The Principality and Kingdom of Cilicia (1080-1375)

By Levon Zekiyan –

With 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 new Armenian 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.
The 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: Rubinian. 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 neighboring 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 himself (1143-1180).

With Levon, dubbed the Magnificent and known as Levon I in the royal succession, Armenian Cilicia lived through its period of greatest splendor. 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 Het’umian 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 adversary who 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.

The 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 of Egypt.
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 affirmation of monarchical power than in the past.

The 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 the scene: 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.


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