Armenians in the Middle East

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A people of Asia Minor, long ruled by others, who became independent in 1991.

The territory of historic Armenia covered the Armenian plateau. The Pontic range on the north, the Little Caucasus chain to the east, the Anti-Taurus range to the south, and the Euphrates River in the west defined its perimeter. Armenian settlement in the area dates back at least to the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. Armenian statehood emerged in the sixth century b.c.e. and was maintained or revived after periods of occupation until the eleventh century c.e. Turkish penetration and settlement from the eleventh century c.e. gradually eroded the Armenian presence in the plateau area. A new Armenian state took shape in and around Cilicia on the Mediterranean coast between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Thereafter, Armenians concentrated in towns and cities stretching in a belt from the Aegean coast of Anatolia to the Caspian Sea. Further dispersion placed Armenians across much of Eastern Europe and Western Asia as far as India. Ottoman state policies during the 1915 to 1923 Armenian genocide eliminated the Armenians from Anatolia and historic West Armenia and drove many of them into East Armenia within the zone of Russian domination. Armenian-inhabited territory at the beginning of the twenty-first century is confined to the Caucasus region that includes the current Republic of Armenia; the territory of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nogorno, or Mountainous, Karabagh; and the districts of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda (formerly Bogdanovska) in southern Georgia. The remainder of the Armenian population inhabits what are known as diaspora communities throughout the temperate zone of the globe.


A majority of Armenians speak Armenian, an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Armenian is spoken only by Armenians. Because most Armenians are bilingual, over the centuries the language has absorbed a vast vocabulary of foreign words. First recorded in the early fifth century, Classical Armenian served as the principal medium of written communication until the mid-nineteenth century. By that time, the spoken tongue had evolved into numerous dialects. With the spread of literacy, the dialects spoken in the two foremost centers of Armenian cultural activity outside of historic Armenia, namely Tbilisi and Constantinople (now Istanbul), emerged as the standard modern vernaculars of Eastern and Western Armenian. The former was used in the Russian Empire and Iran and the latter in the Ottoman Empire. The boundary between the two dialects holds to this day. In the twentieth century, Eastern Armenian became the state language of the Republic of Armenia. Western Armenian is now spoken only in the diaspora communities.


Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a denomination of Eastern Orthodoxy. The church traces its origins to the evangelizing missions of the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew in Armenia. Formal Christianization traditionally is dated to the year 301 with the conversion of the reigning monarch, Trdat (Tiridates) IV. Political and theological differences led to the break from the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches by the sixth century, and a series of Armenian ecclesiastical councils rejected the Chalcedonian Creed, which condemned portions of the Armenian beliefs. Thereafter, the Armenian church was defined by its national character and became the focal point of Armenian cultural development. Roman Catholicism returned with the Crusaders and the growth of Mediterranean trade beginning in the eleventh century. Protestant denominations appeared under the influence of U.S. missionary activities in the mid-nineteenth century. Although voluntary adherence to Islam is recorded, most Armenian conversion occurred under duress and mainly during the period of Ottoman rule. Official atheism during the Soviet period drove religion from the Republic of Armenia. The pontiff of the Armenian church, titled Catholicos of All Armenians, resides at Edjmiadsin in Armenia, but church attendance is mostly symbolic and sparse. Religion plays a larger role in Armenian diaspora communities as a marker of national identity.


The global Armenian population is difficult to calculate because many states do not measure ethnic constituencies. It is estimated at 8 million. In the Republic of Armenia the 2001 census reported the population figure at 3 million, down from 3.7 million in 1993. The current population of Nagorno Karabagh is estimated at 150,000 Armenians. About 500,000 live in Georgia, and another million or more are spread throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics including Central Asia. Between 1988 and 1991 a forced population exchange resulted in the departure of 350,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan. Armenians in the diaspora are concentrated in cities throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America. An estimated half million or more live in the Middle East, with the larger communities of about 100,000 found in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Smaller communities are located in Turkey (60,000), Cyprus (3,000), Israel (3,000), Jordan (5,500), Egypt (6,500), United Arab Emirates (3,000), and Iraq (3,000). The bulk of the estimated million Armenians in Europe are found in France (450,000), and smaller concentrations in England (18,000), Belgium (8,000), Switzerland (5,000), Italy (2,500), Austria (3,000), Germany (42,000), Czech Republic (10,000), Romania (10,000), Bulgaria (10,000), and Greece (20,000). The combined North and South American population is estimated at nearly two million, with the larger portion living in the United States. Other significant communities are located in Canada (80,000), Brazil (40,000), Uruguay (19,000), and Argentina (130,000). An estimated 60,000 live in Australia.


Agrarian life dominated traditional Armenian society until its complete displacement during World War I. Throughout centuries of dispersion, Armenians adapted economically. Most notably they formed a strong urban commercial class that eventually became involved in international trade. Armenians, especially in the Middle East, occupied the role of middlemen in virtually every city they inhabited. Between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, in places such as Istanbul, Tbilisi, Isfahan, Tehran, Aleppo, Cairo, and Beirut, whether through official sponsorship or individual and communal ability, Armenians dominated various sectors of the local, and in some instances the national, economy. They tended to be traders, craftsmen, retailers, and shopkeepers in earlier centuries, but the twentieth century saw the rapid rise of an urban professional class in the fields of medicine, engineering, banking, electronics, and computers. In the Republic of Armenia, the Soviet period was marked by intensive industrialization that produced a country with a high density of factories involved in heavy manufacturing. The breakup of the Soviet Union placed the entire economy of Armenia in jeopardy. A crippling energy crisis, compounded by the blockade of the country by Turkey and Azerbaijan, led to a considerable shrinkage of the economy and serious hardships in the 1990s. By the start of the twenty-first century, Armenia had turned the corner on its economy and was steadily recovering through market reforms. Upon independence in 1991, Armenia proceeded rapidly toward privatization. Agricultural lands were distributed to farmers, dwellings were declared real estate and titles were transferred to residents, making them homeowners, and both small and large industries were progressively privatized.

Major Historical Figures

The 3,000-year span of Armenian history is mostly recalled in narratives recording the deeds, valor, and accomplishments of a multitude of figures. Certain kings, religious leaders, noblemen, and men of culture stand out. The extinction of the Armenian royal and princely families by the fifteenth century meant waiting until the early modern period for the reappearance of figures of national significance. In the absence of the men of the sword, men of the cloth and men of the penand often of bothbegan to lead the Armenian nation out of its dark ages. Mekhitar Sebastatsi founded an Armenian Catholic monastery in Venice in 1717 and guided the cultural recovery of the Armenians. Mikayel Chamchian, a member of the Mekhitarian order, resumed the writing of Armenian history and began shaping a modern national identity. Khachatur Abovian in Russian Armenia promoted modernism through the use of the vernacular by authoring the first Armenian novel in 1848. Mikayel Nalbandian in Russia advocated Armenian nationhood. Mkrtich Khrimian, writer, publisher, and priest, embodied the coalescing of Armenian consciousness by the end of the nineteenth century. As Armenian patriarch of Constantinople, in which capacity he was head of the Armenian Millet and subsequently Catholicos of All Armenians in Edjmiadsin, he allied the conservative Armenian church with the advocates of national emancipation. While repression and autocracy in the Ottoman and Russian empires were challenged by many locally, others took up arms, and the Armenian Revolutionary Movement found its leaders among intellectuals who formulated ideology and unschooled men who fought skirmishes with the police and militia of the tsar and the sultan. Andranik, the guerrilla fighter, entered national lore as he escaped every snare of the sultan's police while defending the Armenian rural population with his own brand of resistance against exploitation.

The founding of the Republic of Armenia in 1918 tested the mettle of men. Some, such as Aram Manukian and Simon Vratsian, defended its territories; others, such as President Avetis Aharonian and Prime Minister Alexander Khatisian, negotiated for its survival. The Soviet period reversed the roles of the hero and antihero. The dissident, more so than the Communist Party leader, captured the national imagination. In Soviet Armenia he came in the form of the poet, Yeghishe Charents or Paruyr Sevak, who spun with words an alternative consciousness to escape and defy totalitarian control. National sentiments that had been preserved underground resurfaced in a mass movement in 1988, finding a guiding figure in a scholar, Levon Ter-Petrossian, who, with independence restored in 1991, became the first democratically elected president of his country. Robert Kocharian, who led the struggle in Nagorno Karabagh in the early 1990s, succeeded him in 1998.

see also andranik ozanian; armenian community of jerusalem; armenian genocide; armenian millet; armenian revolutionary movement; chamchian, mikayel; cilicia; khrimian, mkrtich.


Adalian, Rouben P. Historical Dictionary of Armenia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Bournoutian, George A. A Concise History of the Armenian People: From Ancient Times to the Present. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2002.

Der Nersessian, Sirarpie. The Armenians. London: Thames and Hudson, and New York: Praeger, 1969.

Hovannisian, Richard G., ed. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Nersessian, Vrej Nerses. Armenia. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1993.

Walker, Christopher J. Armenia: The Survival of a Nation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Rouben P. Adalian

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Armenians in the Middle East

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