The Armenia of the Bagratids (Bagratuni and Artzruni)

By Levon Zekiyan –

Along with its break-up in the ninth century, the compact Arab empire also saw a weakening of its power in Armenia. Meanwhile, a very important change had taken place in the ranks of the Armenian aristocracy. The house of Mamikonian, which had played a leading role in the political life of Armenia, actually governing as sovereigns without titles during certain periods, disappeared from the scene towards the end of the eighth century. The Arabs used harsh reprisals to crush the insurrection led by Mamikonian in 774, and the whole family was wiped out.

Once the Mamikonians had disappeared from the scene, the Bagratids began their ascendancy. They had a more flexible approach to the Arabs. One of the oldest and most influential dynasties of Armenia, never yet exposed to the hazards of struggles for power, the Bagratids had, since the times of Artashes I, by tradition and by acquired right, held the title of t’agatir, that is, crowners (of the king) while the Mamikonians had held the title of sparapet, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Unlike the feudal possessions of the Mamikonians, which occupied a practically continuous strip starting from the regions of T’aron, west of the lake of Van, and ending in the area around Mount Ararat and Mount Aragatz to the north east, the fiefs of the Bagratids were spread a little everywhere throughout Armenia and were later to extend even further into the Iberian kingdom (present-day Georgia).

Another family of nakharar, one of the few that survived the repression, was the Artzruni, whose dominions lay to the east of the lake of Van. On account of their less drastic attitude towards the Arabs, both the Bagratids and the Artzuni were able to profit from the confiscation and dismemberment of the property of the Mamikonians and other dynasties allied to them and enlarge their own possessions. The Bagratids assumed the role of representatives and promoters of this new conscience.

At practically the same time, in 888, a Bagratid branch of the Tayk’ (Tao) lineage, near the borders between Armenia and Georgia along the river Djorokh (Coruh), created the Iberian kingdom of the Bagratids. This was to have an extremely long life, lasting more than 1,000 years, thanks to the geopolitical situation in Georgia, which was more favourable than Armenia’s. The new kingdom unfortunately collapsed in 1045.

The foundation of the Bagratid kingdom in Armenia emerged from the revolt of Prince Smbat Bagratuni about halfway through the eighth century. Despite the partial failure of the insurrection, at the end of which Smbat was captured and sent off to Baghdad, the growth of Byzantine power under the young dynasty of the Macedonians ( of Armenian origin) forced the Arabs to adopt a more moderate policy, ensuring a certain equilibrium in Armenia and, thus, greater guarantees of safety for Arab interests.

In 861, Ashot, son of Smbat, was recognized by the court at Baghdad as prince of princes, a measure that did not fail to provoke a violent reaction on the part of the semiautonomous Arab emirates that had been established in the very heart of Armenia. They attacked Ashot with an army of 80,000 men. Ashot’s forces were only half those of the Arabs, but nevertheless defeated them soundly. Ashot’s prestige was now at its peak. In 855, the caliph sent him the crown and recognized him as shahnshah, king of kings of the Armenians. Basil I, emperor of Byzantians, made haste to do the same. This was perhaps one of the happiest periods in the tormented history of Armenia: two empires were vying with each other not to dominate Armenia with arms but to gain its sympathy and consolidate its independence.

This was a difficult objective, to say the least. Indeed, the kingdom of Ashot’s son, Smbat I (892-914), was one continuous round of harsh struggles against the Arab emirates that surrounded the young kingdom. Only by paying this high price was the Armenia of the Bagratids able to reach the peaks of economic, social and cultural prosperity which, according to Muyldermans, constituted a period of incomparable splendor in Armenian history, from about 920 to 1020. The best evidence of this was the fabulous city of Ani, built by Ashot III (952-977), with its “thousand and one churches.” Jacques de Morgan has this to say: “In Europe, we still have a large number of cities surrounded by their medieval fortified walls: Avignon, Aigues-Mortes, Carcassone, in the south of France alone. But none of these can be compared with Ani because of the deep impression that dead city still arouses in us today: lost in the middle of an immense solitude, still bearing the deep wounds it receivetl during its agony. Ani under the Bagratids was a great, beautiful city, embellished with numerous churches, palaces, beautiful walls in many-colored stone.” (In Histoire du peuple armenien, p. 121).

When Ani fell into Byzantine hands in 1045, the kingdom came to an end. Unfortunately, Byzantium’s expansionist policy with regard to Armenia, developed above all under Basil II, was ultimately to the detriment of the empire itself, for it had done away with that buffer state that had for centuries served as a bulwark against forces from the East. In Grousset’s view, 1045 marks the beginning of the collapse of Byzantium, in spite of its apparent prosperity. This was illusory, as soon became apparent with the terrible defeat of Romano Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071 by the Seljuks of Alp Arslan, which opened the gates of Anatolia fully and for good.

The arts and culture in general flourished greatly in the reign of the Artzruni too (908-1021). The now well-known church of Aght’amar, the marvellous architecture of the school of Ani, and the mystical poetry of St. Grigor of Narek, with its passionate accents and flowing lyrics, embody the highest values of this artistic peak.


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