The first few decades of the eighteenth century were highly fraught ones for Safavid Persia. One of the handful of eyewitnesses to some of these events was one Catholicos Abraham of Crete, who found himself caught up in the Persian resurgence under Nādir Shāh Afshār. Nādir, of Turkoman background, had risen to prominence in the service of the presumptive Safavid heir Ṭahmāsp in the aftermath of the Afghan invasions earlier in the century. Nādir quickly proved himself an apt and ruthless commander- Abraham calls him a ‘second Alexander’- and soon deposed Ṭahmāsp, enthroned Ṭahmāsp’s son and set himself up as regent. He then resumed an already existing struggle against the Ottomans for control of what is now northwest Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which is where Abraham first encountered him. By Abraham’s account, Nādir was extremely courteous and respectful of the Armenian ecclesial leader and of Armenian interests generally (though not always); Abraham relates Nādir’s pious visit (using the Arabic loan zīyāret to describe the visit) to the holy Armenian see of Ējmiatsin.
In the waning days of 1735 Nādir summoned the notables of his domain to assemble on the Mughan Steppe near the confluence of the Kura and Aras Rivers, a region that lies in the modern nation of Azerbaijan. In the course of this long encampment, during which the elderly Abraham was forced to cope with cramped living quarters, snow and rain, and distance from home, Nādir was ‘voluntarily’ acclaimed as Shāh by the assembled notables and military men. The following account takes place in the days before Nādir’s arrival at the assembly; it describes the fortifications set up to protect the camp, and the rather somber, but ecumenical, Epiphany/Christmas celebration (both the Nativity and the Baptism are celebrated) in the Armenian quarter of the camp. As is the case throughout Abraham’s chronicle, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words and titles are used extensively, reflecting the degree of inter-cultural interaction in contemporary Armenian life generally. The presence of Armenian Muslims is also notable, though not particularly surprising in light of the many interactions seen elsewhere in the chronicle.
The deputy of the Great Khan, who supervised and kept watch over all the affairs of the troops in the camp, that is the nasaqçıbaşı ‘Abd ol-Ḥasan Beg, lodged us somewhat to the side of the camp, in cabins made of reeds. Over 500 cabins were prepared on the north bank of the Arax. The day of the Eve of Epiphany we went on an outing on horseback and saw the place were the Arax and the Kura meet. There were two bridges there: One over the Arax before the location of the confluence, and the other, over the Kura, after the confluence of the two rivers. There was a fortification built over small boats, which consisted of wooden launches that were placed on the water beside each other over the span of the river. Thick ropes tied the launches to each other from one end to the other. The ends of the ropes were attached on the top to chains and on the bottom with ropes which resembled the thick cables of the mooring of galleons. Thick logs and boards, attached by nails covered the launches so that people could cross the river. On both sides of the bridge across the Kura River, however, edifices and towers were constructed which resembled forts. They had installed artillery pieces in these forts so that the enemy could not attack unexpectedly and damage the bridge. In addition guards were stationed to protect the bridge day and night…
After visiting all of this, we returned to our quarters, which were an hour’s distance from the confluence of the Arax and the Kura Rivers, for the bridge across the Arax was located within the area were the army was stationed, while the bridge across the Kura was below the camp and we were stationed in the upper part of the camp.
Next day, on a Tuesday, we pitched a large tent, which we had brought from Holy Ējmiatsin and which resembled a church, having a cupola-like top and decorated with drawings, crosses and flowers. I ordered that all born to the faith of the Illuminator to gather there and those [Armenian soldiers] who were in the camp to come to my tent the next day [Christmas Day]. On Christmas Day they all came to my tent and we celebrated the feast of the birthday of Christ, Our Lord. We did so without an altar or liturgy, without any spiritual satisfaction, just like the ancient Israelites who hung their harps on willows. Thus with sad faces and broken hearts out people against my will dressed and taking the few church vessels and religious utensils we had brought with us, which were indispensable for a religious procession, I, together with priests, deacons, and lectors, dressed in robes, dressed in robes and carrying lit candles descended from the tent to the Arax.
There we performed the ceremony of the preparation of holy water by pouring the holy meṛon in the waters of the Arax. The kalantar of Erevan, Melikjan, Melik Hakobjan, Melik Mkrtum, Melik Ēgēn of Dizak were present. At my command he removed the cross from the water. In addition [there were] the kadḳodās of Erevan and the Ararat province, the Armenians in the army, the āqā of Erevan, and distinguished people, such as the sheikh ul-Islam, the qāẓī, and the Khan’s yüz-başı; altogether more than 300 Armenians and Muslims. The amazing thing was that the Persians took the water mixed with the meṛon and anointed their faces with it. I then left them and they went to their own places. We returned to our tent. There were some distinguished people with us whom we had invited to dine with us.
Patmut’iwn of Kat’oghikos Abraham Kretats’i, translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 57-59.
2 thoughts on “Christmas on the Mughan Steppe, 1736”
A fascinating post, and one that takes me close to those parts of the world that most engage my interest. In fact, your whole blog is a triumph! I’ll be back. All good wishes, Phil.
Thanks for the kind words! Do keep coming back- I’ve a pretty much unlimited supply of potential content, just waiting to be typed up…