The history of Armenia is full of twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies, invasions and migrations. One of the most fascinating chapters of this history is the story of the Kingdom of Cilicia, a medieval Armenian state that emerged on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, far from the ancestral homeland of the Armenians.
What was the Kingdom of Cilicia?
The Kingdom of Cilicia (1198-1375) was the only Christian kingdom to survive for another hundred years in the Levant after the Crusaders lost Jerusalem to the Muslims. It was founded by the Rubenid dynasty, a branch of the Bagratid kings of Armenia, who fled from the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century and settled in the mountainous region of Cilicia.
The Kingdom of Cilicia was also known as Lesser Armenia or Armenia Minor, to distinguish it from Greater Armenia or Armenia Major, the historical homeland of the Armenians in the Armenian highland. The Kingdom of Cilicia was a feudal monarchy, divided into four principalities: Rubenid, Hethumid, Lambronid, and Hetoumid. The kings of Cilicia were crowned by the Catholicos, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who also resided in Cilicia.
How did the Kingdom of Cilicia rise and fall?
The Kingdom of Cilicia rose to prominence in the 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to its strategic location and its alliance with the Crusaders, who arrived in the Middle East in 1095 to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Kingdom of Cilicia served as a bridge between the East and the West, facilitating trade and cultural exchange between the Crusader states, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Muslim states.
The Kingdom of Cilicia reached its peak of power and prosperity under King Levon I (1198-1219), who was recognized as a sovereign king by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. King Levon I established diplomatic relations with many European countries, issued coins and laws, built fortresses and churches, and patronized arts and sciences. He also married two Frankish princesses, Isabella of Toron and Sibylla of Lusignan, strengthening the ties between Cilicia and the Crusaders.
However, the Kingdom of Cilicia also faced many challenges and threats, such as the Mongol invasions, the Mamluk raids, the internal conflicts, and the Armenian diaspora. The Kingdom of Cilicia gradually declined and collapsed in the 14th century, succumbing to the attacks of the Mamluks of Egypt, who conquered and destroyed Cilicia in 1375. The last king of Cilicia, Levon V, died in exile in Paris in 1393, ending the Rubenid dynasty and the Armenian statehood.
What was the legacy of the Kingdom of Cilicia?
The Kingdom of Cilicia left a lasting legacy in the history and culture of the Armenian people. It preserved and developed the Armenian identity, language, religion, and traditions in a hostile and turbulent environment. It also contributed to the enrichment and diversification of the Armenian culture, by incorporating elements from the Crusader, Byzantine, Mongol, and Muslim cultures.
The Kingdom of Cilicia also left a remarkable heritage of art and architecture, such as the castles of Sis, Anavarza, and Lampron, the cathedrals of Tarsus and Sis, the monasteries of Drazark and Khor Virap, and the manuscripts of Toros Roslin and Sargis Pitsak. The Kingdom of Cilicia also produced many notable figures, such as the historian Smbat Sparapet, the poet Hovhannes Erzenkatsi, the philosopher Grigor Tatevatsi, and the statesman Oshin of Corycos.
The Kingdom of Cilicia also influenced the Armenian diaspora, especially in Europe, where many Cilician Armenians settled after the fall of the kingdom. Some of them became prominent in various fields, such as the poet Jean Althen, the painter Jean Carzou, the composer Michel Legrand, and the fashion designer Alain Mikli. The Kingdom of Cilicia also inspired many Armenian writers and artists, such as the novelist Raffi, the poet Vahan Tekeyan, the painter Ivan Aivazovsky, and the filmmaker Henri Verneuil.
The Kingdom of Cilicia was a unique and remarkable chapter in the history of Armenia, a chapter that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. In AGBU’s latest WebTalks episode, Professor Claude Mutafian recounts the improbable birth of this Armenian kingdom on the Mediterranean and the fortuitous events that allowed it to flourish as a center of trade and exchange between the East and the West. He also highlights Cilicia’s cultural and marital ties with the Crusaders, most notably the Franks, whose influence can be found in Armenian culture today.