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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 28
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 30

 p235  Chapter XXIX
The Kingdom of Cilician Armenia — Mongol Invasion

Leon I becomes King of Armenians (1199‑1219)

On January 6th, 1199, Cardinal Konrad of Wittelsbach, Archbishop of Mainz, the delegate of Pope Celestine III, placed a royal crown upon the head of Baron Leon II, in the Church of Holy Wisdom (Sourp Sophia) at Tarsus. The Katholikos, Grigor Abirad (1195‑1203) anointed the new sovereign, who assumed the name and title of Leon I by the grace of the Roman Emperor (Henry VI), King of Armenia. He thus declared himself a feudatory of Western Europe, represented by the German Monarch. A few years after his accession, however, Leon shook off this vassal status and began calling himself "King by the Grace of God."

Pope names terms

In sending the crown to the new king, the Pope had demanded that he subscribe to several conditions, all relative to divergencies existing between the rites of the Armenians and those of the Latins. "When you have adopted these rites," the Cardinal of Wittelsbach told him, "you will not have to trouble yourselves about the gifts and dues which you have to offer to the emperors and the Pope as tokens of Fealty for your crown. But if you refuse, I am instructed to demand of you very large sums of money in gold, in silver and precious stones."

The conditions were as follows:—

  1. To celebrate Christmas and other feasts of saints on dates adopted by the Latins.
  2. To recite in the church the prayers of the hours of the day  p236 and night — which practice had ceased in Armenia since the invasion of the Arabs.
  3. To break fasting on the day before Christmas and Easter (Christmas Eve and Easter Eve) by permitting the use of fish and oil.

Leon called the Katholikos and the bishops together and asked them how to reply to the proposition of the Latins. Upon their refusal to accept the stipulations, he said, "You need not be disquieted. I will satisfy them for the moment by dissimulation." The bishops then gave their consent, and twelve of them signed the engagement.1

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of what appears to be a seal on two small cords; the obverse depicts a seated crowned person holding an orb, and the reverse a lion with a cross-shaped crozier. It is a bulla of Leon I, King of Cilician Armenia.]
Golden Bulla of Leo I

Pope, Emperor and Khalifa recognize Leon

The coronation took place with solemn pomp, in the presence of fifteen bishops, thirty-nine feudal barons and a great number of feudal knights.​2 The Khalifa of Baghdad sent presents. The assumption of a royal title was an act of great importance for the Byzantine government. Cilician Armenia was now shaking off its vassalage to the Empire; but a Byzantine denial of recognition of  p237 the new King would have been tantamount to defiance of the Crusaders. The Emperor, Alexius III Angelus, took the wiser course by sending Leon presents and a crown, accompanying them with this counsel; "Do not put on your head the crown of the Romans, but the one we sent you, because you are nearer to us than to Rome." It is believed by some that Leon had been given a crown three years before, in 1196, by the Byzantine Emperor.

The Frankish crown did not in any way modify the attitude of Leon towards the principality of Antioch. In 1203 he sent an expedition to enforce his claim against Bohemund IV, but his army was defeated by the Knights Templars, who were supporting the usurper.

After inflicting a decisive defeat upon the Sultan Melik-ed‑Daher of Aleppo, Leon again took up arms against Bohemund IV and his allies, among whom were now enlisted the Templars. At the same time the Armenian King appealed to Pope Innocent III for adjudication of the dispute. The Pope delegated two Cardinals as arbiters. One of them, Cardinal Peter, made hasty and arbitrary decisions against the young prince, and finally, exceeded his authority by going so far as to excommunicate Leon. The Armenian King was not of a type to brook such treatment. In retaliation, he expelled all Knights Templars and Latin clergymen from his domain and detained the Princes of Antioch and Tripoli in confinement.

Furthermore, without waiting for the reconsideration of the case by the King of Cyprus and the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch, as recommended by the Pope, Leon again laid siege to Antioch. A great number of its leading citizens were by this time turned against the usurper Bohemund. They opened one of the gates, through which the Armenian troops made a triumphal entry, to be welcomed with music and song. Thereupon, in 1211, the ceremony of the installation of Raymond-Roupen as the ruler of the principality took place, with the Latin patriarch presiding. Leon gave to Raymond-Roupen in marriage his wife's sister Helvis, the daughter of Amaury de Lusignan, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem. He also obtained from Otho IV, the German Emperor, the promise of a crown for his grand-nephew and protégé as King of Antioch.

Later on the ban of excommunication was lifted from Leon by Pope Honorius III, who also placed Raymond-Roupen and the state of Antioch under the protection of the Holy See. During his conflict with the Latins, Leon had entered into an alliance with Theodorus I  p238 (Lascaris), Emperor of Nicaea,​3 by giving in marriage Philippina, the younger daughter of his brother Roupen. Through this coup, the western and northern frontiers of the country were to be made secure against the Seljuks, who had already erected a kingdom in the center of Asia Minor.

[image ALT: A map of Cilicia, showing places of interest to the history of Cilician Armenia.]

The Armenian King's policy, however, did not undergo a fundamental change. According to chroniclers, Leon had visited Cyprus on the occasion of King Richard's​4 marriage with Princess Berengaria, even acting as one of his groomsmen. He had also sent Armenian contingents to the aid of the French and English forces during their siege of Ptolemais (St. Jean d'Acre).

The Royal Court of Armenia

Leon organized his court and government after the pattern of those of Antioch and Jerusalem. He adopted courts of justice similar to the Assizes of Antioch — the Assizes of Jerusalem being in force among Christians of Syria and Palestine. The Latin and French languages began to be used by the clergy and court, together with the Armenian vernacular. The relation­ship between the Crown and the feudal lords became closer. Old titles and designations of rank were replaced by European ones, such as comte (count), baron, sir, countstable (connétable, constable); the last-named being an adopted form of the sbassalar, an agricultural or military commander. Leon created also two bailles (bajulus), in accordance with the practice of the Assizes of Jerusalem; one to protect and educate the future Queen, the other for the administration of the business affairs of the Crown. There were also a marshal, chamberlain, chancellor, a great cup-bearer (bouteiller), a grand courier (head of the King's messengers), all in accordance with the customs of the courts of Europe, though a few functionaries survived from Greek originals — such as the Proximos, a financial officer of the kingdom, and the Sébast and the Pansébast.

Leon reserved to himself the right of bestowing knighthood upon the feudal barons under his suzerainty. By the extension of the  p239 royal authority, a great number of semi-independent barons became subject to him, thus expanding the frontiers of the State and including seventy-two fortresses within an area measuring two days' march in width and sixteen days' march in length. Almost all the passes of the heights of Taurus and Amanus had been incorporated within the Armenian kingdom, and many of them entrusted to the care of European knights — the Templars, the Hospitallers and others.

Commerce of the Armenians

The economic development of his realm was another major object of Leon's concern. Situated between three competing elements — Latin, Greek and Moslem — Cilician Armenia enjoyed the advantage, from a commercial point of view, of serving as a link between East and West. The harbors of the Cilician coast, although not adequate for war galleys, afforded good shelter for such commercial vessels as came to cast anchor there. The Armenians, well acquainted with the trade routes of the Euphrates and Tigris, of Persia and India, had better knowledge than others of the value of  p240 Oriental goods in the western markets. They also came to an understanding with the Sultans of Iconium, the Khalifas of Baghdad and the Emirs of Aleppo with regard to duties on importations and exportations. After the fall of almost all Western Asia into the hands of the Moslem powers, the caravans began to move in comparative security between the Indus River and the Euphrates. The commerce formerly directed towards the Greek regions of Asia Minor were now gradually diverted towards Cilician Armenia, the new rendezvous of western navigators. Under Leon II, son and successor of the great first King, European merchants began to flock to Tarsus and Adana, and the harbor of Ayas was full of European masts. The republics of Venice and Genoa, whose business houses, once flourishing in Byzantine cities and on Syrian coasts, seemed now to be in decline, found a promising new field in Cilician Armenia. Both Venetian and Genoese merchants, always keen rivals with each other, were favored by a reduction of duties upon their transactions; they paid no more than one percent or nothing at all. But all others — those of Montpellier, Provence, Pisa, Sicily, etc. — had to pay from two to four percent ad valorem. However, when a later King of Cilician Armenia married a Sicilian princess, the Sicilian merchants were also placed upon the favored list.

The European merchants found in these emporiums all kinds of Oriental products — spices, perfumes, incense, soap, gems, raw silk, the fine textiles of India, the rugs of Iran and many other desirable articles. Out of this transit traffic, the Armenians derived immense benefit, the royal treasury being enriched by huge customs revenues.

King Leon is spoken of in Armenian history as "the Great" or "the Magnificent." He was endowed with superb qualities, indeed, and achieved notable successes in the political, military and economic advancement of his nation, although he was not always entirely scrupulous as to the means he used to obtain his ends. It should be understood that the ethical standards of the period were inevitably lowered by the incursions of barbarians and the bitterness of conflicting interests. However, Leon fully deserves the admiration of his people for his beneficent innovations, his pious and charitable foundations and his progressive legislation. He prohibited the sale of Christian slaves to non-Christians, he established asylums for lepers — then numerous in the East — and enacted many measures for the welfare and prosperity of his subjects.

 p241  Queen Zabel (1219‑1252)

Before his death, Leon designated for the throne his daughter Zabel (Isabelle), born of his second wife, Sybille, the daughter of Amaury of Lusignan, King of Cyprus and his queen, Isabeau Plantagenet. The young princessº was proclaimed Queen under the regency of Adam of Gastin. But Adam was assassinated by Ismaelites (Hashishins)​5 and the Baron Constantin, of the Hetoumian family was nominated as Baille or guardian. At this juncture, Raymond-Roupen, son of Raymond III of Antioch and Alice, daughter of Roupen III (who had been forced to abdicate as Prince of Antioch) set up a claim to the throne of Armenia and backed it by force of arms. But he was defeated and captured in the plain of Tarsus by Constantin, and executed. In order to clinch his military success over the Latins with a political stroke also, the Baille Constantin now (in 1222) arranged a marriage between the young princess and Philip, son of Raymond the One-Eyed, the Frankish Count of Tripoli. Philip's treacherous nature, however, soon made his position untenable. In violation of his sworn pledge to "adopt the Armenian way of life (Hayénag), to maintain the church and altar in Armenian fashion, and to respect everybody's right," he betrayed the interests of the Armenians and offended their sensibilities.​6 He even despoiled the royal palace, sending to Antioch not only its ornaments and treasures, but the royal crown itself. He was deposed after a reign of three years and confined in a prison in Sis, where he died, presumably poisoned, two years later.7

The next step taken by the Baille Constantin leaves us in doubt  p242 as to his real motives. Zabel was then scarcely twelve years old but the Baille announced his intention of giving her in marriage to his own son, Hetoum. Some of the barons, resenting the idea of placing such power in the hands of Constantin, the master of the fort of Lambron, arranged the escape of the young Queen to Seleucia Trachea (Selefkeh), where her own parents were then living. The Knights Hospitalers, to whom the defense of the fort at that place had been entrusted by King Leon, were expected to protect the young princess, but when the Baille's troops came to invest the place, Bertrand, the Grand Master of the Order, then also on the defensive against the Sultan of Iconium, was compelled to yield. Zabel was removed to Tarsus and consented to marry Hetoum, her guardian's son, who, ipso facto, was to share the royal authority with her. The coins minted during that period bear the effigies of both Zabel and Hetoum.

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin depicting a kneeling robed man. It is a coin or medal of Hetoum I, King of Armenia.]
Effigy of Hetoum I, King of Armenia

Hetoum I (1226‑1270)

Hetoum I was a vigorous and handsome young man when he ascended the throne, and his reign was longer than that of any other king of Cilician Armenia. But the beginning of his rule was inauspicious. Sultan Kaikobad of Iconium (Konya) invaded the country, forcing Hetoum to make territorial and economic concessions. In fact, coins were even struck, bearing the name of the Sultan in Arabic on one side, and that of Hetoum in Armenian on the other.

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of two coins, and the reverse of a third. The obverses depict a crowned man on a horse, wielding a scepter and flanked by a cross and a crescent moon; the reverses bear long inscriptions in Arabic. They are coins of Armenia each with the name of both Hetoum I, Christian king of Armenia, and sultans of Iconium.]
Coins with the names of Hetoum I, and of Sultans of Iconium

Invasion of Jinghiz Khan

At this time appeared on the eastern horizon the terrible Jinghiz  p243 Khan (Genghis), the scourge of the 13th century, advancing with his hordes from the wilds of Mongolia towards the West. He had already devastated northern China, northern Persia, Greater Armenia and Georgia. All the princes of Asia Minor, Christian and Moslem, united their forces in the hope of repelling this dreadful conqueror. Jenghiz Khan eventually fell back to Kurdistan, where he was assassinated in 1227.


But the Mongol peril was not yet dispelled. Oktai-Khan (1227‑1241), son of Jinghiz, took up the work of destruction in the countries west of the Caspian Sea. This was a world disaster, unprecedented in its swiftness and ferocity. In 1235 almost the whole population of Gandzak (Elizavetpol), was exterminated by the Mongols. The pillage of Lori, Ani and Kars followed two years later, and in 1242 came the destruction of Karin (Erzerum), Caesarea and Sebast, all ruled by Kaikhosrou II, the Sultan of Iconium.

As the frightful wave of blood and fire approached his frontiers, Hetoum hastened to declare his submission to the Mongols. But their Khan, Batchou, demanded the surrender to him of the mother, wife and children of the Sultan of Iconium, who had taken refuge in Armenia. Hetoum regret­fully submitted to the barbaric demand, upon which Kaikhosrov invaded Cilicia in revenge for this violation  p244 of the laws of hospitality. However, Hetoum, now supported by theº Mongols, drove the Sultan away from his domain.

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of a coin depicting a very schematic figure of seated king holding a fleur-de‑lys scepter in his right hand and an orb in his left; the reverse beats a cross. It is a coin of Hetoum I, king of Armenia.]
Coin of Hetoum I, King of Armenia

Alliance with Mongol King

The Armenian King, giving proof of his far-seeing diplomacy, then took another bold step towards the conclusion of an alliance with the all-powerful Mangou, the head of the Mongol princes. He repaired in person to the latter's court, was received by him with honors, and after concluding the alliance, returned home triumphant and confident.

Strange destiny for an Armenian King! — to travel the whole length of Asia to meet, in the depths of the mysterious wilds of Scythia, a barbarian over­lord. Fortunate it was that the Armenian monarch had contrived to form an alliance with these pagan hordes which, after devastating the land of Ararat, were now turning their armed might against the Mohammedans.8

 p245  Mongols destroy Baghdad

This step had been taken by Hetoum just in time; for, the gathering storm soon burst upon all Anterior Asia. In 1257 Houlagu Khan advanced as far as the center of Asia Minor, overthrew the Sultan of Iconium, then capturing Baghdad in 1258, slew the Khalifa, Mustasim, and his two sons. For forty days the Arab capital was given over to slaughter and pillage; nothing but ruin was left in the wake of the Mongol conquerors. Erzerum, Erzingan, Sebastia, Caesarea, Iconium, Martyropolis, Aleppo, Damascus, Edessa, Kharan, Amida (Diarbekir), all were devastated and their populations well-nigh exterminated. Christians, however, suffered less than Moslems, not only because of the pledge given to Hetoum by the Great Khan, but also through the intervention of the Princess Dokouz-Khatoun, Houlagou's wife, a member of the Christian sect of China called the Keraits, who had received Nestorian missionaries as early as 635 A.D.9

Houlagou disappeared from the scene upon the death of his brother Mangou, but his generals continued the work of destruction, though with less intensity because of a lack of unity among them.

The Author's Notes:

1 Kirakos of Gandzak, the historian.

2 According to N. Iorga, Leon was crowned "in the presence, and not by the hand, of Konrad, Archbishop of Mainz."

3 In 1204 the Fourth Crusade had deposed the Greek Emperor Alexius V in Constantinople and set up a Latin Dynasty there, beginning with Baldwin, Count of Flanders, as Baldwin I. The Byzantines thereupon established their own government at Nicaea (modern Iznik). The Latin dynasty at Constantinople endured only fifty-seven years.

4 Richard I of England (1189‑1199).

5 The "assassins" were a religious sect founded in Persia. A colony of them emigrated to Syria and settled in various places with their headquarters in Lebanon. They were noted for their secret murders committed in obedience to their chief, in whom they believed the Holy Spirit resided. The word Assassin comes from Hashishin. The men selected to do a murder were usually intoxicated with the drug hashish.

6 Countstable Sembat, the historian.

7 Abulfaraj, the Syrian bishop, gives the following details; Philip endeavored to remove the Armenian barons and replace them with Franks. He despised the Armenians. He would not have his door opened for them until they had knocked ten times. Upon the plea of the nobles to be delivered from Philip, the Baille sent men disguised as hunters, who entered the King's bedroom by night and carried him away forcibly. His wife, Isabeau, wept, tore her hair and screamed, 'Sir! Sir!' she being very fond of her husband.

8 In his chronicle, written in French about a half century later, the nobly-born monk, Hetoum-Anton, gave the following account of King Hetoum's experience in the Far East;— The story about conversion is fictional.

"When Mangou Khan had listened to the plea of the King of Armenia in his presence and before everyone, he spoke as follows; 'Because the King of Armenia has come. . . . To you King of Armenia, we reply that we shall do all benignly, in order to comply with your entreaties. And in the first place, we being lord by the grace of God, will be baptized and declare faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and will have all our house baptized, and will advise all others to be baptized and to accept the Christian faith, but without using any force, because faith and belief do not require force. To the second request, we reply that we and our people shall wish perpetual peace and friendship with the Christians. . . . To the Christian churches and their clergymen, be they in whatever condition, religious or lay, we grant the privilege of Franchise (exemption from certain taxes). They shall not suffer any sort of molestation. (p245)As to the matter of the Holy Land, we declare that we long to go in person and conquer it. . . . But because we have many other affairs, we give commission to our brother Alaoun (Houlagu Khan), who will accomplish this work and deliver Saint Jerusalem from the hands of the miscreants, and return it to the Christians . . . and we give order to our brother to capture the city of Damascus and to destroy the Khalifa, our mortal enemy.' " Hayton (Hetoum) "La flore des estoiles de la Terre d'Orient." Histoire des Croisades. Monuments Arméniens.

Thayer's Note: The complete text of Hetoum's History of the Tatars (The Flower of Histories of the East) is online, in a more recent English translation, on Robert Bedrosian's site; for this passage see Book III (last paragraph of Chapter 23).

9 Orbelian, the Armenian chronicler, hails this lady with the epithet of "Most Blessed". Vardan Vardapet, another Armenian historian, writes: "In memory of our benevolent and kindly great Houlavou (Houlagou)."

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