„Yev Tiroj hreshtaky yerevats’ nrants’“ (“Then the angel of the Lord came to them“), it says in Armenian in the Christmas gospel of Luke. These strange words were heard in January 1212 by the Austrian ambassadors, who had traveled to the court of the King of the Armenians on behalf of the Babenberger Duke Leopold VI.
The Babenberger Leopold VI (1176-1230) is considered the most successful representative of his family. His plans included the detachment of Austria from the Diocese of Passau. For this he needed the support of the Pope, whom he wanted to impress with his special zeal for the Christian faith. In 1207, the Duke promised the participation in a crusade, but postponed his departure. But he was particularly interested in the Orient, also for family reasons. For example, his wife Theodora was a princess from Byzantium.
In 1211 the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto IV, received diplomats from one of the most important allies of the crusaders in the Orient who had come under pressure, i.e. the Armenian King Leon I. He ruled over Cilicia at the Mediterranean (in modern-day Southeastern Turkey), where an Armenian polity had emerged in the 11th century, and had established alliances with the Crusaders as well as a formal union between the Armenian church and the Papacy.
Fig. 1: View from the fortress of Sis (today Kozan in Turkey), where the Austrian envoys celebrated Christmas with the Armenian King Leon on January 6, 1212 (source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/2Walls_View%2C_Kozan_Castle_02.JPG)
After the diplomats of Leon arrived at Otto's court, the emperor sent an embassy to the east. This also included Wilbrand von Oldenburg, capitular in Hildesheim, who became the chronicler of the trip. Also some "honorable men" of the Duke Leopold VI. from Austria belonged to this travel company. By sending his own confidants, Leopold probably also wanted to probe the terrain in the Orient in advance of a possible crusade. The legation arrived in Akkon on August 25, 1211 after several weeks of sea voyage and traveled north from there. In December they met King Leon in Tarsos. The king is said to have received the "envoys of the Duke of Austria" in a particularly honorable manner.
Fig. 2: Map with those places (marked in red) that were visited by the embassy from Austria in 1211/1212 (source: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2019)
The envoys celebrated Christmas with the king at Leon's court in Sis in the highlands on January 6, 1212. The choice of the Armenian and not the Catholic date (on December 25th) may not have been too unusual for Austrian visitors, since the feast of epiphany was also celebrated in the West on January 6th. The church service of the Armenians, however, had developed differently, both linguistically and liturgically, than in the Latin West. However, the priest Wilbrand also saw no problem in celebrating Christmas with the Armenians. These celebrations lasted for eight days and included the water consecration festival, which is also important in other Eastern Churches and commemorated Christ's baptism in the Jordan. Water was sanctified by a cross and consecrated oil (myron). The believers then took this water home.
The ambassadors stayed at Leon's court for several weeks before returning home over the Mediterranean via Cyprus in the spring of 1212. In 1217, Duke Leopold actually started a crusade, which was ultimately unsuccessful militarily. After all, he was recorded as Duke "Tōstrič" in an Armenian chronicle, the first mention of Austria in this language. This was also a reverberation of the 1212 Christmas, a peaceful episode in the otherwise bloody history of the Crusades.
Fig. 3: Christmas liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate in Echmiadzin in Armenia today (source: https://massispost.com/2016/01/armenian-apostolic-church-celebrates-christmas/)
German version of this blog entry published on: https://www.derstandard.at/wissenschaft/wissensblogs/blog-geschichte-oesterreichs
Dr. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is a historian at the Division for Byzantine Research Department of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and conducts research on the global entanglements and environmental history of the medieval world. His lastest book Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen was published in 2018 . Website: https://www.dasanderemittelalter.net/.