Ancient Land, No Natural Boundaries

In the 1980s, when I taught English night classes for new immigrant adults in Pasadena, California, two-thirds of my students were Armenians. Yet none of them listed their country of origin as Armenia. Rather, they declared that they came from Cyprus, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  Hmmm. Now that’s a head scratcher.

One young woman in the class told me she spoke Turkish, as well as several other languages. She also said she had no idea why because she had never lived in Turkey. The only reason that she spoke the language of a country in which she had never lived, I guessed, must have been due to her parents and perhaps her grandparents. They must have used Turkish in their daily life when the young woman was a girl. At least several of the older members of her family must have lived in Turkey originally and left the country.

The Armenian students of the class were in fact en diaspora. Ground zero must have been Turkey. But why? What happened to the original country of origin?

Once more, turning over some pebbles on the beach of history yielded some interesting scenarios.

Tradition among Armenians links them through Haig [Haik] to Japheth, a son of Noah, the man of antiquity who landed the ark on Mt. Ararat. Centuries later, an Indo-European group called Armen joined the descendants of Noah on the high plateau around that twin-peaked volcano. This combination of people groups gave the Armenians their spoken language and pre-Christian culture.

In the century prior to Jesus’ birth, an Armenian king extended the borders of his country from the Caspian Sea to Phoenicia on the Mediterranean Sea and from the Black Sea to the plains north of Iraq. So, at one point in its three-thousand year history, Armenia was a large country. 

As nations around the Armenians grew in size and strength, Armenia’s lack of natural boundaries made it easy to invade.

Zoroastrian Persians and Muslim Arabs were among those nations who did – after the Armenians had already adopted Christianity. Neither invader, however, was successful in converting most Armenians to a different belief system.

In the tenth century, Seljuk Turks pushed out of what is now Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea and invaded lands south and southwest of that sea. In 1071 A.D., the Turks defeated the Byzantines on the eastern edge of their empire at the Battle of Manzikert [Malagzirt] near Armenia’s Lake Van. This defeat opened up the Anatolian Plateau (and Armenia) for invasion by the Seljuk Turks. Within four hundred years, the Turks had taken all of Anatolia, the Byzantine city of Constantinople, and established the Ottoman Empire.

Wars over and around Armenia’s plateau homeland and invasions by other groups such as Tartars and Kurds continued. Armenians were forced to share their homeland with people of many languages, cultures, and religious creeds. In the end, Russia, Persia (Iran), and the Ottoman Turks chopped up Armenia’s territory between them, but the largest number of the Armenian people were concentrated in six eastern provinces of Turkey. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, approximately three million Armenians lived under Turkish rule.

In 1915, all that changed.