Marine Trade in the Cilician Kingdom

Marine Trade in the Cilician KingdomThe existence of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia coincided with the time of the Crusades. Cilicia thereby could not remain aloof from the historical events taking place in the region. Cilician Armenia, being a Christian state, provided all possible support to the Crusaders in the eastern Mediterranean.

On the European nautical charts-portolans, the Armenian kingdom was even highlighted by a green frame, meaning that the territory was favorable to Europeans.

However, it should be kept in mind that while the first Crusaders enjoyed the maximum support of the Cilician kingdom, the future relations between the Armenians and the Crusaders were not so simple.

Eventually, it turned out that their interests did not always coincide. Nevertheless, they would maintain their relatively friendly relations throughout the entire period of the existence of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.

Christian merchants, apart from the Cypriots, widely used Armenian ports. In confirmation of this fact, one can cite the presence of Venetian and Genoese trading stations in Ayas, the main port of Armenian Cilicia.

They had exclusive rights and privileges in Armenian ports such as low taxes and customs duties. Armenian historians even mention a naval battle between the Venetians and the Genoese on the raids of the Ayas port because of unresolved disputes between them.

The European influence led to the emergence of the Armenian Catholics in Cilicia. Today, the Armenian Catholics in Armenia are called Franks. However, Catholicism hasn’t been widely spread in Cilicia back in the days. Most Armenians remained the adherents to the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The kingdom maintained relatively good trade relations with neighboring Muslim countries as well. The proof of this is the treaty signed between Cilician Armenia and the Egyptian Sultanate in 1285.

Armenian ports were visited by European ships, as well as Arabian (Muslim) ships from the Middle East and the African coast of the Mediterranean. Besides, Armenian ships have been visiting both the ports of Europe (including the northern ones) and the ports of Muslim countries.

Historians and travelers testify to the maritime activity of Armenians. Armenian historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi described the naval battle of the Cilician Armenian King Levon II with the pirates, which Levon won, drowning the enemy’s flagship and putting the survivors to flight.

Marco Polo writes in his “Book of Wonders of the World” that during the stay of his father, uncle, and himself in the Armenian port of Ayas, the Armenian King (Levon III) presented their delegation with a fully equipped galley. According to Marco Polo, it was a large warship. Truly a royal gift testifying to the power of the state!

Arabian historian Ibn al Vardi, describing the siege of the Armenian port city of Ayas by the Egyptian Mamluks, tells about three large Armenian warships that were at the time in the harbor and mentions their names – Ayas, Atlas, and Sham.

The historian Alishan in his book “Sisvan” cites the documents on the purchases of ships and their components by Armenians (for example, a large number of galley oars) in Venice.

At the same time, evidence is given on the construction of ships in the Armenian kingdom itself. Among the most common professions in Armenian Cilicia was, in fact, shipbuilding.

The development of the Armenian marine trade is directly related to the promotional nature of their laws. Armenian Cilicia had some innovations in the field of marine legislation.

Mkhitar Gosh’s set of laws in “Datastanagirk” (“Book of law”) written in 1184 was accepted on a state level. The 105th article of the book revoked the right to the appropriation of a ship’s property that wrecked on the coasts of Cilicia.

The law obliged the Cilicians to return the cargo to the shipowners and forbade its looting, contrary to what was a common practice. It should be noted that a similar law, for example, was adopted in France only 500 years later.

On the basis of this law in 1201, agreements were signed with Venice and Genoa on the return of wrecked ships and their cargo to their rightful owners. In 1285, a similar agreement was signed with the Egyptian Sultanate, despite the fact that Cilician Armenia and Egypt periodically conflicted with each other.

Thus, the thoughtful and soft policy of the Cilician kings towards the merchants stimulated the development of trade.

Venetian historian Marinus Santos in his book “The Secret Book of the Crusaders” (written between 1306 and 1321) wrote about the 25 ports of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia.

In his message to King of France Philip IV the Fair, he wrote: “…equip 10 galleys – well-armed, with 250 people each – to guard the sea; and send three hundred horsemen and a thousand selected infantry to defend Armenia, for it would be a great shame and loss for all Christianity if this country was lost.”

Today, it is difficult to find the sites of all these ports. However, the most famous still amaze with their power and impressive appearance.


The main port of Cilician Armenia was located on the shores of the Armenian Gulf (now – the Gulf of Alexandretta) in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.

The ships entering the port were first met by the island fort guarding the entrance to the harbor. The wall protecting the city descended down into the water and was headed with a tower built directly at the entrance to the bay. The walls of the fortress had a very interesting structure: its stones had clearly visible round sections.

Medieval builders used long stone columns – leftovers from destroyed buildings – to reinforce the walls of the fortress. There were rooms in the walls and towers. The windows in the towers overlooked the port, allowing the guards to monitor the situation in the harbor and on the approaches to it.

In Cilician Armenia and, in particular, Ayas, large-scale ship production was established, including the production of large military vessels such as galleys. Cranes were used to install the masts of such large ships.

The towers situated close to the water were sometimes used as cranes back in those days. For example, the Venetian Arsenal has such a tower. The tower guarding the port of Ayas was most likely used as a crane as well.


Corycus also had sea (island) and coastal fortresses. The sea fortress was quite large and was well protected by powerful walls and high towers. In the coastal fortress, there is an artificial harbor where ships could be loaded/unloaded or repaired.

The width of the artificial harbor was such that a medium-sized ship could be unloaded simultaneously from two sides.

On the highest tower of the sea fortress, the inscription of the Armenian King Hethum in the Armenian language about the completion of this fortress has been preserved. Both the sea and coastal fortresses are rather well-preserved.


Anamur was a large coastal fortress near the western borders of Cilician Armenia. This well-preserved fortress looks very powerful and impressive.

By the way, all Cilician fortresses were built with great craftsmanship and were very well thought out. Various measures were taken to protect them and their residents, including secret passages, closed corridors, etc.

And this is understandable. The state had to be able to defend itself, which the Armenian kings did with success for 300 years.

Armenian trading stations were likewise created in Europe since the trade relations were bilateral. The Armenian inscriptions preserved on the pillars of the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, as well as documents stored in the archives of Venice, mention the active work of Armenian merchants in Europe. And not only merchants.

In the 16th century, the famous shipbuilder Anton Suryan – the author of several shipbuilding inventions – worked in the Venetian Arsenal. For his services to the city, one of the streets of Venice was named after him.

By the way, the oldest of the existing monasteries in the Venetian lagoon is the Armenian monastery of the Congregation of Mekhitarists on the island of St. Lazarus.

Trade relations with foreign partners were so well established that even after the fall of the Cilician Armenian state, ships under Armenian flags continued to sail the seas and oceans. The headquarters of Armenian merchants were situated in the Armenian communities scattered throughout the world. Among them, the most significant marine trade points were situated in Constantinople, Marseilles, and Amsterdam.

Gradually, the Armenian ports and especially Ayas became the trading competitors of Egyptian Alexandria. Egypt could not tolerate the presence of such a competitor, however.

In 1375, the capital of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom Sis fell. However, the region continued to be predominantly populated by Armenians until the beginning of the 20th century when it was completely expelled or slaughtered by the Turks.




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