Artsakh, which is better known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh (Mountainous Karabakh) or just Karabakh, is a large Armenian region to the east of the Republic of Armenia. The region was renamed Karabakh (Black Gardens) in the 13th century. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region was established in 1923 but in 1989 the autonomous status of the region was abolished. Karabakh is a typical mountainous country. Places of habitations and cemeteries from the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages were found on its territory. The first church was founded here by Grigor The Illuminator in Amaras. According to the ancient sources, the first school was created here by Mesrop Mashtots. There are a lot of architectural monuments of different epochs in Karabakh. The valuable complexes of Middle Ages (The Monasteries of Gandzasar, 13-17th cc., Gtich, 13th c., Dadivank (The Monastery of Thaddeus Apostle), 12-13th cc., and Yeghish Araqyal, 13th c., fortresses of Khokhanaberd, Kachaghakaberd, etc.) are kept here.
Stepanakert and Shushi are the chief towns. The flag of Artsakh is derived from that of Armenia, which is a red-blue-orange horizontal tricolor. The westwards pointing arrow signifies very graphically Karabagh’s current separation from Armenia proper, and its hopes for union with the motherland. The design also recalls that of the world famous (and very expensive) Armenia rugs.
Stepanakert, nestled in a bowl of mountains, is the capital of Karabakh. Karabakh has a population of well under 200,000 people, which means the capital of Stepanakert, with an estimated 40,000 residents is more a large town than a city. The main tourist site in Stepanakert is in the outskirts near the approach to town from Shushi. It is the monument called popularly "Tatik and Papik" (Grandmother and Grandfather), an old Armenian man and woman hewn from rock. They represent the mountain people of Karabakh. Aside from this there is also a small museum near the main open market place. A branch line of the Baku - Tbilisi - Batumi rail line reaches the city. Stepanakert has a varied industrial structure and is especially important for food processing, wine making, and silk weaving. There are also a number of restaurants in Stepanakert to suite various tastes.
Amaras Church (5 - 19 cc. AD) is in the middle of a field, it is not surprisingly surrounded by high fort-like walls. This is relatively a very plain monastery, although some of the more decorative elements are gone now, so it is even less so than before. When entering the compound (there is only one entrance) you first see a courtyard where animals were said to be kept. The church is in the middle of the courtyard which is spacious and has a mulberry tree to match those outside the compound. All around the courtyard there are rooms that used to be used by the monks. You can climb around in them, or climb up to the roof for an elevated view. The corner rooms have a domed roof and bats. Upon entering the church and approaching the altar, you will find a stairwell heading down underground. There is a low ceiling in parts and a flashlight is helpful. Underground there is a room, with parts of the wall missing. On the ceiling of the adjoining room is the handwriting of Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet.
The Monastery of St. Dadi, otherwise called Dadivank or Khutavank (“Monastery upon-the-Hill”, in Armenian), is the largest monastic complex in the land of Artsakh and one of the true masterpieces of Armenian medieval architecture. It is located in the northwestern part of the Mardakert district of Karabakh, on the territory of Artsakh’s historical province of Upper Khachen. According to legend, the monastery was founded at the end of the 1st century AD and named after one of Apostle Jude’s disciples, St. Dadi, who was martyred preaching Christianity in Eastern Armenia. The first mention of Monastery in medieval chronicles relates to the 9th century. The monastic complex of Dadivank consists of the Memorial Cathedral (Katoghike), Church of the Holy Virgin, Chapel, Memorial Bell-Tower and several auxiliary buildings.
The central building of the monastery, Memorial Cathedral, was erected in the year 1214 by the Queen Arzou of Haterk. The Memorial Cathedral is richly decorated with frescoes. An inscription in Armenian, which covers the entire entrance wall of the Cathedral, reads: “I, Arzou-Khatoun, obedient servant of Christ, wife of King Vakhtang, ruler of Haterk and all Upper Khachen, with great hopes have built this holy cathedral on the place where my husband and sons are laid to rest . My first-born Asan martyred for his Christian faith in the war against the Turks, and, three years later, my younger son Grigor also joined Christ. Completed in the year 663 of the Armenian calendar”.
Gandzasar (1216-1238 AD) is the most exquisite monastery of Karabakh. Located in the north, atop the green hill which climbs above the village of Vank, it has been restored and is a fully functioning monastery. Gandzasar has some of the nicest carvings and details typical for many Armenian monasteries. Each stone is well thought out, and the decorations are a pleasure to discover throughout the complex. Being a functioning monastery means there are priests and monks there who are happy to give tours and history of the monastery, as well as discuss church issues in general. The monastery is surrounded by walls which have monks’ quarters and should soon be able to accommodate some male guests as well.
Shushi is a great center of Armenian culture. It is unavoidable en route to Stepanakert via the Berdzor corridor. The main attraction is the newly restored Cathedral, which is a pristine white, very large and attractive. The newly-renovated church of Ghazanchetsots stands resplendently, symbolizing the rebirth of Armenian Shushi, also known as "Eagle’s Nest." Inside, deacons and acolytes are often chanting the psalms of the Evening Service, their voices echoing in the acoustically-rich church. Shushi lies on top of the huge rock on one side of the mountain. The view here is impressive and the rock will make any climber’s mouth water. It is a very sheer rock, although at certain points it can be climbed by any hiker. This rock twists around a little like a boomerang and the other end towers above Karintak village. In Shushi there is a little town square with the slogan "The Armenians only salvation lies in their unity" painted above one of the buildings in Armenian.