Armenia, the first Christian nation

The history of the Armenian nation is surprising for its inexhaustible richness and the evolution of what was one of the first evangelized lands, cradle of civilization and progress.

Gerardo Ferrara-January 17, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes

Let us imagine a great empire that, in the first century A.D., extends from the Mediterranean to Persia and also dominates the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

It is a great empire, prosperous and rich in culture and traditions. Its origins date back to the reign of Urartu (name given to the mountain known in the Bible as Ararat, due to an incorrect translation of Assyrian sources) and, in its vast territory, there are three great lakes: Lake Van, Lake Urmia and Lake Sevan.

In this empire an ancient Indo-European language was spoken, Armenian, whose current alphabet is the invention of a saint, Mesrop Mashtots. Translated the Bible Armenian, reinforcing in its people an identity based, for almost two millennia, on the inseparable link between Christian faith, language, culture and traditions.

Christianity, in fact, had already been introduced in Armenia in the first century of the Christian era, by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, but it was not until the governor Tridates III, converted and baptized by St. Gregory the Illuminatorwhen it became, in 301, the state religion, a few decades before Rome!

The Armenian Apostolic Church did not participate in the Council of Chalcedon (451), (the one, to understand, in which it was affirmed that Christ is only one person in whom two natures coexist, one human and the other divine). The Catholic Church itself separated definitively in 554.

Although defined, over the centuries, as "monophysite," the Armenian Apostolic Church considered this doctrine heretical, preferring instead to consider the nature of Christ as unique, but the fruit of the union of the human and divine natures, (Monophysitism, on the other hand, a theory elaborated in the 5th century by the Byzantine monk Eutyches and condemned by the Council of Chalcedon, denies the double nature, divine and human, of Christ, recognizing in him only the divine nature).

Although weakened and progressively dismembered, being at the crossroads of empires such as the Roman and Persian, and later the Arab and Turkish, even in the ninth and tenth centuries of our era, Armenia remained a prosperous nation, especially from the religious and cultural point of view, to the point that its new capital, Ani (now a few meters from the Turkish border), was called "the city of a thousand churches".

Torn between nations

Despite its flourishing culture, Armenia was divided between the newly formed Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Persian Empire, especially after the Turks took Constantinople (1453). However, for several centuries, due to Seljuk Turkish incursions into their territory, many Armenian subjects had fled to the Mediterranean coast and there the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia was founded, which extended over much of eastern Anatolia. This kingdom was also known as Lesser Armenia or Little Armenia.

From that moment on, the division between Eastern and Western Armenians became a fact of considerable importance, especially at the time of the last and most important partition between the powers of this people who had always been in the balance between powers stronger than themselves.

In fact, after the Russo-Turkish wars, especially the one fought between 1877 and 1878, and the subsequent Treaty of St. Stephen, the territory corresponding to what is now the Republic of Armenia was annexed to the Russian Empire.

Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

As for Lesser Armenia, it remained under Ottoman control, which in any case officially administered it from 1639, the date of the definitive separation of Western and Eastern Armenia, sanctioned by the Treaty of Zuhab, which ended the Ottoman-Safavid war of 1623-1639 by assigning Western Georgia, Western Armenia and Mesopotamia to the Ottoman Empire, while keeping Eastern Armenia and Eastern Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan, under Safavid rule.

However, the distinction between Western and Eastern Armenia also acquired importance from the cultural point of view, since the Armenian language itself is divided into two branches, Western Armenian (today almost extinct, after the annihilation of almost all its speakers due to the great Genocide carried out by the Turks) and Eastern Armenian, the official language of the Republic of Armenia.

The Armenian presence in Anatolia, as we have seen, is however much older than the official subdivisions we have mentioned. In fact, it is well documented as early as the 6th century B.C., that is, some 1,500 years before the arrival of the Seljuk Turkmen.

Under the Ottoman Empire, like the other minorities, the Armenians also found themselves subject to a state entity founded on a religious rather than an ethnic basis: the sultan was also "prince of the believers", therefore caliph of the Muslims of any ethnicity (Arabs, Turks, Kurds, etc.), who were considered citizens of the world. The Sultan was also the "prince of the believers", thus caliph of the Muslims of any ethnicity (Arabs, Turks, Kurds, etc.), who were considered citizens of the world. milletwhich provided for all non-Muslim religious communities to be recognized as a "nation" within the empire, but with an inferior legal status (according to the Islamic principle of dhimma). Christians and Jews, therefore, did not participate in the government of the city, paid exemption from military service through a capitation tax (jizya) and a land tax (kharaj), and the head of each community was its religious leader. Bishops and patriarchs, in other words, were thus civil officials immediately subject to the sultan.

However, in the 19th century, a series of reforms came into effect to "modernize" the Ottoman Empire, including through greater integration of non-Muslim and non-Turkish citizens, protecting their rights through the application of the principle of equality before the law. These reforms, known as Tanzimat, were enacted from 1839 (under Sultan Abdül Mejid I) until 1876.

And it was precisely during this period when, out of a total population of some 17 million inhabitants, a large number of Christians of different ethnicities and confessions lived in Ottoman territory. Armenians, in particular, numbered at least two million. The Armenian Patriarchate estimated around 1914 that there were some 2,925 Armenian towns and villages, of which 2,084 were in eastern Anatolia alone.

Armenians were a minority in many of the places where they lived, but in certain districts they even outnumbered Turks (in other parts of Anatolia, the same was true of Greeks and Assyrians).

Although the majority of the Ottoman Armenians were peasants, a portion of them constituted the commercial elite of the Sublime Doorespecially in the most important urban centers. However, the economic power they wielded did not reflect their political representation and influence, which were rather scarce and made them especially vulnerable.

The Hamid massacres: prodromes of genocide

In this context, Russia, taking advantage of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and its recent territorial acquisitions, wishing to secure an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, decided to extend its influence to the territories inhabited by the Western Armenians who were still part of the Porte. The latter, to their regret, were increasingly considered pro-Russian by the Constantinople authorities and, encouraged by the Russians and despite the reforms enacted since 1839, began to revolt against Ottoman rule, raising self-determination and territorial claims and founding two revolutionary movements: Hënchak (Armenian: the bell) and Dashnaktsutyun (the union).

Meanwhile, Sultan Abdülhamid, with the aim of repressing any nationalist sentiment in the minority ethnic groups of his empire, drastically increased taxes on his subjects of Armenian origin, also fueling strong resentment in his Kurdish neighbors. Consequently, faced with the rebellion of the more radical members of the Armenian community, the Kurdish tribes massacred thousands of Armenians in 1894, burning and looting their villages.

Hoping to draw the world's attention to their cause, Armenian revolutionaries occupied a bank in Istanbul in 1896, provoking the sultan's reaction. In the riots that followed, known as the Hamidian Massacres, violence spread rapidly and affected most Armenian-inhabited cities in the Ottoman Empire. The worst atrocities affected, among others, the cathedral of Urfa, where three thousand Christian civilians had taken refuge and were burned alive.

Figures indicate, as a consequence of the Hamidian massacres, more than 50,000 Armenians massacred by groups of Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, whose actions, however, as in the later great Genocide (which we will discuss in a later article) were coordinated by government troops.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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