An Armenian-Kurdish battle from the 10th century

Medieval historians will be interested in a newly translated primary source: The Universal History of Step'anos Tarōnec'i. Edited and translated by Tim Greenwood, it is a history of the world from ancient times to about the year 1005. Step'anos Tarōnec'i was an Armenian scholar interested in examining the role of his own country in the wider world. The Byzantines, Arabs and Persians all had interests in the Caucasus region, and Step'anos’ chronicle offers a lot of material relating to these medieval peoples as well as his own.

15th century map of Armenia and the Caucasus region

One of the final sections of this chronicle details the Battle of Aphahunk, which took place in the year 998. During the 990s David III Kuropalates, the Armenian ruler of a principality known as Tao, had been expanding his power, and this would lead to a confrontation with a Kurdish dynasty known as the Rawadids.

According to Step'anos, the Rawadid ruler Mamlan I decided to launch a raid into David’s lands in retaliation for the destruction of a mosque in the city of Manzakert. From his capital city of Tabriz, the Rawadids gathered “a massive army" of Persians and descended on the district of Aphahunk, now part of eastern Turkey. In response, David recruited his kinsmen and allies - the Kings of Armenia and Iberia (present-day Georgia) to send him 6000 troops each. The ruler of Tao then gave command of this joint army to one of his underlings because, according to Step'anos, “he was an old man and advanced in years.”

The chronicler then explains that when the Armenian-Iberian army reached Aphahunk they established a camp on a “rocky outcrop” suitable for a defensie stand. There they remained for many days, while the Rawadids were nearby. Step'anos writes:

When the forces of the Persians realized that they did not want voluntarily to come down to them [to do] battle, and especially when they realized their lack of numbers in comparison to their own multitude, on the first day of of the month of are, a Monday [18 October 998], towards dawn, they rose and set out a formation in a complicated disposition; they fashioned a battle-line across the face of the broad plain employing a Dalmastanean shield-wall. They went and drew near to the hill of the camp of the Armenians and Iberians. The sight of them was reckoned terrible in terms of its multitude by the onlookers; their number was reckoned to be 100,000 Persian infantry and cavalry. They gave a shout to prepare for battle and advance to the arena and to the place of encounter. The forces of Armenians and Iberians were afraid and sent [to them], ‘Let us do battle not today, but on another day.’ Then the Persians boasted arrogantly and sent messengers to them, ‘Willingly or unwillingly, let us engage today.’

Despite the challenge, only a few soldiers from the Armenian-Iberian side came down to engage in single combat, with five Iberians being killed. However, it seems that discipline within the Rawadid forces broke down, as they started to abandon their battle-line to attack the enemy camp. “Each one galloped and charged in order to plunder booty and pillage, as if ransacking corpses or refugees,” writes Step'anos.

In the next section, the chronicler describes how the Armenians and Iberians defended themselves, although the account seems to pivot to a more literary retelling:

They were organized not according to the formation of a line of battle, but everyone charged by family and seniority of contingents, roaring like lions, towards the forested multitude of the army of the Persians. They veered in attack against the right side; the Armenian force charged against the great crowd of people inflicting numerous wounds and striking deadly and deep sword-blows, they turned the savage barbarians with cruel thrusts. The Kamrakelk, the celebrated Mesxuni brothers, of the Iberian army struck with powerful strength, destroying either the cavalryman or the horse cut in two. Out of fear of them, they [the Persians] became scattered and they happened to encounter the whole force of Tayk’ stretched out; they scattered their corpses dead underneath their feet, the horses following this same example; like a fire kindled in forests or like eagles swiftly pouncing on startled flocks of birds. Here one could see streams of blood that became channels, and rivers were flowing, the corpses stretched out and the half-dead fallen among the dead.

At this point Mamlan retreated with his remaining forces, while the Armenians and Iberians pursued the fleeing troops until sunset. The Rawadid camp was also thoroughly plundered, and Step'anos concludes his account of the battle by noting:

The joy was even greater because, apart from the first five men who had died from the force of Iberia in single combat, no one else had been struck with a sword and no one was found dead out of all the multitude of Armenians and Iberians.

The Universal History of Step'anos Tarōnec'i, translated by Tim Greenwood is published by Oxford University Press. This is the first ever English translation of this work Click here to visit the publisher’s website to learn more about the book.

Want to learn more about warfare at the end of 10th century? Check out Georgios Theotokis' article 'Byzantines and Fatimids at war: The battles of the Orontes and Apamea' in Medieval Warfare VII:2.

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