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Kingdom of Saba › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 March 2018
Sabean Army in Battle (The Creative Assembly)
Saba (also given as Sheba) was a kingdom in southern Arabia (region of modern-day Yemen) which flourished between the 8th century BCE and 275 CE when it was conquered by the neighboring Himyarites. Although these are the most commonly accepted dates, various scholars have argued for a longer or shorter chronology with the earliest date of c. 1200 BCE; most agree on the terminus of c. 275 CE, however.
The kingdom is probably best known today from the biblical narrative in the Book of Kings 10:1-13 and II Chronicles 9:1-12 of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon ; a story also told, though with significant differences, in the Aramaic Targum Sheni, the Quran (Sura 27), and the Ethiopian Kebra Negast (though this last places Sheba in African Ethiopia, not southern Arabia). The Queen of Sheba is also referenced in the Christian New Testament books of Matthew (12:42) and Luke (11:31), and Saba appears in other books of the Old Testament (among them, Job 1:13-15, Isaiah 45:14, and Joel 3:4-8) and the Quran (Sura 34).
In its prime, however, Saba was known as a wealthy kingdom which grew rich through trade along the Incense Routes between southern Arabia and the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the biblical and quranic references – including the tale of the famous queen – reference Saba's wealth and success in trade.
Prior to the 8th century BCE, trade in the area seems to have been controlled by the Mineans of the kingdom of Ma'in but c.950 BCE the Sabeans dominated the region and taxed the goods heading north from their southern neighbors of Hadramawt, Qataban, and the port of Qani. Sabean trade suffered during the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt (323-30 BCE) when the Ptolemies encouraged sea routes over land travel, and Saba's prestige declined until they were conquered by the neighboring Himyarites.


Identified as Sheba, Saba is the kingdom of the queen who travels to Jerusalem to experience first-hand the wisdom of King Solomon (c. 970-931 BCE) of Israel. In the biblical tale, she brings him a gift of 120 gold talents (approximately $3,600,000.00) among other gifts (I Kings 10:10). The lavish presents of the queen would be in keeping with the wealth of the Sabean monarchy, which was legendary, but there is no evidence outside of the Bible, and the later works mentioned, that she ever existed.


The story in the Targum Sheni, an Aramaic translation of the Book of Esther with commentary, is a highly embellished version of her visit, and this version, with some differences, is repeated in the Quran, which is thought to have been written later. The story then appears in the Ethiopian Kebra Negast which adds to it by having Solomon seduce the queen who then gives birth to a son who will later transport the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia.
The identification of the Queen of Sheba with the Kingdom of Saba has led some to conclude that she was an Ethiopian queen from central Africa since there was a Saba in Africa which seems linguistically, or at least culturally, associated with the kingdom in Arabia. Whether she was or was not cannot be answered, but it is most likely that if such a queen did exist c. 970-931 BCE, she came from the region of southern Arabia which was growing wealthy at that time from the Incense Routes it controlled.


The Incense Routes (also known as the Spice Routes) were the paths taken by merchants from southern Arabia to the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean. These trade routes were most profitable between the 8th/7th century BCE and 2nd century CE but were established earlier and still in use later. The Incense Routes covered 1,200 miles (1,931 km) and took 65 days to travel one way. Caravans would stop at a different city at the end of each day, exchange goods and rest their camels, and continue on the next morning.
Although many goods passed along these routes, the most highly prized were the shipments of frankincense and myrrh. The coast of southern Arabia cultivated these aromatics from the sap of trees but also seem to have had access to others from India through the port of Qani (also given as Qana and Qade, modern-day Bi'r `Ali, eastern Yemen). Goods were transported from the coastal kingdoms north to Ma'in and from there onwards to Gaza.


The most successful merchants on these routes were the Nabateans (best known today for their capital city of Petra in Jordan) who were able to best their competitors through control of water supplies. The Nabateans dug wells which filled with rainwater and then disguised them so that only members of their caravans could recognize and make use of them. This enabled them to travel more quickly, and cheaply, as they did not have to stop at cities or towns to barter for water. In time, the Nabateans became so wealthy that they were able to control important cities along the routes such as Avdat, Haluza, Mamshit, and Shivta, all of which became thriving trade centers in their own right.
The Nabateans and others who profited from the routes could not have done so without a central distribution center, and, initially, this seems to have been the Kingdom of Ma'in from which the Mineans controlled the incense trade. The Sabeans of Saba were already in the same region as Ma'in at this time and most likely participated in trade but it is not until c. 950 BCE that the Kingdom of Saba dominates trade and not until the 8th century BCE that they are firmly in control.


The Sabeans supplanted the Mineans in orchestrating trade and quickly became the wealthiest kingdom in southern Arabia.Goods were sent from Saba to Babylon and Uruk in Mesopotamia, to Memphis in Egypt, and to Byblos, Sidon, and Tyrein the Levant and, from the port at Gaza, even further. By the time of the reign of the Assyrian king Sargon II (722-705 BCE), their trade routes required his permission to operate in his realm and extend through Assyrian lands. The Egyptians had been trading with the land of Punt (modern-day Puntland State of Somalia) since their 5th Dynasty (c. 2498-2345 BCE), as well as their southern neighbor Nubia but had since initiated trade with southern Arabia. Gold from Nubia traveled north to the capital of Egypt at Memphis and then overland east and south down to Saba.
Sabean kings (known as mukarribs ) rose to power and commissioned great building projects from their capital at Ma'rib (modern-day Sana'a, Yemen). The most famous of these projects is the Ma'rib Dam, the oldest known dam in the world, blocking the ravine of Dhana (the Wadi Adanah). The mountainous ravine would flood during the rainy season and the dam was built to control and divert the water to the low-lying farms in the valley.
Ma'rib Dam

Ma'rib Dam

Irrigation of these farmlands was so successful that Saba was consistently remarked upon as a “green country” by ancient historians such as Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) who called the region Arabia Eudaemon (“Fortunate Arabia”), a term later used by the Romans as “ Arabia Felix ”. The dam, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world, was built under the reign of the Sabean mukarrib Yatha' Amar Watta I (c. 760-740 BCE).
The economy depended on the trade of the Incense Routes but also on agriculture. The Marib dam provided such ample irrigation to the fields that crops were plentiful and were harvested twice a year. These crops were dates, barley, grapes, millet, wheat, and assorted fruits. Wine was pressed from the grapes and exported as well as consumed locally. The most important crop, however, were the trees whose sap provided the people with the aromatics of frankincense and myrrh which made the kingdom so wealthy. The historian Strabo (1st century CE) writes:
By the trade in these aromatics both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaei have become the richest of all the tribes, and possess a great quantity of wrought articles in gold and silver, as couches, tripods, basins, drinking-vessels, to which we must add the costly magnificence of their houses; for the doors, walls, and roofs are variegated with inlaid ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones. ( Geography, XVI.4)
Although Strabo was writing much later, Saba seems to have enjoyed a high level of prosperity from at least the 7th century BCE if not earlier. Great cities rose across the landscape and stone temples were erected in these cities and also outside their walls. Temples outside the cities were used by merchants and nomadic tribes and those within the walls were reserved only for the citizens of that city. The king seems to have also been a high priest and would have presided over religious festivals and supervised the operations of the temple.


The religion of the people was in many ways similar to that of Mesopotamia. The gods were thought to have created the world and the people and provided them with all good gifts. The Sabean moon god Almakah was the king of the gods and similar in many ways to the Mesopotamian moon god Nanna (also known as Sin, Nannar, Nanna-Suen), one of the oldest deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon. In the neighboring kingdom of Hadramawt, in fact, Almakah was known by the Mesopotamian name of Sin. The greatest temple in Saba – known as Mahram Bilqis, near the capital of Ma'rib – was dedicated to Almakah and was revered as a sacred site in the region long after the Sabean Kingdom itself was gone.
Almakah's consort (or daughter) was Shamsh, goddess of the sun, who shares many of the attributes of the Mesopotamian sun god Utu-Shamash, another of the oldest gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon dating to c. 3500 BCE. Other deities of the Sabean pantheon, about which very little is known, seem to be aspects of Almakah and Shamsh or Almakah only. These Sabean deities, as elsewhere in the ancient world, each had their own area of expertise, and offerings would be made to them by supplicants which included incense, livestock, and tracts of land. It is possible that, as in Egypt, this practice would have resulted in a very wealthy priestly class.
Mahram Bilqis

Mahram Bilqis

It is unknown how the priests performed their duties or if there was a priestly class, though it is assumed there was. If so, the priests would most likely have followed the same model seen in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in which the priests and priestesses cared for the gods in their temples and attended to them, not to the people. As in other civilizations, the Sabeans believed the gods were their constant companions through life and into the world which was to come after death.
People would then have forged their own personal relationship with their gods and most likely only engaged in public worship during festivals. The people believed in divination and that the gods and, perhaps, the spirits of the dead, could send messages to the living. The dead were embalmed and buried with grave goods after being anointed with myrrh, and frankincense was burned in the temples, but beyond that, little is known of the religious practices of the Sabeans.
Although the Sabeans were literate, they left very little behind by way of written history. Scholar Kenneth A. Kitchen comments:
Once the kings of Saba, Ma'in, and elsewhere began to build monumental architecture – mainly stone temples – they soon began to adorn these with suitably monumental texts, often in quite large Old South Arabian lettering.But (unlike Egypt and Assyria ), interestingly, scenes and reliefs played very little part, and seem to disappear after the early 8th century BCE, leaving only texts. (Millard, 182)
These texts, however, are temple dedications, royal decrees, and acts of the court; they are not history. They do not illuminate religious practices or beliefs, the lives and achievements of the kings, the birth and activities of the gods, and how the divine interacted with the mortal realm or any aspect of the culture beyond the most basic information. If the texts were accompanied by illustrations in reliefs it might expand upon their meaning but, as Kitchen observes, they are not. They do, however, outline the basic reign of the kings and the military campaigns which expanded Sabean influence in the late 6th century.


There were 31 makarribs between the reign of Yatha' Amar Watta I and the man considered the greatest of the Sabean monarchs, Karib'il Watar (7th/6th century BCE). Karib'il Watar is the first ruler to reign under the title of Malik (translated as 'king') rather than the earlier makarrib designation; future kings of Saba would continue this practice.


Malik Karib'il Watar was accorded the epithet “He Who Destroys Buildings” in the course of his military campaigns against the Kingdom of Awsan and was also known as “He who Carries Out the Will of El” following his slaughter of the nomadic tribes and establishment of the borders of Saba. The “El” in this latter epithet refers to the god Almakah. Following Almakah's divine will, Malik Karib'il Watar slaughtered thousands in Awsan and then invaded Ma'in where he killed an equal number of Mineans and then imposed a tribute on them which further enriched the great temple of the god near his capital.
If it is true that the king of Saba was also the high priest of the god, then this action would have made Malik Karib'il Watar incredibly wealthy. However the king profited personally, however, there is no doubt the Kingdom of Saba benefited greatly from these wars; the kingdom is regularly referenced for its opulent wealth. Caravans from southern Qataban and Hadramwat, which had to stop in Saba on their way north, were required to pay an exorbitant tax on their goods to Almakah, as is attested to through complaints by these merchants which have been preserved.


Saba continued to thrive until the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt began favoring water routes for trade over land routes. Sea and river travel was nothing new and was actually favored by the ancient civilizations because one could travel faster on water than on land. Trade up and down the Nile and across the Red Sea had been going on for millennia by this time and was engaged in throughout the height of the Incense Routes. What suddenly made a difference to Saba was Egypt's decision to cut out the middleman and deal directly with the coastal city of Qani.
Instead of goods flowing into and out of Egypt by way of Alexandria -Gaza, an Egyptian barge could now sail down the Red Sea, around the southern coast of Arabia between Punt in Africa and Qataban in Arabia, and arrive at Qani to trade directly with merchants from the Far East; Saba was no longer necessary. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE), Egyptian colonies were founded on the western coast of the Red Sea which could easily conduct trade with Qataban, Hadramawt, and Qani on the southern Arabian coast without ever bothering with the kingdoms inland. Saba began to decline along with the Incense Routes which had made it wealthy.
Hellenic Trade Routes, 300 BCE

Hellenic Trade Routes, 300 BCE

The end of Saba was not economic decline, however, but military conquest. The Himyarites of the region around Raidan on the Arabian Peninsula began to gain in power, perhaps through trade, c. 200 CE and conquered their neighbors in Qataban.Once they had consolidated their rule, they then turned on Saba which fell c. 275 CE, and then Hadramawt was taken c. 300 CE. The Himyarite monarchs took the title “King of Saba and of Raidan”, rejected polytheism, and embraced Judaism. As Christian missionaries made more converts in the region, the Himyarite kings launched a policy of persecution and may have slaughtered thousands of Christians. In c. 525 CE the Christian kingdom of Aksum in Africa invaded and conquered the Himyarites, establishing Christianity.
In c. 575 CE the Ma'rib dam failed and Saba was flooded. The Quran attributes the flood to an act of God (Surah 34:15-17) as punishment for the Sabeans refusing to accept his gifts. If so, said punishment was severe and resulted in the abandonment of towns and cities as the people were forced to leave the area or starve. A more rational explanation for the dam's failure is simply its age and lack of maintenance, although secular legends claim it was due to rats weakening the dam's supports by chewing on them.
Saba as a kingdom was long gone by the time the dam failed but the flood ensured that any coherent history of the culture would be wiped away for future generations. The Arab Invasion of the 7th century CE, establishing Islam, further obscured Sabean history which only began to attract the interest of scholars and archaeologists in the 19th century CE. At its height, however, Saba was one of the greatest kingdoms in antiquity and ruled over a land that, to many, was considered blessed by the gods.

Mamikonian Dynasty › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 01 March 2018
Vardan Mamikonian (Центральный банк Республики Армения)
The Mamikonians were a powerful clan group who were influential in Armenian political and military affairs from the 1st century BCE onwards. They rose to particular prominence from c. 428 CE to 652 CE in the half of Armenia ruled by the Sasanian Empire when marzpan viceroys represented the Persian king. One of the dynasty's most famous figures is Vardan Mamikonian who fell at the 451 CE Battle of Avarayr fought against Persia to defend Armenia's cultural and religious independence.


The Arsacid dynasty ruled Armenia from 12 CE and had managed to keep their balance on the diplomatic tightrope strung between the great powers of Rome and Persia for four centuries. By the 5th century CE, though, the Sasanian Empire had begun to expand its influence into areas previously contested between the two Empires. Armenia had already been formally divided between Persia and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 387 CE. The last Arsacid ruler was Artashes IV (r. 422-428 CE) as the Armenian crown, unable to repress the pro-Persian and anti-Christian factions at court, was abolished by Persia in their half of the country (sometimes referred to as Persarmenia). In 428 CE the marzpans were installed, a position which was higher than satraps and more akin to viceroys. Representing the Sasanian king, the marzpans had full civilian and military authority in Armenia and the system would not change until the mid-7th century CE.


The dynasty that now ruled the roost in Armenia was the Mamikonians whose heartlands were in the northern province of Tayk. Their earliest recorded member is Mancaeus who defended Tigranocerta in 69 BCE against Roman attacks. Long a powerful clan group, the Mamikonians had been particularly successful in the military thanks to their ability to raise cavalry forces of 3,000 knights. By the end of the 4th century CE the hereditary office of grand marshal ( sparapet ), who led the armed forces of Armenia, usually had a Mamikonian lord in the position. Amongst the other noble families the Mamikonians had been only second in importance to the Arsacid royal family itself, indeed two members had even served as regents: Mushegh and Manuel Mamikonian.
Once the ruling house of Arsacid fell, the Mamikonians were left to dominate both Armenian politics and military affairs within the limitations imposed by their Persian overlords. One of the most powerful early Mamikonian princes was Hamazasp, who married Sahakanyush, the daughter of the First Bishop Sakak c. 439 CE. The marriage unified the most prominent feudal and ecclesiastical families in Armenia and the vast territories of the Mamikonians with those of the descendants of Saint Gregory the Illuminator (dc 330 CE). Over the next three centuries, seven Mamikonian princes would rule Armenia.
Armenian Marzpanate

Armenian Marzpanate


Fortunately for Armenia, Sasanid Persia, although selecting each ruling viceroy, mostly left alone the two key institutions of the Armenian state: the nakharars and the Church. The former were local princes whose ranks and titles were based on the hereditary clans of ancient Armenia, and they governed their own extensive lands as semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Some princes did switch loyalties to the Persians, even converting to Zoroastrianism, in exchange for tax and other privileges under the new regime.
The second institution, the Christian Church founded in Armenia around 314 CE, was not outlawed and crushed. Rather, it was indirectly attacked by the Sassanids through their active promotion of Zoroastrianism, the sending of missionaries from Persia, and reductions in tax privileges for the Church's landed estates. The actual institutions of churches and monasteries themselves, like the nakharars, were largely permitted to keep their lands and revenue, maintain a low profile and live to fight another day.
Matters came to a head with the succession of the Persian king Yazdgird (Yazdagerd) II in c. 439 BCE and his prime minister Mihr-Narseh. Sasanid rulers had long been suspicious that Armenian Christians were all simply spies of Byzantium in Persian territory but both these figures were zealous proponents of Zoroastrianism and the double-edged sword of political and religious policy was about to cut Armenia down to size. The fiscal obligations on the Church were increased, more Persian-friendly bishops were appointed, and a delegation of nobles and clergy invited to Persia was even forced to convert to the Persian religion on pain of death. A military confrontation seemed inevitable, and it came in 451 CE at the Battle of Avarayr (Avarair) when the Armenians faced a massive Persian army.


The battle was preceded by sporadic outbreaks of open rebellion with Zoroastrian temples burned down and even priests killed. There was also a minor Armenian victory against a small force of Persians in the summer of 450 CE. The crisis peaked, though, in May or June 451 CE on the plain of Avarayr (modern Iran). The 6,000 or so Armenians were led by Vardan Mamikonian, the son of Hamazasp, and they presented a genuinely united front of the anti-Persian aristocracy and Church.Unfortunately for the Armenians, help from the Byzantine Empire was not forthcoming despite an embassy sent for that purpose. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Persian-backed marzpan, Vasak Siuni, was nowhere to be seen in the battle either.
Battle of Avarayr

Battle of Avarayr

The Persians, greatly outnumbering their opponents and fielding, besides their ordinary troops, an elite corps of “Immortals” and a host of war elephants, won the battle easily enough and massacred their opponents; 'martyred' would be the term used by the Armenian Church, thereafter. Indeed, the battle became a symbol of resistance with Vardan, who died on the battlefield, even being made a saint. Minor rebellions continued in the next few decades and the Mamikonians, in particular, continued a policy of careful resistance against Persian cultural control. The strategy paid off for in 484 CE the Treaty of Nvarsak was signed between the two states which granted Armenia a greater political autonomy and freedom of religious thought. In this result, the Armenians were helped by the military disasters the Sasanids were enduring on their eastern frontiers and the Persians being fully occupied with the other side of their empire.
Ultimately then, Avarayr was then and still is, seen as a moral victory for Christian Armenia. In political terms, too, the Mamikonians were ultimately successful, as Vahan, the nephew of Vardan, was made the marzpan in 485 CE. During his decade-long reign, Armenia prospered, as is seen in the many new building projects of the period, especially the cathedral at Dvin and many impressive basilicas. Trade also flourished, and the city of Artashat was confirmed as a trading point between the Byzantine and Persian Empires in a Byzantine edict of 562 BCE.


Armenia's zeal for Christianity did bring it closer to the Byzantine Empire and several Mamikonian rulers enjoyed patronage from the emperor in Constantinople when they were given the honorary title Prince of Armenia. However, the Armenian and Byzantine Churches did often differ on matters of dogma. Disagreement with the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE opened a rift which would never be closed. Then the Council of Dvin c. 554 CE declared the Armenian Church's adherence to the doctrine of monophysitism (that Christ has one nature and not two) thus breaking away from the duophysitism of the Roman Church. As in politics, Armenian Christians were having to find their own rocky road between east and west.


Another important figure from the period of Mamikonian rule was the historian Movses Khorenatsi ( Moses of Khoren). Widely known as the father of Armenian history, his History of the Armenians pulled together ancient texts, oral traditions, and the author's own embellishments, and has become the staple historical source of Armenian history ever since it was compiled sometime in the second half of the 5th century CE (although there are some historians who consider Movses to have lived as late as the 8th century CE). The work, at least for western scholars, is notoriously inconsistent with much fabrication but its overall effect is not disputed - it helped to create a sense of continuous history and nationhood for the Armenia people.


By the end of the 6th century CE Armenia was again a point of dispute between Persia and the Byzantine Empire and so a re-division was drawn up, which saw Byzantium acquire two-thirds of Armenia. Worse was soon to come, though. In 627 CE a full-scale war against the Sasanids was carried out by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 CE) and Armenia was caught in the crossfire. This campaign ended the Sassanid control of Armenia but Byzantine rule was to be short-lived following the dramatic rise of a new power in the region, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, which conquered the Sasanid capital Ctesiphon in 637 CE.
Armenia was conquered by the Arabs from Damascus between 640 to 650 CE after decades of playing, as so often before, the role of strategic pawn in a battle of Empires between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. Armenia was formally annexed as an Umayyad province in 701 CE. Although the Mamikonians remained an important clan - several leaders being rallying points for important rebellions in the 8th century CE, their position at the forefront of Armenian politics was ultimately usurped by a new dynasty, the Bagratuni, who would even, by the end of the 9th century CE, establish themselves as the royal family of Armenia.

Movses Khorenatsi › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 02 March 2018
Movses Khorenatsi (Ashnag)
Movses Khorenatsi ( Moses of Khoren) was a 5th-century CE Armenian historian whose work the History of the Armenianshas earned him the title of the “father of Armenian history”. Drawing on ancient sources and ambitiously covering the history of his country up to his own lifetime, Movses' work has been instrumental in helping to create a sense of continuous history and nationhood for the Armenian people.


Movses lived sometime in the 5th century CE, with the date of his birth and death usually put at c. 410 and c. 490 CE respectively, which is the period Movses himself states he lived in. However, as with many other figures in ancient Armenia, such dates are disputed due to conflicting and incomplete sources. The work of Movses does reference sources which were not available in Armenian in the 5th century CE and personalities and places which are only certainly attested to after the 5th century CE. Indeed, there are some historians, notably Robert Thomson, who consider Movses to have lived as late as the 8th century CE, a claim rejected by most Armenian historians.
Movses writes in his book that he was tutored by Mesrop Mashtots, the man credited with inventing the Armenian alphabet in 405 CE. He also says that he was sent to study at Edessa, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Athens, and that he completed his work when in old age.



As Armenian written history began with Movses, he is known as the "the father of Armenian historiography" ( patmahai r), although there were other 5th-century CE historians such as Eghishe, Agathangelos, and Pavstos Buzand. Movses' great work is the History of the Armenians ( Patumtiun Hayots ), which has become one of the most important sources of information on ancient Armenia and its neighbours from the earliest traditions in mythology to the 5th century CE. It was the first book to comprehensively and systematically cover the history of the country. Movses' work pulled together ancient texts in Greek, Assyrian, and Hebrew, oral traditions, and folk tales, and wove them into the classical and biblical tradition to create a unique continuous history of the Armenian people. To this already heady mix was added the author's own embellishments, much to the chagrin of modern historians trying to disentangle truth from fiction, iron out inconsistencies, and reconcile the book's contents with contemporary and later sources. Nevertheless, Movses deserves credit as the first Armenian writer who set out to write a comprehensive history of his country, as here explained by the modern historian RG Hovannisian:
For him the writing of history is not the exposition of divine providence or the preaching of right conduct. Rather, its basic purpose is to bequeath to posterity a reliable record of the deeds of great men - not only heroic and martial exploits, but also noble acts of good governance and accomplishments of learning and piety. There is no place for obscure men and unseemly deeds. (216)


One of the unique contributions Movses made to Armenian history was his recounting of the foundation myth of the nation (some scholars might say 'inventing'). This is the story of Hayk (Haik) and Bel and places the origins of the Armenian people as the descendants of the biblical Noah via his son Japheth. Hayk, a descendant of Japheth, rebelled one day against Bel the evil Babylonian tyrant and returned back to his homeland around Mount Ararat in ancient Armenia, where it was thought Noah's ark had come to rest at the end of the great flood. Bel followed Hayk and his relations so that a mighty battle followed in which Bel was killed. Hayk then gave his name to his descendants, the Hay people, and the name of the region of Armenia in the Armenian language, Hayasa.
Armenian Marzpanate

Armenian Marzpanate


After establishing the origins of the nation to his satisfaction, Movses then proceeds to describe the evolution of the state's political institutions, the Bronze and Iron Age cultures of the region, and the history of the powerful dynastic families of Armenia. These influential clans, or nakharars, dominated the political, civilian, and military sphere of Armenia with their wealth and power based on the feudal fiefdoms they each governed. The families (with their most prominent period in brackets) include:
  • The Orontids (c. 570 - c. 200 BCE)
  • The Artaxiads (c. 200 BCE - c. 14 CE)
  • The Arsacids (12-428 CE)
  • The Mamikonians (428-652 CE)
  • The Bagratuni (post 701 CE but also prominent earlier)
Of these dynasties, Movses gives special treatment to the Bagratuni (the patrons of his work) and minimises that of the Mamikonians. The great kings are given special focus, for example, such figures as Artaxias I (rc 200 - c. 160 BCE) and Tigranes the Great (rc 95 - c. 56 BCE), as well as influential clergy like Saint Gregory the Illuminator (c. 239 - c. 330 CE).
Sculpture of Movses Khorenatsi

Sculpture of Movses Khorenatsi

Movses' work may have chronological inconsistencies and some rulers are confused with others but there are many passages of genuine historical value. Just one example of how Movses' descriptions of events are sometimes supported by archaeological evidence is the following description of the construction of Garni in the second half of the 1st century CE by Tiridates I (Trdat I):
Trdat completed the construction of the fortress of Garni in hard and dressed blocks of stone cemented with iron [clamps] and lead. Inside, for his sister Khosrovidukht, he built a shaded residence with towers and wonderful carvings in high relief. And he composed in her memory an inscription in the Greek script. (quoted in Hovannisian, 68)
In 1945 CE, excavations at Garni revealed a partial stone inscription in Greek which names a ruler Trdat who is described as the “supreme ruler of Greater Armenia”.


The History of the Armenians, first mass-printed in 1695 CE, influenced many later historians and intellectuals, and its comprehensive coverage of Armenia helped to foster an already growing sense of national identity and, indeed, pride from the time it was written right down to the modern day. The historical accuracy of parts of the History of the Armenians may be debatable but it, nevertheless, created a 'received' tradition, which was perhaps the author's primary intention. The book may be an exercise in myth building but it has itself become an integral part of Armenian history and tradition with such passages as the Hayk myth still being taught in Armenian schools worldwide. Indeed, Movses' work still continues to play an important role in discussions on Armenian national identity in the 21st century CE.
This article was made possible with generous support from the National Association for Armenian Studies and Researchand the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies.


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