Armenia Through the Ages

"Historical Map of Armenia*"
this image comes from the 12th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica or earlier. The copyrights for that book have expired and this image is in the public domain

The first reference to Armenia goes back to the Behistun Rock inscription of 520 B.C. currently found in modern Iran. It refers to a country that lies in Eastern Anatolia (Modern Turkey) and the Central Caucasus surrounding the three lakes of Van, Sevan and Urmia (today respectively situated in Turkey, Armenia and Iran). Formerly, this area was referred to as the Land of Nairi and subsequently as the Kingdom of Urartu by the Assyrians or the Land of Ararat in Biblical scriptures.

By 95 B.C., Armenia had emerged under the rule of King Tigran II as a strong kingdom, whose boundaries extended to the northern cities of the coast of Palestine. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, two decades before Rome adopted Christianity through Constantine. To enable the Armenians to inscribe their Indo-European language in an exclusive system of writing, a monk by the name of Mesrob Mashtots created, in 406, a unique alphabet of 36 letters. This eventually ushered a great Golden Age of translation and historiography.

In 451, the Armenians, led by Vartan Mamigonian, (martyred and known as St. Vartan), fought the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire in the first recorded war of faith in History.

Following the Seljuk invasion of Armenia in 1048, the Armenian population of Ani, capital of the Bagratouni Dynasty, migrated to the south-eastern boundaries of Anatolia to settle in “greener” pastures named Cilicia, known later in history as “Little Armenia.”

In 1453, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire, which lasted some 600 years and incorporated Anatolia, Western Armenia and most of the Middle East, was a multinational entity made up of various ethnic groups including Christian Armenians, Greeks and Jews who were subject to the “millet system”: a canon that defined the status and beliefs of these non-Muslim communities in the empire. The Armenians, although initially free to practice their religious beliefs, were considered in many aspects as second class citizens, subject to numerous taxes and discriminatory laws, especially in legal courts.

During the late 19th century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, often referred to as the “Bloody Sultan”, launched a number of massacres against the Armenians who agitated for reforms. These Hamidian Massacres (1894-1896), carried out in most Armenian towns and villages, led to the death of around 250,000 innocent victims and attracted the attention of the Foreign Powers, who started exerting political pressure on the “Sick Man of Europe” as Turkey was referred to. Foreign missionaries, who had established posts in the Ottoman Empire, recorded these events and tried to protect, educate and heal these minorities.

In 1908, owing to some constitutional reforms and certain waves of liberalism, the “Young Turks” movement was formed with the aim of reforming the corrupt Ottoman Empire. A group of this movement, known as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), eventually deposed the Sultan. A wave of euphoria swept among the Armenians and the minorities of the Ottoman cities. However, very soon, hopes for a modern, democratic state gradually evaporated, especially after the Adana massacres of 1909, when it became clear that the program of the “Young Turks” was one of total Turkification with no allowances for Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks or Jews in this project.

At the outset of the First World War in 1914, Turkey, on the side of its staunch ally Germany, fought Russia but was badly defeated. The Armenians who lived on both sides of the borders were accused of conspiring with the “Christian” enemy. The leaders of the CUP movement decided that this was an opportune moment in history to “cleanse” the Ottoman Empire of the Armenians, who on the eve of the Genocide counted around 2,000,000. Hence, starting with April 24, 1915, (today considered as the Genocide Commemoration Day for Armenians), the Armenian intelligentsia of Istanbul and its suburbs was arrested, hanged, executed or banished. This was the beginning of what would later be referred to as the first Genocide of the 20th century. In all towns and villages where Armenians resided, orders of deportation and banishment were issued and enforced by the five main CUP actors: Mehmed Tala’at Pasha (Minister of the Interior, 1874-1921),18 Ismail Enver Pasha (Minister of War, 1881-1922),19 Ahmed Jemal Pasha (Minister of the Marine, 1872-1922),20 Nazim Bey Senălikli CUP Chairman (1872-1926) and Dr. Behaeddine Shakir (1874-1922), head of the political department of the Special Organization.

Over one million Armenians were sent to starve and perish in the Syrian desert, especially around the city of Deir Zor. Thousands of others died on the death marches from typhus, dysentery and starvation. Others were forced to convert to Islam and the small minority, which survived is known today as the Armenian Diaspora. The American ambassador in Istanbul at that time, Henry Morgenthau, described the horrible events of this period with the following words: “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”

Towards the end of World War I and with the eventual defeat of the Ottoman Empire, an independent Armenia emerged briefly on May 28, 1918, only to be forced to later become Soviet Armenia. The Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, which had promised Armenians a state based on most of the lands of historical Armenia, succumbed to the higher politics of the victorious Allies. With the emergence of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” (1881-1938), who aspired towards a modern nation in Turkey, 26 and with the Communists sitting on the other side of the border, it became clear to the Foreign Ministers of Europe that the “Armenian Question” could be tabled or classified for the present. This indifference led to another wave of massacres and deportations into Syria and Lebanon, this time from the “Cilician lands” under French control.

By 1923, most of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire had lost their lives and those who survived had lost all of their lands, properties, family members and some even their sanity.

By World War II, Hitler could confidently declare, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” With the dismantling of the Soviet Union, an independent Armenia, on the territories previously forming Soviet Armenia, was declared on September 21, 1991. The remaining Armenian towns in the ancestral lands in Eastern Turkey were razed to the ground; the churches, monasteries, schools were destroyed and the properties looted or confiscated. Thus the cultural genocide, following the physical one, attempted to erase all traces of thousands of years of Armenian history and tradition.

The perpetrators remain unpunished. No judgment of Nuremberg took place for the Armenians, no recognition of the Genocide, no compensation, nor public apology.

Turkey to date continues to deny that the Genocide of the Armenians ever occurred, and the International Community, though an eye witness at the time, sways between the double standards of justice and economic interests.

Ninety six years later, the survivors’ descendants hope and pray for Justice to be eventually restored so that the festering wounds of Armenians may heal, the ghosts interred, and the new generations start looking forward instead of lingering in the haunted shadows of the great witness of all time: Mount Ararat.

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