During the 3,500 years of their history, the Armenians (who call themselves Hayk) came in contact with many peoples, and also into conflict with some of their neighbors, with the Russians and the Turks in particular. The majority of Armenians live outside their historical homeland, Armenia, and many communities are scattered throughout the world. Living in dispersal (diaspora) has been a state of being among the Armenians for centuries. Decades before the tragic events of the holocaust, the Armenians experienced genocide during World War I and the memory of the atrocities lives on in the Armenian mind. The Armenians are particularly conscious about their culture and language which function as exclusive markers of their ethnicity.
Altogether 7.5 million people of Armenian descent live in countries of all continents. Armenia (called Hayastan by the Armenians) is inhabited by less than half (i.e. 3 million) of the Armenians who make up some 98 per cent of the population, the others being minorities of Kurds, Russians and Azeri (Azerbaijanians). About 1.4 million Armenians are scattered in the European successor states of the former Soviet Union, in Russia (0.53 million), Georgia (0.43 million), Azerbaijan (0.39 million), and also in newly independent countries of Central Asia (Uzbekistan: c. 50,000; Turkmenistan: c. 32,000; Kazakhstan: c. 19,000; etc.). Populous Armenian minorities live in the states of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, in Syria (c. 0.32 million), Lebanon (c. 0.23 million), Iran (c. 0.17 million), Iraq (c. 60,000), Turkey (c. 60,000), Jordan, Israel, Cyprus. Some 0.45 million Armenians are scattered throughout countries of southeastern and western Europe. The largest group of Armenians in western Europe are the communities in France with altogether 71,000 members.
Armenian emigration on a large scale, from Russian- and Turkish-held territories, commenced in the nineteenth century and increased after World War I. More than 2 million people of Armenian descent live in North America, most of them in the USA (1.6 million). The rate of maintenance of the native language among the Armenians who were born in America is high.
The origins of the Armenians are shrouded in the mist of prehistory. They do not belong – like the Caucasian peoples – to the indigenous populations of the Caucasus region. The earliest reference to an ancient people in the southern Caucasus that is identified by modern scholarship as Armenians is found in a Hittite document of the second millennium B.C.E. in which a kingdom Hayasa is mentioned. This name resembles the name-form in classical Armenian by which the Armenians called themselves in antiquity, Hay. It is unclear from where the ancestors of the Armenians migrated to their homeland which they have inhabited for more than 3500 years. The Armenians are of Indo-European stock and distinguish themselves from the indigenous Caucasians. In their long history of interethnic relations with their neighbors they have adopted many influences from outside. The elements of foreign influence – cultural and linguistic – have been absorbed as to form an amalgam with the Indo-European features, making Armenian culture and language a true mosaic in which components of various sources form an organic whole.
Since about 600 B.C.E. the Armenians are mentioned in western sources. The Greeks called the eastern people Armenioi, the Persians Armina and the Romans knew them as Armenii. The rise of Armenia as a political power evolved in contact and conflict with influential neighbors, the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Greek influence in the southern Caucasus increased after Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.E.) had defeated the Persians and opened the path for Greek culture to infiltrate the Middle East. In the first century B.C.E. the territory of the Armenian kingdom expanded rapidly under its energetic rulers. The Greater Armenian Empire was at its height during the reign of Tigranes II (reigned c. 95 – 54 B.C.E.), a representative of the Artaksid dynasty, when wide areas in the Northeast of Turkey (as far as Lake Van) were under Armenian control. The capital of Armenia, named after the king, was Tigranokerta where Greek cultural influence flourished. Since 69 B.C.E. Armenia was engaged in successive wars with the Romans in the West and with the Parthians in the East. The Romans waged military campaigns, not only against Armenia, but also against the powerful Parthian kingdom. Changing luck of war forced Armenia into vassalage, either of the Roman Empire or under Parthian supremacy. In 387 C.E. Armenia was divided into a part under East Roman (Byzantine) control and another where Persian political influence dominated. After a short period of independence in the fifth century Armenia was annexated to the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century.
By that time, Christianity had firmly rooted in Armenia and among its population. Missionaries from Syria had already begun their work in Armenia toward the end of the first century C.E. Around 200, the Roman chronicler Tertullian mentions centers of Christian culture in Armenia in his works. In 301, king Tiridates III was baptized by Grigor Luzavorich (‘Gregor the Enlightener’) and, in 303, Christianity became state religion of Armenia. The bishop Mesrop Mastoc’ (d. 440) crafted the Armenian alphabet and translated the Bible into his native tongue. These foundational institutions of Armenian Christian culture were formally introduced by archbishop Sahak the Great (c. 340 – 439). The Armenian church adhered to the dogma of monophysitism which means that the nature of Christ was considered to be exclusively divine. Monophysitism was rejected by the western church and condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431). The bishops in Armenia kept up their monophysite doctrine and, thus, segregated themselves spiritually as well as organizationally from the ecclesiastical authority in Constantinople. The church of Armenia shares monophysitism with the Christians in Syria and Egypt, and it has remained in isolation from the Christian tradition of Europe.
In the seventh century, the drive of Islamic expansionism swept over Armenia and forced the country into the political supremacy of Arab rulers. And yet, Christian lifeways and customs of the Armenian population remained intact during the period of Islamic domination. Under the rulers of the Bagratid dynasty, Greater Armenia regained its power in the ninth century. With the arrival of the Turkic Seljuks in Transcaucasia in the eleventh century the political balance tilted, resulting in a continual weakening of Armenian political power. Eventually, the Seljuks put an end to the Bagratid state. The disintegration of Greater Armenia drove many Armenians into exile. The refugees moved to southern Anatolia, to the historical region of Cilicia (between Cape Anamur in the West and the Gulf of Iskenderun in the East) where they founded the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia (1080 – 1375).
Military pressure of the Turks on Cilicia increased and, after the fall of the Cilician kingdom, the Armenians were subdued to direct control of their lands by Ottoman Turks which caused a new wave of emigration which was directed toward the Crimean peninsula, to Russia, Poland, Romania and Moldavia. In the early sixteenth century, under the newly established Safavid dynasty, the rulers of Persia extended their territory and also conquered eastern Armenia. Shah Abbas I, the Great (reigned 1586 – 1628), ordered a mass deportation of Armenians from the peripheries of his empire to the region of Isfahan from where members of the Armenian community later migrated to India, Singapore, Java and Australia. In the early nineteenth century, Russia tightened its grip on the Caucasus and the eastern part of Armenia was annexated to tsarist Russia while western Armenia continued to be dominated by the Turks. Although the Armenians were Christians as were the Russians who had occupied their country, Russian authorities did not tolerate a separate church organization. The Armenian church lost its independence and was forcibly integrated into the Russian Orthodox church.
The rise of Armenian nationalism in the late nineteenth century was monitored both by tsarist and Ottoman authorities with growing suspicion of an Armenian irredenta movement. The creation of the nationalist Dashnaktsuthiun (‘Alliance’) Party triggered hostile actions against the Armenians on both sides of the border: tsarist pogromes and massacres which were officially sanctioned by the Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid. These hostilities escalated during the first years of World War I (1914 – 1918) when Turkey had sided with Germany and Austria and had opened a front against Russia in Transcaucasia. The Young Turk nationalists acted to set a sad example for Adolf Hitler by devising genocide for the Armenians on Turkish territory. In May 1915, the government of Turkey decreed the deportation of all Armenians from eastern Armenia. The subsequent actions by the Turkish military affected some three million people. It is estimated that about one-third was massacred, one-third perished as a result of the deportation and only one-third of the Armenian population in Turkey survived. In western historiography, these events are categorized as genocide crimes but the Turkish authorities have never admitted this or taken responsibility for their actions.
As a consequence of the displacement of greater numbers of Armenians who survived migration to countries of the Near East (Syria), Europe (France, Great Britain) and America (USA) increased in the 1920s. Most of the modern diaspora-communities came into being during that period of mass emigration. “Armenians of the diaspora tend to have the reputation of making successful entrepreneurs – names such as Gulbenkian have made this trait known to the wider world. They are a numerous and important lobby for Armenia, though not as united and thus not as powerful as the diaspora-Jews are for Israel” (Fernández-Armesto 1994: 382).
In the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917 the Armenians seized the opportunity to declare their independence. In union with Georgia and Azerbaijan Armenia was incorporated into a confederation which, however, disintegrated in 1918 because of conflicting interests. The territory of Armenia was declared the republic of Erivan that enjoyed an independent political existence for about three years. In 1922, the Red Army reconquered the lost territories in the Caucasus and Armenia became part of Soviet Transcaucasia. In 1936, Armenia was transformed into a Soviet republic, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. This act did not mean the restoration of national self-determination because Armenia had to abide by the decisions taken by the central Soviet government in Moscow. The Armenian church came under pressure by Soviet atheism. The renewal of an Armenian nation-state happened in 1991 with the demise of Soviet rule and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The early years of recent independence were overshadowed by the military conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Karabakh in the mountainous area in the West of the Azerbaijan republic. Karabakh is of historical significance for the Armenians who had established strongholds there in the sixteenth century, after the devastations of Armenian lands caused by the Mongol invasions. In Karabakh, Armenian culture survived during subsequent periods of oppression. Today, Karabakh is an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan state.
Armenian (called Hayeren by its speakers) is an Indo-European language and it is the only member of a separate branch of this phylum. As a consequence of the manifold foreign influences the number of Indo-European cognate words showing the affiliation of Armenian with other languages of this phylum is fairly limited (c. 500). Among them are expressions of everyday usage such as kin ‘woman’, mej ‘middle’, akn ‘eye’ or cork’ ‘four’. The Armenian vocabulary abounds with loanwords from various sources, from other Indo-European languages (i.e. Hittite, Parthian, Persian, Greek, Russian), from Caucasian languages (i.e. Urartian and Hurrian), from Turkish, Syriac, etc. In the numerous diaspora groups, the local Armenian has been influenced by the majority languages, by French in France, English in Great Britain and the USA, by Georgian in Georgia.
The Armenians had been in contact with literate cultures already in antiquity, many centuries before they started to write their own language. At the time when Christianity spread in Armenia the most commonly used written languages were Greek and Aramaic. In the early fifth century, the learned Armenian cleric Mesrop Mastoc’, who later became bishop, devised a script for his native language. Although Mesrop might have been inspired by the Syriac version of alphabetic writing, the forms of the letters of the Armenian alphabet are not derived but original. They may be related to prehistoric cultural symbols – to ancient marks of ownership – that had been in use in Armenia in the preliterate period. The Armenian alphabet consists of 36 individual letters to which two more signs were added in the eleventh and twelfth century for writing foreign sounds. “So perfect has been the fit of the script to the phonology of the language that it has remained intact from its inception to the present day” (Sanjian 1996: 356).
In the cultural memory of the Armenians the Armenian script is celebrated as a medium that guaranteed the survival of Armenian culture and language throughout the ages, and the 38 letters are mystified as soldiers who have successfully defended the independence of Armenian culture. According to legend Mesrop introduced his script in 406. The first text that was written in the new script was the translation of the Bible. The language of the early sources is called grabar (‘the written word’).
This classical language dominated literary production into the Middle Ages. From the twelfth to the fifteenth century, Middle Armenian was used for writing. The seventeenth century was the formative period for modern Armenian. There is no unified written standard for Armenian which has been used, since the nineteenth century, in two varieties. The older eastern variety (based on the Armenian dialect spoken in the Ararat region) is used in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora in Iran. The western variety (based on the Armenian dialect of Istanbul and the Crimea) is used by Armenians in the countries of the Near East, Western Europe and America.
In 1994, Armenia’s armed forces occupied the southwestern part of neighboring Azerbaijan which they still control. The main reason for this is the support of Armenia for the Armenian diaspora in Karabakh. The Karabakh issue is still unresolved because negotiations between the heads of state of Armenia and Azerbaijan about a normalization of their political relations have so far been rhetorical.