Armenian News Network / Groong

The Uprising of the Armenian lords of Garabagh-Gaban


Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

December 31, 2022

By Eddie Arnavoudian


The 18th century uprising of the Armenian lords of Garabagh-Gaban

Something of a primary source, ‘David Beg or the History of Gaban by 18th century Mekhitarist priest Ghugas Sepasdatzi (112pp, 1992, Yerevan), is a thought-provoking account of the 1721-1730 uprisings of Armenian feudal estates in the Gaban-Garabagh region against both Persian state forces and their local Turkish allies and against the Ottoman State that was then intent on seizing the Caucuses from a faltering Persian power.

This slim volume, by virtue of its Armenian authorship, offers material for scrubbing away the romantic mythology that has developed around the battles led by David Beg, commander of the Armenian rebels, at their strongest point. Without exception the Garabagh Uprisings, in historiography and in fictional literature, have been depicted as a national movement representing the whole of the Armenian people. Ghugas Sepasdatzi shows it otherwise.

In a more focused account Sepasdatzi records a reality in which at every step it was Armenian feudal lords and leaders and not the people who determined Armenian ambitions and strategy. This was not an age in which the ‘democratic will’ of the people was operative, in Armenia or elsewhere! Rather Sepasdatzi’s narrative tells of an uprising of the Armenian feudal nobility who, dedicated to their own autonomy and freedom from Persian and Ottoman power remained nevertheless at the same time dedicated to the continued feudal subjugation and oppression of the Armenian peasant, then the majority of the Armenian people.

In 1721 Armenian feudal principalities sensing an opportunity to extricate themselves from the claws of a vulnerable Persian Empire that privileged local Turkish estates, turned to their neighboring Georgian monarchy for help. To lead them in their endeavors they succeeded in recruiting David Beg from the Georgian Armenian nobility. Under his remarkable military-organizational leadership the Armenian rebels fought with success so great that they were able to put in play a larger strategic ambition – having weakened Persian and Ottoman power they aspired now to a degree of autonomy under Georgian auspices.

It of course speaks to an organic weakness of the Armenian Garabagh principalities and of nation formation at the time that they could not throw up a local leader for their ambition. In the entire effort of war and political maneuver David Beg remained critical to Armenian success. Without him there were no local forces capable of compelling Armenian elites to united strategic action. Indeed, as is evident in this volume an already fragile, precarious and unstable Armenian unity under David Beg disintegrated rapidly following his untimely death in 1728. Mkhitar Sparabed who succeeded David Beg was ‘murdered by his own’. But even before David Beg’s death Armenian estates under his leadership were engaged in mutual intrigue, deception, plot and treachery that foretold great ills and had on occasion to be controlled by executions.

Ghugas Sebasdatzi’s horrifying accounts of military engagements that were simultaneously endless episodes of mutual slaughter, pillage, plunder, arson and ethnic cleansing on all sides tempers any unqualified nationalist, democratic or progressive labels that are readily attached to the 1721-1728 uprising. A few examples from the Armenian side are instructive. At one point, Sebasdazi writes that ‘having set camp in a fort called Shnher’ David Beg ‘invited the leader of Datev and explained his ambitions in the land. He said “We intend to totally clear this land of all foreigners”. He then gathered together the men of Shnher and went on to strike and plunder Turkish villages and seized all their belongings (p21).’

Further on, we read of an Armenian military leader Toros ‘pursuing Sabi Ghuli’, ‘slaughtering eighty of his men’ and going on ‘to destroy three Turkish villages, seizing all their property and returning to Manlev (p31).’ ‘David’s forces traveled through all of Gaban inspecting and searching and wherever they found Turks they cut them down with their swords until they totally eliminated them from Gaban (p33).’ There are plenty of similar examples, and of course examples of Turkish forces doing the same to Armenians and indeed of Armenian forces plundering Armenian villages (p33)!’  This tragic and sobering story of mutual barbarity was alas to be repeated in different forms across the centuries.

Of course, the slaughter of opponents and the cleansing of their populations from their local villages was, in a sense ‘par for the course’ for all socio-political-military forces at this stage, irrespective of nationality. But this does not excuse a post-facto sanitizing of these aspects of the uprising and its presentation or reconstruction in patriotic shades that conceal not just the savage violence but the absence of a genuine democratic nationalist, nation-building drive.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the remnants of an ancient Armenian feudal nobility David Beg’s accomplishment during his short ‘reign’ was in many respects quite remarkable. To set about seizing the Caucuses from Persia, the Ottoman Empire had first and foremost to deal with and overcome David Beg. And subduing him proved no easy task. The Ottomans suffered repeated heavy blows from their Armenian adversaries and were saved from further humiliation by ‘divine intervention’ in the form of David Beg’s death by fatal illness.

David Beg evidently was a man with his own independent ambitions and with an acute eye of where Armenian strategic interests lay. Though assigned his role by the Georgian monarch who hoped to use him to extend his authority over a wider swathe of the Caucuses, David Beg was no subservient tool. Despite early visions of autonomy within Georgian auspices, when he emerged dominant Beg entered into a pact not with Georgian but with Persian power as the latter had begun to slowly recover.

Ghughas Sebasdatzi does not explain this apparent shift. But he offers material that goes some way to understanding it. Though David Beg emerged in prime position, the historically pro-Persian Turkic principalities in the region had not been eliminated. Negotiating their acquiescence to his supremacy would be easier with his domain as a Persian rather than a Georgian protectorate. Moreover, in any contest between Georgian and Persian power the latter was more likely to prevail. So, David Beg, acute as he was, tilted towards Persia.

Definite class interests drove Garabagh’s Armenian elites to revolt against Persian rule. Their very existence was in danger from an alliance of the Persian throne with local Turkish lords who were the favored agents of Persian control. Armenian estates with their long association with Georgia and Russia could not be reliable agents of the Persian state. The rebellion by Armenian lords and the enhancement of their military, political and social status was part of their struggle for survival against foreign control and oppression.

But, what about the role and interests of the Armenian peasantry, the majority of the Armenian people some may ask? Though fiercely exploited by Armenian elites, the Armenian peasantry were nevertheless also fatally menaced with expropriation and destruction in the Persian and Turkish sweep against Armenian feudal estates. To preserve their families, their homes, their land and their villages they too would be more secure in independent statehood or even in an autonomous protectorate. Such factors together with traditional feudal servitude would explain the readiness and enthusiasm of Armenian peasants who fought Turkish, Persian and Ottoman lords and soldiers.

During the Garabagh Uprisings there appear to have been grounds for a ‘united front’ of Armenian classes, a common interest that would momentarily set aside the inherent contradiction between the Armenian feudal lord and the Armenian peasant. It was a common front that reminds one of the same in the great 5th century Vardanants war against Persian power. But alas due to the overriding socio-historical factors of the times the 18th century ‘common front’ proved of little historical value to the common people who through subsequent centuries were to be and continue to be violently driven from their lands.

Ghugas Sepasdatzi’s is a proud account of the 1721-1730 events for albeit a clash of minor feudal estates, for a short period, against the grain and against a history of centuries of oppression, Armenian elites emerged dominant. But alas only for the shortest period. The Uprising ended in failure and in its wake these remnants of semi-autonomous Armenian estates slowly withered and then were extinguished after the Russian conquest of the Caucuses.

There is however little doubt that right into modern times the resilience and the spirit of resistance demonstrated by the Armenian people of Garabagh, always in desperate struggle for the right to live in their homelands has always been reinforced by the memory of the 18th century Uprisings of the Armenian Lords of Garabagh.  

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.


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