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Chapter 29
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 31

 p246  Chapter XXX
The Kingdom of Cilician Armenia — Mongol Invasion

New scourge from Egypt

And now another scourge appeared on the scene to harass western Asia. The Memlouks were originally a cavalry corps established in Egypt from Turkish and other slaves sold to the Egyptian Sultan by Jinghiz Khan.​1 In 1251 they seized the government, made one of their own number Sultan, and held power for more than 250 years. Bibars, their Sultan (1260‑1277), took the field in 1266 with the fixed intention of wiping out all the Latin states in Western Asia. He invaded Armenian Cilicia at the moment when Hetoum was again on his way to the Mongol Khan's court in quest of aid. The two royal princes, Thoros and Leon, strove to repel the foe, but their army was crushed, Thoros falling on the battlefield and Leon being taken prisoner. The Memlouks captured the most important centers of the country — Amuda, the fortress of the Knights Templars, Sis, Missis, Adana, Tarsus, Ayas — slaughtering the inhabitants as they went. Two years later, in 1268, Antioch itself fell to the Sultan. Almost every man in the city was butchered and the women were distributed among the soldiers. The booty taken was enormous.2

 p247  Hetoum finally obtained peace from the conqueror, though on very harsh terms. His son Leon was given his freedom in exchange for some forts on the frontier and the release of Sonkor al‑Ashar (the Red Falcon), the Sultan's favorite friend, who had been captured by Houlagou. Soon after the return of his son, Hetoum, weary and disappointed, gave up the throne and retired to a monastery, where he died in 1270.

Leon II (1270‑1289)

His son Leon was endowed with many good qualities. He was pious, generous and sagacious. He encouraged scholars. The Bible and several works of former Armenian writers and translators were copied under his auspices. However, he suffered many griefs, domestic and otherwise. Pestilence took away a great number of his subjects. Among other harrowing circumstances were the intrigues of several of his feudal barons who wavered in their loyalty to the throne. And while he was laboring to improve the morale of his people, a formidable army, led by the emirs of the Sultan, invaded his country without the slightest pretext. Lacking adequate means of resistance, the Armenians were doomed to a dreadful fate. The city of Tarsus was taken, the royal palace and the church of St. Sophia burned, the state treasury looted, 15,000 civilians killed and 10,000 taken captive to Egypt. Almost the entire population of Ayas, Armenian and Frankish, perished.

Invasion by Bibars

A graphic account of that invasion is given by Makrizi, an Arab historian;—

"On the third day of the month of Shaban, 673 (Feb. 1st 1275), the Sultan left the castle of the Mountain, took the route of Syria and entered Damascus. From there he set out at the head of his  p248 soldiers and Arabs. . . . The Khazinadar (treasurer) and the emirs having made an incursion" (into Armenia) "by land, surprised the city of Missis and killed all its inhabitants. They had brought with them on mule dismantled boats, which were to be used in crossing the Jihoun and the Nahr-iAswad (Black River), but these were not needed. The Sultan at the head of his troops rejoined the two emirs after crossing the Nahri-Aswad.º

"The army, despite numerous obstacles encountered en route, captured mountains and collected a prodigious spoil of oxen, buffaloes and sheep. The Sultan made his entry into Sis in battle array, and celebrated there a solemn feast. He sacked the city and demolished the palace, the belvederes and gardens of the takafor (king). A detachment sent by him to the defiles of Roum (Gates of the Taurus) brought in Tatar (Mongol) prisoners, among whom were a great number of women and children. The troops sent to the sea-coast seized many vessels, whose crews were slain. Other columns, in their drives through the mountains, captured and massacred the inhabitants and took quantities of booty. One division set out for Ayas, and finding that city undefended, despoiled and burned it. About two thousand Franks and Armenians from among its inhabitants who hadº taken refuge on the vessels in the harbor were drowned. An incalculable quantity of plunder was seized."

A contemporaneous Armenian writer, Vahram of Edessa, gives the following details in his rhymed chronicle:—

"They" (the Egyptians) "put to the sword all whom they caught on the plains. Only those who had taken refuge in fortified places escaped the carnage. All others, with no exceptions, were captured. Hemming in all our country, they laid the torch to everything. Tarsus the Great, the magnificent and illustrious city, was ruined. They burned the church of St. Sophia and gave the city over to pillage."

Leon Fights Valiantly

Armenia, however, was not yet completely beaten; her struggle against heavy odds continued relentlessly. Leon now efficiently supported by his nobles, succeeded in a few encounters. His uncle, the General Sempad, the grand old man of Armenia, marched to meet the Memlouks, whilst the King himself, with another force, undertook a detour to strike the enemy in the rear. Sempad lured his foes into a mountain pass and dealt them such a mortal blow that the bodies of the dead impeded the flight of the survivors (1276). Enraged  p249 at this reverse of his army, Bibars was about to launch a new expedition when he died from a wound received, according to some chroniclers, from an Armenian archer.

This victory, however, cost the Armenians dearly. They lost three hundred knights, and their General, Sempad, was accidentally killed when his horse hurled him against a tree. In appreciation of Leon's valorous deeds, the Mongol emperor sent him a superb sword, offering also to turn over to him all the lands in Mesopotamia which had been conquered by the Mongol armies. Leon declined this offer, however, pleading very justly that the responsibility of defending two kingdoms would be too difficult for him.

Battle of Homs

Cilician Armenia had enjoyed a peaceful breathing spell of nearly four years when hostilities between Mongols and Memlouks broke out again. Mangou-Timor, at the head of 50,000 Tatars, supported by a Christian contingent of 25,000 Armenians and Georgians, clashed with the Sultan Malek-Mansour of Egypt in the plains of Homs, Syria, in 1281.

The allies suffered a crushing defeat, and the conquerors, pursuing the Armenians, entered Cilicia.3

At length, through the mediation of the Commander of the Templars, a treaty of peace, to last ten years, ten months and ten days, was concluded between Leon II and the Sultan in 1285. But the terms imposed upon the Armenian monarch were very harsh. He was to pay an annual tribute of one million silver dirhems;​4 to release all imprisoned Moslem merchants, indemnify them for their losses; to surrender the fugitives, to grant the Moslems full freedom to trade, even in purchasing slaves, whatever their nationality or religion might be. The Sultan, in turn, agreed to release prisoners and grant certain freedoms, except that he would not hand back fugitive Moslems or such Armenians as had embraced Mohammedanism. Leon was forced to subscribe to these onerous demands, but he enjoined the Genoese merchants of Cilicia from selling  p250 Christian slaves to Moslems or to nations dealing with them.

The remnants of the Latin principalities in the East were all in the same sad predicament as was Armenia. The chief concern of each was naturally the maintenance of its own existence; and there seemed no other way to achieve this than through compromise with the enemy. Certainly it could not be accomplished through armed resistance. Since the fall of Antioch the Armenian state was completely isolated from Christian or civilized contact; nevertheless, the peace treaty, harsh and humiliating though it was, gave it a respite of about eleven years, during which time Leon wisely carried on the work of relief and rehabilitation. Foreign vessels were again to be seen visiting the port of Ayas, and commerce received a new impetus.

By his wife, Queen Ann (Kyr-Ann), Leon had eleven children, nine of whom survived him.

Hetoum II (1289‑1297)

Christendom in the Levant was in a critical situation when Leon's son Hetoum II, ascended the throne. The Memlouks, now in possession of the principalities of Edessa, Jerusalem and Antioch, assumed an arrogant, even threatening attitude towards Armenia and the remaining Latin states. Melik Ashraf Kalaoun, the successor of Bibars, disregarding the treaty of 1285, demanded the surrender to him of the cities of Marash and Behesni. Urgent appeals by the Christians to Pope Nicholas IV and to King Philip IV of France were of no avail. The Crusading fervor was almost entirely extinct. Nearly twenty years had past since the last unsuccess­ful Crusade under Louis IX (St. Louis). Western European states were now competing with each other to win the favor of the Memlouks. King Alfonso of Aragon, King Don James of Naples and the Genoese Republic had already concluded treaties of commerce with them. And while Europe appeared to have forgotten its crusader colonies in the East, Kalaoun was pursuing his conquests, slaughtering male Christians and carrying their wives and children into captivity. Tripoli fell in 1289, and within two years Acre, Tyre, Sidon and Beirut suffered the same fate.

In 1292 Melik-Ashraf-Khalil, the son of Kalaoun, advanced to the Euphrates and invested Romgla, the residence of the Armenian Katholikos and a most important stronghold, which was being defended by Raymond, maternal uncle of Hetoum. After a siege of  p251 thirty-three days the place was taken, all the men were put to the sword, while the women and children, together with the patriarch Stepanos (Stephen), were taken captive. In the hope of staving off the complete destruction of his country, Hetoum abandoned to the enemy the cities of Behesni, Marash and Till Hamdoun.

Disasters in Egypt

Serious disasters — a deadly pestilence which swept the country, and bloody palace revolutions — now dealt severe blows to Egypt. Had any vestige of power or spirit remained in the Latin principalities, they could have taken advantage of this opportunity to revolt. But their morale was at its lowest ebb. Hetoum entered into negotiation with Melik Adil Zein-ed‑Din Ketbougha (1294‑1296), who had just seized the Egyptian throne from Nassir-Mohammed. As a result, the Moslem prince set free a part of the prisoners captured at Romgla, and restored the church vessels and relics taken from the same place.

King Thoros (1293‑1295)

Discouraged by his many misfortunes, Hetoum abdicated in 1293 in favor of his brother Thoros and retired into a monastery; but in a short time he was forced again to take the reins of the state, at the instance of Thoros himself. This was for the purpose of making another appeal in person for aid at the distant capital of the Mongol Empire, now weakened by dissensions among the descendants of Jinghiz Khan. A truce having been patched up at the Tartar court, the old treaty of alliance with the King of Armenia was renewed. On his return to Sis, Hetoum was overjoyed at finding there two Byzantine envoys whose mission was to ask the hand of his sister Ritha-Marguerite for the associate Emperor, Michael Palaeologus.

Hetoum, more churchman than prince, and cherishing a real loyalty to the Papacy, longed to spend the rest of his life in spiritual seclusion; but he could not escape from his country's pressing political necessities. After the marriage of his sister — who now took the name of Xené-Marie — to the Byzantine sovereign, Hetoum went to Constantinople on a state visit to his brother-in‑law, turning the Regency over to another brother, Sempad.

 p252  Sempad and Constantin (1296‑1299)

But this prince forthwith proceeded to usurp the throne. Hastening homeward, Hetoum found himself arrested and put into confinement by Sempad. He was released, however, by another brother, Constantin, who imprisoned the usurper, but who, in turn, seized the throne for himself.

During the short period of Constantin's reign, a few months in 1299, the Egyptians made renewed incursions into Cilicia with two armies, one under the command of Bedreddin Bektash, and the other under that of Takieddin Mahmoud. The forces of two other emirs, who were advancing towards Ayas, were almost entrapped in the mountains by the Armenians, and saved themselves only by headlong flight. Several forts and towns on the eastern frontier of the country also were captured by the emirs of Aleppo and Hama — who, however, had to evacuate almost all of them because of the approach of a Mongol army.

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of two coins. The obverse of the first depicts a seated man, with the reverse depicting a cross with flaring arms. The obverse of the second depicts a man on a horse, holding a scepter, and the reverse depicts two addorsed lions rampant surmounted by a cross. They are coins of Sembat, king of Armenia.]
Coins of Sembat, King of Armenia

Hetoum II returns to power

Hetoum now ousted Constantin and took the reinsº of government again. Soon thereafter the Mongols reappeared in Syria, and supported by the Armenians, they won a great victory over the Memlouks near Homs (1299), drove them out of the valley of the Orontes and captured Damascus. This turn of affairs enabled the Armenians to regain all their possessions in Cilicia and vicinity. Four years later, however, the Egyptian Sultan took revenge near Damascus (1303) by crushing the allied Mongol and Armenian  p253 armies in the great battle of Merj-us‑Safer. From the battlefield King Hetoum fled directly to Moussoul, where Ghazan Khan, the Mongol ruler, was then holding court.

For many years, Christian and Moslem priests had been competing with each other to win over the Mongol chiefs, each to his own faith. The precarious situation of the Frankish principalities of the Levant, due mostly to the growing indifference of Europe, and the increase on the other side of the military power of the common enemy, tipped the scales in favor of the Prophet. Hetoum and his successors were still being treated as allies by the Mongols, which fact served to intensify the irritation of the Egyptians against the Christians.

Hetoum crushes the foe

At this time Hetoum finally laid aside his royal power, and designated his nephew Leon III, sixteen years old, son of Thoros II and Marguerite de Lusignan, as his successor (1303‑1307). But the young king had scarcely been crowned when an army of Memlouks under Kush-Timur menaced the country. The retired monarch, still Regent, emerged from his monastic cell once more, took the field in company with the youthful king in 1305, gave the marauders such a beating in the defiles of Bagras that few of them survived to reach their base at Aleppo.

Hetoum attempts church union

One of the deplorable episodes in Armenia's long story of domestic friction occurred about this time. Some of her statesmen, backed by certain representatives of the higher clergy, had long favored a closer tie with the Roman Church, as proposed by the Papacy, in order to obtain more effective aid from Western powers. King Hetoum II, an ardent advocate of this idea, convoked a general assembly or synod at Sis in 1307, composed of forty bishops and many dignitaries, lay and clerical. They adopted a resolution, ratifying the desired union of the churches, despite vehement protestations from the people at large, including women, who now began to be vocal in national affairs. Some of the opposition leaders, unfortunately, were so intransigent as to betray their own leaders to the enemy.

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of two coins. The obverse of the first depicts a man on a horse, holding a scepter, and the reverse depicts a lion surmounted by a cross. The obverse of the second depicts a seated man, with the reverse depicting a cross with flaring arms. They are coins of Leo III, king of Armenia.]
Coins of Leo III of Armenia

 p254  Mongols slay Leon and Hetoum

General Bilarghou, the representative of the Mongol Khan, who nursed a grudge against Hetoum for having prevented the erection of Moslem mosque in Sis, took advantage of this situation. He invited King Leon and the Regent, together with forty nobles, to Anazarba, as if for discussion of pressing political matters. As soon as the guests were inside the tent of the Tartar general, he unsheathed his sword and shouted, "Allah is great!" That was the signal for his soldiers to fall upon the Armenians and to slay them, including Hetoum and Leon, to the last man (Nov. 18, 1308).

Oshin (1308‑1320)

Oshin, the fourth brother of Hetoum, who by a fortunate circumstance, was not present at this gathering, upon hearing of the dastardly murder of his brother and nephew, immediately placed himself at the head of a royal regiment and pursued the Mongol troops out of Armenian territory. He then returned to Tarsus, where he was crowned as King. His religious views were similar to those of Hetoum, and he thus aroused a violent opposition to himself among some of the nobles, beclouding and imperilling the early years of his reign.

The trend of thought of those days may be better understood from an incident recorded by the Armenian historian, Samuel of Ani;—

This year (1309‑1310), there convened at Sis, the capital of the Kingdom, a multitude of monks, priests and deacons, as well as Vartabeds (doctors of divinity), bishops and many people who refused to accept the use of water in the chalice of the mass, as well as other innovations. The King Oshin in accord with the Katholikos and the grandees, seized all of them and confined the Vartabeds in the fortress. He put to death a considerable number of men and women, and some priests and deacons; then putting the monks aboard a vessel, he exiled them to Cyprus, where most of them died."

Armenia in Cypriot troubles

Amaury, Prince of Tyre, had married Isabelle, sister of Oshin; and because of this fact, the King of Armenia now found himself involved in the affairs of Cyprus. Henry II (de Lusignan), deprived  p255 by his brother Amaury of his right to the throne of Cyprus, had been exiled to Cilicia and detained there by Oshin. After the death by assassination of Amaury, Henry II was set free and reconciled with Isabelle.

The Kingdom of Cyprus was now the last remnant of the Latin power in the Levant, the Armenian King's dependable means of sending appeals to Europe. However, the West was no longer interested in the fate of Armenia; and the only help that Oshin could obtain consisted of 30,000 sequins contributed by Pope John XXII (1316‑1334). During all this time the Egyptians and Turcomans continued their devastation in Cilicia, with the Armenians stoutly resisting in defense of their homes. But what could they hope for, isolated as they were in the midst of an ocean of enemies?

Leon IV (1320‑1342)

Upon the death of Oshin his son Leon IV inherited the throne at the age of ten. His father had named Oshin, Count of Gorigos, as regent of the kingdom. This nobleman, a brother of Isabeau, first wife of King Oshin, was the uncle of the young sovereign. The Regent proceeded to make his own position secure by marrying Joanna, widowed Queen of King Oshin, also giving his daughter Alice in marriage to the little King, which ceremony required a special dispensation from the Pope.

Cilicia harassed again

Incursions by Egyptians, even by Tartar bands, now mostly converted to Mohammedanism, were still going on, undermining the vitality of the kingdom. Once again in 1322 the Pope intervened, appealing to Philip V of France and to the Mongol chief in Persia. The latter sent 20,000 troops to the aid of the Armenian King, a move which caused Sultan Melik Nasser hastily to conclude a fifteen-year peace agreement. But not without profit to himself, however; the treaty specified that half of the customs revenue of the port Ayas and half of the proceeds of the sale of salt to foreigners must be turned over to the Egyptian treasury.

Nevertheless, this new relation­ship with the Latin World and his appeals to Europe for help brought Leon no relief. Instead, Melik Nasser, that dreaded Damoclean Sword dangling over Cilicia, angered by rumors of preparations for a new Crusade under Philip VI of France, presently sent a large force to invade the country. Leon,  p256 who had taken refuge in the strong fortress of Gaban, in order to appease the foe was compelled to cede to him the entire territory lying east of the Jihoun River, together with seven other castles, also handing over 16,000 gold dinars (about 50,000 dollars),​a to indemnify the Egyptian merchants who had sold cotton to Venetian exporters, now fled from Ayas without paying their debts. And finally, to give full satisfaction to the Sultan, the Armenian King took a solemn oath, with his hand on the Gospel and the Cross, never again to have any dealings with the Franks, or to "send envoy or letter to the Pope of Rome."5

Latin church party

Having purchased security from the perpetual enemy at least temporarily, and at such tremendous cost, Leon IV cared little for the wave of resentment within the country, caused by his own arbitrary policy in religious matters. An Armenian Vartabed, named Johannes of Kerni, with the cooperation of a Dominican monk, established in Eastern Armenia a branch of the latter's order called the "Unitor", — the object of which was to engraft Latin practices upon the Armenian church. These men introduced the Latin language into the Liturgy and declared the Armenian sacraments void; they rebaptized laymen and reordained the clergy. The movement was favored by the King, who thus became the leader of the Latin party, as opposed to the Nationalist party headed by the Katholikos Jacob II. The friction between the two cults assumed such proportions that the Katholikos threatened to excommunicate the King, but found himself check-mated when the King deposed him from office.

The young King's lack of proper education and his bad temper added much to the gravity of the national situation as he became of age. But though his conduct was reprehensible, history should not pass judgment upon him before considering the conditions in which he lived and acted. The caprice, arrogance, avarice and murderous lust for power of Oshin, his guardian, undoubtedly had a deplorable effect upon the young prince's character. Oshin had eliminated by death or exile all those who refused to cringe to him. Isabelle, his own sister and Amaury's widow, was one of the Regent's victims. Four of their five children lived in Cilicia; of these, two died,  p257 allegedly poisoned, and the other two were driven out of the country.

King Leon is slain

Upon reaching maturity, the King found it impossible to endure his uncle's iniquities any longer. At last, in a fit of temper, he ordered the execution not only of Oshin, but of his brother Constantin, and finally of his own wife, accusing her of infidelity. In 1333 he married Constance Eleanor, daughter of Frederick II of Sicily and widow of Henry II of Cyprus.

The religious struggle within the kingdom was brought to a tragic end in 1341, by the assassination at the hands of Nationalist extremists, of Leon IV at the early age of thirty-two.

The Author's Notes:

1 Memlouk (Arabic) means "possessed", "slave", "serf".

2 The strange savagery in the character of Bibars appears in his letter written after the event, to Bohemund, Prince of Antioch and Tripoli;—

"We took Antioch by the sword," he wrote, "on the fourth day of the month of Ramazan, in the fourth hour of Saturday. . . . If only you had seen your knights being trampled under the hoofs of horses, the plunder of your palaces, the weighing and distribution of your treasure, the purchase of your women and their sale, four for one dinar, if only you had witnessed the demolition of your (p247)churches, the smashing of your crosses, your richly bound Gospels put up for auction under the sun, the tombs of your nobility destroyed, your Holy of Holies trodden upon by Moslems, the bishops, priests and deacons immolated upon the altars, men of wealth reduced to misery and royal princes taken into captivity — if only you had seen your halls given up to the flames, your dead cast into the fire (and thus doomed hereafter to eternal fire), the churches of Paul and Gozma in ruins and rubble, then you would have cried, 'I wish that God had turned me to dust!' No one has survived to tell you all these things; I, therefore, give you the news."

3 Mangou-Timor, the general of the vanquished army, was put to death by the order of Abagha Khan, his own brother, and the Tartar legions who had brought about the disaster by fleeing from the field during the battle were condemned to wear feminine attire for the rest of their lives.

4 The value of a dirhem was about 10 or 12 American cents.

5 Rainaldi, — quoted by Father Tchamitchian.

Thayer's Note:

a about $50,000: in 1958 when Kurkjian wrote. In 2004 dollars, as it happens, exactly double, so the figure is now $100,000.

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