Armenians existed on approximately the same territory in

Armenians under Byzantine and
Ottoman Rule

Throughout its
long-lasting history, the Armenian nation had its heights and downfalls, it was
a global political player in the region, but also was conquered by nations such
as Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Romans and many others. Byzantium and Ottoman
Empires, who were also among the conquerors, were two powerful states that
existed on approximately the same territory in different periods of time. In
this research, we tried to find how Armenians lived in those two similar but at
the same time very different empires, what were some common features and
distinctions of governances.


under Byzantine Rule

It was a time when the
great Roman Empire suffered from various issues such as Barbarian invasions and
administrative difficulties when the new emperor Constantine the First facing
those problems started to search for a way to revive the falling empire. That
is why he shifted the center of Roman Empire far from the capital of Rome to
the eastern part of the empire, where he founded a new city called after his
name Constantinople. It was a matter of time when Roman Empire divided into two
parts, one of which was Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as a capital. This
new empire lasted thousand years with Armenians being an important part of its

Armenians in Byzantium
were in some periods the most significant ethnic minority. After the partition
of Armenia in 387 between the Roman Empire and the Sassanian state, a part of
Great Armenia was joined to the empire. Starting from this time, there were
significant migrations of Armenians to Byzantine Asia Minor, Constantinople and
the European part of the empire. With the support of Byzantium, which sought to
strengthen its influence in the region, Armenians were living in a peace as
Christianity continued to spread in the Byzantine part of Armenia and cultural
achievements such as the creation of Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots
occurred in the 400s.

Though Armenians were
living relatively peacefully, however, Armenia Minor was turned into ordinary
Byzantine administrative units. The territory was divided into Armenia I and
Armenia II themes. Armenia Interior was governed from the time of partition by
a special civilian official known as the Comes Armeniae (“Count of Armenia”).
Byzantine officials were cooperating with local nakharars in order to maintain
good relationship with local population. Moreover, the hereditary rights of the
nakharars were respected by hereditary ownership of the lands and the transfer
of them by inheritance on the basis of the principle of majorat. Territories
located in the bend of the Euphrates subordinated to the Arshakids only
nominally since 298, since their rulers submitted directly to the emperor.
Armenians were living in peace without threat to national identity.
Nonetheless, this did not last long, since during the reign of Justinian I
(527-565), changes were made, particularly in the administrative structure of
Armenia, which was divided into Armenia I, II, III, IV. Now the supreme command
was carried out by the Byzantine military commander – magister militum per
Armenian, nakharars lost their autonomy, taxation was increased and women were
given the right to inherit. The latter measure inevitably led to the
fragmentation of the possessions of the nakharars, which led to their
discontent4. Soon Byzantine officials started to periodically deport Armenians
to Balkan regions and other parts of the empire. Several nakharar families even
turned for some help to Persia, which using the situation started a new war in

After the war,
Byzantine could get the most of Persian Armenia and changed the administrative
namings of its territories. The depopulation of Armenia strengthened. Emperor
Maurice held the strategy of sending Armenian nakharars to various parts of the
empire. The death of Maurice in 602 caused another war with Persia, which
Byzantine Empire almost lost but could manage to end up victorious. The war
taught the new emperor Heraclius that the Byzantine Empire need a strong ally
on the eastern part in face of Armenia, creating a new role called “prince of
Armenia”, appointing Theodore Rshtuni for this role.


under Ottoman Rule

Ottoman Empire was
created in Anatolia by Osman I at around 1299, however it became leading
political power when Mehmed II conquered the capital of Byzantine Empire
Constantinople. After renaming the city to Istanbul, which means city of Islam,
Ottomans started enlarging their territories and the empire reached its height
in 1520-1566 during the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The presence of
Armenians in the territory of Ottoman empire dates back to ancient times, the
land that was under the Ottoman rule used to be a part of Armenian Royal
dynasties’ lands and contained dense Armenian population. For this reason, till
18th century Ottoman government unofficially called these territories, which
included Erzurum, Van, Bitlis, Diyarbekir, Mamouret-el-Aziz (or Harput) and
Sivas – Ermenistan.

 In 16-18th century Ottomans had fully
institutionalized the empire by organizing their subject people not by
territory or nationality but by religion. Each religious community, such as
Armenians, Greeks and Jews had their community groups called Millets,
supervised by their religious leaders. In order to weaken Ejmiatsin’s influence
Sultan gradually gave more power to the Armenian bishop of Constantinople,
which had more powers compared to bishops of Sis and Aghtamar and by 19th
century he became the de-facto authority for all Armenian religious community.
The millet, in fact, was self-governing it had its schools, hospitals and was
responsible for maintaining law within the community. Armenian Patriarch had
his own small police force and jail, however Armenians together with other
religious minorities were treated as conquered subjects. Armenian people were
not allowed to carry any kind of weapons, instead they had to pay poll taxes,
many Armenian villages were giving young boys to be raised as Muslims and to
serve in special Janissary corps, the practice was called devshire. In the
meantime, rich Armenian bankers and officials, known as Amiras, had a
significant power and influence in the court. They were a part of Ottoman elite
group and were allowed to wear clothes permitted to only ottomans and ride
horses, which were not allowed to other non-Muslims. By some numbers in the
19th century there were some 166 amiras from 77 different families, who
supported and financed many Armenians sometimes having more power in the
Armenian Millet than the Patriarch.

In 1838 some Armenian
middle-class men rebelled against amiras and patriarch and were able to have
their representation in the governance of millet in the form of religious,
civil and other councils. In 1860 May 24th Armenian Millet adopted Armenian
National Constitution, which was included in the Ottoman law in 1863. The
document ensured rights such as education, preservation of traditions and
church, as well as security for the community. However, the document was not
implemented properly connected to the fall of Ottoman Empire and events such as
the Armenian Genocide in the beginning of 20th century.



Both Ottoman and
Byzantine Empires used to be one of the most powerful states of their times,
who conquered many lands and had many nations under their rule. Since both of
them were situated approximately on the same territory and had the same
capital, many of minorities living in their territories were the same such as
Armenians, Greeks and Jews. Armenian had a huge role in the life of both
empires and were one of the most active parts of those. The way of
administrative governance in two empires had similarities and differences. In
Byzantium the Themes were the administrative districts which were based on
territory, meanwhile in Ottoman Empire the administrative distinction was done
by Millets, which was based on the religion of conquered people rather than the
territory they lived in. However, if we look at how Themes and Millets were
governed, we can see similarities and equivalents. So the Comes Armeniae (later
magister militum per Armenian) in Byzantine themes had a very similar role to
Armenian Patriarch in Ottoman millets, because both of them were responsible
for supervising the life of the community and solving the disputes inside of
it. While Nakharars can be considered as equivalents to Amiras, because both
had somewhat power and represented the interests of their people. Since
Byzantines and Armenians were both Christians, even though different branches
after the Council of Chalcedon, Armenians were treated as close to equal
citizens, even though some assimilation policies were constantly implemented by
the governors. While in Ottoman Empire, due to the difference of religion
Armenians were mostly considered as conquered people, were discriminated in
almost all spheres of life and often were made to change their religion. When
it comes to the life of Armenians, in both states Armenians were active in all
spheres and largely contributed to the development of both Byzantine and
Ottoman Empires in many spheres such as education, art, sport, trade, military
and many others.