Armenia’s Eleventh Century | History Today - 7 minutes read

Ben Jones
Ben Jones

Now the Seljuk king came with many armed troops and entered our land, spreading fear and terror among those far and near. He trampled on and overturned many lands until he reached the city of Ani. The armed troops made their way over the wall and poured into the city like the foaming waves of the sea. Putting the Persian sword to work, they spared no one.

So the Armenian historian Aristakēs Lastivertsi, writing in the late 1070s, described the 1064 siege of Ani, the former capital of the medieval kingdom of Armenia. Aristakēs was not alone in his descriptions of the violent arrival of Seljuk Turks into the Armenian highlands and Anatolia. Contemporary Byzantine Greek sources shared their shock at the expansion of the Seljuks. These narratives make for compelling reading, but they should not be taken at face value. Yet this representation has been remarkably durable and it continues to define our understanding of Armenian and Turkish interactions in the 11th century.

On 16 August 2022, the Turkish Republic celebrated the 958th anniversary of the conquest of Ani by the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan in 1064. The event was marked with a government-led ceremony at Ani ruins in eastern Turkey. While commemorations of medieval military victories in Turkey are nothing new, this celebration was a loaded act in the context of strained relations between Armenia and Turkey.

This troubled relationship is, in large part, the legacy of the Armenian Genocide. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire initiated the systematic extermination of its Armenian, Greek and Assyrian populations. On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up Armenian intellectuals and civic leaders in Istanbul. The detainment and subsequent execution of the empire’s cosmopolitan Armenian elite was followed by the mass deportation of Armenian communities throughout its territory, largely in Anatolia and northern Syria, who were led on death marches into the Syrian desert. The active extermination ended in 1918, but there was to be no justice, reparations or atonement. The postwar collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the emergence of new states, including the Republics of Turkey and Armenia. Turkey refused to acknowledge the actions of the Ottoman government and adopted an official state policy of genocide denial.

Legacy of genocide

Armenians find themselves in a constant struggle for justice. The painful legacy of genocide has been particularly aggravated in recent years. In September 2022 the Turkish-backed invasion of southern Armenia by the Republic of Azerbaijan brought the very real threat of regional ethnic cleansing sharply into focus. Armenian communities are caught between two autocratic Turkish nationalist governments, both of which deny the Genocide. The failure of the international community to recognise the Armenian Genocide, and to hold those responsible to account, has left Armenians in a precarious position.

The Armenian Genocide continues to define relations between Armenians and their Turkish neighbours, but it also looms over historical interactions between the two peoples. The 11th century is one such moment. Territorial claims to Anatolia and the historical ‘Turkishness’ of the region became a key argument for the emerging Turkish state in the 1920s. Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, is a land mass bordered by the Black Sea in the north, the Armenian highlands and Caucasus mountains in the east, Syria and Mesopotamia in the south and the Bosporus straits and the Aegean in the west. It has long been the stage for exchanges between different peoples and civilisations. Turkish nationalism declared Anatolia as the historic Turkish homeland, an Anatolia that encompassed large parts of the Armenian highlands. With the emergence of Turkey, scholarship and public discourse began to coalesce around shoring up historical claims to Anatolia which could demonstrate the right of the Turkish state to its new territory, emphasise its historical precedence over Armenians and Greeks in the region and erase the mixed character of Anatolia on the eve of the Genocide. The arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the second half of 11th century and the image of defeated Armenian and Greek communities became a key component of a Turkish nationalist argument which asserted historic rule over the region.

The view from Turkey

Turkish scholarship has argued that the Seljuks formed the first Turkish state in Anatolia. Mehmet Fuat Köprülü, İbrahim Kafesoğlu, Osman Turan and other academics of the new nationally minded generation shared in the ideological assertion that the period was a singularly crucial moment in the formation of Turkish statehood. A particularly important part of this national narrative is the year 1071. The confrontation between the Byzantine army, with its large Armenian contingent, and the Seljuk forces under Alp Arslan near the city of Manzikert in August that year has gained a prominent place with Turkish nationalist historians. As Köprülü argued, Manzikert and the defeat of the emperor Romanus IV established absolute Turkish rule in Anatolia. In the view of the scholars of the early Turkish Republic, the Seljuk arrival in Anatolia and the Battle of Manzikert constituted a nation-defining moment.

It is no surprise that the 11th century has come to form an important part of the Turkish Republic’s state performance. Take Manzikert for instance. Despite the argument of current scholarship for the limited significance of the battle for Turkish hegemony in Anatolia, it has become a fundamental part of the national consciousness. A good example are the celebrations surrounding the 900th anniversary of the battle in 1971, which included a swathe of commemorative events, the production of special coins and the construction of public monuments. Speaking in Malazgirt (modern Manzikert) on 26 August 2022, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared: ‘Our ancestors spread across Anatolia, even toward the Bosporus but had been unable to make these territories a safe place for our nation. Sultan Alp Arslan’s victory made Anatolia a safe homeland.’ The event marked the start of the annual ‘Victory Week’ celebrations in Turkey, which included events to commemorate the Seljuk victories.

The view from Armenia

The trauma associated with the Genocide and the continued tensions between Armenia and Turkey make the second half of the 11th century difficult to navigate for historians of Armenian history. Characterising this period by the destructive Turkish arrival reinforces the perception of an unavoidably problematic relationship destined to culminate in the Genocide of the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that we find this narrative in the Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Built in 1967 in memory of the 1.5 million Armenians who were murdered, its museum contains a wealth of information about the events of 1915-18. A permanent exhibition guides visitors through panels summarising leading scholarship on the Genocide. The story begins with the medieval expansion of Turkish communities into Anatolia and the Caucasus. It offers a sense of how perceptions of the medieval past have led Armenian-Turkish interactions to be framed as an endemic confrontation and demonstrates how the Genocide elicits a particularly reserved response from Armenians to their own history.

Perhaps a reassessment of the period can chart a different way forward. In the last decade, new ways of thinking have emerged. Scholars have applied different methods to their reading of source material. Tara L. Andrews’ 2016 book History as Apocalypse in a Crossroads of Cultures is a study of the chronicle produced by the 11th-century Armenian monk Matthew of Edessa (modern day Urfa). Andrews examines Armenian-Turkish interactions in terms of evidence for exchange and co operation, rather than antagonism. Alexander Beihammer’s 2019 study Byzantium and the Emergence of Muslim-Turkish Anatolia, 1040-1130 argues that the driving force for political change in Anatolia and the Armenian highlands was successful interaction between communities, rather than contests between indigenous defenders and foreign invaders.

The way forward

New scholarship has the potential to counter the attempts of Turkish nationalists to appropriate the 11th century. But it can also provide space for Armenians to reclaim this valuable period. The 11th century saw the development of the scribal illuminators of Melitene, whose colourful manuscripts set new trends. It witnessed the dynamic application of Roman and Islamic legal systems and the emergence of the monastery as a site of Armenian historical memory. If we accept that the relationship between Armenia and Turkey has not always been inherently destructive, then its future need not be consigned to one of irreconcilable animosity.

Lewis Read is completing a PhD in Armenian history at the University of Vienna.

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