During a television interview with the 8 p.m. news on TF1 and France 2 on Sunday September 24, President Emmanuel Macron addressed the ongoing conflict between Armenian “separatists” and Azerbaijan in “Nagorno-Karabakh”. An unusual way of naming the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. This territory, at the heart of a real semantic battle, has several names, inherited from history, which can be indicators of a bias on the part of the speaker.
“Mountainous black garden”
In the West, until the fall of the Soviet Union, the term “Nagorno-Karabakh” was used to designate this enclave mainly populated by Armenians in the heart of Azerbaijani territory. It was the shortened “Latinization” of the Soviet province named “Nagorniy Karabakh Autonomous Region”, created in 1923 within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In Russian, the adjective nagorniy means “mountainous”. Also this terminology makes it possible to restrict the territory of Karabakh to its mountainous part, and to exclude the plain.
The term “Karabakh” comes from “the name given to the plain between the Kura and Arax rivers by the Turkic nomads who came from Central Asia in the 11th century,” reports Azerbaijani researcher Alec Rasizade (1). Karabakh literally means “black garden”, based on a Turkish translation of the Persian designation for the region, “bagh-e siah”.
If the Larousse dictionary considers that Nagorno-Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh are synonymous, the latter name more or less fell into disuse after the fall of the USSR. It is found occasionally in the press or in academic articles. Thus, French diplomacy today prefers to speak of “Nagorno-Karabakh”. Furthermore, Larousse recommends naming the inhabitants of this territory “karabaghiote” or “karabaghsi”.
A political toponymy
In Azerbaijan, this region is traditionally called “Dağlıq Qarabağ”, the Azeri equivalent for “mountainous Karabakh”. A legacy of the “Karabakh Khanate”, a kingdom formed by the Azeri khans in the second half of the 18th century and abolished then incorporated into the Russian Empire by Tsar Alexander I.
However, after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of fall 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev decided to rename the territory he conquered and remove the adjective “Nagorno” to leave only “Karabakh” . A way of legitimizing Baku’s claims to integrate this enclave into its fold. “Karabakh with its plains and high mountains is an integral part of Azerbaijan,” he said. Indeed, Karabakh without an adjective refers to a larger geographical entity, also including the eastern plains, located in Azerbaijan.
On the Armenian side, we like to call this territory “Artsakh”, from the name of the tenth province of the ancient kingdom of Armenia, integrated in 189 BC and the last entity of eastern Armenia to maintain its independence. Several hypotheses explain this toponymy. Researchers have found cuneiform inscriptions from the time of the kings of Urartu (9th-6th century BC) which assign the names “Ardakh” or “Adakh” to this land. The Greek historian Strabo, in his Geography, calls an Armenian region “Orchisthenes”, which would be, according to linguists, a distant precursor of “Artsakh”.
For others, this name derives from Artaxias I, founder of the kingdom and first ruler of Armenia. Popular tradition, finally, identifies in this name the suffix -tsakh, “forest” or “garden” in ancient Armenian, to describe a hilly and wooded territory.
In 2017, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was renamed the Republic of Artsakh in its new Constitution. According to researchers, it was a desire to mark the Armenian character of the territory, moving away from the term “Karabakh” and its Turkish origins.