26 July 2013, 17:24
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The Great Secret of Ayrudzi

The history of the mankind is predominantly the history of wars. The world’s armies march across the pages of history textbooks; fighting battles while constantly advancing their weapons technology and fighting tactics. We have a profound understanding of Greek and Roman military arts, but the history of the Armenian armed forces of the remote past remains untold.

The oldest known Armenian armed divisions were comprised of archers. The qualities of this tactical unit were so high that they were distinguished from others by Armenian as well as foreign historians. The bow and arrow as a component of Armenian military arts has a history grounded in the battle of 2492 B.C., when Bel, the leader of Babylonians, was shot by Haik’s own arrow. This battle was also the first reported use of the “wedge” as a form of front-line tactics. Haik positioned himself at the top of the “wedge.” According to the Armenian historian Khorenatsi, Armenian bows were long (up to 2 meters) and the arrows had three-feathered ends which lead to high precision and long range. Later, the structure of the arrows was improved by attaching one of the feathered wings loosely. When this improved arrow struck the enemy, it would break with any attempt to dislodge it. The loose wing was designed to remain in the wound, causing infection and death. These arrows were so long that when they reached the rival army unbroken, they were used as short spears. All well-equipped ancient armies used archery to support their main troops; in this tactic the early Armenian warriors were not unique. The main force was made up of heavily armed warriors. In the case of the ancient Armenians, war chariots were the main tactical unit as early as1000 B.C. 
Metal was an essential part of effective weaponry. A special metal-working technology was developed for war chariots and other high-quality weaponry. The Armenian Plateau can justifiably be considered as the cradle of metallurgy in the ancient world. Our ancestors developed the most widely-used process of smelting mineral ore to produce iron between 1200 and 1000 BCE. Early metal weapons were found in archeological sites, particularly at the Metsamor metallurgical complex. They were also mentioned in Khetkhian and Assyrian chronicles. We can reconstruct the structure and usage of ancient weapons with reasonable approximation with the fragments of chariots found in Lchashen, Karmir-Blour, Toprakh-Kale and others sites. The front and the sides of the chariots were protected by the metal plates over 50 centimeters height. The chariots were equipped with quivers with bows, spears, and other weapons. These war chariots were positioned on the flanks of the unit and their swift attacks caused panic and disorder in the front lines of the opponents. This allowed the Armenian infantry to defeat the disarrayed lines of the enemy with ease. That said, the chariots had a significant disadvantage – they were practically useless over broken ground, and could have been used only in open fields. The Greek infantry lines had the same problem; although a deadly force in head-on attacks, they were not able to maneuver on broken ground. In such cases, the Greek phalanx scattered, becoming an easy targets for their opponents. The Romans solved this problem by breaking their legions into separately controlled subdivisions – maniples. 
It is notable that the Romans won their battles predominantly by using their infantry. The Roman cavalry was short in numbers and did not have a decisive role. This was true for all ancient world combats. Alexander the Great was the only one who used the cavalry, albeit one small in relative number, in combination with phalanxes, which immediately led to his winning outcomes. Some historians are prone to see the general ineffectiveness of the ancient cavalry as caused by absence of a stirrup. Indeed, it would have been difficult to ride a galloping horse wearing armor and carrying weapons, or fight with a sword while hanging low from a horse, if one did not have the support of stirrups. The lack of stirrups also made jumping over obstacles while on horseback. Even when throwing a spear, a horseman needed stirrups for balance. These reasons presage the fact that centuries later, with the widespread use of the stirrup, mounted warriors were ever more significant in battle outcomes. Although rare in the ancient world, there was at least one army that used the cavalry as their main shock force – the Armenians. 
Another possible cause of the limited use of the cavalry in Greek and Roman battle units was simple – a cavalry needs horses, and generally a great many of them. Tens of thousands of riders (the number in the Armenian cavalry) needed tens of thousands horses of a special breed. Moreover, these numbers needed constant replenishing. Armenia, in contrast to other countries of the ancient world, had a well-developed horse-breeding trade, and had no problem keeping their riders well-mounted. Horse breeding in Armenia had a strategic significance and was under the protection of the state. Since the Kingdom of Urarty there were complex structures with stables, racetracks, riding-halls, and washing facilities for the horses. When Armenia fell under control of Akhmenidian Persia, it paid its dues not only in silver and gold, but also by large numbers of the best-bred horses and mules. This information comes to us from the inscriptions on the Bekhistounian Rock. This inscribed stone had a list of all regions that paid their dues to Persia following the orders of King Darius. Armenia was the only country from those listed that paid its dues in horses –animals that were valued as highly as gold and silver.
Beginning in 1000 B.C. the chariots of the Armenian army were gradually replaced by a more flexible and dynamic tactical unit – the cavalry; which in Armenian is called “ayrudzi” (“ayr” u “dzi” means “man” and a “horse”). Ayrudzi brought glory to the Armenian armies of the past; and even after Armenia had lost its independence, it was highly valued and had an important strategic significance for the region. The core of the Armenian army was the heavy cavalry. The soldier and his mount were securely encased in armor. The main weapons of this era were spears and heavy swords. The heavy cavalry was the strike force of the army -- it attacked in closed ranks, most commonly in the form of a “wedge.” The swift attacks of multi-thousand close-ordered rows had a devastating effect on the infantry as well as the cavalry of the opponents. The armored horde simply shattered the enemy- it scattered their lines and trampled the enemy so that the other units had only to finish them off.
The next tactical unit of the Ayrudzi was the light cavalry – to ensure its high mobility it was not armored. The horses were chosen accordingly – light, swift, and short in conformation. The main weapons of light cavalry units were the bow and arrow and swords. The light cavalry ensured the battle formation of the whole army, carried out the reconnaissance operations, supported the actions of the main fighting units, pursued and destroyed the enemy, and prevented the enemy from regrouping. As a rule, the light cavalry attacked in scattered lines, maneuvering and refraining from close combat. Many centuries later the same tactics were successfully used by the Mongolians.
The Ayrudzi units, both heavy and light, consisted predominantly of nobility, whose upbringing necessarily included horse riding. During the full-scale combat operations the army recruited horsemen from lower classes of society – “ramik ayrudzi.” The royalty consistently supported and sponsored ayrudzi. All cavalry was under direct control of members of the royal family who personally oversaw the training and parades of the cavalry. The army in general was the core of the state, its primary formation. The high position of the “sparapet” (commander-in-chief) was passed along patrilineal hereditary lines and belonged to the Mamikonian dynasty. The unique document “Zoranamak” about the classification and the size of the Armenian army also presents evidence about the special attention of the government towards its military forces.
Ayrudzi confirmed its fame as an unbeatable military unit through its numerous victories in battle. For example, in the battle of Gaugamela on October 1, 331 B.C. the Armenian cavalry was the most heavily armed unit among Darius’ many troops. It was stationed in front of the other cavalry units and fought valiantly, crashing through the front lines, ending up in the rear of the Macedonian troops. The left flank of Alexander of Macedon, the army of Parmenion, was forced into retreat by the Armenians. If at the opposite side of the battlefront, Darius had not broken and the Persians had not fallen into disarray, the victorious history of Alexander the Great would have ended that day. Additionally, in 68 B.C., at the battle at the River Artaxata, Tigran fought against the Roman legions of Luccullus, using only the cavalry – unprecedented strategy in the history of war. The heavy cavalry scattered the front lines of the Romans, and the light cavalry completed the task.
The international role and the influence of the Armenian cavalry was so significant that during the Roman-Parthian War and later, during the Persian- Byzantine War, the opposing enemy states competed to attract the Armenian cavalry to their side. Incidentally, the failure of the Eastern campaign of Crassus and Anthony was attributed by Roman historians to the lack of the powerful support from the Armenian cavalry.
It is interesting that after the fall of the Arshakid’s dynasty in the 5th century B.C. the Persian and Byzantine royal courts continued hiring the ayrudzi and paying generously for their military services. Later, out of security concerns, the Persian royal court cut down the number of the Armenian horsemen to 30,000, a number that was reduced to 15,000 during the Arab governance. One might ask: what was its number before that? It is known that during the reign of Pap (IV century B.C.) the Armenian cavalry consisted of up to 90,000 horsemen. Its size and prowess presented a truly considerable threat for neighboring armies.
From the dawn of the Byzantine Empire, all Byzantine emperors hired only Armenians as their personal bodyguards and royal court guards. Later, when the throne was passed to the descendants of the Armenian royal clans, that tendency strengthened. The Armenian warriors, particularly cavalrymen, were very well accepted. The commanders were granted high military rank and position, and the soldiers were generously rewarded. The Byzantine emperors positioned large Armenian divisions in their capitol city and in the Eastern provinces as well as Italy and Sicily. During the reign of Justinian I several armies were comprised exclusively of Armenians. These armies liberated Italy from the Goths, and Nerses (a.k.a Narses) their commander-in-chief, became the governor of that Western province. The Armenian warriors were also highly respected in Bulgaria and Northern Africa. Legends were told about their bravery. During the period of Byzantine Empire more than a hundred Armenian chief officers became distinguished military commanders. However, there is no army that can exist forever without its homeland and without its own government. After the defeat of the Byzantine army at Manazkert by the Turks in 1071, the Armenian cavalry divisions, which also included Russian units, moved to the East.
The Egyptian Caliphs-Fatimids tried to prevent the Turkish expansion and invited the Armenian troops to join in an attempt to restore the control and order in their country. The Armenian troops took over Cairo and Alexandria and suppressed the rebellion of the Bedouins in Upper Egypt. Moreover, their commander, supported by his powerful military force, took over the position of the vizier of the Caliphate and successfully ruled the country for many years.
The last known mission of the Armenian cavalry was during the Cilician Armenian Kingdom, after the fall of which it disappeared from historical accounts; although revealing itself from time to time in the armies of various countries. In particular, the Armenian horsemen participated in one of the greatest battles of medieval Europe, the Battle of Grunwald (or 1st Battle of Tannenberg) on the side of the united Russian-Polish-Lithuanian forces against the Knights of the Teutonic Order. Later the Armenian cavalry was recalled by Peter the Great, who formed the “Armenian Squadron” which consisted predominantly of warriors from Artsakh. It fought in battles in Caucasian and Caspian regions during the Russian-Turkish and Russian-Swedish wars. The bravery of the Armenian horsemen was highly recognized. After the discharge of the squadron in 1764, those who did not continue their service in other regiments, received a full acting soldier’s salary for life by a special order of the royal court
Today the deeds of the Armenian horsemen can be found only in historical documents. Information about the Armenian army and its weaponry is not included in European illustrated catalogues. But there is such a thing as a succession of generations. Observing the Armenian army of today, one rightly thinks: “These are the worthy heirs of the heroes of the past.”

Yerevan Magazine, Summer, N1, 2008

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