Armenia in the 8th Century – Desperate Resistance to the Saracens

Armenia in the 8th Century

In the 8th century, a regime of cruel oppression and heavy requisitions was established in Yerevan, as well as throughout Armenia. As chronicler Ghevond writes:

“Abdallah tortured everyone with violence and oppression and brought them to poverty, demanding taxes even from the dead.

He terribly tormented widows and orphans. He also subjected priests and ministers of the divine altar to torture, shameful flagellation, and beatings.”

Armenian journalist and researcher Aris Ghazinyan writes about the events in his book “Yerevan: With the Cross or on the Cross”, which is an attempt to fix and comprehend an extremely variegated spectrum of processes that directly or indirectly composed the nature of the development of Yerevan, predetermining the inevitability of Yerevan’s turning into the main center of Eastern Armenia and later into the capital of the restored Armenian state.

The resistance shown near Yerevan was punished with tougher tax policies, the book says. According to Ghazinyan, at the beginning of the 8th century, the Armenian people fiercely resisted the Saracens well beyond Yerevan. Battles broke out on Sevan Island, on the Arax coast near Vardanakert, and near Drachpet. The situation could escalate into a popular uprising led by the Armenian elite.

“In these conditions, the Ishmaelites (Muslims) decided to take a step that later became associated in the minds of the Christian population of Armenia with concepts such as Muslim cunning and Armenian naivety.

Under the pretext of holding negotiations and signing a cease-fire, the Arabs invited several hundred princes to Nakhichevan and the neighboring village Khram in 705. There, the Arabs burned the princes alive in local churches.

Thus, the rebellious people were practically beheaded, and the Saracen fun began,” writes Ghazinyan, noting that an even more severe persecution regime was established in the country – taxes doubled, and even the mandatory wearing of lead seals was taxed.

As a result, deprived of everything, “naked, barefoot, hungry, in need of food”, Yerevan residents – up to twelve thousand husbands with wives and children – decided to move to the Greek country.

“At that time, the Yerevan population, driven into hopelessness, began to retell the recollections of great-grandfathers in a new way and commemorate the Avan Catholicosate as the lesser of evils,” writes Ghazinyan, noting that “time always makes adjustments to the mass consciousness and sets its priorities.”

The population of Yerevan diminished after the Battle of Yerevan – many of its participants, fleeing reprisal, were forced to move with their families to Byzantium.

Upon the accession of Philippikos Bardanes (Vardan) to the Byzantine throne who proclaimed Monothelitism as the official religion in the country, an influx of the Armenian population into Byzantium began.

“At that time, Yerevan could not withstand in the whirlpool of intense political and demographic processes. But it was in these conditions that its main feature was highlighted – the city revealed its ability to resist.

Being the focus of historical contradictions, the city seems to have filtered all challenges, passed them through its porous volcanic surface on which only the most life-affirming had settled.

In this aspect, no other Armenian city reflects the philosophy of national history and the ‘vegetative ability’ of an ever-reviving people to the extent that the current capital of Armenia does,” writes Ghazinyan.

However, millennia later, Yerevan showed that it had survived. It hadn’t been abandoned either during periods of tightening Arab oppression or after three catastrophic earthquakes in the 9th century with the epicenter in the Ararat plain. In the conditions of severe religious oppression, at least eight Yerevan generations were able to maintain their national image and demonstrate a rare indicator of ethnocultural immunity.

As a result of the Caliphate’s weakening at the turn of the 9th-10th centuries, the Armenian Bagratuni dynasty proclaimed the independence of its kingdom and declared the rights to the sovereign throne in Kars. A little earlier (in the middle of the 9th century), on the outskirts of Yerevan, the new Catholicos Zakaria Dzagetsi had also been elected.

“The election of the patriarch of the church in the area of Yerevan is evidence of the increased importance of the locality, especially since the event itself took place several years before the official recognition of the Armenian kingdom, at a time when the country was still under Arab rule.

The Catholicos managed to soften the situation of the Christian population that was languishing under the yoke of the Saracen governor Buha and at the same time suppress the attempts of the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I (who is thought to have been of Armenian descent) to persuade the Armenians to recognize the Chalcedonian provisions.

Correspondence between the heads of the two churches is documented. It, however, had no effect on the positions of the parties, attesting only to the fact that the opponents were highly expert on theological debates,” writes Ghazinyan.

In his seventh year in position, Zakaria Dzagetsi along with Ashot I Bagratuni – the founder of the new royal dynasty and Shahanshah of Armenia, Georgia, and Albania – rejected the offer of Photios and convened the Council.

With that said, the Catholicos became the first spiritual leader to restore the independence of the kingdom. At that time, Yerevan was already mentioned by chroniclers much more often for various reasons and in different areas.

The epigraphic inscription on the wall of the Sevan church of Saint Arakelots is particularly known. This inscription tells about the initiative of Ashot I to transfer six villages, as well as gardens in Garni and Yerevan to a monastic complex established here.

Thus, the formidable restorer of the Armenian monarchy already then considered the Yerevan area “under his jurisdiction.” However, the conquest of Yerevan would come later, the author writes.

And as a result of significant battles in Sevan in the twenties of the 10th century, the last Arab claims to all Armenian lands were put to an end.

“Caliph al-Muqtadir was forced to officially recognize the independence of Armenia and reconcile with the fact that the Bagratid kingdom of the Ararat valley united with Dvin (the center of the abolished governorship ‘Arminia’) and Yerevan (under whose walls the Arab army had given the first misfire),” writes Ghazinyan.

A dozen years later, a generation was born in Yerevan that experienced the rarest happiness of hearing about wars only from the lips of their fathers and not languishing under the burden of foreign oppression.

Due to its favorable geographical location, the city gradually began to occupy a leading position among other settlements of the Kotayk region. It was located along important internal communication routes, and here connected roads from Dvin, Vagharshapat, Partav, and Ani, with the latter being the new capital of the state instead of Kars.

Excerpt from the book of Aris Ghazinyan “Yerevan: With the Cross or on the Cross”

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