The Kingdom of Cilicia experienced ups and downs, but it was never as strong as it was under Levon I Rubenid. He reigned from 1187 to 1219, his contemporaries were Frederick I Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart, and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Salah ad-Din.
During the reign of Levon the Great, Cilicia underwent an era of economic and cultural prosperity, being one of the most significant Christian countries in the Middle East. The Holy Roman Empire, the Vatican, and the Abbasid caliph vied for influence over Cilicia.
Each sought to be the first to recognize Prince Levon II of Cilicia as the legitimate king. On January 6, 1198, in Tarsus, he was crowned and proclaimed king. Representatives of the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires, Egypt, Muslim principalities attended the coronation of Levon II, underscoring the status that Cilicia had acquired.
From the first days of his rule, Levon II faced the sultans of Iconium, Damascus, and Aleppo. The presence of a Christian state in Asia Minor, moreover, a strong state, “irritated” the sultans. In order not to be caught off guard, Levon II built a number of fortresses on the borders, where permanent garrisons were kept.
During this period, Cilicia was one of the economically and politically strongest states in the Middle East, it had trade relations with Italian cities and countries of the East, developed agriculture, crafts, and shipping. Crusaders found it expedient to maintain friendly relations with Cilicia.
Under Ruben I and Constantine I (1095–1100), the power of Armenian feudal lords spread to most of Mountainous Cilicia and individual areas of Plain Cilicia.
Under Constantine, a new crusade took place, initially favorably disposed towards the Armenian principality, as their interests coincided, and both of them acted against Byzantium and the Seljuks. Under Toros I (1100–1129) and Levon I (1129–1141), the Armenian state expanded its borders in the north and, especially, in the south,
In the second half of the XII century, the Cilician principality became so strong that other Armenian principalities were forced to submit to it. Thus, in Cilicia, an Armenian early feudal monarchy and a hierarchical feudal system were gradually formed.
Having created a strong, well-equipped regular army, numbering 30,000 warriors, the Rubenids fortified the country’s borders from foreign conquerors. Let us underline once again that with the advent to power of Levon II (1187–1219), the Armenian state took over the Mediterranean coast from Alexandretta to Seleucia and thus became one of the strong states of the Middle East.
Thus, under Levon II in 1198, the Armenian principality was transformed into a kingdom. This circumstance was seen by contemporaries as a restoration of Armenian statehood. This is why Cilician kings titled themselves “kings of Armenia”.
It seemed that history itself helped the Cilician king become what he was – one of the significant and necessary people in the East. In 1187, Jerusalem was taken by Salah ad-Din. In Europe, it was decided to undertake a new crusade to liberate the Tomb of the Lord.
Frederick Barbarossa, who led the German militia, went through Cilicia. The crusaders got lost in the Taurus mountains, and the Armenians came to their aid. Emperor Frederick sent three honorary embassies to Levon II afterwards, and in his speech to the army, he said that Cilicia deserved to have a king.
Frederick died during the campaign, and then Levon II turned to his successor, Henry VI and Pope Celestine III, agreeing to acknowledge himself as a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal throne.
The Pope, with the consent of the Emperor, sent to Cilicia Cardinal Conrad of Wittelsbach, Archbishop of Mainz, who brought with him a crown. The Pope set some, generally insignificant, conditions for recognizing Levon II as king.
Levon convinced the Armenian clergy to accept these conditions “for show”, saying that they would not be enforced. In Tarsus, in the Cathedral of St. Sophia, on January 6, 1198, on Epiphany, the Catholicos and the cardinal, a representative of the Pope, Levon II was solemnly crowned as the king of Armenia. “You have returned to us,” wrote Gregory to the Pope afterwards, “the crown which we lost a long time ago when we were parted from you.”
Thus, Levon II recognized himself as a vassal of Rome. In letters to the Pope, he signed: “With all respect, grateful devotion”. But, from a political point of view, the choice of such a distant suzerain was a very far-sighted move.
Neither the Pope nor the German Emperor could have any real influence on the affairs of Cilicia, but this nominal vassalage more closely linked the new kingdom with the Christian states of Asia and Europe and gave hope for help in the fight against enemies. Neighboring nations sent embassies after the coronation to bring gifts to the new sovereign. The significance of what had happened was also understood by Byzantine Emperor Alexius III Angelus.
He too was quick to recognize Levon II as king, sent a magnificent crown adorned with gold and precious stones. In this, Alexius wrote: “Do not put the crown of the Latins on your head, but mine, for your kingdom is closer to us than to Rome.” Levon received the ambassadors of Byzantium respectfully and sent them off with gifts. Nevertheless, Byzantium constantly opposed the independence of the Cilician kingdom and interfered as much as possible.
Cilician Armenia, among other things, was a place where the military monastic orders, in particular the Order of Hospitallers and the Order of Templars, felt quite comfortable. As Vladimir Zakharov writes in his book “Order of Hospitallers”, the Hospitallers had their possessions on the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Cilicia.
Thus, from the very beginning, relations were established with Western Europe, which was characteristic of the entire history of the Kingdom of Cilicia. The Rubenids constantly maintained contacts with European dynasties, and dynastic marriages, which allowed them to enter the circle of European rulers, forced them to intervene in the quarrels of relatives, but made the names of the rulers of Cilicia well-known in the West.
Cilician Armenia in the XI-XIV centuries was a kind of center of political events of that time in the East, as well as economic and partly cultural communication between Europe and Asia. It not only actively participated, but also played a significant role in the political, trade, and cultural relations of several countries of the Middle East and Europe. Without studying the history of this state, it is impossible to fully understand the international relations of the Crusaders, Mongols, Mamluks, and Seljuks.
With the support of the Rubenids, the Crusaders eliminated not only Seljuk states on their way, but also Armenian principalities recognizing the suzerainty of the sultans.
For example, the leader of the Crusaders, Baldwin of Bourg, with the help of the Armenians, captured Tarsus, then made a campaign in Syria, where he treacherously killed the Curapalate Thoros and eliminated the Armenian principality of Edessa (Urfa). Here, in 1098, the Crusaders established their first county in the East.
However, both the Rubenids and the Crusaders collaborated with Constantine I and his successors only based on their own considerations. Thus, Constantine I seized the lands of Muslim feudal lords in Taurus and the area of Marash with the fortress of Vahka, located on the slope of a mountain in the northern Taurus, which he turned into his capital in 1098.
He chose this area for a reason, as it was the path of the Crusaders. Like other Armenian princes, Constantine I not only allowed the Crusaders to pass through his possessions, but also helped them, feeding their hungry army. For this, the Crusaders gave him the title of Count (comte) and Marquis or Baron.
This collaboration was soon strengthened by kinship ties: Constantine I gave his daughter in marriage to Jocelin, Count of Edessa, and his brother Toros – his daughter to Baldwin, the brother of the leader of the Crusader army.
Perhaps the knights, who were attracted by the riches of the East, established marital-family ties with Armenian feudal lords based on selfish considerations, while Armenian feudal lords hoped to strengthen their independent state with the help of the Crusaders. However, the Kingdom of Cilicia was not left without attention from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Both the Hospitallers and the Templars soon settled here as well.
The Hospitallers received land possessions, starting as early as 1149. In 1163, they received a new grant – a fortress in the area of the city of Mamistra, and under Leon II – two fortresses in Seleucia. But the Order of Hospitallers also had at their disposal lands purchased with the money of donors.
This order remained in Cilicia until 1375. The Teutonic Order also owned fortresses and lands in important economic and strategic areas of the country. Under Levon II, Hethum I, and other kings, this order also enjoyed trade privileges.
The Kingdom of Cilicia was the last independent state of Armenia. After its fall, Armenia was under the rule of the Ottoman sultans for 600 years, until the population of Western Armenia was annihilated during the Armenian Genocide in the 20th century.
by Karine Ter-Saakyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan