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How the Spanish Monarch Presented Madrid to the Last King of Cilician Armenia: an Excerpt from Kostan Zaryan’s Novel “Spania”

How the Spanish Monarch Presented Madrid to the Last King of Cilician Armenia: an Excerpt from Kostan Zaryan’s Novel “Spania”

Madrid still can’t forget this adventure, and not only Madrid, the whole Spain can’t forget it. Imagine only!

The director of the city library tall, sleek man with a broad Roman face and with a monocle in his eye is  standing in front of the chair where I am invited to sit down, and looks at me with interest, somehow suspiciously and a little puzzled.

— Oh, yes, — he says, — yes, senor, something like that really did take place... Imagine! Amazing, incredible, like everything in our Castile!...

He adjusts his monocle, raises an eyebrow and confusedly looks into my eyes. — Imagine…

He looks so dumbstruck that I can’t help laughing. He also tries to smile.

— So you can’t deny, — I say jokingly, — that we have certain rights to Madrid.

The expression of his face becomes serious, he hides the monocle and looks at me in a frightened way.

— I don’t know, — he says seriously, — don’t know. Anyway, your case rather concerns the city mayor’s office…

In half an hour we were already good friends. (…) making sure that I wasn’t there to demand Levon Fifth’s inheritance, he calmed down. (…)

— You must agree, — continues he with a smile, — the purely Castilian generosity of our king has gone too far. What would you say if someone took and gave three, I repeat, the three most important cities of your country with all rights, even to a very worthy, a very unhappy and a very Christian, but still completely alien king! ...

— This demonstrates the generosity and majesty of a Castilian soul…

— Yes, imagine…

He gives me a cigar, and goes to his office, holding the head high.

And it was so everywhere. In state institutions, in the library of the Academy, in the editorial staff of the daily newspaper, within private conversations ... Eyes, wide-eyed, confused expression of faces, frowning eyebrows.

— Just imagine!...

* * *

By 1383, Sierra Nevada was a vast desert around the ruined Madrid fortress. There were snowstorms and blizzards in winter and sun and dust — in summer. 

This insignificant city in the heart of Castile, standing on a modest hill, consisted of several rows of houses with flat roofs and narrow windows that were creeping into each other, separated by crooked streets, so that the inhabitants could jump from one roof to another during the invasion of the enemy.

Sierra Nevada / Jose Luis Naussa 

When the bells of the church, located on the highest point, rang inside the fortress, when the giants in silk robes and with long sabers went upstairs, the houses in the city trembled and the streets echoed with a deep echo of the deep gorge.

But the cities in those days were not so much a habitat, as a sign confirming the hereditary rights of nobles. (...)

In the courtyards, in iron chests, in collapsed basements, in caves dug under foundations, letters decorated with heavy stamps were kept, under which the king’s ornate signatures and numerous witnesses stood, letters and many notarial jurisprudence were mixed with letters of evangelical style, an oath – with  a curse, an apocalypse – with a  land measured in miles.

The whole Sierra was enclosed in parchment.

They looked at the lands taken away from the Arabs with envious eyes. The struggle for them was long and ruthless. There was a bloody monument on every piece of land. To the howling of the snow blizzards of the Sierras mixed with voices of thousands of victims. (...) And the war still continued.

19th century portrait fantasy of Juan I / Vicente Arbiol y Rodríguez

Juan I, “hidalgo of hidalgo, knight of knights, brave warrior, humble and true Christian, majestic monarch and proud Castile”, sat on the throne at the age of twenty-one and immediately won the sympathy of the people.

He issued a lot of new laws, forced the population, divided into classes, to wear different clothes, granted special, almost autonomous rights to cities and villages, granted forgiveness to all criminals, banned begging and ordered to find work for the poor, restrained bribe—taking of judges and forced the people to honor the new code.

Juan I was a powerful monarch.

His highly-organized army cleared Spain of its internal enemies (…).

Protect the cross from the ghetto. Save the soul of Spain, for Spain is the heart of Christ. And the bells of the Toledo Cathedral sounded so loud that they could be heard in Rome. And all over the world. (...) And Juan I himself, surrounded by arrogant knights and higher clergy, entered the temple, knelt before the altar with hundreds of candles and indulged in prayer.

* * *

In 1383, the king suffered great sorrow. He had just signed peace with Portugal, when the news came from Madrid that Queen Donna Leonora, young and beautiful queen (...) passed away during the childbirth. Juan the First was upset. (...) He was going to Madrid to solemnly transfer the body of Leonora to Toledo and bury her in the chapel (…).


Juan retired to pray in one of the rooms and then stretched out on his bed. At dawn, when they were preparing to continue the journey, the king was suddenly informed that two messengers from Babylonia wanted to see him.

A knight and a monk appeared before the king.

— The great king, we are servants of Christ, came from the country of Babylon on behalf of the Armenian king suffering in captivity...

Juan did not believe his eyes. So, the sky heard his promises, then the Almighty already requires tribute? And the voice was coming from such a distance!

— Come on, you can say it!

First, pressing his pale—wax hands to his chest and bending his knees, the monk of the Uniate Order spoke with hollow cheeks. His big eyes were full of misery, his voice trembled with excitement. In the words of his vulgar Latin, which the Dominican monk translated, were heard   waves of sorrow.  From the immense fields of the eastern world a great cry arose. Wild tribes descended, destroyed cities, burned villages, turned into ashes of the state. Solitudinem faciunt, o rex [They desolate everything, oh the King! (Latin)]. Protectors of the cross, princes and grandees are slaughtered, people groan in captivity of the infidels, women and young virgins...

The sob was interrupted by the monk’s speech: — Help, help, pro Deo et Eсclesia!... (In the name of Gog and the church) (Latin)

Then, a tall red—bearded knight in a black robe with a red cross on his chest knelt started speaking. His thick low voice sounded loud and expressive. When he was worried, black curls on his shoulders shook, his eyes burned. He told the king, under what circumstances the Armenian Cilician kingdom disappeared on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. He told how the Armenian King, a representative of the noble Lusinyan dynasty, after unequal battles "in the name of the holy Orthodox Christian church", fell into the hands of the Sultan and still endures indescribable sufferings. In vain, he waited for the intervention of Christian sovereigns, with whom the Armenian knights spoke together in the heroic Crusades to liberate the Holy Sepulcher, and in vain they appealed to the rulers of other countries to help the king in distress, who dreams of returning his lands and starting a new struggle in the name of Holy Trinity. And now, having heard about the brave noble and powerful king of Castile, whose Christian piety is known to the whole world, the Armenian king instructed them to ask for aid, to rescue the infidels and save  Christian honor.

A Medieval Cilician fortress / Andra Moclinda-Bucuţa 

At the last words, the knight was extremely upset, stopped for a minute, stretched his arms up and in a tragic voice exclaimed in French: “In the name of God we ask you, Oh King of Castile, in the name of Saint Mary,  to free the  grievous captive Armenian king.”

The King of Castile ordered to send ambassadors to the Sultan of the infidels for the salvation of the Christian king. He didn’t really imagine where that powerful sultan—barbarian was, what country he ruled over and where the country was, called Armenia. He only knew that in the East there is a country of Babylonia, which is spoken of in the Bible and near which is Jerusalem, the grave of Christ, the country of magicians ... But in the depths of his soul Juan was sure that the message of ambassadors was dictated by divine will. God wants to experience it. And maybe it is Leonora’s soul crying out to him. May God's will be fulfilled, may this Christian act be done in memory of Leonora, for her salvation.

— I will do my best to free my brother, the Armenian king Levon.

— Ambassadors should take with them the richest gifts that can be found, — said the knight.

— Quickly find the best gifts! — ordered the king of Castile.

And from the royal treasury were selected rich fabrics, gold embroidered velvet, fine Cordoba silks, fine weapons made of Toledo steel and many gold and silver objects. (...)

— Oh, lord the king, — the monk intervened, — this barbarous despot of Babylon is arrogant, he demands that the Christian kings address him with all humility, with an obedient and lowest prayer.

At these words, the eyes of the surrounding Juan First flashed, and the edges of their swords began to tremble.

— Let Gonzalo Martinez, the court chronicler, immediately write such a petition, — the king announced addressing his court and added: “this tearful petition will be to the tyrant of the infidels a lesson of Christian humility and love, as well as an expression of the Castilian spirit that has not yet been heard in the annals”(...).

And while Juan was traveling to Madrid, in order to fulfill his sad mission, the ambassadors appointed by him, along with the people of King Levon, were making  final preparations for the long and dangerous journey.

* * *

Here, this half-fairy semi-story, seen mainly by the eyes of Spanish chroniclers, could be enriched with a multitude of descriptions. It would not be difficult, for example, using the works of various authors, from Marco Polo to Rui González de Clavijo, to depict the departure of the delegation of Juan, who was on a journey full of dangers, as the same Clavijo testifies, the delegation passed through all storms and winds on the way subjected to the constant threat of attack by pirates and robbers and experienced thousands of misadventures.

It would also be possible to give a description of the countries through which they most likely passed, those startling languages and dialects that they heard, how they got to their destination, came to the Sultan’s palace (here, paint as much as possible an abundance of epithets expressing trepidation, shudder and excitement) fell at his feet, how they persuaded him and finally hugged  the Armenian king who had suffered in the prison and informed him in sobs of happiness that he was free.

What could not be told about those terrible times! About the hordes of Tamerlane, rushing from India to Syria, about the pyramids of 70 thousand skulls erected by him! About the miserable condition of Constantinople, ready to be besieged by Turks. (...) On the destruction of the eight—thousand—year irrigation system of the Mediterranean and the transformation of the land into a desert. About the ruthless rule in Egypt, the Mamluks — the estate, which led its genealogy from captured Christian boys. About the craven and vicious friendship of the Byzantines with the Turks and their willingness to sacrifice Christian countries in the name of that friendship.

About the stupid politics of ignorant, miserable popes, whose personal dislike for Armenians and a thirst for revenge, whose vanity and petty calculations can be considered one of the greatest crimes in the world. Just think — in 1269, the powerful Khubilai sent a delegation to Rome with a request to send a hundred trained clergy to spread Christianity among his people. It was a unique and wonderful opportunity to curb and raise barbaric hordes! Khubilai's envoys waited two years without any results. The clerical parties fought with each other for the papal throne. And when, finally, Pope Innocent IV was elected as a Pope, he deigned to send to the East only two illiterate Dominican monks, who were so little inspired by their mission that they did not even get to the place. Two ignorant Dominican monks to convert one of the most powerful empires of the world to Christianity.

The Catholic authority, on which the unfortunate Lusinyan laid so many hopes, was going through decay. The monstrous puppets who spoke in the name of Christ pursued only personal or group interests. (...)

In 1261, the Greeks conquered Constantinople from the Latin emperors. Michael VIII forever severed ties with the popes. And Rome, vindictive and narrow—minded, responded with conspiracies, insidious intrigues and taking incredible forms of hatred towards those Christians who blindly did not submit to his power. But what power ?! (...)Clashes, intrigue, anger. (...)

Small Armenia was full of ignorant and evil Latin clergy, who were just setting a part of the Armenian people against another. They sought to divide, to bring discord.

Morally, it was more evil than the invasion of the Turks.

Under the guise of carriers linguam armeniam elegantem [Aristocratic Armenian (lat.)] swarmed snakes and scorpions, croaking crows, who immediately flew away when the danger knocked on our door.

The Armenian people remained, and the black and inexorable centuries followed. (...)

And in the midst of all this horror remained our blessed Levon the Fifth, lonely and upset. In some ways, Hamlet, running after his father's ghost. I want to inform you that in all the chronicles, books and manuscripts that I have seen, there is not even a mention of the Armenian people, not a word about their suffering, their lost freedom. There is only a mention of Levon, the return of the throne of his ancestors, the Sultan and the orthodox Catholic faith.


And anxious, envious glances of different tribes. Murmurs and whispers.

None of them believed that the “Sultan of Babylon” would give freedom to the Armenian King. Deep down everyone was confident and calm. It seems that Juan himself had no great hopes. A year passed, as the delegation had departed, and still no news. (...)

Juan the First was near the border with Portugal when he was informed that the delegation sent to the Sultan returned with the Armenian king rescued from captivity.

Juan was so happy, that immediately ordered to prepare for the solemn meeting with the unfortunate king in Badakhos. Just think, the captured king, freed from the country of Babylon! The biblical scene where the main character is the powerful monarch of Castile...

And here is this melodramatic scene.

Juan the First, in a majestic pose, sits on a throne surrounded by grandees and servants. Levon the Fifth, barely seeing Juan, rushes to the ground and tries to kiss his feet. Touched by this sentimental scene, Juan lightly jumps up from the throne and hugs  Levon, thus showing, as the Spanish historians say, “if he rescued him from evil hands, this does not mean that he wanted to see him miserable and humiliated”.

And immediately, wanting to show that this is so and not otherwise, he orders to give the unfortunate king the best golden cloths, silver trimmed weapons, jewelry and everything that will help him to compensate for the lost oriental luxury. 

But, as if this is not enough — imagine, senor! — he, driven by some uncontrollable feeling, goes to such an extreme that it cannot be found in all of medieval history: he gives him, that foreigner, the three cities that make up the heart of Castile —  Madrid, Andujar and Villarreal.

Madrid! Leave the others, but Madrid, this diamond in the crown of Castile! ...

And here the melodrama turns into a real drama.


The fact that the fate of the unfortunate king of a faraway country can cause compassion and a high sense of mercy in the souls of believers is understandable. That it was fair to give generous help to the king who lost all his wealth is also understandable. That this king had to contribute with money and weapons, so that he could win his country and restore his traditional rights, is also understandable. But — to take and give him the three most important cities belonging to the crown of Castile and to appoint him as their lord, to whom the most noble and proudest nobles are obliged to submit, it is terrible, it is unforgivable! …

In the palaces of grandees secret meetings are convened. There are different groupings there: the city council, whose rights have been violated, landowners and merchants who may lose their monopoly rights, and the people who will be headed by a newcomer, oriental barbarian.

This universal concern has, above all, a material background. The aristocracy has sacred, enshrined in law rights to income from these cities. How will the new owner begin to manage the property. An Oriental man is a Christian, but in his heart he is still a sultan, a despot, but what about that!

When Juan was informed about ripening protest, he was very sad. He declared: if the noble people of Castile really want to serve him, let them resignedly obey his will, and that is adamant.

On October 9, 1383, Juan gave an order to the representatives of the city council and the notary public to prepare and sign a decree in Segovia, according to which Madrid and two other cities are given to the Armenian king.

View of Segovia / Carlos Delgado

Juan honestly fulfilled his promise. The people of Madrid agreed to be subject to King Levon.

On October 12, 1383, King Levon arrived from Segovia in Madrid.

The new ruler was solemnly met by the people. Together with the expression of loyal feelings, the mayor's office and the Council presented a petition in which they noted that, according to the will of the Council, the privileges, rights and freedoms of the city should be preserved. To this petition, Juan I responded with full agreement and publicly explained the reasons that prompted him to give such rights to the Armenian king who had been deprived of the inheritance. The main reason was that the unfortunate king sacrificed everything, even his kingdom in the name of preserving the "Catholic holy faith."

Juan was forced to make such a statement, for the movement against the Armenian king had a dangerous character. Is it really true that this king is a faithful Catholic? The monks living in the East claim that Armenians have always been enemies of the papacy, dissenters and persecutors of Catholic preachers ...

And even if we assume that the Armenian king is a true Catholic, who can guarantee that after his death a dissenter will not seize his inheritance and will not force the people to his satanic faith?

Read the rest of the story here

Kostan Zaryan, novel “Countries and Gods: Spania” (1935-1938).

Translated by Manan Ajamyan.

Source: Aniv Magazine.


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