The Armenians


The Armenians are a globally distributed ethnic group originating in Eastern Anato-lia and the Trans-Caucasus region—where an independent state, Armenia, has emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While they use Russian, Spanish, English, French, Turkish,andArabic, their indigenous language is Armenian—a unique member of the Indo-European family of languages. About half of the world’s Armenians use Armenian, and the rest rely on the languages of the broader societies in which they live.

The worldwide population is estimated to be about 8–10 million people, with about 3 million dwelling in Armenia proper and the rest living in Russia (1.4 million), the United States (1.1 million), France (0.5 million), Georgia (0.5 million), Argentina (0.3 million), the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karapakh (0.2 mil-lion), and the Middle East (0.5 million). Important Armenian communities cur-rently exist in the Crimea, Greece, Cyprus, Poland, Bulgaria, Belgium, Ethiopia, Canada, Brazil, the Central Asian Repub-lics, Australia, and Egypt.

Historic centers of population included Mughal India, the early modern Netherlands, and Dutch Indonesia as well as the Ottoman Empire—which included most of the tra-ditional Armenian lands. The Armenian community in Turkey today numbers about 70,000 individuals, largely concen-trated in a few districts in the Asiatic side of Istanbul. Aside from Istanbul, the only remaining Armenian communities in Turkey are in Malatya, Diyarbakir, and Arapgir—where fewer than 5,000 Armenians live today.

The dispersion of the world’s Arme-nians tends to reflect the country’s difficult history as a crossroad on one of the main East-West invasion routes in Eurasia as well as a borderland region between the powers that dominate Anatolia and the Ira-nian plateau. The earliest references to Armenians include descriptions of the Armenian units in the Persian army invad-ing Greece by Herodotus. The Behistun stele in Iran, set up during the reign of Darius, also refers to the Armenians as one of the peoples constituting the Persian Empire who had risen in revolt. While in-dependent at many and long stages of their history, Armenians have often known imperial rule, with is benefits and costs.

Unlike most of their immediate neigh-bors, with the notable exception of the Georgians, Armenians tend to be at least confessional Christians. The dominant Armenian Church is the indigenous Gre-gorian Apostolic Church (often called the Armenian Orthodox Church), a Jacobite miaphysite denomination in communion with the national churches of Egypt and Ethiopia. There is also a Uniate Armenian Church within the Roman Catholic Communion as well as Protestant Arme-nians often organized as autonomous branches of the Congregational and other mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. There is also a small com-munity of Jewish Armenians in Yerevan.

Historically, there have been some Muslim Armenians such as the medieval Shah-Armen princely dynasty as well as the recent Hashmen Armenian community in contemporary northeastern Turkey, Ajaria, Georgia proper, Abkhazia, and southern Russia. Armenian Muslims have been either largely assimilated into the Turkish mainstream or simply no longer regard themselves as Armenian, preferring a Hamshen identity instead. With the incorporation of Armenia into the Soviet Union in 1920, the state worked against religion, and as a result, there are some atheists among the Armenian post-Soviet nomenklatura.

While present, atheism has generally failed to gain adherents, because it faced the cliff-face of Armenian Chris-tian heritage; Armenia converted to Chris-tianity under the rule of King Tiridates III in 304 CE, who was brought into the faith by his cousin, Gregory the Illuminator, in part because of his sense of guilt over his execution of Christian missionary nuns Saints Hripsime and Gayane.Reflecting on the Christian faith informed Armenian art and literature to this day. Second only to the Bible for many Armenians, the Lamentations of Saint Gregory of Nareg (951–1003) could be found in any Armenian home.

Armenian music was systematized by Komitas (1865–1935) in Istanbul, who wrotesheetmusicfortheDivine Liturgy as well as religious anthems. In the domain of poetry, Sayat Nova (1712–1795) wrote poems and performed music in Armenian, Persian,Turkish, Azeri, and Georgian, before hanging up his lyre to become a priest. Nova’s life was chronicled by Sergei Parajanov (1924–1990) in his opus magnum film, The Color of Pomegranates. Other Armenians to make a significant cultural contributions include Mkhitar Gosh (1130–1213), whose legal texts informed the pre- partition Polish legal code, and William Saroyan (1908–1981), whose novels in English replicated traditional Armenian storytelling in an American context.

Before 1915, Armenians practiced farming, animal husbandry, carpet weav-ing, iron working, coppersmithy, and meat preservation. These lifestyles have disap-peared in nearly all Armenian commun-ities outside Armenia, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karapakh. While there are some Armenian farmers in the Central Valley region of California, their operations can be described as corporate.

Today most Armenians are urban dwellers working in factories, the professions, and retail trade as well as in services such as photography, bronzing, and shoe repair. Other current professions include restaurants and spe-cialty stores selling automotive parts as well as vehicle repair and customization.

The relationship with the Ottomans was generally positive throughout the exis-tence of the empire, but as the Porte went into decline, internal tensions increased. The arrival of nationalism in the Balkans and the rise of independent Christian nation-states led to the development of Armenian nationalism, which was politically articulated by the Armenagan (National Democratic), Ramgavar (Liberal Nationalist), Hunchak (Social-Democratic and Nationalist) and Tashnak (Socialist and Nationalist) parties.

While the Arme-nian movements participated in and were included in the revolutionary Ottoman government of 1908, the First World War brought unprecedented stress to the Ottoman system, whose collapse saw attempts to ensure the population’s loyalty through demographic engineering by mas-sacres between 1915 and 1923.

While contemporary Armenian and Turkish narratives differ on the meaning of these events, most historians as well as the International Center for Transitional Justice call these massacres genocide.

The events of 1915 led to the establish-ment of the diaspora communities in the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and the Americas.The smaller Russian portion of historic Armenia saw the rapid integration of Armenians into the Russian imperial sys-tem.

The Russian portion of Armenia also served as the core of the Democratic Republic of Armenia (1918–1920) and the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (1936–1991). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia emerged into a world where a significant portion of its original territory and population was placed under Azeri rule by the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan refused to return the territory to Armenia, and a war resulted in its forceful eviction from the territory and the decision of Turkey to provide its ethnic Azeri kin with political support through the imposition of a blockade on a landlocked Armenia.

Turkey’s decision directly led to the rebirth of Armenian diaspora political pres-sure to isolate it from the Western commu-nity through the use of genocide as a political weapon, causing heightened fric-tion and threatening to pit Turkey and its friends in the Organization of the Islamic Conference against France, Russia, and 20 additional states that recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Diaspora political activity directly resulted in U.S. pressure on both Turkey and Armenia to sign a normalization accord in 2009, but whether the documents are implemented remains to be seen.

Jack Vahram Kalpakian

Further Reading

Abrahamian, Levon, Nancy Sweezy, and Sam Sweezy, Armenian Folk Arts, Culture and Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Arkun, Aram. “The Hemshin: A Community of Armenians Who Became Muslims.” Armenian Reporter, November 13, 2008. http://www 2008-11-13-the-hemshin-a-community-of -armenians-who-became-muslims&page wanted=all (accessed December 2, 2009). Population. (accessed December 1, 2009). Used by the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Diaspora Relations.

Cowe, Peter. “Medieval Armenia: Literary and Cultural Trends.” In The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, Vol. I—The Dynastic Periods from Antiquity to the Four-teenth Century, edited by Richard Hovanni-sian. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Hamalian, Leo. “Preface.” In William Sa- royan: The Man and Writer Remembered, edited by Leo Hamalian, 11–22. London: Associated University Presses, 1987.

Lang, David Marshall. Armenia: Cradle of Civilization. 3rd ed. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1980.

Melkumyan, Lusine, ed. “Biography of Komi-tas.” Virtual Museum of Komitas. (accessed March 29, 2010).