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The history of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia is amazingly complex. The Armenians found themselves between power empires throughout their history. They had to contend with Byzantium and Islamic forces and later with Turkic tribes moving into the area and threats from the caliphates in Cairo and Syria. They made and broke alliances with neighboring Christian kingdoms and with the Templars. And they constantly fought among themselves, weakening their prospects for long term survival. They did all this in a territory that was new to them, being relocated to Cilicia in the 11th century. While they established an independent kingdom, their immediate neighbors were often not willing to recognize their rights or respect their borders. This map, from Ghazarian, shows the location of Cilicia in modern Turkey in the NE corner of the Meditarranean.
Cilicia was strategically placed for the crusaders. It was common for crusaders, as in the case of the First Crusade, to gather in Constantinople. The overland route to the Holy Lands either took the crusaders around the north of Cilicia via the Anatolian highlands or via a shorter route through Cilicia and then along the coast.
Cilicia offers several geographic advantages and well as limitations. It is an area bordered by mountains; the Taurus’ to the west and Amanus’ to the east. The north is also mountainous. These ranges circle a fertile plain fronting on the Mediterranean which has several important ports, Ayas being the premier one. There are several critical passes through the territory, giving whoever held them control of commerce and military movement. This map, from Bedoukian, gives an idea of the terrain.
During what is referred to as the Baronial period, the competing parties were the newly arrived Armenians, the forces of the first crusade, Byzantium and neighboring Turks. The conflict was primarily internal, between Frankish crusaders and Armenian barons, among the crusades themselves and among Armenian factions who were separated by political and religious disputes, which they took very seriously. By the 1130s Byzantium successfully invaded and brought a brief period of peace to Cilicia. This temporary respite gave way to continued intra-Armenian conflict and Armenian-Byzantine conflict.
A note on names: Different writers use different, but similar names, depending on whether or not they use an Armenian name or its western version. For example, Levon and Leon are the same person and Gosdantin and Constantine the same. Likewise Smpad is also spelled Semped. I will follow Bedoukian in his choice of Armenian names. Likewise Boase uses different Levon numbering from Bedoukian and Nercessian. Boase keeps the first king Levon as Levon II, his baronial number, while the others start renumbering the royal period with Levon I. Here too I will follow Bedoukian.
Out of the turmoil of the late 12th C, Levon II, a baron, was the major figure who emerged in Cilicia. He sought the formal recognition of the lands as a kingdom and got Frederick Barbarosa and the pope to agree to the creation of an independent kingdom. Frederick was willing to do this in return for support as he passed through Cilicia on his crusade. Unfortunately, for Levon (and Frederick) Frederick drowned crossing a river in Cilicia before crowning Levon. It fell to Henry VI, Frederick’s successor, to finalize the agreement. Levon was crowned on January 6, 1199 and ruled as Levon I (The II in his earlier name was based on a local title he held.) Levon ruled 1187 – 1219, as a royal from 1198.
Levon I (1199-1219)
for a larger image click here
AR Tram, 2.72gr, 22mm. Obv: +LEVON KING OF THE ARMENIANS, seated king. Rev: +BY THE WILL OF GOD, long cross between two lions. Ner 287.
AE Tank, left:7.65gr, 27mm. Obv: +LEVON KING OF THE ARMENIANS, central head with five points in the crown. Rev: +STRUCK IN THE CITY OF SIS, central patriarchal cross with two stars in field. Mint is Sis. Ner 301. Center 6.27gr, 27mm; right 6.79gr, 28mm.
Levon’s reign was characterized by an unsuccessful effort to bridge the differences between the Armenian and Roman churches, a source of tension during the entire 300 year life of the kingdom. Levon was motivated by the fact he was essentially a vassal of Henry VI. Rapprochement was continually resisted by Armenian nationalists, who feared the Latinization of their church would lead to an erosion of cultural identity. Levon attached and besieged Christian Antioch as part of a conflict over succession in Antioch, with implications for succession in Cilicia. Levon wanted his young great-nephew to succeed to control of Antioch, uniting these two lands, but the Templars and a non-Armenian line resisted. Both sides made use of Islamic forces as allies against each other. He also was in conflict with his Islamic neighbors and suffered a major defeat at their hands. His family life was also wanting. He imprisoned his first wife who was accused of adultery and then married Sybilla of Lusignan.
Boase (22) says of his reign; “He had some real claim to the epithet ‘the Great’ which his subjects accorded him. Some unity and peace had been secured, and some control exercised over his unruly baronage. The use of western titles, baron, constable, chancellor, seneschal, bailiff and so forth corresponded to a new feudal relationship with the Crown. …. The Genoese and Venetian treaties brought not only transit trade but new outlets for local produce from the fertile coastal plain.”
Levon died without a male heir and was succeeded by his three year old daughter, Zabel, child of his second marriage.
With such a young heiress, there was, not surprisingly, a sustained struggle over the succession. This resulted in two marriages, successively, not consecutively. The first lasted only three year. Philip, her first husband, was inadequately sensitive to Armenian culture and sought to Latinize his rule. In his third year was marriage, he was imprisoned and died of poisoning. The second marriage was to Hetoum, son of the powerful head of the house of Lampron. Zabel reigned 1219 – 52, while her husband Hetoum I co-ruled from 1226 and then singularly ruled until 1270. This marriage united two of the strongest houses in Cilicia.
Zabel and Hetoum I (1226
AR Tram, Left: 2.92gr, 21mm. Obv: +BY THE WILL OF GOD, queen Zabel left facing king Hetoum, both holding a central long cross. Rev: +HETOUM KING OF THE ARMENIANS, central lion facing right. Ner 335. Right: 2.74gr, 21mm.
Hetoum I (1226 - 70)
for a larger image click here
AE Tank, 7.58gr, 29mm. Obv: +HETOUM KING OF THE ARMENIANS, central seated king. Rev: +STRUCK IN THE CITY OF SIS, central cross with dashes in each quadrant. Ner 354.
During this reign the Mongols made their appearance in the region and Hetoum made an alliance with them, countering the strength of the Mamluks in Egypt and Islamic Seljuks in Syria. The Seljuks were making territorial incursions into Cilicia from the direction of Syria and the western frontier was weakened. As the result of a treaty with the Seljuks, Hetoum made bilingual coins.
The Mongol alliance was successful for awhile in that it saved Cilicia from potential Mongol invasion and engendered some troop support for Cilicia. Hetoum visited the Great Khan in 1253 to finalize the alliance and Cilician troops fought with the Mongols as they conquered Syria, extending their control into Damascus.
However, the tide ultimately turned and the Mongol-Armenian forces were routed by a Mamluk army out of Egypt. Ultimately the Mamluks were able to invade Cilicia itself, after capturing other Christian towns along the coast. The Mamluks razed a number of Cilician towns, killed one of Hetoum’s sons and captured the other. Mongol help was too small and too late to prevent this attack. After the release of his son Levon, Hetoum joined a monastic community and his son ruled as Levon II. This brief recounting of Cilician history is replete with instances of fratricidal violence and betrayal. It is therefore worth noting an instance of the opposite; Hetoum’s older brother and constable of Cilicia, Sempad, is described by Boase as ‘an example of integrity, loyalty and practical sense.”
Levon II (1270-89)
For a larger image click here
AR Double Tram 5.63gr., 26mm. Obv (in Armenian) LEVON KING OF ALL THE ARMENIANS, seated king holding cross and fleur de lis. Rev: BY THE WILL OF GOD, lion left with crossed legs. Ner 271; Bed as Levon I (36).
Levon II (1270 – 89) had a reign that started hard but ended with prosperity. Early on, in1274, Cilicia was pressed by the Mamluks under the sultan Baibars (also spelled Baybars), who invaded the kingdom and sacked several cities. As part of this conflict, Baibars was injured and died as the result of an arrow wound.
However, under his Mamluk successors, conflict continued through 1280-1 without advantage to Cilicia and Levon made peace with the Mamluks, offering them tribute for not invading. This came about as the result of the defeat of a Mongol-Armenian army in Syria that essentially left Levon and Cilicia defenseless. By 1291, Acre fell to the Mamluks, and in conjunction with the loss of other Christian cities which had fallen to the Mamluks, Cilician Ayas was the main Christian port left on the coast. Levon and Cilicia enjoyed a period of prosperity for the balance of his reign. He died February 6, 1289 at age 53.
Whereas Levon I had no effective heir, Levon II had too many heirs. He had five sons and they contested among themselves for the throne. This was a very confused time in Cilician history. The son’s reigns were arranged like this:
Hetoum II (1289-93), (1295-6), (1299-1301), (1301-06).
Hetoum II (1289-93),
(1295-6), (1299-1301), (1301-06)
for a larger image click here
AE Kardez, 3.5GR, 22mm. Obv: HETOUM KING OF THE ARMENIANS, large crowned facing head of king. Rev: STRUCK IN THE CITY OF SIS, central long cross with two bars. Mint is Sis. Ner 398.
Hetoum II was the primary heir, but had little interest in ruling. After two years of it, he retired to a monastery and passed the kingdom on to his next brother, Toros. After a short time, Toros too lost interest, and with the nobility, asked Hetoum to retake the throne. Hetoum did.
To get a feel for the internecine conflict, I’ll touch on what happens next in outline form, from Bedoukian.
> Hetoum and Toros go to Constantinople for their sister’s wedding.
> They leave brother Smpad in charge.
> Smpad decides he should be king.
> When Hetoum and Toros return, Smpad imprisons them.
> Toros is killed (strangled), Hetoum is partially blinded.
> This treatment of his brothers infuriates brother Gosdantin
> Gosdantin revolts, captures and imprisons Smpad, frees Hetoum.
> Hetoum asks Gosdantin to rule in his place.
> Hetoum’s eye sight returns, the nobility ask him to resume rule.
> Gosdantin doesn’t want to give up the throne, frees Smpad and they fight Hetoum.
> Hetoum finally prevailed and captured his brothers, who die in captivity (exile?) in Constantinople.
Not surprisingly, Armenia’s enemies take advantage of this internal conflict to raid throughout the kingdom, particularly in the lowlands near the coast. All this is too much for Hetoum II, always the reluctant ruler, who once again, and permanently, retired to a monastery in 1305. He died November 17, 1307, at the hands of a supposed ally.
One of the attractions of the Mongol alliance was that they were not Islamic. However, the Great Khan converted to Islam in 1304, much to the distress of the Cilicians. While the initial converting khan was tolerant of Christians, his success, named Kharbanda, required all the Christians to wear a ‘black linen strip over their shoulder’ as a sign of their non-Islamic status.
In his last years, Hetoum II co-ruled with his nephew Levon III (Toros’ son). Levon III’s reign ran 1301-1307. Since Cilicia was so pressed the Mamluks, the Armenians thought that their best hope was to have another crusade to support their Christian kingdom. A crusade would only be attractive to the west if there was rapprochement between the Armenian and Roman church. This triggered another period of internal conflict that weakened Cilicia’s ability to deal with external threats. Out of this conflict, perhaps seeking Mongol aid, Hetoum left his monastery and with Levon III went off to meet a Mongol general, who was in the area ostensibly to help Cilicia, since there was a friendship treaty between the two parties. Instead, both Hetoum II and Levon III were murdered by the general. While I have characterized Hetoum II as a reluctant ruler, Boase (29) refers to him as “a vacillating character” whose “personal indulgences were little suited to the times.”
The kingdom passed to Levon III’s uncle Oshin (1308-1320), the fifth son of Levon II to rule. This reign was again characterized by both internal strife, based on religious differences, and external invasion. The Mamluks invaded several times and drove the Armenians away from the coast into the mountains. One successful counter attack was the surprise move against the Mamluks where the Armenians succeeded in routing an invading army, inflicting 6000 casualties. Levon III did not live to see this victory. He died by poisoning by his brother in law.
Oshin was succeeded by his ten year old son. Since Levon IV (1320 – 42) was too young to rule, the country once again had a regency, with one of the regents, also named Oshin, becoming the effective ruler. This Oshin was able to marry his daughter to Levon IV, placing his family in the line of royal succession. This reign was also characterized by one of those inter-family conflicts that so weakened the Cilician crown. Once again, in outline form:
Regent Oshin murders Levon IV’s sister and her young children, eliminating
possible claimants to the throne.
This naturally infuriates Levon IV.
Who captured and decapitated Oshin and Oshin’s brother.
He then murders his queen, Oshin’s daughter.
Looking for help from the west, he then married a daughter of Frederick II of Sicily (Bedoukian 17), Constance of Aragon (Boase 30). (I am unable to connect this Constance, widow of Henry II of Cyrus, to HRE Frederick II 1197-1250 of Sicily. MEC 14 refers to this HRE Frederick king of Sicily by his HRE #, but if other sources treat him as Frederick I of Sicily and Frederick II as HRE, this would make the MEC Frederick III of Aragon Bedoukian’s Frederick II of Sicily. Somewhat confusing.) During this reign Cilicia was invaded by Mamluks and other Islamic forces from Syria, and lost the critical port city of Ayas. Levon IV’s unhappy reign ended in his assassination on August 28, 1342.
There was no direct heir and a reluctant Guy of Lusignan (1342-44) was enticed to assume the throne. He ruled as Gosdantin II. He never connected with the Armenians and brought French and Latinizing influences with him. This did not sit well with his people and he suffered the fate of his predecessor – he was also assassinated. His coinage had his French name ‘Guy’ on it, not his Armenian name Gosdantin, reflecting his lack of connectedness with his nation.
Without any direct line claimant, the throne passed to the son of a noble family who ruled as Gosdantin III (1344-1363). Gosdantin, with the help of the Knights of Rhodes, temporarily regained Ayas, but lost it again, as well as losing several major cities to a Mamluk invasion. He was left with only a mountain kingdom. Cilicia was withering and its prospects were grim. Boase notes he “most unusually” died a natural death.
Gosdantin IV (1365-73) controlled only a small inland territory around the oft burned city of Sis and Gosdantin became another victim of Cilician intrigue and was murdered in April 1373. Nercessian refers to him as ‘a tyrant and selfish ruler, indifferent to the welfare of his country.’
By this time Peter I of Cyprus had taken an interest in the throne of Cilicia and either wanted it for himself or for a client. The choice was between Peter and a relative of the murdered Guy Lusignan. Peter was murdered in 1369 and ultimately the Lusignan descendant came to the throne and ruled as Levon V. He was crowned September 14, 1375. His reign was to be short and witness to the end of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. He too brought Latin influences which rankled the Armenians. Given the choice between Latin rule and Islamic rule, many preferred Islamic.
At this time Sis was besieged on and off by the Mamluks. When one force withdrew on payment of tribute, Armenian nationalists encouraged an Armenian who had converted to Islam to come and seize the throne from the too Catholic Levon V. This led to another invasion encouraged by the Armenian nationalists which once again besieged Sis. In the face of a larger (30,000 enemy soldiers) force and without the support of the Armenians, Levon surrendered and the kingdom fell on April 16, 1375.
After a period in captivity, Levon ended up in Paris and died on November 29, 1393. He was first buried in a Celestine monastery but after the French Revolution his tomb was moved to St. Denis, joining many of the French kings.
Bedoukian, P.Z., Coinage of Cilician Armenia, revised edition, Danbury, Conn., 1979
Bedoukian, P.Z., 'Medieval Armenain Coinage', reprinted from Revue des Etudes Armenienne, Tome VIII 1971, Paris 1971
Boase, T.S.R., editor, The Cilician Kingdom of Armenia, St. Martin's Press, 1978
Ghazarian, J.G., The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia during the Crusades, Cruzon, London, 2000
Nercessian, Y.T., Armenian Coins and Their Value, Armenian Numismatic
Society, Los Angeles, 1995