The silver coin pictured here, a “Tram” of the Cilician Armenian ruler Levon I, is a survivor from a rather remarkable episode in the Medieval history of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Our story begins far to the east, with the conquest of much of the Middle East by the Seljuk Turks. Fleeing their original homelands in what had been the ancient Kingdom of Armenia, long a pawn in the conflicts between the Roman and Persian Empires, thousands of Armenians established a principality in what today is the southernmost coastal region of Turkey and the northernmost coastal region of Syria. During the final quarter of the 11th Century, under the first King of the Rubenid Dynasty, they declared independence from the Byzantine empire. Our coin was issued by Levon I, perhaps the most successful ruler during this initial phase of the Kingdom’s history.
Although the new Kingdom prospered economically due to its geography, which included an arc of high mountains providing some degree of protection and a narrow but fertile coastal plain that featured several good ports for trade, it was always at risk and short on allies. Nearly surrounded by hostile Islamic states, at various times it allied itself with the new Mongol rulers of Iran, Mesopotamia and Syria, the Ilkhanids, who were not yet fully converted to Islam, occasionally with the Byzantine Empire to the north and especially with the European Crusader states that sprang up along the Levantine coast shortly after its own birth.
One outcome of the Crusader alliance was extensive marriage between the new Crusader aristocracy and the 2 Armenian ruling families, the Rubenids and Hetumids. The Hetumids later formed a close marriage based alliance with the Frankish Lusignan Dynasty, who ruled the nearby Island of Cyprus. On our coin, this western influence is clearly visible, even during the Kingdom’s early years. On the reverse is the Armenian rampant lion while the obverse includes a forward facing seated king holding a sceptre topped with the Frankish fleur-de-lis.
Conducting business in any of the Cilician ports or towns during the Kingdom’s almost 300 year history would have involved a bewildering array of currency. In addition to the silver and bronze coinage issued by the official mints of Armenian Cilicia, accepted forms of currency included Venetian, Genoese and Pisan coinage, Islamic Dirhems issued by the Mamluks, Ilkhanids and other local dynasties, and coins issued by the various Crusader principalities. While all of these had a rough, easy to understand relationship to one another based on weight of precious metal, implementing this in actual practice would have called for both good math skills and shrewd bargaining skills.
Despite intermarriage with the Lusignans, the Cillician Armenian Kingdom could not survive onslaughts from the powerful Mamluk rulers based in Egypt, who had effectively halted the Mongol advance. By the early 14th Century, the Mongol rulers of the Middle East had converted to Islam and the Crusader states along the coast of Palestine had all fallen or been abandoned, thus depriving the Armenians of key allies. The Kingdom fell in 1375, and the last King of Cilician Armenia died in exile in Paris in 1396.
This relatively minor but fascinating chapter in history serves to remind us of the religious, political and philosophical complexities of that part of the world, as we should be very much aware from recent news. The improbability of this chapter also reminds us that truth is always stranger than fiction.