the Great (1587-1629); as quoted, for example, in the 22 April 1619 letter by Piedro Delia Valle, the famous Italian traveller, Allahverdi-khan was a "[renegade] Christian Armenian by race, but of the country of the Georgians."41 The military tradition was maintained among the non-Muslimized Armenian emigres in Iran as well. One of them, born in Hamadan in the beginning of the 17th century, as reported by his great-grandson,
When a proper age. followed the profession of his forefathers, enlisting himself in the military service...and by dint of courage distinguished himself in two extraordinary actions.... He was consequently promoted to the honourable post of minbashy, or colonel of one thousand men...42
From 1722 to 1735 a considerable number of Armenian soldiers fought against the Ottoman troops in the ranks of the Iranian army. The very important participation of the Armenian forces on the Iranian side in the decisive battle of 8 July 1735 at Yeghvard plain located north of Yerevan, where the Ottoman army was totally destroyed and driven out from Transcaucasia, is well attested in Persian and Armenian sources.43 However, the earlier and similarly outstanding contribution of'the Armenians in 1724 is almost unrecognized. In fact, several European sources ascribe a major share in the Tabriz victory of September 1724 to the Armenians. Thus, Judasz Tadeusz Krusinski (1675-1756), a prominent Polish Jesuit, who was in Isfahan until June, 1725, writes:
Happily for Prince Thamas, he had just put an end to the domestic dissentions among his party, and by his mild behaviour gained over those whom his unseasonable pride had disgusted; especially the Armenians of the mountains of Capan, who by joining him, put him in a condition, not only to make head against the Turks, but also to attack them in their intrenchments (sic): which he did, and with so much vigour, that he obtained one of the most glorious and compleat (sic) victories that had been known since the beginning of the Persian troubles, for there were 20,000 Turks slain in the battle [of Tabriz] and almost as many taken prisoners.44
Elsewhere, Krusinski adds that during the Tabriz affair "the Armenians spared none" from the Ottoman elite Janizaries guard.45 Krusinski's report is supported by Otter, Mamie de Clairac and de Sagredo, the latter writing in particular:
the Turks dared to besiege Tabriz for the second time (in 1725) only after receiving the information that they [the Armenians] would not participate [in its defence].46
Later, in 1754 Pilibek Basaurov, a distinguished Armenian commander of the 1720s, recalled the destruction of the 17,000-strong Turkish army by an Armenian mounted force "near Ararat" sometime in 1723-1724.47 This could have well referred to the same Tabriz affair, since no other similar encounter happened nearby at that time.
Between 1722 and 1725, one of the chief officers in the troops of Shah Tahmasb II (1722-1732) was Parsadan-bek, an Armenian of Tiflis, who commanded, as underlined by the quoted source, "in the rank of gedalibek, the best detachment, constituted of 300 Georgians."48 No doubt, these 300 soldiers included also the Armenians of Georgia (we know of two of Parsadan-bek's sons, Rafael and Taghi, who accompanied
him).49 Another contemporary source specially clarified that the Armenians from Georgia "were called Georgians because they were from the country of Georgians, and not because they belonged to that nation."50 The participation of Parsadan-bek, with his "best detachment" in the Tabriz battle is highly probable.
Parsadan-bek was the father-in-law of Davit-bek, the leader of Armenian principality of Kapan between 1722 and 1728. Another of Parsadan's sons, Abdulmaseh, as a commander of a detachment joined the aforementioned 2,000-strong Armenian division which entered Armenia in September 1722. Abdulmaseh fought against the Iranian and Ottoman forces and was killed in action in Kapan some time between 1726 and 1728.51 Furthermore, Parsadan-bek himself was deeply engaged in the confidential preparations for the Georgian-Armenian rebellion as early as 1718 when he was authorized by Vakhtang VI to conduct top secret negotiations in Isfahan, Rasht and Shamakhi with Artemiy Volinskiy, the Russian ambassador to Iran from 1715 to 1718.52 The presence of Parsadan-bek in the army of Tahmasb during the ascent of Armenian rebellion could be best explained in terms of providing the Armenians with a kind of justification in the eyes of the Iranians. Accordingly, the Armenians, who were badly mistreated at the hands of the Iranian administrators in Eastern Armenia, approached Parsadan-bek in his capacity as a person close to Shah Tahmasb for assistance. At least once he managed to obtain a special decree (ragham) from Tahmasb calling a halt to the terror against the Armenians launched in Yerevan in the summer of 1723.53 Simultaneously, a similar decree was obtained for the Armenians of Nakhichevan province. Although in the latter case the source does not explicitly state the names (except one) of all of the (as he indicated) several Armenian solicitors,54 the participation of Parsadan-bek in this episode is apparent as well.
Further, a contemporary source mentions by name five Christian Armenian commanders of the Iranian army in the late 1720s who were in charge of 500 soldiers. Reference is also made about the birth-places of four of them; one came from the city of Gori in Georgia, two others were from the village of Chapni in Kapan, and the fourth was from the village of Sod (today's Zod) of the Gegharkuni district, situated to the west of Karabakh on the eastern and south-eastern coast of the lake Sevan (in the 1720s Gegharkuni was fully within the political-military orbit of Armenian self-rule).55 As a matter of fact, the Armenian military units in Georgia and Armenia, particularly in Kapan, Karabakh, and Gegharkuni, constituted part of the Iranian armed forces. It is obvious that the Iranian army had been regularly enlisting the Armenians precisely from those districts where the Armenian martial tradition was still in place. In turn, the service of Armenians in the larger Iranian units helped to maintain the effectiveness and considerable potential of the local Armenian forces insofar that as a rule the Armenian soldiers intermittently and eventually came back to reside in their native towns or villages where they enjoyed the high social status of noblemen.
In 1719 the Armenian military commanders serving in Shamakhi, headed by the famous Avan-yuzbashi (ca. 1670-1735) who between 1722-1728 was commander-in-chief of the Karabakh Armenian troops, were secretly invited and moved to Karabakh in order to supervise the re-organization, re-equipment, and training of the local forces in advance of the planned Armenian rebellion.56
By 1722, the concentration of Armenian military professionals in Karabakh and Kapan brought about a high level of combat preparedness in the local forces and had a large part to play in their later outstanding perfomance.57 Thus, although rarely visible on the historical arena during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Eastern Armenian military forces
provided a suitable and sufficient basis to effect the speedy recovery for larger armies fighting with an agenda of nationwide liberation in the 1720s.
From 1722 to 1724, in addition to those forces in Karabakh and Kapan, Armenians formed military units in Yerevan where overall 10,189 Armenian fighting men participated in the 1724 defense of this "capital of Armenia".58 Similar units were formed in Nakhichevan, Gegharkuni, Ganja and some other locations.59 A few hundred Armenians formed the so-called Armenian Squadron within the Russian Contingent on the Caspian coast in the hope that the Russians would make headway towards Armenia.60
However, by the end of 1725 the Ottoman armies had seized almost all of Transcaucasia forcing the Armenians to confine their resistance within the boundaries of Karabakh and Kapan. Nevertheless, these two adjacent and virtually independent Armenian regions proved to be the major centers of resistance to the Ottoman occupation of Transcaucasia from 1725 until 1735. Karabakh and Kapan's prolonged resistance without external support was organized perfectly, concentrating upon the provision of an all-round defense which entailed the enhancement of natural obstacles including control of mountain passes. The Ottoman armies did not succeed in subjugating these two collaborating regions despite imposing a total blockade from the beginning of 1726.61 Clearly, the Karabakh and Kapan Armenian troops posed a frustrating challenge to the Ottoman military and political leadership.
Most interestingly, from 1722 to the 1730s the external powers (as well as the Armenians themselves) referred to
Karabakh and Kapan by new terms which were absolutely different from their previous geographic and administrative definitions, namely — Seghnakh(s) or Armenian Seghnakh(s) (Seghnakh signified a fortified mountain area characterized by mutually supporting defensive works and fortresses),62 Armenian Assembly (Собрание Армянское ),63 Armenian Army (Армянское Войско or Армия),64 and even Assembly of the Armenian Army (Собрание Армянского Войска).65 On 14 September 1733, Pavel P. Shafirov (1669-1739), a distinguished Russian diplomat, defined the region as:
...Armenia Minor which is now called Armenian Seghnakhs: all those lands are populated by brave Armenian Christians, who have defended themselves with their own forces against both the Turks and the Persians for [the last] several years.66
A well-known narrative by Jonas Hanway goes as far as to define the emergent Armenian autonomous areas as "a kind of republic." 67 The appearance of these new designations amounts to the de facto recognition of Karabakh and Kapan's actual decade-long independence.
The upsurge of anti-Armenian attitudes in Iran and the Ottoman Empire and its ramifications will be the subject of further study throughout the remainder of this book. However, one indispensable aspect of the historical background, that of the course of Armenian resistance to the invading Ottoman armies, remains to be presented in some detail. A table of major battles between the Armenians and Ottoman regular troops during only four years from 1723 to 1727 is detailed below and presents the Armenian resistance and Ottoman casualties. These casualties, as we shall see later, actively fueled anti-Armenian
passions in the ruling circles of the Ottoman Empire during the same period. The table clearly indicates the Ottoman losses (the question of the Armenian losses will be returned to later). It is important to note that many minor encounters with documented casualties of less than one hundred killed as well as those major encounters between the Armenians of Karabakh-Kapan and the Ottoman Turks which occurred from 1728 to 173468 have been omitted because the documents under consideration below are dated and refer to the period 1722-1727. The table is based on my crosschecked analysis of the data in the various Armenian, Russian, European, Iranian, and Turkish primary sources.
Armen Aivazian The Armenian Rebellion of the 1720s and the Threat
of Genocidal Reprisal Yerevan, 1997