The 11th century was a turbulent period, especially in the East. Europe wasn’t much calmer either, as new states were taking shape. In Armenia, a land seemingly forgotten by God, little had changed: Byzantines, Persians, and Seljuk Turks were all vying to carve up the country.
It was the year 1080… Armenians had gathered along the Mediterranean coast, in the Taurus Mountains, with the aim of establishing yet another state. This coincided with the era of the First Crusade (1096-1099), as the path of the crusaders passed through Cilicia.
Armenians welcomed these Western Christians as fellow believers, offering all kinds of assistance and even joining the ranks of the crusading forces. The Templars and the Hospitallers became esteemed guests in the kingdom of the Rubenids.
At that time, Byzantium was at the peak of its power, and Greek troops were stationed in all Armenian garrisons, causing considerable hardships for the Armenian population. This period is vividly depicted in the novel “Toros, Son of Levon” by Armenian writer Tserents (Ovsep Shishmanyan).
In ancient times, Cilicia was inhabited by Anatolian tribes. Later, a significant portion of its population came to be Greeks and Syrians. Armenians first settled in Cilicia during the rule of Tigranes II (95—55 BC). In the 8th—12th centuries, Arabs and Seljuks appeared in the region, followed by Italian craftsmen and merchants in the early 13th century.
The Armenian population in Cilicia grew rapidly in the 11th and especially the early 12th centuries, as a significant portion of Anatolian Armenians, fleeing the Seljuks, sought refuge in the mountainous areas of Cilicia. Later, due to the Mongol-Tatar invasions, a large influx of settlers arrived from central Armenia.
In the 11th century, Cilicia was home to several Armenian principalities, the most viable and significant of which was founded in Mountainous Cilicia by Prince Ruben, one of the close associates of Gagik II—the last king of the Bagratids.
The founding of this principality, which later became the nucleus of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, is generally dated to 1080. It was then that Ruben expelled the Byzantines from Mountainous Cilicia and declared an independent Armenian principality. Ruben’s successor, his son Constantine, expanded the domain by seizing new territories and fortresses.
The Armenian Principality of Cilicia waged a prolonged struggle against its surrounding enemies—the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk Sultanate of Iconium, and the Latin Principality of Antioch.
During the course of bloody wars, many of its regions changed hands multiple times. However, alongside persistent and tenacious resistance, the Rubenids strategically exploited divisions among their adversaries to gradually expand their territory. By the first half of the 12th century, they had conquered prominent cities like Sis, Anazarbus, Adana, and Tarsus.
Peace was short-lived in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From the mid-13th century, it faced the rising threat of the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate, which had conquered Syria and approached dangerously close to Cilicia. Another formidable foe was the Sultanate of Iconium. To counter these threats, the Armenian state sought alliances.
In 1247, Smbat Gundstabl, commander of the Cilician forces, and in 1253, his brother, King Hetum I, journeyed to Central Asia to meet the great Mongol Khan. They pledged to pay tribute in exchange for his support against the Mamluks. Hetum I also secured an alliance with the Principality of Antioch.
With the aid of the Mongols, Hetum I managed to protect the kingdom from invasions for some time. However, in 1266, the Mamluks defeated Hetum I’s allies and invaded Cilicia, causing extensive destruction before retreating to Egypt.
King Levon III (1270—1289) took decisive measures to strengthen the country and build a formidable army. He executed or imprisoned rebellious feudal lords and confiscated their lands. Despite these efforts, neither he nor his successors managed to create a strong, centralized state.
By the 1320s, the situation for the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia became critical. Along with the Mamluks, the Sultanate of Iconium once again acted against Cilicia. During a series of campaigns, the Mamluks plundered and devastated towns and villages, forcing increasingly oppressive treaties upon the Armenian kingdom.
Cilicia appealed to Western powers for help, but to no avail. Appeals for assistance sent to the King of France and the Pope, on whom Armenian kings had vainly pinned their hopes, only worsened the situation.
The Kingdom of Cilicia was forged through battles and hardships—one of the most beautiful and tragic chapters in Armenian history. Geared towards Western Europe, particularly through the monastic-military orders, Cilicia became a waypoint for knights heading to the Holy Sepulchre and incidentally establishing small Christian kingdoms in the Middle East.
The kingdom reached its zenith under Levon II, who was crowned in 1198. The capital was Sis, located on a tributary of the Pyramus River. Twelfth-century sources report that the city had a “large population,” “magnificent churches,” a “palace with belvederes and gardens,” “archives, holy relics,” and the like.
The harbors of Cilicia were Ayas and Tarsus, and maritime trade was also conducted by foreign merchants who had their own factories and colonies in Cilicia. Nature itself seemed to have provided for Cilicia’s security.
However, like always, this Armenian state could not withstand the onslaught of the Egyptian Mamluks. The Kingdom of Cilicia fell in 1375, but its three-century existence became a “golden age” for Armenian art and literature.
It was in Cilicia that the great miniaturist Toros Roslin lived and worked. A large number of manuscripts that introduce us to ancient Armenian literature were transcribed in the heart of Cilicia, in its cities and monasteries.
Interestingly, the state remained within the Armenian Apostolic Church with the Catholicosate in Sis. In 1113, the patriarchal throne was moved from Greater Armenia to Cilicia. Just as in Greater Armenia, Armenians in Cilicia were devout churchgoers.
From 1149 to 1292, the patriarchal throne of the Catholicos of Armenia and the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was located in the fortress of Romkla. Cilician craftsmen built temples, astonishing masterpieces of Armenian architecture.
As previously mentioned, the Kingdom of Cilicia fell in 1375. Levon de Lusignan was destined to become the last king of Cilician Armenia, reigning for only seven months.
In 1374, the future monarch arrived in Sis, where on September 14, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Levon and his wife, Marguerite de Soissons, were anointed in the royal cathedral of St. Sophia. Later that same September, the queen was relieved of her burden, giving birth to twins, Princesses Mariam and Katarine.
In 1375, accurately predicting that Pope Gregory XI would once again break his promise to help Cilicia and not send any military aid, the Mamluks crossed the Cilician border.
Levon couldn’t withstand the invading forces and took refuge in the citadel of Sis, located on an inaccessible rock. Troops besieging the fortress met failure after failure, but their skilled archers managed to wound Levon VI. Cypriot legionnaires decided to save themselves by betraying the King. Infiltrating the tower where the bleeding king lay, they attempted to abduct him but were repelled by Levon VI’s bodyguards.
The defenders of the capital were depleted, and the starving population was leaning towards surrender when Levon VI received a protective charter from the Emir of Aleppo, guaranteeing the safety of him and his family in case of Sis’s surrender. Recognizing the futility of resistance, Levon surrendered to the victors and was taken to Cairo along with his family, Catholicos Poghos I, and the princes.
A year later, it was possible to ransom Catholicos Poghos I and Queen Mariun, whose two daughters had died in captivity. Gaining her freedom, the grieving Queen moved to Jerusalem and settled in the Armenian monastery of Surb Akob (St. James), where she lived out the rest of her days.
Pilgrim Jean Dardel, whom Levon met in August 1377, managed to persuade Juan I of Castile to pay for the captive monarch’s freedom upon his return to Europe, ultimately securing his release.
Hoping to restore the Cilician Kingdom, Levon traveled to Western Europe to seek help from the Pope and Christian monarchs. However, His Holiness coldly awarded Levon with the “Order of the Golden Rose” and sent him to Britain, where Levon entrusted the royal treasury to King Edward III Plantagenet, signing an agreement that the treasury would be stored in England until the Armenian Cilician Kingdom was liberated and restored.
From London, Levon traveled to Spain, where King Juan I of Castile made a shocking gesture that astounded the Spaniards—something unprecedented in the annals of history. In 1383, he gifted Levon VI three cities at the heart of Castile—Madrid, Andujar, and Villarreal, along with an annual gift of 150,000 Spanish maravedis, as documented by the Madrid city chancellery.
The gift was conditional: Levon would possess the cities for the remainder of his life, after which they would revert to the Castilian crown.
The Castilian nobility, who thus became vassals of the foreign knight, reacted to their king’s action with undisguised hostility, already having little love for him.
After the mysterious death of Juan I, the regents of his underage son Enrique III annulled the privileges granted to Levon VI. Open persecution began against Levon VI by the nobility and clergy, who demanded affirmation of their rights and privileges. On October 19, 1389, Levon renounced all his privileges and left for France.
In Paris, Levon de Lusignan, the deposed monarch, received a reception unlike any other crowned head had ever been given. King Charles VI, accompanied by his court and citizens, greeted Levon as he approached the great capital. Levon settled in Paris, still holding onto hopes for Cilicia’s freedom.
He attempted to mend relations between France and England, who were at the time embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War, hoping to gain assistance for the liberation of his country during a new crusade. But all was in vain; the Kingdom of Cilicia ceased to exist.
He died in Paris on November 29, 1393, and was buried in the Celestine Monastery, the second most important royal burial site after Saint-Denis. French historian Froissart wrote of Levon de Lusignan: “Dethroned, he preserved royal virtues and added new ones—generosity and patience.” He dealt with Charles VI as a friend but never forgot his royal status. Levon’s death was as dignified as his life.
The tombstone, crafted by an anonymous author, realistically and meticulously portrays Leon V holding a scepter (now broken) and gloves—the symbols of great princes. The inscription on the tombstone reads:
“Here lies the noble and excellent Prince Leon de Lusignan V, the Latin King of the Kingdom of Armenia, who died in Paris on the 29th day of November in the blessed year of 1393. Pray for him.”
After the French Revolution, Levon VI’s white marble tombstone was moved to the monastery of Saint-Denis. However, the grave itself has long been empty: the remains of the King of Armenia, along with the ashes of French Monarchs, were discarded by French revolutionaries.
Cilicia… It was an unusual type of Armenian state.
The ports of Cilician Armenia—colorful, multilingual, bustling… Ayas and Korikos on the Mediterranean coast, Tarsus on the Cydnus River, and Mopsuestia on the Pyramus River, Adana on the Sarus and Seleucia on the Calycadnus—they were always filled with ships from all over the world. Marin Sanuto, an Italian writer of the 14th century, lists 25 ports of Cilician Armenia in his book.
Today, most of them lie in ruins, vanished underground, but back then they were known to the whole world. Cilicia was viewed as a stronghold of the Armenian world.
Alas, by the beginning of the 15th century, Cilicia was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and became part of the Adana Vilayet, the Marash region of the Ottoman Empire. In 1880, Cilicia was incorporated into the Aleppo Vilayet of the Ottoman State. After World War I, France received a mandate over Cilicia but soon relinquished it.
Today, Cilicia is part of the southeastern region of Turkey. Over the centuries of foreign rule in Cilicia, various groups such as Kurds, Roma, and Circassians have settled there, in addition to the Turks. But Cilicia has not disappeared: it remains in history, in songs, and in memory, just like other Armenian lands that were Turkified by fire and sword…
Autor: Karine Ter-Saakyan
Translated Vigen Avetistan