By Levon Zekiyan
and Kingdom of Cilicia (1080-1375)
the fall of the Bagratids and the occupation of historical Armenia, everything
now seemed lost. But it was precisely at this moment of maximum dispersion
that we see the re-emergence of a strength that led to the formation of
a newArmenian state, through some miracle of the tenacious will to survive.
The little kingdom took shape on a territory not far from historical Armenia,
to the south west, in Cilicia, which had housed Armenian colonies since
the very early days. There were many of these colonies and they were consistent,
a consequence of the mass migrations that took place after the kingdoms
of the motherland had collapsed.
founder of the new dynasty in Cilicia was a prince named Ruben,
probably a relative of the last king of Ani, Gagik II. After a series of
long, harsh battles, Ruben succeeded in establishing his authority in the
mountainous regions of Cilicia, founding a principality that bore his name:
This is generally held to have occurred in 1080.
One most important point is exactly
how this state was formed. Strictly speaking, it had nothing to do with
the principle of free conquest that governed invasions. The Armenian princes
and feudal families that had emigrated to Cilicia and the neighbourring
regions had been driven there by the Byzantine government itself, which
gave them land in exchange for the territories the empire had confiscated.
The formation of an autonomous Armenian state in Cilicia was the outcome
of the revolt against this vassalage, in an attempt to recover lost dignity.
The most critical period for the
principality was from 1137 to 1145, when John II Comnenus invaded Cilicia
and captured Prince Levon (Leo) I, taking him off to Constantinople in
chains. It was then up to T'oros n, son of Levon, to escape from prison
and reorganize the Armenian state of Cilicia, at the harsh cost of terrible
battles waged against far superior forces led by Emperor Manuel I Comnenus
Now sure of its existence, the principality
soared dizzily higher and at the close of the century officially declared
itself a kingdom. In 1199, Prince Levon II, who came to the throne in 1187,
managed to have himself recognized as king by the three great powers of
the times, the Germanic empire, Byzantium and Saladin.
Levon, dubbed the Magnificent and known as Levon I in the royal succession,
Armenian Cilicia lived through its period of greatest splendour. Levon
died in 1219, leaving his daughter Zabel, only nine years old, as his only
successor. In 1226, Zabel married Prince Het'um, from the powerful
family of Lambron (Nemrun). These bitter rivals of the Rubinian dynasty
now pacifically took over the throne. One of the most significant accomplishments
of Het'um I in his very long reign ( 1226-1270) was his journey to distant
Karakorum in Mongolia (from 1253 to 1256) in order to form an alliance
with the Mongol sovereign Mangu Khan, grandson of Genghis. The main object
of the alliance - which was drawn up before the conversion of the Mongols
to Islam ( 1295) and is a mark of Hat'um's great political perspicacity
and wisdom - was the defeat of Sultans of Aleppo and Egypt. The Mongolian
khan promised Het'um he would restore Jerusalem to the Christians once
he had occupied Syria and Palestine. The allied Armeno-Mongolian forces
defeated the Sultan of Aleppo, advancing as far as Damascus and Jerusalem.
But the untimely death of Mangu (
1259) obliged his brother Hulaghu, commander of the allied forces, to withdraw
to the north to ensure his succession to the throne. The Armenians were
now alone with their closest rivals. Another noteworthy event in Het'um's
reign, important from a humanitarian-ethical viewpoint, was his refusal
to deliver Gait-ed-Din, the Seljuk Sultan of Iconia (Konya), an old adversarywho
had taken refuge with him, to the Mongol invaders, even though the latter
were his allies. Instead, he sent his own son Het'sun as hostage.
last stage of the kingdom of Cilicia began in 1342 with the advent of a
new dynasty, that of the Lusignan Princes of Cyprus, who were of
French origin and came to the Armenian throne through matrimonial ties
when the last of the Het'umians, Levon IV, died heirless. This was the
most turbulent period for the kingdom. Internal discord among the princes,
aggravated by religious dissent and the Latinizing attitudes of Western
missionaries, of certain Armenian milieux, and of the Lusignans themselves,
did no more than aggravate an already precarious situation, which ended
sadly in 1375 with the surrender of the capital city, Sis, to the Mamelukes
With the end of the kingdom of Cilicia,
the national political unity of the Armenian people began to break up,
and foreign domination ensued. Only in 1918, more than 500 years later,
was it possible once more to set up a new, independent Armenian state,
in a tiny portion of historical Armenia.
The kingdom of Cilicia distinguished
itself for the many new developments it brought in. They were mostly the
outcome of the new geographical position and immediate contact with other
ethnic groups, with the Western world above all. The consequences of this
economic, social, cultural, religious and political - were many and far-reaching.
Of special importance was the reorganization of the Armenian feudal system
along Western lines. While the old feudalism of Armenia had always been
based on a subdivision of land, the system in Cilicia, especially with
the reign of Levon I, was linked with the conception of donations made
by princes, a far clearer afFrmation of monarchical power than in the past.
Cilician epoch was a period of great achievements in art, especially with
the splendid miniature work of T'oros Roslin and many other masters. Particularly
worthy of mention are the many fortresses that were built, rebuilt or reshaped
by the Armenians. In literature, we note a greater variety of themes and
a broader awareness of the ordinary people, their language and their problems.
Profane poetry, little of which had endured from earlier periods, became
the interpreter of all these ferments, revealing a new spirit, a new vision
of society and of the world. In classical literature, two giants dominate
St. Nerses (Narsete, 1102-1173), called Shnorhali,
a term that denotes mildness along with a wealth of natural and supernatural
gifts; and St. Nerses Lambronatsi (1152-1199) (a relative of the
latter). Their religious stature is so great that they emerge from the
whole context of medieval Christianity as the ante litteram precursors
of ecumenical spirit and principles.