Background: Islamic expansion
After Muhammad's death in 632, his successors started a military campaign in order to increase the territory of the new Caliphate. During the Muslim conquests, the Arabs conquered most of the Middle East.
The details of the early conquest of Armenia by the Arabs are uncertain, as the various Arabic, Greek, and Armenian sources contradict each other. The main sources for the period are the eyewitness account of the Armenian bishop Sebeos, along with the history of the 8th-century Armenian priest Łewond. The Arabic historians al-Tabari and Ya'qubi also provide information about the period, but the main source is the 9th-century scholar al-Baladhuri, who, unusually for a Muslim writer, included much information drawn from local accounts from Armenia.
Arab raids and conquest of Armenia
According to the Arabic sources, the first Arab expedition reached Armenia in 639/640, on the heels of their conquest of the Levant from the Byzantines and the start of the Muslim conquest of Persia. The Arabs were led by Iyad ibn Ghanim, who had previously conquered Upper Mesopotamia, and penetrated as far as Bitlis. A second expedition occurred in 642, when the Muslim army advanced divided into four corps up to northeastern Armenia, only to be defeated and pushed out of the country. After this setback, the Arabs only undertook a raid from Adharbayjan in 645, led by Salman ibn Rabi'a, but this only touched the Armenian borderlands. It was not until 645/646 that a major campaign to subdue the country was undertaken by Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria. Mu'awiya's general Habib ibn Maslama al-Fihri first moved against the Byzantine portion of the country: he besieged and captured Theodosiopolis (present-day Erzurum, Turkey) and defeated a Byzantine army, reinforced with Khazar and Alan troops, on the Euphrates. He then turned towards Lake Van, where the local Armenian princes of Akhlat and Moks submitted, allowing Habib to march onto Dvin, the capital of the former Persian portion of Armenia. Dvin capitulated after a few days of siege, as did Tiflis further north in Caucasian Iberia. During the same time, another Arab army from Iraq, under Salman ibn Rabi'a, conquered Caucasian Albania (Arran).
The Armenian sources however provide a different narrative, both in chronology and in the details of the events, although the broad thrust of the Arab campaigns is consistent with the Muslim sources. The Armenian historians report that the Arabs first arrived in 642, penetrating up to the central region of Ayrarat, and sacked Dvin, returning with over 35,000 captives. In 643, the Arabs invaded again, from the direction of Adharbayjan, ravaged Ayrarat and reached Iberia, but were defeated in battle by the Armenian leader Theodore Rshtuni and forced back. After this success, Rshtuni was recognized as ruler of Armenia by the Byzantine emperor Constans II. At some point soon after, the Armenians recognized Byzantine suzerainty.
When Constans' truce with the Arabs ended in 653, however, and a new Arab invasion became likely, Rshtuni voluntarily agreed to submit to Muslim overlordship. In response, Emperor Constans in person led an army of reportedly 100,000 men into Armenia. The local princes rallied to him, and both Armenia and Iberia returned to Byzantine allegiance. After spending the winter in Dvin, Constans left in spring 654. Almost immediately an Arab army invaded and captured the regions on the northern shore of Lake Van. With their assistance, Rshtuni evicted the Byzantine garrisons from Armenia, and secured Arab recognition as presiding prince of Armenia, Iberia, and Albania. The Byzantines under general Maurianos tried to recover control of the region, but without success. In 655, even Byzantine Armenia was invaded, and the Arabs occupied Theodosiopolis (Arabic Qaliqala) and cemented their control of the country by taking Rhstuni to Damascus, where he died in 656, and appointing his rival Hamazasp Mamikonian in his stead. However, with the outbreak of the First Muslim Civil War in 657, effective Arab authority in the country ceased, and Mamikonian returned to Byzantine overlordship almost immediately.
These events are merged into the single campaign of 645/646 in the Arabic sources, who omit any detail about the internal affairs of Armenia or the recognition of Byzantine suzerainty there, and portray the country as being firmly under Arab suzerainty since Habib al-Fihri's campaign. Modern historians generally consider the contemporary account of Sebeos (which is partly corroborated by the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor) to be more reliable, and have proposed different reconstructions of the early Arab raids between 640 and 650, based on a critical reading of the sources; it is clear, however, that the country did not submit to Arab rule at this time.
In 661, however, Mu'awiya, now the victor of the Muslim civil war, ordered the Armenian princes to re-submit to his authority and pay tribute. In order to avoid another war, the princes complied.
Armenia within the Caliphate
Theodorus Rshtuni and other Armenian nakharars (lords) accepted Arab rule over Armenia. Constans II, the Byzantine Emperor, sent occasional reinforcements to Armenia, but they were inadequate. The commander of the city of Dvin, Smbat, confronted by the fact that he could no longer hold out against the Islamic army, submitted to Caliph Omar, consenting to pay him tribute.
In 644, Omar was assassinated by a Persian slave and was replaced by Caliph Uthman. The Armenian acceptance of Arab rule irritated the Byzantines. Emperor Constans sent his men to Armenia in order to impose the Chalcedonian creed of Christianity. He did not succeed in his doctrinal objective, but the new Armenian prefect, Hamazasp, who regarded the taxes imposed by the Muslims as too heavy, yielded to the Emperor. The Caliph thus ordered the massacre of 1,775 Armenian hostages then in his hands, and was about to march against the Armenian rebels when he was assassinated in 656.
Armenia remained under Arab rule for approximately 200 years, formally starting in 645 CE. Through many years of Umayyad and Abbasid rule, the Armenian Christians benefited from political autonomy and relative religious freedom, but were considered second-class citizens (dhimmi status). This was, however, not the case in the beginning. The invaders first tried to force the Armenians to accept Islam, prompting many citizens to flee to Byzantine-held Armenia, which the Muslims had largely left alone due to its rugged and mountainous terrain. The policy also caused several uprisings until the Armenian Church finally enjoyed greater recognition even more than it experienced under Byzantine or Sassanid jurisdiction. The Caliph assigned Ostikans as governors and representatives, who sometimes were of Armenian origin. The first ostikan, for example, was Theodorus Rshtuni. However, the commander of the 15,000-strong army was always of Armenian origin, often from the Mamikonian, Bagratuni or Artsruni families, with the Rshtuni family having the highest number of troops at 10,000. He would either defend the country from foreigners, or assist the Caliph in his military expeditions. For example, the Armenians helped the Caliphate against Khazar invaders.
Arab rule was interrupted by many revolts whenever Arabs attempted to enforce Islam, or higher taxes (jizya) to the people of Armenia. However, these revolts were sporadic and intermittent. They never had a pan-Armenian character. Arabs used rivalries between the different Armenian nakharars in order to curb the rebellions. Thus, the Mamikonian, Rshtuni, Kamsarakan and Gnuni families were gradually weakened in favor of the Bagratuni and Artsruni families. The rebellions led to the creation of the legendary character, David of Sassoun.
During Islamic rule, Arabs from other parts of the Caliphate settled in Armenia. By the 9th century, there was a well-established class of Arab emirs, more or less equivalent to the Armenian nakharars.
At the end of this period, in 885, the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia was established with Ashot I, a Christian king, as the first monarch. The Byzantine Empire and the Abbassid Caliphate's willingness to recognize the existence of the kingdom stemmed from the need to maintain a buffer state between them. Particularly for the Caliphate, Armenia was more desirable as a buffer rather than a province due to the threat of the Khazars, who were allied with Byzantium. Ashot's regime and those who succeeded him ushered in a period of peace, artistic growth, and literary activity. This era is referred to as the second Armenian Golden Age and is manifested in the magnificent churches built and the illustrated manuscripts created during the period.
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