KEMĀḴ (Turk. Kemah), a town in eastern Anatolia (lat. 39° 35' N, long. 39° 01' E), located on the southern bank of the Western Euphrates (Turk. Karasu) about 60 km west of Arzenjān (Turk. Erzincan). It was well known in medieval times for its formidable fortress, described with some rhetorical excess by Ebn ʿArabšāh (d. 854/​1450) as being “as fortified and invulnerable as the faith of the devout worshipper” with “strong foundations on inaccessible cliffs” while “on one side the river Euphrates kisses its feet, on the other a wide valley guards its loftier parts” (tr. Sanders, p. 174).

The town of Kemāḵ (Arm. Kamakha; Gk. ϰάµαχα, also known as Ani-Theodosiopolis; see Ramsay, pp. 305, 447-48; Pauly-Wissowa, X/2, p. 1799) is of some antiquity. It was certainly of importance to the Arsacids of Armenia (Aršakuni; see ARMENIA AND IRAN ii; ARSACIDS vii), as it was the site of a royal necropolis and the tomb of Tiridates III (r. 287-330; Kavtaradze, p. 49).

In the early Islamic period, Kemāḵ was a frontier outpost that was often caught up in the Byzantine-Muslim border wars. Kamḵ (or Kamāḵ, Ḥesn Kamḵ) was well known to the classical Muslim geographers (see Le Strange, p. 118), but early historical accounts in Arabic are basically limited to a brief reference to it as a bastion against the Khazars and Georgians (Ṣanāriya) by Yaʿqubi (ed. Houtsma, II, p. 447) and a relatively long account by Balāḏori (Fotuḥ, pp. 184-85; tr., I, pp. 288-89) of campaigns there. According to the latter, the town was attacked unsuccessfully by both Ḥabib b. Maslama Fehri and Ṣafwān b. Moʿaṭṭal Solami during the third invasion of Armenia (ca. 24/645-6); in 59/678-9, Ṣafwān, with the assistance of ʿOmayr b. Ḥobāb Solami, managed to capture the fortress temporarily. It was alternately under Muslim or Byzantine control; in 751 the Byzantine emperor Constantine V (r. 741-75), taking advantage of the chaos caused by the ʿAbbasid revolt against the Omayyads, dispatched an Armenian general who captured Kemāḵ and garrisoned its fortress (Brooks, pp. 121-22).

In 149/​766-7, the ʿAbbasid caliph al-Manṣur launched a major campaign to recapture the area. The ethnically diverse ʿAbbasid army, composed of Arabs, Persians, and other peoples (Chabot, tr. p. 72), was led by ʿAbbās b. Moḥammad, brother of al-Manṣur, and his general, Ḥasan b. Qaḥṭaba. The bombardment of the fortress at Kemāḵ was ineffectual, and ʿAbbās lost two hunded of his men to the stones hurled back at them by the defenders. Finally, with the aid of mantelets (dabbāba), his forces supposedly stormed the fort, but if so they did not hold it long before it returned to Byzantine control. A rather different, and remarkably detailed, account of this campaign was provided by the author of the Zuqnin Chronicle (pseudo-Dionysius; Chabot, tr., pp. 72-83; see Kennedy, pp. 106-7), which indicates that ʿAbbās and the “Persians,” frustrated by famine, cold, and the tenacity of the defenders, never actually took the castle. Kemāḵ did fall to another ʿAbbasid army on 14 Rabiʿ II 177/29 July 793 (Balāḏori, Fotuḥ, p. 185; tr., I, p. 289), only to be lost again after the death of Hārun al-Rašid in 809 and the outbreak of the civil war between al-Amin and al-Maʾmun. It was recaptured by ʿAbd-Allāh b. Ṭāher in 822 (Brooks, p. 127) and then definitively lost to the Byzantines as the result of a vague conspiracy by the patriarch of Ḵelāṭ and the Christians of Šemšāṭ and Qāliqalā (Erzerum), presumably the Armenian revolt of 851 (Balāḏori, Fotūḥ, p. 185, tr., I, p. 289; Brooks, p. 131). All in all, it appears that Kemāḵ was held only ephemerally by the Muslims and was mostly under Byzantine control until after the battle of Manzikert in 463/​1071.

Following the collapse of Byzantine authority in eastern Anatolia, Kemāḵ became an object of contention among the competing Turko-Mongol powers of the region. It was first held by Aḥmad Mengüjek (Mangujak; d. 512/​1118), a Türkmen chief who had apparently received an eqṭāʿ from Alp Arslān in the environs of Arzenjān, who claimed to have taken Kemāḵ from the infidels and made it his capital. It was annexed in 622/​1225 from the last of the Mengüjekid amirs, who had appealed in vain to the amir of Erzerum and the Ḵvārazmšāh Jalāl-al-Din Mengübirni (q.v.) for help, by the Saljuq sultan ʿAlāʾ-al-Din Kayqobād (r. 616-34/1219-37). After the Mongol invasion of Anatolia and the defeat of the Saljuqs at Köse Dāḡ in 642/​1243, Kemāḵ would have come under Il-Khanid rule, but its history in that period is obscure. It is known that Kemāḵ became an appanage of the remarkable Qāżi Aḥmad Borhān-al-Din (745/​1345-800/​1398), sultan of the beylik of Eretna in central Anatolia, in 796/​1394 and was governed directly by him after 799/​1396-97 (Imber, p. 871). However, it appears that Borhān-al-Din almost at once quarrelled with ʿOṯmān Qarā Yürük, leader of the Āq Qoyunlu, who then rebelled, captured Borhān-al-Din, and executed him in 800/​1398 (Woods, p. 242).

By that time, the Ottomans were being drawn into the politics of eastern Anatolia, and Kemāḵ was briefly captured by the sultan Bāyazid I (r. 1389-1402); according to Ruy González de Clavijo (d. 1412), it was Bāyazid’s demand to cede Kemāḵ that prompted the amir of Arzenjān to appeal for aid from Timur (Clavijo, tr., pp. 73-74). After Timur decided to invade Anatolia and attack Bāyazid, Kemāḵ was one of his first targets. The seige of the fortress there by Timur’s son, Amir Moḥammad Solṭān, in Šawwāl 804/​1402 is described in detail by Ebn ʿArabšāh (tr. pp. 173-176) and Šāmi (I, pp. 250-51): The seige lasted ten days, and Timur sent out a fatḥ-nāma to announce its fall. Bāyazid offered a gift of ten horses to Timur to plead for the restoration of Kemāḵ; Timur refused and appointed the Chagatayid amir Ṭaharṭan as its governor. Later, according to Ebn ʿArabšāh (tr. p. 202), Timur confirmed ʿOṯmān Qarā Yürük as governor of Arzenjān and gave him authority over Kemāḵ. The town was then a source of recurrent conflict both within the Āq Qoyunlu family and between the Āq Qoyunlu and Qarā Qoyunlu (Abu Bakr Ṭehrāni, pp. 69-71, 75-76, 126, 147-151, 168, 171, 180, 230, 261, 279-80) and finally with the Ottomans. As one example, Uzun Ḥasan, after ambushing and killing Jahānšāh Qarā Qoyunlu in 872/​1467, laid claim to Kemāḵ in his fatḥ-nāma to the Ottoman sultan Moḥammad II Fāteḥ (r. 1444-46 and 1451-81; Feridun Bey, I, pp. 274-75). Sultan Bāyazid II (r. 1481-1512), alarmed by the rising power of the Safavids, asked Ḥāji Rostam Beg, the commander of Kemāḵ, to surrender the fortress to the Ottomans, but he instead turned it over to Nur ʿAli Beg, one of Shah Esmāʿil’s Qizilbāš officers, in 912/​1506-7 (Bedlisi, pp. 216-17). Even after the Ottoman defeat of the Safavids in 921/​1515 at the battle of Čālderān, the Qizilbāš continued to threaten the route between Erzerum and Sivas from Kemāḵ; Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-20) then reorganized the Ottoman eastern frontier provinces and launched a major campaign which resulted in the definitive Ottoman conquest of Kemāḵ (Shaw, I, p. 82).

In the Saljuq, Timurid, and Āq Qoyunlu periods, Kemāḵ was valued as more than just an important military bastion in a border zone. Control over such towns and fortresses facilitated access by the Türkmen tribes to summer pastures in the Armenian highlands (Woods, p. 250). Kemāḵ, given its location in the Euphrates valley, lay astride an important corridor of trade reaching from the Caucasus and Azerbaijan on to Trabzon, Mosul, and Konya, and it had a prosperous Armenian commercial community. Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi (ca. 680-744/​1281-1344) knew it as a small town surrounded by villages that yielded 34,400 dinārs in revenue (tr. Le Strange, p. 98), about a tenth as much as the more important emporium of Arzenjān. Concern with promoting agriculture and the transit trade in the area was reflected in both the laws (qānun) of Uzun Ḥasan and subsequent Ottoman codes (Woods, p. 266; Imber, p. 871).


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(Hurivash Ahmadi Dastgerdi and EIr.)

Originally Published: June 15, 2017

Last Updated: June 15, 2017

This article is available in print.
Vol. XVI, Fasc. 3, pp. 237-238

Cite this entry:

Hurivash Ahmadi Dastgerdi and EIr., “KEMĀḴ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, XVI/3, pp. 237-238, available online at (accessed on 20 January 2018).