In the second part of “Armenian Diaspora”, called Spyurk by Armenian themselves, I refer to the tragedy of genocide. 1915 genocide has left its imprint on the nature of modern Armenian emigration. The article also discusses the fate of Armenians in the Middle East. The text is a brief sketch which is to introduce the history of a nation outside its mother country and to portray the unique international Armenian community.
Before the outbreak of World War I, Armenians living outside Armenia in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, India, Russia, France, Bulgaria and the US committed themselves to work for community. This was enabled by numerous Armenian social institutions, including religious, charity, educational, cultural and patriotic organisations. Armenian communities in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Tbilisi were especially important at that time. They transformed into cultural, political and financial centres of the Armenian world. Other important communities bubbling with cultural life were: Izmir, Moscow, Baku and Kolkata. In the first decade of the 20th century, despite the mass emigration from Armenia, absolute majority of Armenians stayed in their mother country. Emigration was a matter of choice, while migrants and their family were most of the time allowed to come back.
Armenian genocide – genesis of Spyurk
During World War I, the authorities of the Ottoman Empire took a decision on annihilation of Armenian National Movement. According to Armenian sources, mass deportation of Armenians living in Western Armenia, Cilicia and other parts of the Ottoman Empire contributed to death of 1.5 million citizens. These events of genocide left a permanent imprint on tradition, culture and policy of Armenia as well as on the Armenian diaspora. After Turkish defeat in World War I, some Armenians who survived started to go back, most of all to Cilicia. However, the citizens of Armenia were forced to leave Cilicia permanently after France had withdrawn its troops in 1921. It is believed that 1915-1922 were the years of a new era for Armenians, when the majority of historically Armenian territories ceased to exist, while deported Armenians were forced to find a new place of living in different countries. This was the origin of the modern diaspora. In Armenian, diaspora is called Spyurk, which refers to the genocide of 1915. During World War I, different Armenian communities rushed to fellow countrymen’s aid. It was natural that displaced persons lived in the new countries mainly among the already settled Armenian population, counting on their support. For years, the migration has struck up communities. Currently, the Armenian diaspora communities live in over 60 countries, though the majority of them is located in Russia and the US. They also live in the Middle East.
Armenians in the Middle East
Armenians living in the poor agricultural regions of Lebanon, Syria, Iran and other countries of the Middle East, took up craft and trade, rather than farming. Their skills and friendly attitude of the locals contributed to their settling within new communities. After World War II, the number of Armenian traders, specialists, clerks and students considerably increased. In 1960s, Armenians were the owners of 18 percent of industrial companies and 43 percent of craftsman’s workshops in Lebanon. Since that time, Armenian communities in Lebanon and Iran have enjoyed special social and legal privileges, for they are considered ethnic and religious minorities, which entitles them to have their own representation in the parliaments of these countries.
Another crucial feature of Armenian communities in the Middle East is that in contrast to other minorities in Muslim countries, they are Christians. Considerable differences in culture and lifestyle seem to help Armenians to preserve their ethnic identity. Ethnic homogeneity of Armenian families enables to preserve Armenianness for next generations.
Education holds people together
Armenian education has always been an important element of communities’ life. A big network of Armenian primary and high schools was established in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iran, where they co-existed with Muslim schools. Armenian language is still the main and natural language of communication for local Armenian communities, and many newspapers and magazines are published in this language. Literary tradition has been preserved and developed there. Organisations, educational institutions and Armenian press have managed to create a specific Armenian atmosphere in Armenian districts of Aleppo and Beirut. In Lebanon, Syria and Iran, cultural and political centres of Armenian diaspora were founded in the 1980s. Cultural and educational progress in the Middle East community of Armenians has been financially supported by Armenian communities from western countries, especially the US. This aid has enabled the locals to establish schools, youth centres and scholarship funds.
Natural development of Armenian communities in the Middle East was stopped in 1950. Escalation of nationalist movements in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries of the region, limited rights of ethnic minorities, political instability (civil war in Lebanon, Islamic revolution in Iran and Iraq-Iran war) as well as low standard of living yet again forced Armenians to emigrate. Migration at that time had an wrong influence on the internal life of Armenian community in the Middle East, depriving it of the status of the Armenian diaspora centre. Absolute majority of Armenian emigrants from these countries decided to move to developed western countries, choosing a life in democratic society with political stability, while being fully aware of the challenges of preserving their ethnic and cultural identity in the new homeland.
To be continued: Armenian diaspora – Armenians in Western Europe (Part Three) on 30 April.
– Mirosława Zakrzewska Dubasowa, Historia Armenii, 1990
Translated by Marta Lityńska