Armenian Travel Bureau

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Armenia History Cilician Kingdom

Cilician Kingdom

By the middle of the 11th century, Byuzantium had annexed most of Armenia, though the alliance was of little help when the Bagratid Kingdom was destroyed by a new invasion of Seljuk Turks from Central Asia.

With little resistance from a weakened Byuzantium, the Seljuks spread throughout Asia Minor and Armenia in the 1060's and 1070's. This invasion precipitated a further division in the kingdom, and migration of large numbers of Armenians towards Christian Poland or Georgia, while others joined Armenians living beyond the Taurus Mountains in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the Kingdom of Cilicia or Lesser Armenia.

It was a small mountainous country on the Northeast coast of the Mediterranean. It must have strongly reminded the exiles of their homeland; besides, the first Armenian settlements had already appeared in Cilicia during the rule of Tigran the Great (97-86 BCE). Towards the end of the eleventh century various regions and cities of Cilicia united into a principality under the Roubenids - a dynasty founded by former vassals of the Armenian king Gagik Bagratuni. They moved to Cilicia where they owned a castle in the Taurus mountains, near the so-called Cilician Gates (a passageway in the mountains).

A century later, under Leon II, the principality was transformed into a kingdom which lasted for almost two hundred years - up to the end of the fourteenth century - and for the whole of this time remained one of the most influential states of the Middle East. Its influence was due, to a great extent, to its geographical position: situated out of the way of the Turkish invaders, surrounded by chains of mountains interrupted only by several narrow passages, or «gates», with the sea-coast completing this natural barrier, Cilicia could enjoy relative safety and peace. On the other hand, this small country stood at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, where important trade routes uniting these parts of the world crossed.

Lying on the route of the Crusaders, it was a kind of intermediary between Armenia and neighbouring states, since it had to maintain relations with Byuzantium, the Seljuk Sultanate, the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Antioch principality of the Crusaders, the Egyptian Sultanate, the Mongols, the Pope of Rome, and the Venetian merchants.

The successful wars fought by the Armenian princes in Cilicia, their flexible diplomacy and farsighted policy ensured considerable independence to the country and its political and military power. As a result, Cilicia was a region where the expansion of trade, the growth and prosperity of cities, the development of crafts, and, finally, the flourishing of culture and the arts were for a long time unhampered by political hazards.

Cilicia achieved a remarkable success: fortresses and feudal castles, monasteries and churches, caravanserais and baths, schools and hospitals, bridges, aqueducts and canals were built throughout the small country. Ships from many different countries called at its well-protected ports; its mountain passes served as gates for numerous caravans carrying precious Oriental goods; its cities were surrounded by several lines of fortifications throbbed with life and activity, and trade and crafts flourished.

The city of Sis, the capital of Cilicia, was admired for its impregnable fortress and magnificent royal palace. The walls were decorated with bas-relief, lavishly adorned with mosaics, gilt and marble. The city boasted a rich library and beautiful gardens and numerous churches, schools, public baths and hospital. Monasteries, which had always played an important role in Armenian cultural and artistic life, also prospered in Cilicia. The new monastery buildings and churches were decorated with frescoes; monastic libraries and scriptoria in Cilicia, as in Armenia proper, produced illuminated manuscripts. While our knowledge of Cilician architecture, monumental painting and minor arts remains somewhat fragmentary, we have a pretty good idea of the evolution of Cilician miniature painting, which is well represented in the Matenadaran collection in Yerevan.

The art of book painting in Cilicia goes back to the eleventh-century miniature art of Armenia proper. The first Armenian settlers in Cilicia did not break links with their native land, regarding the new kingdom as a political successor to the state of Armenia.

Close contacts with Europe during the time of the Crusades, especially by Leo the Great (1187-1219, crowned by a German cardinal in 1199), led to the kingdom absorbing Western European ideas, including its feudal class structure, European dress, and the use of Latin and French along with Armenian.

For nearly 300 years, the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia prospered, but in 1375 it fell to the Mameluk dynasty of Egypt. The last monarch, King Levon VI, died at Calais, France in 1393, and his remains were laid to rest at St. Denis (near Paris) among the kings of France.  

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