Armenian settlements in Crimea appeared in the 7th-8th centuries AD. This period, up until the 13th century, is attested by preserved tombstones and epigraphic inscriptions.
In the southeast of the Crimean peninsula, the ruins of Armenian structures from the 14th-15th centuries still impress, when the Armenian colony there experienced its period of greatest prosperity, since Armenians from different regions of native and Cilician Armenia migrated there. Four Armenian churches – John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, St. Stephen, and St. George – have survived in the Armenian part of Feodosia (Kaffa).
According to sources, by the beginning of the 15th century, two-thirds of the population in this city were Armenians, and there were 45 Armenian churches. In some Genoese sources, the southeastern coast of Crimea was called Maritime Armenia. Here, in Feodosia, lived and worked the famous marine painter of Armenian origin – Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (Ovanes Aivazyan).
Since the end of the 13th century, near the city of Stary Krym (Surkhat), stands the majestic Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Monastery. Referring to ancient sources, the Armenian chronicler of the 17th century noted in a memorial record: “Princes and nobles, from Karasubazar (Belogorsk) to Stary Krym and Feodosia, filled the mountains and plains with churches and monasteries. And we built a hundred thousand houses and a thousand churches.”
Evidence of the undying glory of an entire millennium is the Armenian manuscripts of Crimea, of which over 340 are preserved in the Matenadaran archives. They were created by talented masters of Armenian book art, each of whom can be spoken of with the words of the panegyric dedicated to the artist Avetis, who lived and worked in Crimea in the 15th century:
A scion worthy of the Armenian lineage,
Like a heavenly angel…
He had a melodious voice
And was knowledgeable in sciences…
A skillful calligrapher and artist.
In the mid-14th century in Crimea, the miniaturist artist Kirakos worked, creating miniatures for the great Lectionary, written in Surkhat (Stary Krym) in 1356. One of the manuscripts illustrated by Kirakos is stored in the Congregation of Mekhitarists in Venice.
In Crimea also worked the beautiful calligrapher Oksent, who wrote and adorned with microscopic patterns the smallest manuscript – a calendar from 1434 (3.4×4 cm), stored in the Matenadaran.
In 1368, the calligrapher and miniaturist Stepanos, whose miniatures are distinguished by their softness and delicacy, worked on the Bible (in Matenadaran it is listed under number 2705), which was started in Italy at the end of the 13th century. Stepanos finished it and added new miniatures.
For the third time, this manuscript was renewed in Kaffa (Feodosia) in the 17th century by Nikolaos Tsakhkarar, of whom it is noted in a memorial record: “… Granted perfect skill of hands: he wrote the Holy Gospel, adorned it with gold-painted pictures, folded, interwove, made a silver cover. And the book, the cover, and the shape of the images all were done by him according to the high art inspired by God …”
In Crimea, the Natera family was renowned. In one manuscript of 1781, it is said that it was written “in the land of Crimea, which is the dwelling place of the ancient Natera family, who excelled in knowledge.” Most of Nater’s life was spent in the Crimean city of Surkhat (Old Crimea), where, near the Surb Khach monastery, he wrote most of his manuscripts.
Famed for his tireless activity, Nater was originally from the Karin region. He shared the fate of Armenian settlers during the period of the Tatar-Mongol invasions. During a difficult journey, accompanied by hunger and hardship, Nater continued work on a manuscript started in the village of Kan by a certain Stepanos.
The manuscript was completed by Nater in the Tayk region in the village of Vardashen in 1341, on the way to Crimea. Many perished on the way. Nater lost his 20-year-old son Ovanes – “a skilled calligrapher and musician.” Nater taught the art of calligraphy to four of his sons. They all maintained ties with their homeland from which they emigrated to Crimea. In 1357, Nater’s youngest son – Grigor, who excelled in sciences, went to Cilician Armenia, where he became the bishop of the Khacht region.
He was accompanied on this trip by his brother Avetis, who found there a manuscript containing the work of Dionysius the Areopagite “On the Celestial Hierarchy,” about which he wrote: “Since there was no model for the manuscript found in the city or in the monasteries, and the desire to write such a book tormented me … I had to go to the land of Armenia, to the royal city of Sis, not only for the book but also for my younger brother, Grigor, who received the bishop’s rank of the Khacht region there.” Stepanos, like his brother Avetis, was a scribe, miniaturist, and bookbinder. Two of Natera’s grandsons also mastered the art of calligraphy and miniature. Later, Nater and his wife moved to Cilician Armenia, where he continued to transcribe manuscripts, two of which have been preserved. There ended the earthly path of the celebrated writer and educator.
With the seizure of power in Crimea by Tatar-Turkish hordes, the decline in the life of the Armenian community began. It was accompanied by the martyrdom of the ascetics. On May 15, 1567, in Kafa, Paronluys (Luisparon) Kafaezi was subjected to martyrdom for not renouncing the Christian faith. There were hundreds of such cases.
Only a century later did the revival of the Armenian community in Crimea begin. In the scriptoria, masters of book art continued their activities, rewriting old books and copying miniatures of predecessors. The names of most of the copyists and miniaturists have remained unknown, as memorial records have not been preserved, but the fate of many generations of Armenians and the path of devoted service to their cause, people, and God can be traced through the example of the Nater family.
The Armenian Church in Yalta was built on the initiative of the outstanding Armenian painter, graphic artist, theatrical artist, architect, and polyglot, Vardkes Sureniants (1860-1921), who adorned it with remarkable frescoes that, unfortunately, were lost due to unprofessional restoration work. Next to the Armenian Church, Vardkes Sureniants found his final resting place, leaving behind a rich creative legacy and a significant mark in the culture of Armenia and Russia.
The canvases of the painter – a bright representative of the historical genre – literally captivate with their craftsmanship. His painting “Abandoned” stunned visitors at the 22nd traveling exhibition, as did “Semiramis Mourning the Death of Ara the Beautiful,” presented at the 27th traveling exhibition. The painting “Desecrated Shrine” became a vivid testimony of how deeply Vardkes Sureniants felt the suffering that befell the Armenian people and his homeland. This canvas was painted after visiting Armenia and acquainting himself with its ancient sanctuaries.
Another painting tells of how, on the threshold of his cell at the famous Akhpat Monastery, a well-known medieval university called the “second Athens of Aristotle,” the greatest Armenian ashug Sayat-Nova (Arutyun Sayadyan), who created with equal mastery in Armenian, Georgian, and Persian languages, met his death from a Turkish yatagan.
The canvas depicting Zabel returned to the throne revives in memory the brief but fruitful life path of the Cilician queen. She was the daughter of Levon II (1187-1219) – the king of Cilician Armenia, who ruled “victoriously and with good fame.” Zabel was born in 1215 from Levon II’s second marriage to Sibylle, the daughter of Amori Lusignan, crowned king of Cyprus in 1197, and Isabella Plantagenet. Levon II had no son. Sensing the approach of death, the king entrusted Catholicos John and the nobility to elevate his daughter to the throne, to be loyal to her, and to marry her to a man matching her in merits.
With the seizure of power in Crimea by the Tatar-Turkish hordes, a decline began in the life of the Armenian community. It was accompanied by the martyrdom of ascetics. On May 15, 1567, in Caffa, Paronluys (Luysparon) Kafaetsi was put to a martyr’s death for not renouncing the Christian faith. There were hundreds of such cases.
Only a century later did the revival of the Armenian community of Crimea begin. In the scriptoria, masters of book art continued their work, rewriting old books and copying miniatures of predecessors. The names of most of the scribes and miniaturists remain unknown, as there are no surviving memoirs, but the example of the Nater family allows us to trace the fate of many generations of Armenians and the path of devoted service to their cause, people, and God.
The Armenian church in Yalta was built at the initiative of the outstanding Armenian painter, graphic artist, theater artist, architect, and polyglot Vardkes Surenyants (1860-1921), who adorned it with remarkable frescoes, which, regrettably, were lost due to unprofessional restoration work. Beside the Armenian Church lies the final refuge of Vardkes Surenyants, who left a rich creative legacy and significant mark in the culture of Armenia and Russia.
The paintings of the artist – a bright representative of the historical genre – literally enchant with their mastery. His painting “Abandoned” stunned visitors at the 22nd traveling exhibition, as did “Semiramis, Mourning the Death of Ara the Beautiful,” presented at the 27th traveling exhibition. The painting “Desecrated Shrine” became a vivid testimony to how deeply Vardkes Surenyants was affected by the sufferings that befell the Armenian people and his homeland. This canvas was painted after visiting Armenia and becoming acquainted with its ancient shrines.
Another painting tells of how the greatest Armenian ashug Sayat-Nova (Arutyun Sayadyan), who created with equal mastery in Armenian, Georgian, and Persian, met his death at the threshold of his cell in the famous Akhpat Monastery, the renowned medieval university called the “second Athens worthy of respect,” from a Turkish yatagan.
A canvas depicting the returned to the throne Zabel revives in memory the brief but fruitful life path of the Cilician queen. She was the daughter of Levon II (1187-1219) – king of Cilician Armenia, reigning “victoriously and with good fame.” Zabel was born in 1215 from Levon II’s second marriage to Sibylle, daughter of Amalric Lusignan, crowned king of Cyprus in 1197, and Isabella Plantagenet. Levon II had no son. Sensing the approach of death, the king entrusted the Catholicos Jovan and the nobility to elevate his daughter to the throne, to be obedient to her, and to marry her to a man worthy of her virtues.
In 1222, the underage Zabel was married to Prince Philip, the son of the Antiochian prince Bohemond, by the decision of the higher clergy and military nobility. Four years later, when Philip’s father stole the royal treasures and fled, Prince Constantine Lambronetsi, supported by Armenian feudal lords, deposed Isabella’s husband, Prince Philip, in 1226.
The king of the Cilician Armenian kingdom became the son of Constantine from the line of the Lambron princes – Hethum (1226-1270), “a boy in age, but strong in body and with a beautiful appearance.” The actual ruler of the country during this period was Constantine, who was declared regent. In 1226, Hethum married Princess Isabella against her will: “But the queen did not agree to become the wife of the boy. She rebelled and went to Seleucia to the Franks living there, for her mother was of Frankish origin from the island of Cyprus.” Constantine, gathering all the troops, besieged the city until they, against their will, handed the queen over to him. And he took her and married her to his son.
The marriage of Isabella and Hethum became the subject of the great artistic work of Vardkes Surenyants “The Return of Queen Zabel to the Throne.” Nevertheless, the marriage of Isabella and Hethum laid the foundation for the Hethumid dynasty. Isabella, according to the descriptions of contemporaries, was merciful, pious, virtuous, and sound-minded, loved God-fearing people, the poor, constantly fasted and prayed, engaged in charity.
In 1238, together with Hethum, she built the Cathedral and Church of Saint Marina in the city of Sis, and in 1241, the crowned couple founded a hospital. The union of Zabel and Hethum turned out to be favorable for the Cilician Armenian kingdom. Coins with the images of Hethum and Zabel have been preserved.
She gave the family a large offspring – five daughters and three sons, one of whom, Levon III, became the king of Cilician Armenia in 1270. Isabella lived only 37 years, earning a good memory, and was buried in Drazarke, one of the famous Cilician monasteries, not far from Sis, where service went on incessantly, day and night.
Wherever Armenians lived and created, the legacy they left inevitably intertwines the destinies of many generations scattered around the world, serving the idea of preserving the best traditions of the past, enhancing this heritage with new spiritual achievements, and passing it on to future generations. This is confirmed by the entire history of the Armenians of Crimea.
Countless generations of Armenian builders, thinkers, scientists, scribes, and miniaturists, overcoming the most severe trials, selflessly worked for the benefit of their descendants, and to each of them, the “memorial record” of an unknown scribe is applicable: “I live with the hope of only one thing, that all my work is for my descendants,” which he left instead of his name.
Author: Mary Cholakyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan