What does it mean to be Armenian?

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

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8 replies

  1. Very interesting and intriguing:) Thank you!

  2. Yeah, I think you caught it right about Hayk, Ararat, homeland, history, language, alphabet, religion, and the genocide. I would only add that the main three of these are the language, the religion and the homeland.

    But these are easy to argue. I’m Armenian, coming from Nagorno-Karabakh, I do speak the language, I now live in Armenia, but I’m not Christian. so what, I’m not Armenian? As one of my friends said it isn’t important what others say about you, what is important is how you identify. Huh, kinda complicated 🙂

  3. Thank you Russell,

    Very good observation,
    You kind of summarized the main points.
    What you said is absolutely true and important.
    I would like to add also that the family and friends are very important for armenians. And i will briefly explain what I mean. As the whole my life I have been in different places (for example I am currently studying in Switzerland) I have definitely noticed the huge differences between armenian culture and values and cultures and values ( and even the whole perception of the world) of all other nationalities (and I mean all nationalities as our school has 95% of international students).

    One of the major differences is value of family and friends. For armenians family and friends are everything in this life. For example parents are saint and I mean it. If you go around in US saying moma jokes people will lough and enjoy it, but if you say something unpleasant about mother to an armenian dont be surprised that you will find yourself in a very bad situation as that is the worst thing you can say to an armenian. It also seems that for the parents the main purpose of the life is to make their children happy and they will do everything to ensure that. Brothers and sisters are also very important and loved people and one will literally kill or die for his or her brother or sister.

    And friends are in the same list. I mean that for us a friend is a very different thing then for a europeans or other nationalities. A good friend is like a part of a family, like a brother to you. Your parents know him well and consider him almost as their own child and the same with you and his parents.

    Also marriage is extremely important. Divorces are very common nowadays all over the world but not in Armenia. For armenians marriage is one of the biggest steps in their lives as we consider a wife to be with us the rest of our life. All the wives are usually great cooks, mothers and housewives. In our families men are the rulers and women are great support. Also with all this globalization and media it is sometimes hard for young armenian guys now as it is hard to carry irresponsible sexual life. Our girls are very serious in relationships and it is often that a girl loses her virginity only after marriage or at least very long and serious relationship.

    And there is a lot more differences. For example if europeans go somewhere together, lets say a restaurant, it is common that each person pays for his own. And if there is an argument then it will be something like this: “no i did not take this, you took it so you pay”. In armenia it is completely other way around. It is very common that people fight to pay, something like: “no man stop it, don’t be an asshole, let me pay” and this can continue until one does something sly and pays at the end. And I have seen many times that people spend their last money just to do something nice to their close people. And from my experience I can tell you that it is not done to show off or something, not even to show the people that you love them but it purely comes from heart. If they are my good friend I really want to treat them. I was shocked when I got to know that in Europe most of the families even divide the expenses among themselves.

    Or for example armenian people are extremely hospitable. Even when 14 years old kid invites people to their house if no adults are home he will feed them entertain them and make a bed for them.

    And I can go on and on and on bringing examples of the differences.
    What I am trying to say is that there is difference in everything and they are very big.
    And in my opinion this differences are the major reason why armenians always stick to each other and love their motherland so much. And they are the reason why if an armenian in another country walking in the street will notice another armenian he will be very happy and will go and talk to the person and invite to his house or something like that because an armenian is a piece of armenia, piece of home anywhere in the world.

    So that is pretty much what I wanted to add.

    And thank you very much again for your great article and for your interest in armenian people and our culture 😉

  4. “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 Communist party created the Holodomor in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, now Ukraine, which starved and killed 10 million Ukrainians during 1932-33. Why is this one forgotten?

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