The Pearl of the Mediterranean: Cilician Armenia at the Crossroads of East-West Trade

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

From the Mountains to the Sea

In 1045, the Bagratid Armenian Kingdom ceased to exist. The secular kingdom had been the gravitational center uniting Armenians, forming a centralizing pro-state movement. However, when the state system collapsed, it led to a political, economic and cultural crisis. As a result, the pro-state counterweight to centrifugal forces lost its effectiveness. Armenians began to emigrate en masse from the Armenian Highlands in two main directions: Cilicia and Crimea. Armenia had a large class of merchants and artisans due to the fact that the capital Ani and other Armenian cities had become large centers of international trade during the Bagratid Dynasty.

When the kingdom fell, this class had to find a way to overcome the new crisis. Hence, those emigrating en masse – besides those from the nobility and ruling classes – were, first and foremost, merchants and artisans who were looking for new countries to continue developing their economic endeavors. For this, Cilicia had exceptional conditions. Armenians had been in Cilicia since the times of Tigranes the Great (95-55 BC). Even today, Cilician lands are considered one of the most fertile in the world. Its fields can be harvested twice a year. Meanwhile, the Cilician highlands offer ample space for grazing livestock. The long Mediterranean beaches only add to Cilicia’s beauty.

Moreover, the Arab-Byzantine wars, which had taken place until the 11th century, had left much territory in Cilicia almost empty; towns and fortresses were abandoned. Hence, the Armenians who ended up there quickly occupied those lands.

By the 1070s, Armenian principalities started to form in Cilicia, the most prominent of which was the Rubenid noble house, founded by and named after Prince Ruben (r. 1080-1095). The Rubenids became the foundation for the new Cilician Armenian state.

Historian Jacques Le Goff, who belonged to the Annales school of historians, skillfully synthesizes the spiritual and material realities of medieval life. He brings to life the internal structures of space and time of these realities and outlines how physical geography defines the borders of civilization. For example, in England that border was the forest, which was perceived as land for the people outside the law. In the Arabic deserts, it was the opposite: the forest became a small oasis that turned into an anchor for civilization.

What would an Armenian from the Armenian Highlands feel in the fields of Cilicia? After living in lands cut up by mountains and mountainous valleys, how would fields at a relatively lower altitude of 400 meters above sea level, and a view of a seemingly borderless sea change them? For indeed the new natural environment would gradually alter their perception of coexistence both in time and in space. The sea brought a new medium for communication, a faster speed for exchanging information and relations with hundreds of other coastal cities. This new connectedness drove changes in many spheres of life, inevitably influencing the Cilician Armenians’ mentality and work.

Politically, the history of the Cilician Armenian state is divided into two main parts: the principality (1080-1198), which lay the groundwork for new state structures, and the kingdom (1198-1378), an era of great flourishing and ultimately dramatic decline.

In general, this state started to be called Cilician Armenia quite later on, especially in Armenian academia, in order to not confuse it with the native Armenian homeland. Contemporary sources, however, exclusively referred to it without the qualifier, as Armenia, Ermenie, Hermenie (as in Armenia) in European, Arabic and other sources.


A Globalized Nexus

From the beginning of the 13th century, Levon I (II) the Magnificent (1187-1198 as prince, 1198-1219 as king) signed trade agreements with the main economic players of the Mediterranean world: the Republics of Venice and Genoa.

In 1258, Mongol forces captured Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate. The Mongols created the Ilkhanate, which was part of the Mongol Empire. However, the Ilkhanate played by its own rules. The foundation for this state became Iran, with Tabriz as its capital. Up until that point, the trade routes from Baghdad stretched in different directions toward the Syrian-Palestinian seashore crusader ports of the Mediterranean. These ports played a pivotal role in the East-West trade route since the time of the First Crusade. By capturing Baghdad and moving the capital north to Tabriz, the Mongols diverted this trade axis northward. With these geopolitical changes, the Cilician Armenian state gained an unprecedented role and became the main gateway for trade routes from Tabriz to the Mediterranean.

The Armenians had prepared for this vital international endeavor since 1254 when King Hetum I (r. 1226-1269) travelled to Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire, and met with Mongol ruler Möngke Khan (r. 1251-1259). He returned with a comprehensive agreement.[3] Taking into account that the ultimate goal of the Mongols was to amass great wealth, the importance of the role of Cilicia in East-West trade relations paved the way for the agreements made between Hetum and Möngke.

Cilician Armenia was involved in the most ambitious geopolitical and economic endeavor of the time: connecting the Silk Road, through the Meditteranean Sea, to Europe’s cities. Well-known medieval historian Eliyahu Ashtor noted that the role of Cilician Armenia in the trade connections between southern Europe and the Levant exceeded that of Cyprus and Crete.[4]

By the 13th century, Cilician Armenia was one of the largest centers of international trade. Agricultural and manufactured products, both imported and locally-made, played an important role. Many foreign-language sources include evidence of Armenian products that were well-known in international markets and had reached the far corners of Europe. Armenian cotton, for example, was considered to be of exceptionally high quality.[5] Armenian cotton is mentioned in a source preserved in the archives of the city of Bruges.[6] Fabrics made out of fine goat wool, which the Armenians called tspsi, was popular. In Europe this product was known as “Zambelolotto or Ciambellotto camelot.”[7] Satin fabrics sewn with gold threads and dresses made out of them by Armenian craftsmen were popular among the European nobility.[8] Cilician carpets were also well-known across European countries; evidence has shown that the word “carpet” was spread across Europe as a loan word from Armenian.[9] In his memoirs, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, an agent for the Bardi 14th century Florentine banking company, writes about a raisin which he directly called “Armenian” (Uve passe d’Erminia).[10]

International trade helped fuel growth in the demand for local agricultural and finished products. As the economy developed to meet the need, the administration of the Cilician Armenian state also grew more effective, including in the fields of taxation and law enforcement. Gold, silver and copper Armenian coins were forged, which circulated in countries thousands of miles away.[11]

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Cilician Armenia was also an important international center for the processing of precious metals. Researchers of medieval trade history have outlined the main routes through which precious metals were transported from Europe to the East during this time. Gold and silver were taken from central European countries to Italy, from where they were taken to all those countries in the East which had close trade relations with European seaside states, including Cilician Armenia.[12]

Trade ships from Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Catalonia, Marseille would enter Cilician Armenian seaports. Shipments to and from Venice and Genoa were quite regular. According to Venetian archives, in 1301 alone, the value of goods brought to the port city of Ayas with Venetian galley ships (one of the most widespread medieval ships) was around 90,000 ducats.[13] And this only concerned those regular shipments that were registered in the state registry of the Venetian Republic.

In the Middle Ages, the product that dominated global trade was spices, which were exported by India and China toward the west. The long roads and relatively risky communication lines made these products extremely expensive, especially in the European market. The price of buying several bags of saffron, or even ginger, was the same as a large estate in Europe at the time. In the 14th century, the merchant diaries of Florentine Francesco Balducci Pegolotti and Venetian Zibaldone De Canal mention the rich assortment of spices, medicines, pastes that were sold in Ayas, including cloves, cubeb pepper, nutmeg, long pepper, black pepper, ginger (znjepil in Armenian), cinnamon, cumin, rhubarb (revandeni in Armenian), flat-leaf lavender, cardamom, aloeswood, white turmeric, scammony, folio (an Indian medicine), incense, alum, camphor oil, lacquer, “dragon’s blood” (a red tree resin), mastic, tragacanth resin, beeswax, etc.[14]

The circulation of these and many other products in Cilician Armenia during the 13th and 14th centuries turned the Armenian state into an important crossroads for trade routes between the West and the East, which in turn attracted merchants and thousands of other professionals from all over the world toward it.


The Great Synthesis

For 300 years, Cilician Armenia provided a platform for the Armenian people to realize their potential in a new environment, reaching new heights in various fields: political, economic, cultural, etc. In this context, state governance synthesized national concepts with foreign influences, the traditional with the new. This was apparent even in the naming of state agencies (ministries), which included names that were Armenian, as well as European and Eastern. A noteworthy example is Cilician Armenia’s basic law, also called the “Book of Judgement” by Smbat Sparapet. Smbat Sparapet was the brother of King Hetum I and was in charge of the military. According to Armenian sources, his official title (sparapet in Armenian) was called kundstabl in Cilician Armenia, a word originating from the French “connétable” and related to “constable.” His Book of Judgement also incorporated the major legal achievements of the time from Byzantine, European and Eastern traditions.

The concept of synthesis was not new to the Armenians. The Armenian Highlands also interacted with very different civilizations and incorporated aspects from them. Hellenic influence had been felt in Armenia for centuries, for example.

The centers for cosmopolitan coexistence in Cilician Armenia were its cities: Sis, Ayas, Mamestia, Korikos. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, many large and small city-states emerged in the Apennine Peninsula. Of these, the Venetian and Genoese republics had turned into the key players of trade taking place in the Mediterranean Sea, especially during the Crusades, which they often financed and equipped. In return, they received great privileges to carry out trade and establish themselves in the Holy Land.

Merchants from Venice, Genoa and Pisa were already actively trading in Cilicia since the beginning of the 13th century. However, in the middle of the 13th century, a great flow of trade started in Cilician Armenia after Levon the Magnificent granted them special access in 1201.

In the 1270s, while on his way to the capital of the Mongolian Empire, renowned explorer Marco Polo visited Cilician Armenia. He describes the city of Ayas and notes that King Levon II (III) (r. 1269-1289) gave them an honorable welcome and provided an armed ship so they could sail from Cilicia to the crusader city of Acre.[15]

Venetian and Genoese merchants had their own neighborhoods in the cities of Cilician Armenia, including consulates, churches, courthouses, bath houses, warehouses etc.[16] The most progressive technologies of trade of the time were actively used in Cilicia. The spread of paper in the Mediterranean had changed the nature of trade. Any merchant could sail from Ayas with only a promissory note or receipt, without any hard money, to any other Mediterranean city such as Barcelona. There, he could present the receipt, receive goods and sail back to Ayas to sell them. This insured merchants against theft and pirates. All transactions took place through notary agencies. Many Genoese and Venetian notary agents had established themselves in Cilician Armenia. The documents they prepared, which sometimes could weigh several kilos, reached Italian cities despite the limited capacity of medieval ships. These papers are kept in archives to this day.[17] Hundreds of merchants and other professionals from Genoa, Venice, Southern France and Catalonia are included in those notary transactions. Many of them even settled in Cilician Armenia and married Armenians.[18]

In this multicultural reality, where one neighbor could be from Western Europe and the other Jewish, Greek or Muslim, Cilicia became a cosmopolitan hub, necessitating innovative rules for peaceful coexistence. Hence, it is no coincidence that Smbat Sparapet’s Book of Judgement was written in the 1260s. Taking into consideration the medieval reality, the Book of Judgement included unprecedented laws, such as granting women legal status and rules on their position in society. When comparing it to European laws of the time, these articles on women’s rights, at least on the level of state legislation, were equal to the rights men enjoyed in the realms of division of property, marital status, etc.[19] This approach by the state was naturally aimed at fostering solidarity within the country, essential to be able to address external dangers.


Lessons from Cilicia

The Cilician reality was built more on being open to the outside world and consolidating and synthesizing cultures, rather than opposing them. This gave new breath to the traditional, by creating a new, more complete Armenianness. This delicate consolidation was prevalent not only in Cilician Armenian art but in its diplomacy, military, laws, economy and other spheres as well. Cilician agricultural and artisanal products were popular among the European nobility. Trade was an important way to project power, maintain peace and build a thriving society.

Today, centuries later, when contemporary Armenian statehood is only 30 years old, it is often casually said that Cilician Armenia only had a short 300-year history. If we were to travel back in time, however, we would find ourselves in a world where the United States did not yet exist, when new continents were not yet discovered. To establish and strengthen a statehood in a period of 300 years in a region that was constantly under the control of competing empires and that had not yet seen a national state, demanded great civilizational potential from the Armenian people. This potential was manifested in all spheres: political, economic, cultural, etc.



[1] Le Goff, J., Civilization of the Medieval West, Ekaterinburg, 2005, p.159.
[2] Langlois V., Le Trésor des chartes d’Arménie ou Cartulaire de la chancellerie royale des Roupéniens, Venise, 1863, p. 105-109, 126-128.
[3] Kirakos Gandzaketsi, History of Armenia, Yerevan, 1961, p. 367: Richard J., La Papauté et les missions d’Orient au moyen âge (XIIIe-XVe siècles) // Ecole Française de Rome, Paris, Rome, 1998, p. 70-81.
[4] Ashtor, E., Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages, Princeton, 1983, p. 43-44, 104.
[5] Mazzaoui, M., The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600, Cambridge, 1981, p. 42.
[6] (Dou royaume de Hermenie vient coutons et toute autre épicerie dessus dite (Poivre, Bresis, etc.) De Mas Latrie L.,Traités de paix et de commerce et documents divers concernant les relations des Chrétiens avec les Arabes de l’Afrique septentrionale au moyen âge, Paris, 1866, p. 98-99).
[7] Heyd, W., Histoire du commerce du Levant au moyen âge, t. II, Amsterdam, 1967, p. 704-705: Rey E., Les colonies Franques de Syrie, p. 219. Canale M. G., Nuova istoria della Repubblica di Genova, del suo commercio e della sua letteratura, dalle origini all’anno 1797, V. 3, Firenze, 1860, p. 246.
[8] Bondi Sebellico A., Felice de Merlis, prete e notaio in Venezia ed Ayas, 1315-1348, V. 1, Venezia, 1973, N 83: Jacoby D., Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction // Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 58, 2004, p.233-234.
[9] Mikaelyan, G․, History of the Armenian State of Cilicia, Yerevan, 2007, p. 398
[10] Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La Pratica della Mercatura, New York, 1970, p. 297.
[11] Bedoukian, Z. P., Coinage of Cilician Armenia, New York, 1962.
[12] Spufford, P., Money and Its Uses in Medieval Europe, Cambridge, 1988, p. 149-156. Lane F., Exportations vénitiennes d’or et d’argent de 1200 à 1450 // Études d’histoire monétaire, Lille, 1984, p. 32-39.
[13] Ashtor, E., Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages, p. 44․ The ducat began to be issued in 1284 in Venice and was one of the most expensive international currencies of the time. It was made of pure gold and weighed 3,545 grams.
[14] Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La Pratica della Mercatura, p. 59. Zibaldone da Canal, Manoscritto Mercantile del sec. XIV, ed. A. Stussi, Venezia, 1967, p. 108-109.
[15] Florence, A.B., I Viaggi di Marco Polo, Firenze, 1863, p. 6, 15.
[16] Langlois V., Le Trésor des chartes d’Arménie, p. 106, 162. Balletto L., Notai genovesi in Oltremare, atti rogati a Laiazzo da Federico di Piazzalunga (1274) e Pietro di Bargone (1277, 1279), Genova, 1989, A. N 34, 79, 80, B. N 12, 19, 22, 30, 33, 55, 58, 59, 76, 116, 119.
[17] Balletto, L., Notai genovesi in Oltremare, atti rogati a Laiazzo da Federico di Piazzalunga (1274) e Pietro di Bargone (1277, 1279).
[18] Gevorgyan, Z․, Marriages and Extramarital Agreements of Europeans Based in Cilician Armenia, “Banber,” Matenadaran, 24, Yerevan, 2017. Gevorgyan, Z․, The Legal Status of Women According to the Sources of the History of Cilician Armenia, International Conference on Armenology dedicated to the centenary of Academician Levon Khachikyan (June 28-30, 2018), Yerevan, Matenadaran, 2019.
[19] Gevorgyan, Z․, The Dowry and the Division of Marital Property in the Legal Documents of Cilician Armenia and in Everyday Life, “Banber” Matenadaran, 29, Yerevan, 2020.