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In 1240 CE, an Armenian prince by the name of Hasan Jalal Dawla attended the consecration of the Church of St. John the Baptist (in Armenian, Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich) within the monastic complex of Gandzasar (an Armenian name meaning “mountain of treasure”). The event was held on the Feast of the Transfiguration (Vardavar) and, according to the then contemporary historian Kirakos of Gandzak (Ganja, in the Republic of Azerbaijan), it was attended by 700 clergy members, including the Patriarch of the Albanian region, Der Nersess, who came accompanied by several archbishops.
Hasan Jalal Dawla had sponsored the church, construction on which had been initiated in 1218 at Gandzasar, in the highlands of a region that was known to Armenians as Khachen and eventually was considered one of a collective of five provinces that came to be known as the khamsayi melikutyunner (the five principalities), in the region of Artsakh. Elements of the construction style as well as the imagery both on the interior and the exterior of the church have been compared to the visual language associated with the patronage of the leadership of the Great Seljuks and the Seljuks of Rūm, two late medieval polities whose Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim leaders ruled over a large swath of Southwest Asia, from Merv to Konya.
The recent war launched by the Republic of Azerbaijan against the small, primarily Armenian, internationally unrecognized and independent Republic of Artsakh (or, Nagorno-Karabakh) seemed at least partly rooted in propagandistic and opportunistic attempts to place the ethno-religious identities of peoples in both states in direct opposition to each other. And considering how frequently both individuals and collectives seek the establishment of a monolithic, modern, national identity in the medieval period, this seems like an opportune moment to revisit the limits and bounds of identity performance located in an Armenian context in late medieval Artsakh.
This short interlude into the life and times of Hasan Jalal Dawla will present a more flexible reading of the dynamism with which some members of the Armenian nobility were able to layer, inscribe, and display various aspects of their allegiances, positions and worldviews — sometimes via the names they preferred, or the languages they spoke, the clothes they wore, or the kinds of buildings they opted to construct.
Hasan Jalal Dawla, patron of the beautifully domed central church at Gandzasar, was an Armenian prince who was able to maintain independence from the Seljuks as well as carve out a special status under Mongol overlordship. That political arrangement allowed him to expand his own realm of control such that dedication inscriptions by two female patrons (also Hasan’s daughters), Mama Khatun at Gandzasar and Mina Khatun, at the monastic complex of Noravank (located today in the Republic of Armenia and just 150 miles (~241km) southwest of Gandzasar) refer to Hasan, respectively, as the “Prince of Princes of Artsakh” and a “Great King.” Hasan Jalal, descendant of several of the noble families of Armenia, was described by Kirakos of Gandzak as:
… a pious and God-loving man, mild and meek, merciful, and a lover of the poor, striving in prayers and entreaties like one who lived in the desert. He performed matins and vespers unhindered, no matter where he might be, like a monk; and in memory of the Resurrection of our Savior, he spent Sunday without sleeping, in a standing vigil. He was very fond of the priests, a lover of knowledge, and a reader of the divine Gospels.
Although some sources call him by Armenian names (Haykaz or Vakhtangian), the name he used most frequently and became known by (as well as the name of the dynasty he initiated, which lasted through the early 20th century) was Hasan Jalal, an Arabic name with some clear Islamic associations, given that Hasan was the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Beyond using Arabic names, this piety-performing Christian man chose to visually communicate his authority on the canvas of the Church of John the Baptist at Gandzasar that he had personally funded by disseminating representations of himself and his reign within a visual idiom associated with the Seljuk sultanate, a polity whose leadership embraced Sunni Islam.
As Antony Eastmond, A. G. Leventis Professor in the History of Byzantine Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, has explained, “Despite his resolute adherence to Christianity and patronage of many monasteries, many of the outward manifestations of his rule were presented through Islamic customs and titles, most notably in his depiction on his principal foundation of Gandzasar.” In the depiction of himself, located on the drum of the highly unique and stylized dome of the church of St. John the Baptist, Hasan Jalal Dawla appears presenting a model of the church to God and, thus, visually highlighting his patronage to viewers (a common Armenian practice) and also sitting cross-legged, the most common depiction of power of the Seljuk court.
Beyond the depiction of Hasan Jalal Dawla himself on the Church at Gandzasar, Richard McClary, a specialist in Islamic Art and Architecture and Lecturer at the University of York, has further shown that the church represents a very early moment within which an Armenian ruler chose to employ “motifs and techniques from what is generally considered the Islamic tradition.”
McClary illustrates that the elements most clearly associated with regional Islamic architectural traditions that are evident in the structure of Prince Hasan Jalal Dawla’s church include:
- the two recesses topped with polylobed arches that showcase trefoil pendants (on the eastern façade) as “almost identical” to those recesses on the 12th-century entrances of wooden minbars throughout Anatolia, and specifically to those of the Zinciriye Madrasa in Diyarbakir;
- the skylight inside, constructed entirely of muqarnas cells (a honeycomb type of ornamented vaulting that has become synonymous with Islamic architecture).
McClary explains that the presence of an intricate muqarnas program at Gandzasar “indicates the direct involvement of itinerant Armenian masons in the construction of earlier stone-built structures with Turco-Muslim patrons, the lack of epigraphic evidence notwithstanding.” McClary is not the first scholar to highlight the importance of itinerant artisans in the late medieval period, and the work of these individuals — as challenging as it may be to study due to a dearth of epigraphic or textual evidence — offers us unique and exciting insights into the ways in which individuals who were not part of a noble elite moved in between the kinds of religious and cultural spheres that might seem impermeable from our presentist perspective.
Even with his embrace of an Arabic name and his intentional use of an Islamic visual language to express his own power at Gandzasar, in the end the Armenian historian Kirakos of Gandzak suggests that the Armenian Prince Hasan Jalal was killed not because he refused to pay the Mongols their seemingly ever-increasing taxes, but due to his Christian faith. Kirakos writes, “They put wood on his neck and irons on his feet. They dealt with him in this manner because of his strong Christianity, for all the Muslims were inimical to him and urged Arghun to kill him, saying: ‘He more [than others] is hostile to our religion and laws.’” In spite of the pleas of Hasan Jalal’s daughter to a friendly Christian at the Mongol court in Qazvin (Dokuz Khatun), it seems nothing could be done to save Hasan Jalal. Our narrator Kirakos goes on to explain, “The impious executioners went and tore his body into pieces like the blessed martyr Yakovk in whose torments he shared. May he achieve his crown in Christ, our God. So perished the unblemished and pious man, ending his life, keeping the faith, in 710 A.E. .”
Hasan Jalal was killed at Qazvin, after which his son Atabek sent a team of men to find and retrieve his remains such that they could be buried “in his ancestral cemetery at Gandzasar.” While Kirakos of Gandzak would have us believe that he was killed due to his strong embrace of his faith, this kind of simple framing of faith or sin as explanation for all worldly occurrences is not uncommon in medieval Armenian texts. In fact, the reason for Hasan Jalal’s death is far more complicated. Having sworn allegiance to the Mongols in 1236, with time Hasan Jalal befriended a local Mongol ruler, Amir Sartakh. With the help of Amir Sartakh, he was able to expand his territories, achieve inju status from the Mongols in 1256 in return for annual military service to the Mongol army, and became responsible for much of the financial and physical support of the messengers (elchis) of the Mongols in the region. He was also able to marry one of his daughters to Baiju Noyan (son of Chormaghan Khan, one of the most important Mongol generals under Genghis Khan). All of this success within Mongol circles likely made him the target of jealousy and Amir Arghun, head of Mongol taxation, was constantly out to get him. Hasan Jalal was consistently protected by his dear friend Sartakh and it was only in the aftermath of Sartakh’s death that Amir Arghun was finally able to rid his social and political theatre of Hasan Jalal.
In the end, it seems like an oversimplification to imagine identity as the explanation for the murder of an Armenian Christian with an Arabic (and Islamic) name who patronized Christian architecture that was meant to look Islamic and maintained some of the trappings of Armenian Christian elite patrons while also incorporating some of those associated with their Seljuk neighbors, who submitted to Mongol overlordship and fought annually in the Mongol Army and had married his daughter off to an important Mongol commander. Identity, for Armenians and others in the region, has always been complicated.