Armenians in Constantinople

1. The Armenian presence in Constantinople: An overview

1.1. Early Byzantine period

The first significant wave of Armenians coming into the Byzantine territory was prompted by the defeat of the great military leader Vartan Mamikonian at the Battle of Avarayr (also known as the Battle of Vartanantz) in 451 and the eventual submission of Armenia by the Sassanian Empire. Armenia turned for help and support to its western neighbor, leading to the immigration of some of Armenia’s aristocracy. Mamikonian family members, like many others who came, entered the government and military structure, paving the way for the later successes of Armenians within the Empire.

From the sixth century onwards the Armenian element became especially strong in Byzantium. Armenians, together with the Italians and the Jews, were one of the three richest merchant groups. They also occupied a prominent place in the armies of Justinian I and in his palace guard. This was even more true for the period following the negotiations between the Persian king Chosrow II (Khosrau II) and the Byzantine emperor Maurice in 591, when substantial territories with Armenian population came under Byzantine control. This event strengthened the former political and cultural exchanges and prompted influx of Armenians into the Byzantine territory, increasing the Armenian presence in the capital where some of the newcomers became active in the administration, and in the army where their numbers increased considerably. Furthermore, Caucasus, and Armenian lands in particular, became the prime source of new military conscripts for Byzantium after the province of Illyricum, from which most of the soldiers were previously drafted, was run over and displaced by the Avaro-Slav invasion.

In the seventh century the immigration wave became even stronger after Armenia was conquered by the Arabs between 639-642. Another element that contributed to immigration was the rise of the Paulician sect in Armenia, the devotees of which had been driven away from their homes sometime before 662, and settled in the Byzantine parts of Asia Minor.1

More came about 790. Of those who immigrated many belonged to the aristocracy and were welcomed by the Emperor and given lands. The location of the lands granted to them is not specified, but it can be adduced that at least some took up residence in the capital, entering government and military service in which their compatriots already occupied important positions.

1.2. Middle Byzantine period

The mass migrations that have marked Early Byzantine period subsided in the ninth century, but Armenian presence in the capital was more keenly felt than ever before. In fact, the Middle Byzantine period has been called by some the “Greco-Armenian centuries” because most of the emperors of this period were of Armenian descent and the Armenians were frequently at the helm of the cultural life of the capital.

The number of Byzantine Emperors of Armenian origin is astounding and can be attested already in the Early Byzantine centuries.2 However, it was not until the rise of Basil I and the establishment of the so-called Macedonian dynasty that a royal house of Armenian descent dominated the throne in Constantinople. From 867 to 1056 there was not a single ruler on the Byzantine throne that was not at least in part Armenian.3

After Basil I ascended the throne the number of Armenians in the empire increased considerably. He conquered territories in the eastern parts of Asia Minor, largely inhabited by Armenians. With the Byzantine offensive along the eastern frontier in 927, and the annexation of the territory around Melitene, that number was further increased. It is worth mentioning that during the eleventh century, 10-15 percent of the Byzantine aristocracy was of Armenian origin.4 The Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and the ensuing loss of the eastern and central parts of Asia Minor to the armies of the Seljuks, brought to an end Armenian immigration and their dominant role in Byzantine affairs. During the Komnenian period (1081-1185) fewer Armenian nobles entered the ranks of the Byzantine aristocacy, maybe due to the fact that the Armenian nobility tended to establish independent princedoms in Cilicia.5

1.3. Later Byzantine period

It is indicative that Armenian descriptions of Constantinople appear during the 13th century, a fact that implies the presence of Armenians, even as travellers, in the Byzantine capital.6 The Armenians during the last period of the Byzantine Empire continued to live in Constantinople, as well as in other parts of the empire, until the end of the Byzantine era, and well into the Ottoman centuries. Nonetheless they were primarily merchants and did not seem to play a significant role in the administration.7

2. Focusing on the acivity of the Armenian element

2.1. Military and government

From the ninth century until the Crusades, numerous military commanders and administrative functionaries of Armenian origin have influenced the history of the Byzantium. Admiral (droungarios tou ploimou) Alexios Musele commanded the Byzantine fleet in the Battle of Pigae against the Bulgarians in 922. The most famous of Armenian nobles was Mleh, or Melias (d. 934), whose military successes were later attributed to Digenes Akrites, the hero of the eponymous Byzantine epic.8 General John Curcuas successfully led the victorious Byzantine army in the Battle of Melitene in 934. General Bardas Phokas (Caesar Bardas) played an important role in battles for the imperial throne during the reigns of Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Basil II, and was himself at one point proclaimed emperor by his troops. Bardas Skleros, of another prominent Armenian family, was a general under John Tzimiskes. He famously defended Constantinople against the armies of Svyatoslav I of Kiev in 970, subdued the rebellion of Bardas Phokas, and came close to assuming the throne. Other members of the Armenian nobility that left their mark on the political and military life of Byzantium include the families of Bourtzes, Theodorokanoi, Dalassenoi, Taronites, Tornikioi, Vrachamios, and Kekaumenoi, all of which held important posts in the Byzantine state between the ninth and the eleventh century. It is worth mentioning that within the ranks of Romanos IV's troops is recorded the presence of Armenians.9

2.3. The Church

Armenians played prominent roles in the religious life of Byzantium. Empress Theodora, sister of Bardas Phokas and wife of the Emperor Theophilos (r. 828-842), was the champion of icons in the age of Iconoclasm and was later sainted by the Orthodox Church. Armenians were so well-integrated into Byzantine society that many of them were converted to Orthodoxy and achieved the highest positions within the church hierarchy. Atticus, the Patriarch of Constantinople (406-425), was an Armenian, as were his successors, John VII Grammatikos (837-843), Photios I (858-867 and 877-886), Theophylaktos Lekapenos (933-956), Michael II Curcuas (1143-46), and Theodosios I Boradiotes (1179-83), who vehemently opposed the union with the Catholic Church and was one of the harshest critics of Islam.

2.4. Cultural and intellectual life

Cultural and intellectual life of the capital was equally dominated by Armenians. In 848, general Bardas Phokas reorganized the Pandidakterion, a school of higher education that run in the Magnaura, at the Great Palace complex; the most famous of the scholars who taught at the School in the ninth century were also of Armenian origins, such as the patriarchs John VII Grammatikos, responsible for laying the theological foundations for the renewal of Iconoclasm in 815, and Photios I, the defender of icons and the famous erudite. Another scholar who taught in the school was Leo the Mathematician (ca. 790-869), a great scholar, who in addition to writing important philosophical, philological and literary treatises, transcribed ancient Greek texts, and invented machinery that was used to warn the city of foreign attacks from the sea.

After the earthquake of 989, the great dome of Constantinopolitan cathedral of Hagia Sophia had collapsed. An Armenian architect, Trdat, one of the most famous architects of his time, was chosen by Emperor Basil II to undertake this difficult project, which he completed successfully.10

The Armenian element, as we saw above, was to a great extend assimilated into the Byzantine state, socially as well as ideologically. It is also characteristic that the aristocratic families of Armenian descent in Byzantine territory and in the capital in particular, were orthodox; even if they had been Chalcedonians in their native lands, they seem to have been converted to Orthodoxy already in the first generation that was installed in imperial territories.11 On the other hand, the sources attest the distrust and even the prejudice of the Byzantines towards Armenians,12 while Byzantine writers often care to mention specifically that a certain prominent person is Armenian, or of Armenian descent. But it is uncertain to what degree did the rather negative byzantine attitude towards the Armenians (an attitude dictated by their political and religious interrelation) apply to the assimilated in the Byzaninte society aristocracy of Armenian origins.13 The Armenian sources for their part tend to reverse the negative image towards the Byzantines, but we cannot be certain that this mistrust attested in both sides' sources is always reliable evidence for the armeno-byzantine relations.14

2.5. Urban demographics

Supposedly, the Armenians of Constantinople were installed inthe vicinity of the harbor in their own separate quarter on the shores of the Sea of Marmara between the modern Samatya and Kumkapi neighborhoods, and also in what are now neighborhoods of Beşiktaş, Kuruçeşme and Üsküdar. However, the sources on the armenian presence in Constantinople are scarce and therefore it is unclear if there was actually a solid armenian community in the city -although the presence of Armenians in the city is undoubtful- and where exactly were they installed. In any case, such Armenian presence must have been distinct from the Byzantine aristocracy of Armenian descent.15 The Armenians were allowed to erect their own churches, as it can be gathered by scattered references in the sources. Armenian cemeteries, attributed to the Ottoman period, were situated between the modern neighborhoods of Taksim and Harbiye, but were obliterated by high rise office and apartments blocks built after the World War II.

1. See N. Garsoïan, The Paulician Heresy. A Study of the Origin and Development of Paulicianism in Armenia and the Eastern Provinces of the Byzantine Empire, The Hague - Paris 1967.

2. The following Emperors were fully or partially Armenian: Heraclius (r. 610-641), Mezezius (Mecetius) (r. 668-669), Philippicus Bardanes (Vardan) (r. 711-713), Artavasdos (Artavazd) (r. 741/42-743), Leo V the Armenian (r. 813-820), and Michael III (r. 842-867).

3. The list includes some of the most illustrious emperors: Basil I (r. 867-886), Leo VI the Wise (Leo the Philosopher) (r. 886-912); Alexander (r. 912-913), Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (the Purple-born) (r. 913-959), Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 919-944), Romanos II (r. 959-963), Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), John I Tzimiskes (r. 969–976), Basil II Boulgaroktonos (the Bulgar-slayer) (r. 976-1025), Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), Zoe (r. 1028-1050), Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055), and Theodora (r. 1055-1056). In fact, some scholars have used the term "Armenian dynasty" instead of the more widely known "Macedonian dynasty", see Chahin, M., The Kingdom of Armenia: A history (London 2001), p. 232.

4. A. Kazhdan, 'Armenians', in Kazhdan A. P. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 1, New York - Oxford 1991, p. 181-182, esp. 182.

5. A. P. Kazhdan A. W. Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley - Los Angeles - London 1985), p. 179.

6. K. N. Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople: The West and Byzantium, 962-1204 (Leiden - New York - Köln 1996), p. 48.

7. A. Kazhdan, 'Armenians', in Kazhdan A. P. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 1, New York - Oxford 1991, p. 181-182, esp. 182.

8. G. Dédéyan, "Mleh le Grand, stratège de Lycandos", Revue des études arméniennes 15 (1981), pp. 73-102.

9. A. P. Kazhdan A. W. Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley - Los Angeles - London 1985), p. 172.

10. K. L. Organesian, Zodehii Trdat (Erevan 1951); Π. Μυλωνάς, 'Η επισκευή του τρούλλου της Αγίας Σοφίας', Αρχαιολογία 32 (1989), pp. 59-60; Ch. Bouras, ‘Master Craftsmen, Craftsmen, and Building Activities in Byzantium’, in Laiou A.E. (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C. 2002), p. 551.

11. Cheynet, J.-C., Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (963-1210) (Byzantina Sorbonensia 9, Paris 1990), p. 283. Cf. Brousselle, I., «L'integration des armeniens dans l'aristocratie byzantine au IXe siecle», in Martin-Hisard B. et al. (éd.), L'Armenie et Byzance. Histoire et Culture (Byzantina Sorbonensia 12, Paris 1996), p. 50.

12. Kazhdan, A., ‘‘Armenians’’, in Kazhdan A. P. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 1, New York - Oxford 1991, p. 181-182, esp. 182.

13. According to the scholars, it is even uncertain to what extent can we speak of «Armenians» when referring to such families, since they were so much byzantinized. See Garsoïan, N. G., «The problem of Armenian integration into the Byzantine Empire», in Ahrweiler, H. - Laiou, A. E., (ed.), Studies on the internal diaspora of the Byzantine Empire (Washington D.C. 1998), pp. 93-103. Cf. the passage from this same article in the «Quotations».

14. Garsoïan, N. G., «The problem of Armenian integration into the Byzantine Empire», in Ahrweiler, H. - Laiou, A. E., (ed.), Studies on the internal diaspora of the Byzantine Empire (Washington D.C. 1998), p. 67.

15. Garsoïan, N. G., «The problem of Armenian integration into the Byzantine Empire», in Ahrweiler, H. - Laiou, A. E., (ed.), Studies on the internal diaspora of the Byzantine Empire (Washington D.C. 1998), pp. 58-61.