Who are the Armenians?


It is easy to describe where modern Armenia is.  Go to Turkey, go to the far eastern end and you will find Mount Ararat.  Go up and over Mount Ararat and when you come down the other side you will be in Armenia.  It lies in the centre of the mountainous regions of the South Caucasus, with Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east.

But it is Christian and proudly so, having adopted Christianity in the year 302, ten years before the conversion of Constantine.  And because it is Christian it is also quite distinctly “European”.  It has a population of around 3 million of whom a third live in the capital, Yerevan (or Erevan).

Yet historically, Armenia was very much bigger, and modern Armenia is only the eastern part of ‘Greater’ Armenia.  Up to 1915, greater Armenia included much of what is today Eastern Turkey,  and Mount Ararat, the sacred mountain of the Armenians lay in the centre of the country, rather than as today, in Turkey.

Greater Armenia was centred round the stronghold of Van on the southern shores of Lake Van, and Armenians were scattered throughout Turkey and the neighbouring countries, with a strong scattering in Constantinople, in Smyrna, in Syria, and even in Jerusalem where the Armenians are one of the four churches who between them share the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was originally buried.

Under the Ottomans, the Armenians as Christians were more-or-less tolerated, though taxed.  However in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling the Turks panicked and decided that since the Armenians were friends with the Russians, and the Russians were their enemies, the Armenians should therefore be eliminated.  Over a million were massacred, and rather more fled to America where the Armenia diaspora has flourished – indeed one of them Alex Manoogian, built up a successful business making kitchen and bathroom taps – inventing the mixer tap – as a result of which he has been able to fund the building of a new huge cathedral in Yerevan.  But the Armenians in America are Western Armenians,  speaking the western Armenian dialect, and when they return to the modern (eastern) Armenia they find that they are not always understood by speakers of the eastern Armenian dialect.

Sardarapat 674
 This monument is erected at Sardarapat, to mark the site of the battle in 1918 when the Armenians routed the invading Turkish army and thereby secured the existence of Armenia as an independent nation.

There is also a fine archaeological museum nearby. as part of the monument.

The monument, designed by Raphael Israelian, shows two Assyrian bulls confronting a central carillon.

The bitterness between Turks and Armenians remains and the border is closed.  Indeed if you wish to go to Armenia, instead of flying to Istanbul and then on to Yerevan, there are no flights between Turkey and Armenia.  Instead you fly to Moscow, change planes, take a sharp right angled turn and then fly down to Yerevan.  Relations with their neighbours to the east in modern Azerbaijan are even worse, with the ‘lost’ country of Karabagh lying between them,  officially part of Azerbaijan, actually occupied by Armenians, a self-proclaimed independent state, but not recognised by the United Nations or anyone else apart from Armenia.

To the south lies Iran and the Iranians are enemies of the Turks and anyone who is the enemy of my enemy becomes ipso facto a sort of friend. To the north is Georgia and beyond that Russia.  The Russians saved Armenia from the Turks – more-or-less – thus when the Soviet Union was formed, Armenia became one of the Soviet Republics, indeed it was in many ways the star pupil.  The Armenians are hardworking, intelligent and entrepreneurial, and in the Soviet Union, Armenia became one of the prize exhibits. But they never really took to Communism and in 1990 Armenia was one of the first countries to lead the breakaway – exacerbated by the problem of Karabagh, which the Soviets gave to Azerbaijan, but which Armenia felt should be part of Armenia.

But today the Russians are, possibly by default,  their best friends.  Russian is the second language, – bilingual road signs are in Armenian (which is totally incomprehensible) and Russian , which is slightly more comprehensible. (Just opposite our hotel in Yerevan we found a huge pizzeria, which was one of the nearly 300 pizzerias established by the leading Russian chain of pizzerias – the Russians are an entrepreneurial lot – and I much preferred Russian pizzas to MacDonalds burgers).

Greater ArmeniaArchaeological map of Greater Armenia (in Brown) and modern, or eastern Armenia, in darker brown to the right. Note lake Van at the centre.

But does Greater Armenia really exist?  This is where archaeology comes to the rescue: can we build up an archaeological picture of the distribution of the proto-Armenians?

Here the map produced by Hakob Simonyan is of great interest.  One may start with the distribution of Armenian churches.  Christianity came early to Armenia and the Armenians soon developed their own distinctive type of church architecture, similar in form to the Greek cross type of church – Hakob is going to produce a diagram showing the differences between Greek churches and Armenian churches.  But Armenian churches are scattered not only in Armenia but also throughout western Turkey to Lake Van and well beyond.

Before that, the Romans saw the Armenians as being a sort of independent buffer state between Romans and Parthians, the two sides vying with each other to see who could put their client king on the throne; as a result, for much of the time, Armenia was at least to some extent independent.

More interesting perhaps are the Urartu, who from the 9th – 7th century vied with the Assyrians for control of Armenia.  They spoke their own language, but fortunately wrote it in Cuneiform hieroglyphics so it can be recognised and translated.  They were centred round Lake Van where they had their great capital at Tushpa, on the outskirts of modern Van.  Their best known excavated cities however are in Armenia at Erebuni and Karmir Blur.

And beyond that?  In the Middle and Late Bronze Age there was a rich culture of kurgan burials under barrows, often characterised by the wealthiest graves containing a four wheeled wagon or sometimes even a two wheeled chariot – and these spill over into eastern Turkey. Their culture is much influenced  by the kurgan cultures of the Steppes: how far can they be distinguished from the Hittites and the Babylonians? And before that there is the Kura-Araxes culture of agriculturists with sprawling proto towns and a rich agriculture – as distinguished from the Kurgan cultures of barrows rather than towns and cows rather than corn.  This is traditionally situated between the rivers Kura and Araxes which between them span modern Armenia:  but does this spread over to the West as well?

This then is to be our story. This is the problem, these are the questions we must ask. In defining Armenia,  archaeology has a major role to play.  We must ask ourselves how far these cultures define a consistent area, and we must wonder how far they form the ancestors of the modern Armenia.  Modern Armenia is a very European country surrounded by countries of a different feel and of very different sentiments.  Let us see just how they began.


 On to Shengavit