Ancient Byzantine seal in the history of Armenia

This is a Byzantine lead seal from a historically important region in Armenia major which was where the treaty to partition Armenia between Rome and Sassanian Persia was “sealed” in 387 AD, between Theodosius and Shapur III.

The region is in the upper Euphrates valley called Akilisene. In the 5th-century biography “Life of Mashtots”, it was called Yekeghiats or եկեղեաց, which derives from the same root. In pre-Christian times it was called Erez, where the seat of the shrine of Anahid was located. Անի-Կամախ was another name given to it. In the Byzantine era it was called Keltzene or Κελτζηνη.

Today it is called Erzincan. Armenian historian Agathangelos reports that during the first year of his reign, King Trdat III of Armenia went to Erez and visited Anahit’s temple to offer sacrifice. He ordered Gregory the Illuminator, who was secretly a Christian, to make an offering at its altar.

When Gregory refused, he was taken captive and tortured, starting the events that would end with Trdat’s conversion to Christianity some 14 years later.

The lead seal attribution: Basil metropolitan of Keltzene, Circa 1071-1072. Seal or Bulla. +ΘΚΕ ΒΟΗΘ, ΤΩ CΩ ΔΟΥΛ/ MHP-ΘV The Virgin, robed, veiled and nimbate, standing facing, turned slightly to the left, holding the infant Christ on her right arm. Rev. -.-/BACIΛ/ ΕΛΑΧΙCTΩ/ ΜΡΟΠΟΛΙΤ,/ ΚEΛΤΖΗ/-ΝΗC Here is how the auction house NOMOS AG describes the region’s history very appropriately: “The full inscription, starting on the obverse and continuing to the reverse, reads: Mother of God, help your servant-Basil, most humble metropolitan of Keltzene.

The city, which is known as Keltzene in Greek, was anciently named Acilisene, probably originally Erez, and was called Yekeghiats or Yerznka in Armenian; it is now the Turkish city of Erzincan. In around 387 Theodosius I and Shapur III signed the Treaty of Acilisene, which divided Greater Armenia between the Romans and the Sasanians. The city became Christian during the reign of Tiridates III due to the efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator, who was, of course, responsible for christianising Armenia in 301.

Acilisene/Keltzene had become a bishopric by at least the mid 5th century (a bishop Ioannes is known from 459). For a while the city was known as Justinianopolis, but that name soon fell into disuse. By the 10th century it was the seat of an archdiocese and in the 11th it had become a metropolitan see.

Its religious importance ended with the crushing Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, but it remained a flourishing, primarily Armenian, town for centuries thereafter: it was visited by William of Rubruck in 1254 and, later in the century, by Marco Polo. The city’s Armenian and Christian history ended in 1915 with the massacre of its remaining non-Muslim population by Ottoman forces and the destruction of its churches.”

By Joseph Sarkissian

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