According to Armenian legend the ancestor of all Armenian people was Haik, great-great-grandson of the Noah, he of the Ark. Just a few generations after the Great Flood, after Noah and all those pairs of animals emerged from an ark on Mt. Ararat (which, by the way, you can visit when you go to Armenia), Haik unified his kinsmen into one nation and started a several thousand year Armenian history full of strength and struggle. Whether or not there was ever a Haik–or, for that matter, a Noah, or a flood–Armenia has several millennia of past behind it.
Armenia is the longest-standing Christian nation in the world. The nation adopted Christianity in 301 A.D. while it was still part of the Roman Empire, and formed the still-independent Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia became a Persian territory, then Byzantine, then Persian again, then Ottoman, Persian, Ottoman, Persian, Ottoman…between 1513 and 1737 the Armenian city of Yerevan changed leadership fourteen times. In the early 1800s the Russian took charge and controlled Armenia until World War I.
The Russians just ruled the land we now know as Armenia. Many Armenians still lived in the Ottoman Empire and faced some very difficult times. Refer to our section on the Armenian Genocide [the “so-called” Armenian Genocide?] below. An estimated seven million Armenians, mostly descendants of those who fled during the Genocide, now live in many countries around the world, as opposed to 3 1/2 million who live in Armenia.
When the Russian Empire fell apart during World War I Armenia joined Azerbaijan and Georgia in the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. After that initiative failed, Armenia struggled (Wikipedia on the Georgian-Armenian War of 1918 | Wikipedia on the Armenian-Azerbaijani War of 1918 | Wikipedia on the Turkish-Armenian War of 1920) before becoming part of the USSR.
In 1991 Armenia emerged from a failed USSR as an independent nation, but, as we touched upon above, stepped right into war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. (The New York Times calls it, “a phantom state.”) After years of fighting tensions have eased, but with Azerbaijan still considering the 95% Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh part of its land, we’ll no doubt be hearing news from that part of the Caucasus again. (Armenians and Azeris don’t just fight over territory. They fight over songs.)
Despite all these trials, even after having endured (and initiated) wars upon wars, not only have the people of the three now-independent nations of the South Caucasus not lost hope, but they continue to demonstrate a resilience and surprising sense of grace–look through the images we’ve gathered below and listen to their stirring music and you’ll surely get that sense. Still, there is a lot of peace still to be made in the region; a new Transcaucasian Federation isn’t likely any time soon.
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE(?):
(Disclaimer: this is a very grown-up topic, and one you may want to decide how you’ll address before talking about it with your kids.)
If you ask most Armenians, there’s no question. Yes, there was a genocide and yes, it was awful, They may call it the Armenian Holocaust, the Armenian Massacres, or even The Great Crime. Whatever one calls it, according to Ottoman population rolls, in 1915 there were about 1.25 million Armenians living in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire (now eastern Turkey); by 1917, the number had dropped to around 280,000. Others suggest there were two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire when WWI started and only 1/2 million afterward. What happened to all those Armenians?
If you ask the Turkish government, and also many Turks, you’ll get a nuanced response. Yes, there used to be over a million Armenians in Turkey and surely the years of World War I, especially between 1915 and 1917, were terrible for them. Yes, the Ottoman government at the time–led by a group called The Young Turks, who had wrested control of the failing empire from the Ottoman Sultan in 1908–forcibly deported an estimated million Armenians to Syria starting in 1915, and yes, a large number of Armenians are agreed to have died en route. But were there really massacres on the scale Armenians claim? And, even if so, was this action by the Ottoman government an organized attempt to eradicate the Armenian people–hence, the term “genocide”–or did the Ottomans act legitimately against the Armenians who they believed to support Russia, the Ottomans’ enemy in the War?
Since the Ottoman-Armenian deportations began in 1915 Ottoman (then Turkish) leaders have denied they were systematically trying to decimate their Armenian population. In recent years they have especially opposed the use of the term “genocide.” In response, Armenians have asserted that the Turks’ unwillingness to use the term “genocide” continues the dehumanization of their people. Armenian organizations and their international supporters have been able to get about 20 countries even over 40 U.S. states to formally recognize “the Armenian Genocide,” and in 2010 a U.S. congressional panel even agreed to use the word “genocide” to describe what happened to the Armenians at that time. (Though, according to Wikipedia’s entry entitled “Armenian Genocide,” “within minutes the Turkish government issued a statement critical of ‘this resolution which accuses the Turkish nation of a crime it has not committed.'”) In commemorating the April 24 observance of the events, President Obama didn’t use the word “genocide.” Instead, he referred to what happened by its Armenian synonym, “Metz Eghern.”
As recently as 2005 Turkey adopted Article 301 into its legal code, making illegal any insults to Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity or Turkish government institutions. The government has since used it to charge prominent Turks with insulting Turkey by publicly discussing the fate of the Armenians. In 2005 Turkish novelist and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk said in Swiss newspaper interview, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” That reference was enough to inspire charges against Pamuk under Article 301. In 2011, after the charges were dropped then reinstated, Pamuk had to pay a several thousand dollar fine.
Was the “Metz Eghern” a genocide? Armenian-Genocide.org’s “Genocide FAQ” certainly believes so. So does one of the Young Turks’ grandsons, publicly flaunting Article 301. Ataturk.com, a site extolling the virtues of “father of Turkey,” Mustafa “Ataturk” Kemal disagrees. Do you?