[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 23
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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 25

 p186  Chapter XXIV
The Bagratid Dynasty — The Bagratuni


Armenian chroniclers, almost all of them clerics, have labored to connect the beginnings of their nation with Biblical tradition, and thus have altered ancient legends in order to prove the descent of the family of Haik from Abraham. In accordance with this thesis, the Bagratids are represented as being of Jewish origin. Their great ancestor Sembat or Shambat is alleged to have been brought from Judea to Armenia by King Nebuchadnezzar as a captive. They represent Bagarat, a descendant of Sembat, five centuries later, as being honored by Vagharshak I, the first of the Arsacid Kings of Armenia, with the title of Aspet or Commander of the Cavalry, with the special privilege of placing the crown on the head of the kings on their accession to the throne. The incumbent of this function was called Tagadir (Crowner).

According to modern authorities, Bagarat must have been of pure Armenian stock, an issue of chieftains who had accompanied Haik in his march towards the Land of Ararat. The district of Sber (Ispir) on the upper Jorokh River, was the ancestral domain of the family, which was greatly enriched in the course of time through conquests or alliances with other princely houses. The high valley of Jorokh, protected by almost inaccessible mountain masses, long remained immune from attack. There was a time when the Bagratid territory comprised a great number of important centers of Armenia, such as the Gougark, the Tourouberan, Tariunq (Bayazid), Bagaran, Shiravakan, Ani,​1 Kars, Artwin and Mush.

 p187  Ashot becomes King

One of the Bagratid princes having married the heiress to the throne of Georgia, bequeathed that Kingdom to his family. The succession continued to the middle of the eighteenth century. It is due to the high repute of the Bagratids that Kevork (George) II — the Patriarch of Armenia in 878‑880 — and the nobility appealed to Constantinople and Baghdad for a kingly title for Ashot the Bagratid, who had justified all the hopes placed in him.

The harmony manifested among the chiefs of Armenia in their choice of a king did not last long. Personal ambitions were kindled, and Ashot himself was compelled to take up arms against pretenders to the throne. One of these rivals who defied the royal authority was his own son-in‑law, Grigor Ardzruni, Prince of Vaspurakan (Van); but this man was at the same time involved in a conflict with the Moslem emirs of Khoy and Salmas, and was killed during an encounter. After quelling other uprisings and establishing peace and a sort of security, Ashot went to Constantinople to pay a visit to Emperor Leo VI (886‑911), "the Philosopher," who had Armenian blood in his veins. This visit implies a closer political relation­ship between the two nations and a hope on the part of Armenia of emancipation from the continuing threat of oppressions. The power of Baghdad had been markedly diminished in the northern parts of its domain, and yet the governors of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan were constant menaces to the peace and safety of the Armenian people.

According to Armenian historians, Ashot was welcomed in the Greek capital by a magnificent reception. He and the Emperor signed two treaties; one political, the other commercial. Leo promised to send legions for the defense of Armenia, but Ashot in turn was to supply the imperial army with Armenian contingents. Indeed, he had already taken such steps towards this end that the troops under the command of Prince Meghrik arrived while he was still sojourning in the Constantinople, and were sent northward to fight the Bulgars.

Ashot did not live to enjoy the benefits of his diplomatic success. He died while on his journey back home by the way of Trebizond. His remains were buried in Bagaran, the ancient city of the idols, on the Akhurian.

Sembat the Confessor (890‑914)

Sembat I, the only son and heir of Ashot, was proclaimed king  p188 by the Katholikos George II and the nobles. Unfortunately, the young king's uncle, the ambitious Abbas, held the high command of the army, and he forthwith marched towards Ani with intent to overthrow his nephew. The Katholikos succeeded in persuading him to stop at Kars, where he captured Adrnerseh the Bagratid, the Armenian governor of the Georgian territories, who had placed the crown on the head of Sembat. The young king, however, proved to be worthy and equal to his new responsibility. He hastened to organize an army, besieged Kars, and forced his uncle to release Adrnerseh and recognize his own authority as king.

Byzantium and Baghdad recognize Sembat

The Khalifa Motadid-Billah (892‑902) and the Emperor Leo sent royal insignia to Sembat. He was able not only to restore peace to his kingdom, but to extend its frontiers on the north as far as the Colchids and the passes of Darial, and on the southwest as far as the city of Karin.

Van and all the southern part of the old Armenian territory were then under the direct rule of the Arabs, and Afshin, the Emir of Azerbaijan, who had recognized Sembat in behalf of the Khalifa, was suspiciously watching the southward expansion of the young king. The renewal of the alliance with the Greek Emperor excited his anger, and he entertained a design to bring Armenia again under Arab rule through his own enthronement at Ani. Although there was a disinclination in Baghdad to incur new difficulties with Constantinople over Armenia, yet no opposition was offered to the Emir's conquest of that country.

Afshin defeated

Sembat, advised of troop movements towards Nakhitchévan, began to mobilize his forces. But in an effort to avoid armed conflict, he sent the Katholikos George to the headquarters of the Emir for negotiation. Afshin showed a pretended readiness for friendly settlement of differences, but proposed that the king come in person for discussion. Sembat, scenting a trap, declined the invitation, and the Katholikos was thereupon placed in detention. The Emir now dropped his mask, and hostilities began. The Azerbaijan army advanced as far as the center of the Armenian kingdom, and an engagement took place at the foot of Mount Aragadz (Alagöz), the enemy force being defeated and put to flight.

 p189  Afshin triumphs

Afshin, however, was not yet crushed. On the news of the incursions in the Armenian district of Taron by Ahmed, the Governor of Mesopotamia, he re-entered Armenia and besieged Kars, forcing it to capitulate. The Queen, the wife of the heir-apparent and other Armenian princesses were carried as hostages to Douin. In order to obtain their deliverance, Sembat was compelled to surrender to Afshin his own son Ashot, and his nephew Sembat, and to give his niece to Afshin in marriage.2

Despite all sacrifices, Sembat failed to maintain his country's tranquillity. He quarrelled constantly with the Christian rulers, who were his neighbors. For political reasons, he had put the royal crown of Georgia upon the head of Prince Adrnerseh. Many Armenian princes, stirred by jealousy, appealed to Afshin in 898 to take action. The Emir was busy with preparations for another invasion of Armenia when death took him unawares. He had become enraged at his chief eunuch, who, won by the liberality of Sembat, had returned to him the captive Armenian princesses. The eunuch would have suffered the consequences of Afshin's wrath had not death intervened. Afshin's brother and successor Youssouf inherited his grudge as well as his position in Azerbaijan.

Sembat enrages Youssouf

It had been the Armenian king's custom to send to the Khalifa his annual tribute through the hands of the Emir of Azerbaijan. Sembat, feeling it intolerable to continue this procedure, and suspecting that the sum would be considerably less if he paid it directly to Baghdad, submitted his proposition in writing to the new Khalifa, Moktafi (902‑908), who accepted his offer and sent him a golden crown in token of good will. This modification of the long-standing custom — which meant a reduction in his income — naturally enraged Youssouf, so he managed to induce the Khalifa to double the annual tribute imposed upon the Armenians. This drastic measure in turn compelled Sembat to increase the taxes of the lords  p190 within the orbit of his authority. These men, resenting the additional burden, thereupon revolted against their sovereign.

Sembat saved the situation by seizing the rebel chiefs and having the eyes of several of them burned out, after the fashion of the times.

Youssouf, taking advantage of these dissensions, again invaded the central province of Ararat and dealt a telling blow at the prestige of Sembat by proclaiming, in the name of the Khalifa, Moktadir, Sembat's traitorous nephew, Gagik, as King of Vaspurakan. Not satisfied with this political coup, Youssouf renewed his devastating invasions, and conquered a considerable area of Armenian territory. During one of the engagements in 911, several princes, including Sembat's son and nephew, were captured by Youssouf and put to death. The Katholikos, Johannes VI, the historian, also one of the captives, was liberated after a year's detention, on payment of a heavy ransom.

Gagik's remorse

The new King of Vaspurakan, tormented in conscience at the sight of the horrors caused by his own nefarious conduct, asked Sembat's forgiveness and offered him an alliance. But that unfortunate monarch did not feel strong enough to continue resistance to the Moslem foe, and retired to the fort of Kapouyt (the Blue Castle), situated on the rocky heights east of Mount Massis. The Emir blockaded the place in 913. After a long siege, Sembat surrendered, on promise of safe conduct. In the meantime Gagik, still remorse­ful and repentant of his evil deeds, again offered Sembat his cooperation. Informed of this change of attitude on the part of Gagik, Youssouf treacherously seized Sembat and cast him into a dungeon at Douin. But that was not the last of the sufferings of the unhappy monarch. Youssouf laid siege to the fortress of Erentchak, in the province of Sewniq, and in order to compel its inhabitants to surrender, he ordered Sembat to be dragged in chains before the walls of the fort and subjected to torture. Sembat could have won his liberty had he renounced his Christian faith, but this he positively refused to do. The Emir finally condemned him to death. He was beheaded and the body taken to Douin and exhibited on a cross at the public center of the city (914).

The twenty-two years' reign of this second ruler of the Bagratid dynasty covered one of the worst periods of horror and butchery in  p191 the history of Armenia. The nation's life was further embittered by the internal conflicts which raged among the local chiefs.

Ashot II (914‑929)

Ashot II, the son of Sembat, succeeded to his father's tottering throne, striving to rule a country whose key positions were garrisoned by Arabs, and whose native grandees were loath to recognize the authority of a single sovereign sitting at Ani. Despite these difficulties, Ashot II succeeded in driving the enemy troops from his dominion. His bravery won for him the title of Yergat, "of Iron," but his strength was not equal to the tremendous task undertaken by him. The emir, infuriated by the victories of Ashot, launched ferocious counter-attacks, bringing general misery and anarchy to Armenia. The country was drenched with the blood of martyrs; cities and towns were depopulated, agriculture almost disappeared. Revolting atrocities and outrages were committed, with no regard to age, sex or condition. Thousands of women and girls were distributed among the troops. The only hope of saving one's life or honor lay in apostasy. And to these horrors were added the inevitable scourge, a widespread famine, lasting several years. In the words of the Katholikos, historian Johannes, even "The hands of upright women cooked their own children, and they became their food."

The desperate plight of Armenia at last stirred the Emperor of Byzantium to whom Ashot appealed for assistance. At the invitation of Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitus), an Arsacid descendant, the Armenian ruler went to Byzantium where he was received by the Emperor with royal honors. Ashot returned to Armenia with a contingent of Greek troops which enabled him to reduce several cities and to clear the enemy and rival forces from the plain of Erevan. Among the places taken was the rebel town of Koghp, situated at the confluence of the Akhurian and Arax, belonging to Ashot the Generalissimo, the King's cousin. This Ashot, feeling that he had been humiliated by his sovereign, took up arms against him in 921. Youssouf, in order to inflame the struggle between the members of the dynasty, proclaimed the other Ashot as King of Armenia in Douin. Despite the decisive defeat suffered by the false King Ashot, and a reconciliation between himself and the real king, thrice achieved through the mediation of the Katholikos, the pretender insisted in maintaining the royal title until his death in 936.

 p192  Ashot abdicates

Ashot II had to face and overcome many other emergencies. Northern nobles, aided by Caucasian tribes, scourged the country, looting and carrying away the women. The King finally subdued them all, but tired of conflicts and the plotting of domestic enemies, some of them even members of the royal family, he retired to an island in the Lake of Sevan. His death came at a time when a state of comparative peace had been restored to Armenia (929).

King Abas (929‑953)

Ashot II having no son, the throne was offered to his brother Abas. The new King had to resume punitive and defensive measures to suppress internal uprisings and quarrels, as well as foreign incursions. Despite these problems, Abas was able to achieve really constructive objectives, among which were the fortifications of Kars and the building of many churches and monasteries to replace those destroyed by invaders. He died after a reign of twenty-four years.

Ashot III (953‑977)

The country was harassed by brigands when Ashot III, son and successor of Abas, took the reins of power. The new king, supported by some of his nobles, soon pacified his territory and brought it back to something like normality. He was then crowned at the cathedral  p193 of Ani, by the Katholikos Ananias, aided by the Katholikos of the Aghouans and forty bishops. Being a man of peace-loving temperament, he made no objection to his brother Moushegh's wearing a royal crown at Kars (962‑988). This was the beginning of the division of Armenia — which to Ashot seemed the only way of insuring harmony with and among the turbulent nobles.

[image ALT: An engraving of a stone sarcophagus on a raised platform of three massive steps also of stone, amid the ruins of a building. It is the tomb of Ashot III, a king of Armenia.]
Tomb of Ashot III, at Horomos Mona near Ani

Creation of seven Kingdoms

The extensive province of Vaspurakan was then ruled by Abousahl-Hamazasp (958‑968). Upon his death, his realm was divided among his three sons. Ashot-Sanak obtained the largest part, whilst his brothers Gourgen-Khatchik and John Senekerim ruled over the districts of Antzevatziq and Reshtouniq respectively. As to the Sewniq, which lay beyond the Arax, and included the Lake of Sevan, it became independent in 970. The city of Lori, winning independence in 982, became the residence of the third royal branch of the Bagratids — the Korikians. Including some other kinglets, Armenia thus became a country of seven crowned heads, who were often engaged in brawls with one another or with their feudal lords. The northern part of the land recognized the nominal suzerainty of Constantinople; the south was under Moslem suzerainty. Nevertheless, the reign of Ashot III was a period of comparative security and prosperity.

Hamdoun a Moslem invader repelled

The King won a decisive victory over Hamdoun, a Moslem chieftain who had invaded Armenia after revolting against the Khalifa Al‑Moti (946‑974). He strongly fortified Ani and other strategic centers. But in that ever-changing Eastern political situation, we presently find him and his army of 30,000 men going to the assistance of the Byzantine Emperor Joannes I (John Zimiskes,​3 an Armenian by birth), who was then threatening the Arabs on the Tigris.

Ashot III became famous for his acts of benevolence, for which he is known as "Oghormadz," the Charitable. He constructed a number of churches, monasteries and hospitals, etc. His wife, Queen Khosrovanoush, rivalled her husband in piety and deeds of charity and generosity. She was the founder of the famous monasteries of Sanahin and Haghbat, in the Armenian province of Gougark, sixty miles south of Tiflis.

 p194  Sembat II (977‑989)

After the death of Ashot, his son Sembat II was crowned in the cathedral of Ani. Sembat's energies were largely devoted to the embellishment and defense of Ani. Eight years of labor were required to complete the erection of a double city wall, flanked by round towers. Sembat's death occurred in 989, at the laying of the foundation of the magnificent Cathedral of Ani. His passing followed soon after that of his niece, whom he had married in defiance of the canons of the church, which forbade marriage of near relatives. Born at a time when many traces of Mazdeism were still left in the country and when custom permitted the Persians to conclude incestuous alliances, this king had transgressed the laws of his religion, thereby subjecting himself to the severe criticism of national historians.

Kars, a center of learning

In the kingdom of Kars, Moushegh died in 984. His son, Abas (984‑1029), regarded in his youth as an indolent and frivolous person, proved a worthy ruler. A lover of arts and letters, he turned his attention to the education of his people and established many schools, where prominent men of learning were invited to teach.

The Author's Notes:

1 There was another Ani called Kamakh, on the Western bank of the Euphrates.

2 Although banned by their churches, marriages of Christian ladies to Moslem chiefs became a frequent means of appeasement. Several centuries later, a Comnenus, Emperor of Trebizond, gave his daughter in marriage to the Khan of Tartary, in the hope of enlisting his aid against Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople.

3 Hovhannes Tchimishkik by Armenian historians.

Thayer's Note: even more often referred to as (John) Tzimisces.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 17 Dec 04