We don’t know if we’ll make it to Armenia later this year, but it’s been fascinating to see how far and wide outside of Armenia Armenians have settled. Stuck in a corner of the world among greater powers (Iran, Russia and Turkey), Armenians have by choice and by force scattered widely across the world. Despite their turbulent history, many of these Armenian communities have survived, and the extent to which they have preserved their culture and prospered is truly impressive (the Jews are the only other people I can compare them to).
In their easternmost reaches, Armenian communities represented the success of Armenians in the business of trade. Armenians were among the first (though possibly not the very first–see my post of 3.5) Christians to settle in India, wher they took an active role in international comerce. One of the British Hong Kong’s foremost residents, Sir Paul Chater, for whom is still named so many things in Hong Kong, was an Armenian of Indian birth. Few Armenians remain in India today.
Madras, India, has several Armenian sites, including 18th century St. Mary’s Church (building closed when we visited). Armenians were some of the first Christians in India
Armenian gravestone, Luz Church (itself originally Portuguese), Madras
Outside Vank Cathedral, Esfahan
The Armenians of the city of Jolfa on what is now Iran’s border with Azerbaijan were forced to move to Esfahan in 1603 during the reign of Safavid Shah Abbas the Great, who wanted to enhance his new capital with the Armenians’ talents and commercial skills. While the move itself was forced, the Armenians were granted substantial land in Esfahan (in a neighborhood named New Jolfa, or now just Jolfa) and enjoyed certain freedoms and autonomy, protected by the power of the Shahs. These protections were not always continued by later rulers.
Vank Cathedral, Esfahan (note the use of Iranian architectural styles)
Brick and tilework detail
Inside Vank Cathedral
Like many Armenian communities around the world, the Armenians of Iran have been quite successful, now based largely in Tehran and Esfahan. In Tehran tourists are welcome to dine at the peaceful Armenian Club, located near the French and Italian Embassies, where non-Muslim women need not follow the hejab (Islamic dress code). The Armenian population increased during World War I as Armenians fled now Turkey (see also below, under “Syria”), but has steadily decreased since then as Armenians have left Iran for Armenia, the U.S. and Europe. There are some 20,000 Armenians left in Iran, about a tenth of the historical population.
Armenian church service
In Jolfa, Esfahan, there are twelve Armenian churches, but there are only enough worshippers and clergy to celebrate mass in one or two, the churches rotating on a weekly basis. Following the historical precedent of Islam, the Iranian government seems to let Christians worship freely, at least within their churches. However, an Armenian that I spoke to said that the situation was peaceful “especially under [former president] Khatami,” implying that conditions for the Armenians have deteriorated under Ahmedinejad. Asked further, the Armenian mentioned that the greatest problems were judicial (presumably meaning that Armenians have limited access to justice in the courts) and discrimination for government posts.
Inside Bethlehem Church
Marco Polo noted that now Turkey was populated by three peoples: Turks (“a rude people with an uncouth language of their own” [!]), and Armenians and Greeks (“who live mixt with the former in the towns and villages, occupying themselves with trade and handicrafts”). During what is now called the Armenian Genocide around the time of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died and were killed in now Turkey with survivors fleeing to areas outside now Turkey, including Iran but especially Syria.
In Syria, Armenians were first taken to the middle of the desert, at Deir ez-Zur near Dura Europos (cf. post of 4.24), and then joined other Christians already settled in Syria, including in the Christian district of Aleppo. Currently Armenians make up a substantial portion of the population of central Aleppo, where they are prosperous and live among Arab Christians. We were told that flights between Aleppo and Yerevan are always full, reflecting the strong link between the Armenian communities in Syria and Armenia.
Street in Christian district of Aleppo, Armenian orphanage on right
Syrian-style inlay in Armenian, Armenian church, Aleppo
Armenian mass, Aleppo