THE ARMENIAN NOBILITY:
HISTORY, INSTITUTIONS, AND STRUCTURE
Melik Vrej Atabekian
Member of the Union of the Armenian Noblemen
The origins of the Armenian nobility
The history of the Armenian nobility is as old as that of the Armenian people. Its roots trace back to the ancient tribal society, when the proto-Armenian tribes separated from the primordial Aryan community were selecting chieftain leaders for governing the community, protecting the tribal territory and leading military campaigns against the enemies. These chieftains and leaders were normally the best members of the clans and tribes, who became renowned for their power, wisdom, courage and glorious and heroic deeds. Thus, gradually the upper class of the Armenian society came into existence, namely that of the azats, also known as aznwakans or aznavurs.
Translated from the contemporary Armenian the word azat literally means "the one who is free", a "freeman". However, most probably this term derives from an older word and perhaps roots back to the Aryan yazata meaning "the divine one", "offspring of gods", "the one who deserves to be worshipped" . Many - if not the majority - of the ancient Armenian noble clans were tracing their origins back to the gods of the old Armenian religion or to the heroes and patriarchs of the Armenian people. For example, noble houses of Vahevuni and Mehnuni believed to be offsprings of Vahagn and Mihr, ancient Armenian deities of fire and war, and heavenly light and justice respectively . House of Artzruni traced its origins to Sanasar, son of Mher from the Armenian epos Sasna Tzrer, i.e. to the same Armenian deity Mihr . An entire circle of Armenian princely houses believed to be direct descendants of Hayk Nahapet (Patriarch), whose epithet was dyutsazn, i.e. "divine", "offspring of gods". According to the Armenian aristocratic tradition, the princely houses of Khorkhoruni, Bznuni, Mandakuni, Manavazian, Angelea (Angegh tun), Varajnuni, Apahuni, Arran tun and some others - all are offsprings of Hayk or his descendents .
The historians mention various numbers of the Armenian noble houses during different periods of the Armenian history. Sometimes their number is mentioned to be ninety, yet some other times it reaches up to three hundred. Certainly, the number of the Armenian noble houses was changing in the course of time as the aristocratic class was dynamic itself.
In the historical context, the Armenian nobility as a special social phenomenon came into existence by the times of the state of Aratta and Kingdom of Van (Ararat, Urartu) . Noble houses of Rshtuni, Mokats, Artzruni etc. originated from tribal rulers or clans already during the Urartian period if not prior to it. Some others, such as the Mamikonians or Aravelians, were granted noble titles by special decrees of the Armenian kings for their services to the royal court or to Armenia. Although the vast majority of the Armenian nobility was of Armenian origin, the historical sources still mention quite significant foreign influxes into the aristocratic class. These assimilated foreign families were predominantly of Indo-European (Aryan) origin, such as Iranians, Alanians, Greeks and Romans. The Iranian aristocratic component was particularly numerous. Many Armenian noble houses were either linked to the Iranian nobility through dynastic marriages or were Iranians (Persians, Parthians, Midians) by their origin . The latter included renowned houses of Arshakuni, Artashesian, Pahlavuni etc. Examples of non-Armenian but Aryan noble houses would include the families of Aravelians and Ropseans; the first were Alanians and the latter Romans by origin. The non-Aryan component was never significant among the Armenian nobility and normally appears at the later stage of Armenian history. For example, the Mamikonians originates from a Chinese refugee named Mamgun , who for his services was elevated to the ranks of nobleman by one of the Armenian kings. Some Armenian Christian historians tend to derive certain Armenian noble houses from Mesopotamian or other roots. For example, in his History of Armenia Movses Khorenatsi traces the family origins of his sponsor prince Sahak Bagratuni to non-Armenian roots. However, the historical sources prove the existence of Bagratuni family in the most ancient period of the Armenian history and speak of them as aboriginal Armenians . The linguistic analysis also maintains that the name Bagarat most probably is of Indo-European origin and stems from bhaga (god) and arat (plentiful, rich), i.e. literally "divine plentitude" or "god's richness" . It is remarkable that prince Bagratuni himself rejected Khorenatsi's version of the origins of his family.
The institutions and structure of the Armenian nobility
The nobility always played an important role in the Armenian society. This inter alia is evidenced through the evolution of the term naharar. Initially, this term referred to the hereditary governors of the Armenian provinces and was used with the meaning of "ruler" and "governor". The same title could mean a particularly honorable service (nahararutyun, naharardom) at the Armenian royal court. Examples of such heritable services or naharardoms are aspetutyun (coronation, which traditionally belonged to the house of Bagratuni), sparapetutyun (commander-in-chief of the Armenian army, which traditionally belonged to the house of Mamikonean), hazarapetutyun (chancellery and taxation, which were inheritably managed by the houses of Gnuni and Amatuni), and malhazutyun (royal guard that was traditionally organized and headed to the house of Khorkhoruni). However, in the course of hereditary consolidation of gavars (provinces) or royal court services by noble houses, the term naharar has changed its original meaning and gradually transformed into an equivalent of "aristocrat", "nobleman". Accordingly, the aristocratic families started to be called naharar houses or naharardoms . Along with this analysis, there is another interpretation of term naharar, which is based on Armenian nah and arar, i.e. "the first created" or "the first borne".
The meaning of term naharar was evolving in parallel with consolidation of the noble houses' hereditary rights over counties of Great Armenia. For example, county of Great Albak was traditionally inherited by noble house of Artzruni, county of Taron by house of Slkuni, and house of Rshtuniq by house of Rshtuni etc. Even prior to this consolidation the traditional aristocratic emblems and coat-of-arms emerge. The latter often is deeply rooted in the ancient kinship and tribal beliefs and totems of the Armenian clans. Although the information on Armenian heraldry is quite limited, nevertheless it is well known that the most common symbols were those of eagle, lion, and mountain ram. For example, the coat-of-arms of the Artashesian dynasty consisted of two eagles with the symbol of sun in the middle. Eagle holding a sheep was also the house symbol of Bagratuni naharardom. The dynastic emblem of the Cilician Armenian royal house of Lusignan (Lusinian) reflected west European heraldic influence and consisted of red lions and crosses on the yellow and blue background of the shield.
The naharar families of ancient Armenia were listed in the so-called Gahnamaks and Zoranamaks, which were the official inventories or registrars that were positioning the families based on the criteria of honor, virtue and esteem. The difference between Gahnamak and Zoranamak were in the listing criteria that were determining the esteem почетности of the noble family. Zoranamak was based on the military strength of the houses, i.e. the number of possessed cavalry and infantry, responsibility in defending the northern, eastern, southern and western borders of Armenia, as well as the size of the troops that the noble houses were placing under the command of the king of Armenia in times of military campaigns. Unlike Zoranamak, Gahnamak was listing the noble houses based on the criteria of political and economic importance of the houses, size of their estates, their wealth, as well as their connections and influence over the royal courts.
Two other notions of the Armenian nobility relating to Gahnamak and Zoranamak are those of bardz and pativ. Bardz literally means "cushion". It was the seat that was occupied by the head of the noble house at the royal table, be it during the council or during the festivities. The word bardz derives from these cushions on which the lords of houses were seated on special occasions. Bardzes - literally cushioned seats at the royal table but more broadly the actual status at the royal court - were distributed on the basis of pativ, i.e. literally the honour and esteem of the noble houses. The latter, most probably wуку fixed in Gahnamaks and Zoranamaks.
The Armenian nobility had an internal division. The social pyramid of the Armenian nobility was headed by the king, in Armenian arqa. The term arqa originates from the common Aryan root that has equivalents in the name for monarchs in other Indo-European languages: arxatos (Greek), raja (Indo-Aryan), regia or regnum (in Latin), roi (in French).
The sons of the king, i.e. princes, were called sepuh. The elder son, who was also the crown prince and was called avag sepuh, had a particular role. In the case of king's death it was avag sepuh who automatically would inherit the crown, unless there were other prior arrangements.
The second layer in the social division of the Armenian nobility was occupied by bdeshkhs. Bdeshkh was a ruler of a big borderland province of historical Great Armenia. They were de facto viceroys and by their privileges were very close to the king. Bdeshkhs had their own armies, taxation and duties system, and could even produce their own coins.
The third layer of the Armenian aristocracy after the king and the bdeshkhs was composed by ishkhans, i.e. princes. Ishkhan normally would have a hereditary estate known as hayreniq and residence caste - dastakert . Armenian princely houses (or clans) were headed by tanuter. By its meaning the word tun (house) is very close to tohm (clan). Accordingly, tanuter meant "houselord" or "lord of the clan".
Organizationally, the Armenian nobility was headed by Grand Duke - metz ishxan or ishxanac ishxan in Armenian, who in some historical chronicles is also called metzametz. He was the marshal of Armenian nobility and had special privileges and duties. For example, in case of king's death and if there were no inheriting sepuhs (crown princes), it was the grand duke who would temporarily take the responsibilities and perform the duties of the king until the issues of succession to the throne are resolved. In reality, however, the successions to the throne would be arranged in advance or would be resolved in the course of feuds and intestine strives.
Thus, the social pyramid of the nobility of Great Armenia includes the following layers:
Ishkhanats ishkhan (grand duke)
This division, however, reflects the specific tradition of Great Armenia in its early period in history. Naturally, in time the social structure of nobility was undergoing changes that would the specifics of Armenian territories, historical era, and the specifics social relations. For example, in medieval times the names and composition of the nobility of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (Kilikia) underwent certain changes:
Tagavor or Inqnakal
Ishkhanats Ishkhan (or Metz Ishkhan)
Paronats Paron (or Metz Paron)
Cilician Armenia adopted many peculiarities of west European classification of the nobility, such as paron (deriving from "baron"), ter or sinyor (senior), berdater (castle lord) etc. . Besides, in Cilicia emerged Armenian knighthood which was also considered to be part of the nobility despite the fact that knights themselves - called dziawor и hetzelwor - did not always originate from parons.
Some other features also suffered changes. For example, whereas the salutation for the noblemen in Great Armenia was tiar or ter, in Cilician Armenia a new form of salutation was added to these, namely paron. The latter became the most popular form of greeting and gradually changed its meaning to the equivalent of "mister" in modern Armenian.
In late medieval Armenia and in the new age a variety of nobility titles existed in different nahangs (provinces) of the country. For example, in Artsakh of the Khamsa period (i.e. period of "five principalities") the title of ishkhan (prince) was used in its local equivalent - that of melik . Below melik - or sometimes in parallel with it - was the title of yuzbashi (literally "lord of the hundred" warriors). With the annexation of eastern Armenia - i.e. Karabakh, Yerevan, Nakhichevan and Kars provinces - into the Russian Empire the titles, traditions and social institutions of the Russian nobility become dominant among the Armenian aristocrats.
The contemporary state of the Armenian nobility
The history of the Armenian nobility is as dramatic as that of the Armenian people. Sometimes, during internal feud entire noble houses would be exterminated. Many Armenian aristocratic families perished during wars with foreign invaders, notably Arabs and Turks. The latter quickly realized that the Armenian statehood is based on the national aristocracy and thus adopted policies of annihilation of the Armenian nobility. For example, in 705 the Arab ostikan (governor) of Armenia deceitfully invited around 800 Armenian noblemen together with their guards to Nakhichevan as if for negotiations and massacred them all . Nevertheless, some Armenian noble houses lived through this tragedy and continued their efforts to liberate the country. Some descendants of the Armenian nobility achieved high-ranking positions at foreign royal courts. For example, the offsprings of the Armenian noble house of Artzruni became influential grandees at the Georgian court. The Georgian branch of the Armenian noble family of Bagratuni was enthroned as Bagrationi and became the reigning house on Georgia. An entire line of noblemen of the Armenian descent was inheritably reigning in Byzantium. As a result of dynastic marriages the descendants of the Armenian royal house of Lusignan (Lusinian), once ruling over Cilicia and Cyprus, merged with the representatives of west European royal dynasty of Savoy rigning in parts of Italy. Some other offsprings of naharar houses originated medieval Armenian aristocratic houses, such as Zaqarian, Proshian, Kyurikian, Orbelian, Artzrunis of Mahkanaberd, Tornikian etc. These played significant role in the struggle for liberation of Armenia and revival of the Armenian statehood. In the 13th century particularly prominent were the Zaqarian princes - brothers Zaqare and Ivane - whose military strength and political influence in the united Armenian-Georgian state was so significant that they were de facto the fully-fledged rulers of the Armenian territories. The last strongholds of the Armenian statehood were preserved by the semi-dependent princes (meliks) of Karabakh-Artsakh, also known as melikdoms of Khamsa (from Arabic word meaning "five principalities). These principalities preserved their status until the annexation of eastern Armenia into the Russian Empire. The Russian emperors were either accepting the noble title of the Armenian aristocracy or themselves were raising prominent representatives of the Armenian origin in an effort to use the potential of the Armenian nobility. During this period the noble houses of Madatian (Madatov), Lazarian (Lazarev), Beybutian (Beybutov), Pirumyan (Pirumov), Loris-Melokian (Loris-Melikov) emerged.
The aristocratic tradition in Armenia suffered another tragic blow during the Bolshevik regime. Then the nobility was dissolved as a social class and the noblemen underwent systematic oppressions. Many representatives of the Armenian aristocracy were repressed, sentenced to prisons and work camps, or just executed. Those who survived by miracle were forced to hide their aristocratic origins by changing family names and obliterating their family histories. Only very few managed to preserve their family traditions by leaving Communist regime and moving to other countries.
With the end of Communist regime and independence of Armenia in 1991 important steps were made to revive the traditions of the Armenian nobility. In October 1992 the Union of the Armenian Noblemen (UAN) was created. The Union is registered at the Ministry of Justice of Armenia as a public non-governmental organization. The UAN is headed by Doctor and Academician Gevorg Pirumyan, Marshal of Nobility.
The Union of the Armenian Noblemen has around 400 members representing aristocratic houses of Armenia. Membership in the Union is open to descendants of old and new Armenian noble families, as well as to the foreign titled nobility that resides in Armenia and abroad, regardless their political or religious views, and age and sex. The UAN conducts its activities in accordance with its Charter, the Constitution and legislation of Armenia, and the international law. The main goals of the Union of the Armenian Noblemen are:
· Restoration of the Armenian nobility and its past role and significance in the society and the state;
· Reinstatement of the best traditions of the Armenian nobility and reestablishment of criteria for the noblemen's honor, morals and ethics;
· Restoration of the heraldry of the noble dynasties and their genealogy;
· Gathering, storing and scientific systemization of archival materials, research in the history of the Armenian nobility and specific dynasties;
· Presentation the history of Armenian nobility and dynasties, families and their ancestors to the general public through the mass media and public lectures.
The Union of the Armenian Noblemen looks forward to the active participation of the representatives and descendants of the Armenian nobility in the revival of the best traditions of the Armenian aristocracy. A special attention will be paid to familiarization of the Armenian youth with the aristocratic traditions of the ancestors. The Union also seeks supporters and businessmen who will be ready to make their contribution in the noble mission of revival of the traditions of the Armenian people.
For any additional information contact:
Marshal of the Armenian Nobility
Chairman of the Union of the Armenian Noblemen
Telephones: (+374 1) 558-635, 570-673
Member of the Union of the Armenian Noblemen
Telephone: (+1 514) 932-7656 (ext. 222)
Fax: (+1 514) 932-9453
Member of the Union of the Armenian Noblemen
Telephone: (+37471) 42687
1. Grand Duke Gevorg Pirumyan. The Union of the Armenian Nobility. An interview to Vasn Hayutyan, #2, 2003.
2. Aleksey G. Sukiasian. The History of the Cilician Armenian State and Law
(11 - 14th centuries). Yerevan, Mitq, 1969.
3. Movses Khorenatsi. The History of Armenia. Yerevan, Hayastan, 1990.
4. Hovhannes Draskhanakerttsi. The History of Armenia. Yerevan, Sovetakan Grogh, 1984.
5. Rafael Matevosian. On the Question of the Origins of the Bagratides. Armyanskiy Vestnik, #1-2, 2001.
6. Raffi. The Melikdoms of Khamsa. Yerevan, Nairi, 1991.
7. The Armenian Encyclopedia. Yerevan, Haykakan Hanragitaran, 1977-1979.
8. Robert Bedrosian. The Turco-Mongol Invasions and the Lords of Armenia in the
13-14th Centuries. New York, Columbia University, 1979.
9. Rafael Abrahamian. The Armenian Knighthood (4th - 6th centuries). Armyanskiy Vestnik, #1-2, 1999.
10. Romen Ter-Ghazarian. The Armenians on the Byzantine Throne. Electronic publication: www.armenia.ru, 2003.
11. Aleksander Petrosov. The Lions, the Crown and the Present Day. Noyev Kovcheg, #7 (65), August 2003.
This article is a review of the origins, social structure and history of the Armenian nobility. It traces the origins of the Armenian nobility back to the prehistoric tribal groups of proto-Armenians. Tribal chieftains - then called "kings" - elected to lead the warriors in battles and rule in peacetime gradually made their social position inherited. These ruling clans later became the first Armenian noble families. By the beginning of the Ararat (Urartu) kingdom, the Armenian nobility was already a separate social estate in itself. Most of the ancient Armenian noble families were tracing their origins to historic or legendary heroes or even ancient gods, such as Hayk or Vahagn.
In medieval Armenia the nobility has developed a number of institutions and customs, as well as a fairly complex internal classification. The article explains the meanings of concepts of "pariv", "gah", "bardz", "gahnamak", "zoranamak", as well as the differences between "bdeshkh", "ishkhan", "sepuh", "naharar", "nahapet", "tanuter" etc. It also compares the social structure of the Armenian nobility in various regions of historical Armenia: Greater Armenia, Kilikia, and Artsakh. This comparison is made within the historical perspective and reveals the vital link between the Armenian noble families of medieval era and early 19th century, when the Armenian nobility was admitted into the European and Russian aristocracy. The article also describes the disastrous consequences that the establishment of the Communist regime in Armenia in 1920s had on the remnants of the Armenian nobility.
The article ends with brief information on the contemporary state of the Armenian nobility and the initiatives that are undertaken by the Union of Armenian Noblemen on restoring the traditions of the Armenian nobility and establishing ties with the descendants of Armenian aristocratic families in the Diaspora.
This article was published in "Noyev Kovcheg" monthly # 4 (74) April 2004.
This article is partially based on the materials that were kindly provided by Grand Duke Gevorg Pirumyan, Marshall of Armenian Nobility.
© Vrej Atabekian 2004
© Union of Armenian Noblemen 2004