Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)

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DISCLAIMER: Not that “Caucasian.”

When Arab armies moved out of Arabia in the 630s they brought an end to the Roman-Persian balance of power that had defined western Asia for centuries. It’s likely that nobody, apart from the Romans and the Persians, felt this change more acutely than the Armenians. The Kingdom of Armenia had long been a buffer between the two great empires, with dynasties ruling as Roman or Persian (first Parthian, and later Sasanian) clients, and coming and going often at the whim of one of the two imperial authorities. That state of affairs changed in the fourth century, when the Romans and Sasanians partitioned the ancient kingdom into two parts: so-called Lesser Armenia, which became a Roman province, and Persian Armenia, which held nominal independence for a time before becoming a Sasanian domain in the early fifth century. The events described here primarily affected Persian Armenia. Lesser Armenia, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, remained in Roman hands until it was taken by the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century.

With the arrival of the Arabs starting as early as the late 630s, the Armenians now had to face a new upheaval: the Persian Empire was gone. Considering there’d been a Persian Empire in some form for over a millennium, that was a pretty big change. Armenians resisted the Arab invasion while some of their leaders attempted to cut the best deal they could with the new power in the region. In the early 650s, an Armenian noble named Theodoros Ṛštuni (“Theodore Rshtuni” if you like) agreed to submit Armenia to Arab rule in exchange for a prisoner release and Armenian autonomy. Fighting continued, however, and eventually pulled in the Romans, though given how the Romans did against the Arabs in the seventh century that wasn’t much help.

By the 660s, the Arabs (now the Umayyad Caliphate) were fully in control of Armenia. This doesn’t seem to have involved that onerous a yoke, given that it included a fair amount of local autonomy and no imposition of Islam on the Armenians (conversion was never a high priority for the Umayyads in general). Even though this was the best deal the Armenians were going to get, the imposition of Arab rule still grated on them—especially on the nakharar, the heads of the leading Armenian noble families. They’d done pretty well for themselves as Roman and/or Persian clients, but the Arabs, who’d wiped out the Persians and thoroughly mangled the Romans, had no particular reason to cultivate Armenian nobles as part of any bigger geopolitical strategy.

Several Armenian revolts cropped up here and there over the decades to come, but internal rivalries among the nakharar (perhaps because they were now competing more strenuously for much less imperial favor) kept most of them from becoming serious threats to the Arabs. One major revolt did break out in 703, when the Arabs reorganized their Caucasian holdings into the province of Arminya and took more direct control, but it was defeated in 705 and the nobles who had led it were all executed. Armenian leaders attempted another revolt in 748 amid the chaos of the Abbasid revolution, but that also failed.

Armenia only went into full-blown revolt in 774, largely because of a change in imperial leadership. After the Abbasids won the caliphate in 750, they made major changes as to how the empire was administered. These changes included a drastic cutback in the remaining allowances that were still being paid to the nakharars, along with a substantial increase in taxes on the Armenian population. The Abbasids’ intent may have been party punitive, in response to that 748 uprising. But whatever their motivation was, taking away the nobles’ goodies and replacing them with extra taxes was enough to bring nearly all of Armenia’s leading families, fractious as their relations could be, together in opposition. Only two of the major Armenian houses, the Artsruni and the Siwni, stayed out of the fighting, and they obviously fared better in the immediate aftermath of (SPOILER ALERT) the revolt’s failure.

The murder of an Arab tax-collector in Armenia’s Shirak province kicked off the war in late 774, and two major battles in April 775 ended it, decisively, in favor of the Arabs. Bagrevand was the second of these, pitting a contingent of the Abbasids’ seasoned Khurasani fighters (at a time when the Khurasanis were the most renowned fighters in the caliphate) against the Armenian rebel army. The Armenians were crushed, and the revolt’s leaders, Smbat Bagratuni and Mushegh Mamikonean, were both killed. I don’t find too much by way of detail of this battle in any of my books covering either Caucasian or Islamic history, so I tend to assume that it was a relatively unremarkable, one-sided affair.

The upheaval that followed the failed revolt fundamentally changed Armenian and Caucasian politics forever. The Abbasids invited noble Arab families to move into the Caucasus and establish emirates there to strengthen the caliphal hold on the region. This policy especially took root in Caucasian Albania, the region that more or less became modern Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, of course).

The noble families that had joined the rebellion were liquidated. Their members either were executed or fled to Byzantine protection—except for the Bagratuni, who managed to fend off the Arabs and survive more or less intact. This became important when a branch of that family (also known as the Bagrationis) established a kingdom in Caucasian Iberia and Lazica in the 800s that coalesced into Georgia, and also when, in the 880s—as Abbasid power waned and Byzantine power waxed—the Bagratunis established an independent Armenian kingdom that survived until the Byzantine Empire absorbed it in 1045, just a couple of decades before the Seljuks showed up.