How were Melikdoms established in Karabakh, and were they of Armenian origin?

When Islam spread to the territory of Azerbaijan, the Arab Caliphate granted the Christian population of Upper Karabakh the right to practice their religion freely. Those Christians in Upper Karabakh, therefore, managed to exist as a local administrative and territorial unit and preserved their religion and traditions during the Middle Ages within the territory of Azerbaijani states while paying a tax known as the jizya – a per capita yearly tax historically levied by Islamic states on certain non-Muslim populations that were permanently residing in Muslim lands under Islamic law. This kind of local administrative and territorial unit was called a melik or melikdom (feudal possessions). Cahanshah (1438-1467), the ruler of the Garagoyunlu state of Azerbaijan, was the first to grant the leader of the Jalali dynasty the title of melik (king or ruler) in the fifteenth century. This latter was the successor to Hasan Jalalyanin, a descendant of local Christian Albanians who served as a leader of the Christian population in the mountainous part of Karabakh until the mid-thirteenth century. Later, the Jalali dynasty was divided into five autonomous feudal princedom-melikdoms.[1]

It should be stated that melikdoms are typical only for Karabakh, which means that this kind of political unit or institution initially came into existence only in Karabakh. However, later on, in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries, it was possible to encounter melikdoms in Irevan, Sunik, and Sheki. The existence of melikdoms in this part of Azerbaijan can be explained by the fact that Karabakh’s meliks migrated there.[2] During the period of the Safavid Empire, Christian melikdoms were established as local administrative and territorial units within Karabakh Beylerbeyi (Province). Armenian scholars overestimate the roles played by the Christian meliks and describe them as de-facto independent Armenian rulers who freely regulated melik territories and possessed their own military units.[3] They did this to prove that Armenians had lived in Karabakh territory throughout history.

However, all historical sources on Karabakh argue that all melikdoms, except Khachyn, which had historical roots in Karabakh, emerged in Karabakh territory at various times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that only the ruler of the Khachyn melikdom, the successor of Hasan Jalalyanin, was appointed from among the local people. The rulers of four other melikdoms were appointed from those who came from outside of Karabakh. It should be mentioned that there were five melikdoms in the mountainous part of Karabakh at that time, namely Khachyn, Varanda, Talish (or Gulistan), Dizak, and Jeraberd, which were called “khamsa” (“five” in Arabic) and did not play an independent role. According to “Karabakhnameh” by Mirza Adigozal bey, the founder of the Dizak melikdom was Yegan, who originated from the Lori region in Armenia. After moving to Karabakh, he was granted the title of melik by Nadir shah. Mirza Shahnazar, the founder of the Varanda melikdom, came from the Goyche (Sevan) region of present-day Armenia at the time of the war between the Safavid and Ottoman Empires in the early seventeenth century and was given the title of melik of Varanda by Safavid shah Abbas I. Melik Allahkulu, the ruler of the Chelaberd melikdom, was from the Yesayi clan and was originally from the Syunik region of Armenia. He came to Karabakh in 1637. Furthermore, the last melikdom in Karabakh was established in the early eighteenth century and was called Talish (or Gulistan). Melik Usub, the ruler of the Talish melikdom, was from the Beyleryan clan in the village of Nij, in the Kabala region of Azerbaijan, where the Udins live today.[4] Even Mirza Yusif Karabakhi, an Armenian in South Azerbaijan, writes that the Karabakh meliks had no historical roots in Karabakh and came from other regions.[5]

At the time of the Safavid dynasty, the Ziyadoglu Qajar family ruled Karabakh for approximately two hundred years as Beylerbeyi of Karabakh. The Karabakh meliks were also subject to this family throughout all these years. When Nadir shah Afshar came to power in 1736, the Ziyadoglu Qajar family did not support his reign. Therefore, Nadir shah changed the subordination of the meliks from Karabakh Beylerbeyi (Ziyadoglu Qajar) and made them subject to his brother, Ibrahim khan, in order to reduce the power of the Ziyadoglu Qajar family. After the death of Nadir shah in 1747, the Karabakh meliks were subordinated to the Karabakh Khanate, an independent kingdom that was founded by Panah Ali khan (1748-1763, the successor to the Javanshir dynasty and the leader of the Karabakh clan Otuz iki (Thirty-two). However, during that time, meliks were assisting the external forces fighting against the Karabakh Khanate and attempted to dissociate the Khanate.[6] They represented the forces interested in preserving feudal dissociation in Karabakh. Therefore, with the battles of Agdere and Balligaya, Panah Ali khan ended the feudal dissociation and united meliks to the Karabakh Khanate.[7]

[1] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 3, (Bakı: Elm, 1999), pp. 41-42.

[2] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 3, (1999), p. 42.

[3] Иоаннисян, А.Р., Россия и армянское освобедителное движение в 80 – х г. XVIII веке (Ереван, 1947), p. 16.

[4] Adıgözəl bəy, Mirzə, “Qarabağnamə,” in Akif Fərzəliyev (ed.), Qarabağnamələr (Bakı: Yazıçı, 1989), pp. 36-37.

[5] Qarabaği, Mirzə Yusif, “Tarixi-Safi,” in Nazim Axundov (ed.), Qarabağnamələr (Bakı: Yazıçı, 1991), pp.12-14.

[6] Adıgözəl bəy, “Qarabağnamə”, pp. 36-37.

[7] Nəcəfli, Güntəkin, XVIII əsrdə Azərbaycan ərazisində erməni dövləti yaradılması cəhdləri (Bakı: Nurlan, 2007), p. 146.