On my second visit to Armenia a year ago, I asked the innocent question of my Armenian friend – “What does it mean to be Armenian?” – after a pause, her response, was “It’ll take a lifetime to find out”. I had already established that there was something particularly special about this nation, and this response intrigued me more, and my curiousity and inquisitiveness drove me to try and answer this question. This article, endeavours to summarise what I have concluded so far – and comments will be very welcome in helping me to develop my understanding.
The most fascinating and inspirational aspect of the Armenians is that despite the fact that most live outside of the Republic of Armenia there remains a strong cohesive link as a dispersed nation. The national and ethnic identity is very stong, and the Armenian Diaspora is very generous in providing funds to rebuild the Armenian state. The parallels with the Jewish Diaspora, and their desires in the early 20th Century to re-establish a homeland, are interesting, if not completely over-lapping.
Armenians trace their lineage back to Hayk, the great-great grandson of Noah, whose Ark rested on the top of Mount Ararat, following the Great Flood. A word derived from Hayk is still used by Armenians to describe themselves – Haya ( Hayastan). This connection gives them a biblical context to their roots and a very strong sense of history and importance.
Mount Ararat represents a very iconic part of the Armenian legacy and for the majority of this nation’s history, it has sat within the borders of Armenia. This changed following the Genocide and World War 1 leaving West Armenia, and Mt Ararat, in modern-day Turkey. This strident symbol of the Armenian heritage towers over Yerevan and the the local regions, providing an artistic and emblematic feature in the landscape.
Armenia has one of the most ancient Christian traditions in the world. It’s origins are traced back to the missions of two of Christ’s disciples, Thaddeus, and Bartholomew in the 1st Century AD. This was followed in the 4th Century, when it was the first country to be converted to Christianity by St Gregory the Illuminator. This established the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In the following century the language was codified with a unique series of letters in an alphabet defined by St Mesrop Mashtots. This is still being used today, giving form to a language which is also unique in the world.
This early history has established a people with strong lineage and ancient religious links together with a connection to Mount Ararat. This defines the location and feeling of a right to a homeland which is an important part of being Armenian.
In the subsequent history, the Armenians were subsumed for most of this period by invading peoples from Mongolia, Persia, and the Ottoman empire. The control of the Muslim and Turkic peoples over the centuries strengthened the resolve of the Armenian Christians to maintain a clear identity within those communities. During the long period of Ottoman rule the Armenians gained relative autonomy which allowed their identity to evolve and develop.
In the 19th Century Eastern Armenia (predominantly Armenia today with Nakhichevan) was incorporated into the Russian Empire, with Western Armenia being in the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Empire started to crumble, and there was confrontation with the Russian Empire, the Young Turk government saw the Armenian community with some suspicion. This led to the mass genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. With the exception of the Jews, no other nation has been subjected to such a human and cultural genocide with the destruction of churches, and other cultural symbols. The treaties following World War 1 saw Western Armenia being consumed by Turkey, including the iconic Mount Ararat.
The genocide of the Armenians reinforced the bond between them. The fact that the genocide is still not recognised throughout the world ( unlike the Jewish holocaust) is the source of much disdain. Whilst many people fled the Armenian homeland, creating the Diaspora, the reasons why they fled, the injustices that gave rise to it, and the wish to re-instate a proud nation that once existed before this crime, pervades the wider Armenian population.
The thread through all of this history is the development and evolution of a rich tradition, and culture, based around the religion, social and community values. When visiting Armenia, one gets the sense that because the country is predominantly ethnic Armenian that the cultural values are more consistent and embedded, thus it continues to reinforce that unique Armenian spirit.
In conclusion an Armenian is someone who has a strong personal, and emotional resonance with the historic lineage to Hayk, Ararat, homeland, history, language, alphabet, religion, and the genocide and feels, in their core, that they are part of an ancient and special cultural tradition. As this is not confined to the current geographical location, those who are part of the Diaspora are as equally an integral part of this nation, and feel the pull, as much as those who are citizens of the current day Republic – that’s what, I believe, it means to be Armenian.
Categories: Being Armenian