In the Beginning...
Like all countries ancient, Armenia has a murky origin. According to Bible lore Armenians are the descendants of Hayk, great-great-grandson of Noah, whose ark grounded on Mt Ararat after the flood. In recognition of their legendary ancestry, Armenians have since referred to their country as Hayastan, land of the Hayk tribe. Greek records first mention Armenians in the 6th century BC as a tribe living in the area of Lake Van.
The Armenian highlands north of the Fertile Crescent had long been inhabited, and historians believe that local advances in mining, chemical and metallurgical technologies were major contributions to civilisation. With invasion routes open in four directions, the early Armenian kings fought intermittent wars against Persia and the Mediterranean powers. Greek and Roman cultures mixed with Persian angel-worship and Zoroastrianism.
In the 1st century BC the borders of Armenia reached their greatest extent under Tigranes II, whose victories over the Persian Seleucids gave him land from modern Lebanon and Syria to Azerbaijan.
Christianity & the Written Word
The local religious scene in Armenian villages attracted Christian missionaries as early as AD 40, including the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. According to lore, King Trdat III declared Christianity the state religion in AD 301. His moment of epiphany came after being cured of madness by St Gregory the Illuminator, who had spent 12 years imprisoned in a snake-infested pit, now located under Khor Virap Monastery. A version preferred by historians suggests that Trdat was striving to create national unity while fending off Zoroastrian Persia and pagan Rome. Whatever the cause, the church has been a pillar of Armenian identity ever since.
Another pillar of nationhood arrived in 405 with Mesrop Mashtots’ revolutionary Armenian alphabet. His original 36 letters were also designed as a number system. Armenian traders found the script indispensable in business. Meanwhile, medieval scholars translated scientific and medical texts from Greek and Latin.
Kingdoms & Conquerors
Roman and Persian political influence gave way to new authority when western Armenia fell to Constantinople in 387 and eastern Armenia to the Sassanids in 428. The Arabs arrived around 645 and pressure slowly mounted from Baghdad to convert to Islam. When the Armenians resisted they were taxed to the point where many left for Roman-ruled territories, joining Armenian communities in a growing diaspora.
Better conditions emerged in the 9th century when the caliph (Muslim ruler) approved the resurrection of an Armenian monarch in King Ashot I, the first head of the Bagratuni dynasty. Ani (now in Turkey) served as capital for a stint. Various invaders including the Seljuk Turks and Mongols took turns plundering and at times ruling and splitting Armenia.
By the 17th century Armenians were scattered across the empires of Ottoman Turkey and Persia, with diaspora colonies from India to Poland. The Armenians rarely lived in a unified empire, but stayed in distant mountain provinces where some would thrive while others were depopulated. The seat of the Armenian Church wandered from Echmiadzin to Lake Van and further west for centuries.
The Armenian Question
The Russian victory over the Persian Empire, which occurred around 1828, brought the territory of the modern-day Armenian republic under Christian rule and saw Armenians begin to return to the region. The tsarist authorities tried to break the Armenian Church’s independence, but conditions were still preferable to those in Ottoman Turkey, where many Armenians still lived. When these Ottoman Armenians pushed for more rights, Sultan Abdulhamid II responded in 1896 by massacring between 80,000 and 300,000 of them.
The European powers had talked often about the ‘Armenian Question’, considering the Armenians a fellow Christian people living within the Ottoman Empire. During WWI some Ottoman Armenians sided with Russia in the hope of establishing their own nation state. Viewing this as disloyal to the empire and still smarting from their 2015 defeat at the hands of Russia, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) party, also known as the Young Turks, immediately ordered the dispossession and forced deportation of all Armenian subjects from the empire in an action variously labelled genocide, mass murder or Medz Yeghern (the Great Crime). What is less certain – and remains contentious to this day – is whether the Young Turks also ordered pogroms and issued a decree for all Armenians to be exterminated. Armenians today claim that there was a specific order to commit genocide; Turks strenuously deny this. Putting this argument aside, one fact is inescapable – between 1915 and 1922 around 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were murdered in Ottoman Turkey or forced into the Syrian desert where they subsequently died.
The first independent Armenian republic emerged in 1918, after the November 1917 Russian Revolution saw the departure of Russian troops from the parts of Ottoman Armenia that it had occupied. The republic immediately faced a wave of starving refugees, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and wars with surrounding Turkish, Azeri and Georgian forces. It fought off the invading Turks in 1918, and left the final demarcation of the frontier to Woodrow Wilson, the US president. Meanwhile, the Turks regrouped under Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) and overran parts of the South Caucasus. Wilson’s map eventually arrived without troops or any international support, while Atatürk offered Lenin peace in exchange for half of the new Armenian republic. Beset by many other enemies, Lenin agreed.
The Armenian government, led by the Dashnaks, a party of Armenian independence fighters, capitulated to the Bolsheviks in 1921. They surrendered in order to preserve the last provinces of ancient Armenia. The Soviet regime hived off Karabakh and Naxçivan (Nakhchivan) for Azerbaijan and absorbed both it and Armenia into its empire. Yerevan was largely rebuilt in the 1920s and in ensuing decades Armenia became an important Soviet centre of manufacturing and technology. There were also many research institutes here.
Komitas & Soghomian Tehlirian
Two figures from the Medz Yeghern (the Great Crime) are particularly well remembered by Armenians. Soghomon Soghomonian, more commonly known as Komitas, represents the losses. A vardapet (monk) of the Armenian Church, Komitas travelled through Armenian villages collecting folk songs and also worked on deciphering the mysteries of medieval Armenian liturgical music. He moved to İstanbul in 1910 to introduce Armenian folk music to wider audiences and it was there, on 24 April 1915, that he was rounded up with 250 other Armenian community leaders and intellectuals. Komitas was one of possibly two of the 250 to survive – his life was literally bought from the Young Turks by a benefactor and he was smuggled to France. Sadly, the atrocities he witnessed had a terrible effect, and he died in an asylum in Paris in 1937 having never again spoken. His ideas for breathing life into the ancient harmonies and chorales were lost with him.
Soghomian Tehlirian represents a different face of the Medz Yeghern. After losing his family to the killings, he ended up in Berlin in the early 1920s, where, on 15 March 1921, he assassinated the man considered by many to have been most responsible for the mass killings, Mehmet Talaat Pasha. At Tehlirian’s trial, survivors and witnesses gave testimony on the marches, massacres, tortures and rapes, as well as Talaat Pasha’s prime role in orchestrating events. After two days the German jury found Tehlirian not guilty and released him. He later settled in America. Other senior Turkish officials were killed in the early 1920s in Operation Nemesis, a secret Dashnak (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) plan to execute their own justice.
The debate over the Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan brought a new wave of leaders to the fore under Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) reforms. Armenians voted for independence on 21 September 1991, and Levon Ter-Petrossian, a 40-year-old scholar and leader of the Karabakh Committee, became president. The war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh exploded just as the economy went into free-fall.
After the war, rumours of coups and assassination attempts prompted Ter-Petrossian to reverse civil rights and throw Dashnak leaders and fighters from the Karabakh War into jail, where some spent three years as political prisoners. Ter-Petrossian was re-elected for another five-year term in 1996 but resigned in 1998, isolated and unpopular.
He was replaced in March 1998 by Robert Kocharian, a war hero from southern Karabakh. Kocharian quickly moved to woo back the diaspora, especially the influential Dashnak faction.
By the end of the 1990s the new class of wealthy import barons stood out in shocking contrast to the country’s poverty. Anger over this disparity was at least partly responsible for the terrible 1999 massacre in the national assembly, when gunmen, screaming that the barons were drinking the blood of the nation, murdered eight members of parliament and wounded six others. The event sparked a wave of emigration and endless recriminations, but the 1700th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian Church in 2001 marked something of a turning point in the country’s fortunes. Memories of the suffering and upheaval since independence linger on, but most Armenians are now firmly focused on the 21st century.