Armenians - History and Cultural Relations

The first known textual reference to the Armenians is by the Greek historian Xenophon, dated approximately 400 B.C. From this time on Armenians were a noted cultural presence in the Mediterranean world. Centered in eastern Anatolia, now within the boundaries of modern Turkey, historic Armenia was a buffer zone between successive empires: first between the Roman and Persian empires, and then between the Byzantine and Muslim empires. By the sixteenth century, Greater Armenia had been absorbed into the Iranian and Ottoman empires. This is the source of the division of Armenia into two cultural and linguistic halves: eastern and western. Today two dialects have been standardized: one for the Eastern and one for the Western Armenian peoples. Eastern and Western Armenia have distinctive cultural and literary traditions reflecting their linguistic differences. Today, Western Armenian is characteristically spoken in the Armenian diaspora by Armenians deriving from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries of the Middle East—primarily those displaced by the genocide of Armenians in Turkey in 1915. Contemporary speakers of Eastern Armenian are characteristically indigenous to the region of historic Armenia (the current Armenian Republic) or belong to the Armenian communities of Iran. Yet the split between Eastern and Western Armenians predates the Soviet period; indeed, it goes back to the sociopolitical context of the Middle Ages.

According to legend, Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity, between the years 301 and 330, when a Parthian missionary, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, met the Armenian King Trdat. Prior to the national conversion, the first Christian Armenian church was founded by the saints Bartholomew and Thaddaeus in the first century. Despite the pressures of Zoroastrian Iranian, Islamic Seljuk (1063-1072) and Mamluk, Mongol (1242-1244 and 1400), Russian, and Soviet occupiers over the centuries, the Armenians have retained their Apostolic church to the present day. Although the church was at first subordinate to Constantinople, it broke away at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to follow a Monophysite doctrine. Armenians nevertheless continued to make a significant cultural contribution to the Byzantine Empire, notably through their distinctive tradition of church architecture. In fact, it is rumored that when the Hagia Sophia Basilica was damaged by an earthquake, the Patriarch Basil sent for the Armenian architect Trdat to come to Constantinople and direct the repairs. Squinches, small archlike structures that make the structural transition from four walls to a circular dome (and upon which the dome rests), are often attributed to the Armenian architectural tradition, or even specifically to the architect Trdat.

Another major challenge to the authority of the Armenian church began in the late nineteenth century when, as part of a policy of Russification, the czarist government attempted to convert Armenians to the Russian Orthodox church with tactics such as the imprisonment of the Armenian clergy and the confiscation of church property. Yet the church has survived and is today enjoying a renaissance in its leadership of the Armenian people. Today several distinctive Armenian churches have formed in the diaspora, including a Protestant church (which originated under the influence of Presbyterian missionaries in Turkey in the nineteenth century); an Apostolic church with a catholikosate at Amelias, Lebanon; and an Armenian Catholic church. The majority of Armenians both in the diaspora and in the Armenian Republic, however, belong to the Armenian Apostolic church, with its catholikos (primate) at Echmiadzin in the Armenian Republic.

Today, in the context of perestroika, and glasnost, the conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabagh region, an Armenian nationalist movement is growing in the republic. Born out of conditions of oppression and persecution in the late nineteenth century, Armenian nationalist parties last dominated Armenian politics in the republic during the period of independence. Often having a Socialist agenda, these parties stated as their goal the liberation and improvement of the Armenian people. These groups retained some power among Armenians in the diaspora throughout the Soviet period.

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