Armenians in the Middle East

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The Armenian communities in the Middle East experienced their greatest change in the last one hundred years. The Armenian communities in the Arab world received a large percentage of the refugees and survivors of the massacres and genocide. They increased the numbers of the Armenians in Egypt, Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Sudan and Ethiopia. The European mandates enabled the Armenians to make advances in the economic and administrative sectors and to establish cultural and political associations. Egypt, with its strong Armenian community, was the guiding head of the Armenians in the Arab world until the mid-twentieth century. At the start of the twentieth century the Egyptian Armenians found a new leader, Boghos Nubar, the son of Nubar Pasha. Boghos had studied agriculture and engineering in Switzerland and France. Upon his return, he had served as the director of the Egyptian railways and had supervised the irrigation plan for the Sudan. He had become a banker and corporate officer in a number of companies and, like his father, was granted the title of pasha. The massacres of the Armenians in 1895-1896 in Turkey and especially the Armeno-Azeri clashes in Transcaucasia, beginning in 1905, had a sobering effect on the Armenian middle class of Egypt. Liberals and disenchanted socialists felt that there was a need for a world-wide Armenian philanthropic organization. On Easter day (April 15), 1906, ten Armenian professionals met at Boghos Nubar’s mansion in Cairo and drafted the by-laws of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).

Although initially there were some plans for the AGBU to also act as a political assembly, the idea was immediately abandoned–that role was soon taken up by the Sahmanadir Ramkavar party. The AGBU’s mission was to help the Armenians in historic Armenia by establishing or subsidizing schools, libraries, workshops, hospitals, and orphanages. It was to provide the peasants with land, seeds, animals, and tools and to assist in time of fire, famine, earthquakes, and other natural or man-made disasters. The aid was for all Armenians, regardless of religious or political affiliation. By 1913 the AGBU had 142 chapters in Europe, America, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. During the genocide it lost all of its eighty chapters in the Ottoman Turkey. The first decade after the First World War was spent locating orphans and creating orphanages and hospitals. Refugees had to be sheltered and when the Near East Relief withdrew from the Arab lands, AGBU and other Armenian organizations replaced it. The emergence of many new communities, most in dire need, diverted the efforts of Armenian cultural and philanthropic organizations to select parts of the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. As the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Armenia, it became increasingly difficult for outside organizations to work there, and although the AGBU managed to help Armenia, it concentrated its efforts in the Diaspora. At the end of the British protectorate of Egypt in 1922 the AGBU headquarters moved to Paris and after the Second World War to the United States.

The departure of AGBU did not adversely affect the Armenian community of Egypt. The role of the Armenians in the Egyptian government, as well as prosperous Armenian businesses, helped that country remain a major Armenian center, where numerous schools, churches, and newspapers guided the 40,000 Armenians living in Cairo and Alexandria. The political changes in Egypt following the military uprising in 1952 and the economic policies of Egyptian president Nasser after 1956, forced the emigration of many Armenians to Europe, Australia, and the United States. At present there are only some 5000 Armenians left in Egypt, primarily in Cairo. Despite the decline of its Armenian community, Egypt remains an important and active Armenian cultural center.

The much smaller community in Ethiopia received new immigrants at the start of the century and built a church and a number of schools. The Ethiopian Armenians gained favor with Emperor Haile Selassie and an Armenian, Kevork Nalbandian, even composed the former national anthem of Ethiopia. The military revolution there (1974), which nationalized Armenian businesses, reduced the community from some 1,000 to 150 members. The Armenians of Sudan were centered in Khartoum where they built a church. The civil war in Sudan, which began in the late 1980s has drastically reduced the numbers of that community as well.

The Armenian communities of Palestine and Jordan, which were never large, also attracted some refugees from Turkey who laid the foundations for new centers in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Amman. The short-lived security during the British Mandate soon gave way to Arab-Jewish strife. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli wars, many Armenians emigrated to Europe, United States, and more peaceful centers in the Middle East. The majority of the Armenians of that region are primarily involved in the religious and scholarly activities surrounding the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Most of the Armenian survivors of the massacres and genocide settled in modem Syria, mainly in Aleppo. The new arrivals were aided by Armenian and American missionary and philanthropic organizations and succeeded in invigorating the earlier settlements and creating one of the most active Armenian Diasporas in the twentieth century. In many ways the Armenian schools, churches, centers, and hospitals in Syria, especially in Aleppo and its environs, became the inspiration and models for the Armenian communities of Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Amman during the second half of the twentieth century. Until the end of the Second World War, the region was under British and French mandates. Fortunately the area did not become a theater of war during the Second World War and actually benefited from the material and personnel, which were concentrated there to repulse the Germans from North Africa. Armenians, Assyrians, Christian Arabs, and a number of non-Sunni Muslim sects such as the Druzes, ‘Alawis, and Isma’ilis, were favored by and cooperated with the Europeans. Syria’s independence in 1944 did not threaten the well-being of the Armenian community which continued to grow to some 75,000. The revolution of 1958 and the creation of the United Arab Republic with Egypt, as well as the military coup of 1963, not only hurt Armenian businesses, but restricted Armenian cultural activities. Some emigrated to Lebanon, others to the United States. Luckily, Syria soon abandoned the political and economic programs of Egypt and starting in 1971 President Hafez al-Assad reformed the extreme policies of the Ba’th Party and created a more tolerant Syria, where social programs and businesses have striven to sustain the large population growth of the country. The ‘Alawis are in charge of major government posts and the Armenians are treated well. In Aleppo alone there are some 40,000 Armenians who utilize Armenian centers, ten schools, a hospital, and organize numerous community-sponsored events. The community in Damascus has also grown in the last quarter of a century and new Armenian businesses have managed to stop the flow of emigration. In fact Armenians from Lebanon, Iraq, and Kuwait, who have fled turmoil in those countries, have settled, temporarily or permanently, in Damascus. Syria, with over 100,000 Armenians has, at present, the largest Armenian community in the Arab world.

The Armenians of Lebanon were, for a time, the most important Armenian community outside of the Soviet Union and the United States. The core of the modem community also arrived as a result of massacres and genocide in Turkey. By 1926 there were some 75,000 Armenians in Lebanon and the Lebanese Constitution granted them and other minorities civil rights, which, in time, enabled the Armenians to elect their own members of parliament. The country’s geographic location and the security offered by the French, as well as its Christian-dominated government, attracted more Armenians there and in 1930 the catholicosate of Cilicia moved to Antelias, outside of Beirut. Armenian Catholic and Evangelical Churches also established centers in Beirut. In 1939 the sanjak of Alexandretta, which includes Musa Dagh, was transferred to Turkey. As a result 30,000 Armenians moved into Syria and Lebanon. The Armenians of Musa Dagh settled in the highlands of Anjar. Armenians rose swiftly to economic and social prominence, and Lebanon’s liberal government made it possible for all Armenian political parties to establish themselves. During the short-lived Lebanese civil strife of 1958 the Armenians split and sided with both factions. By 1974 there were over 200,000 Armenians, who had two dozen churches, some seventy schools, including institutions of higher learning, such as the Haigazian College, founded in 1955 by the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East. In addition there were more than fifty athletic, compatriotic, and benevolent organizations, and numerous literary and cultural periodicals and newspapers. The Lebanese civil war from 1974-1989 took its toll and although Armenians remained neutral and much of their community infrastructure remained undamaged, thousands left for safer shores, especially the United States. Some 75,000 have remained and thanks to their neutrality and the efforts of their leaders, have played a role in the Syrian-backed National Accord Document, and are once again enjoying the benefits of Lebanon’s unique situation. Forty-seven Armenian schools and numerous associations and organizations, including an Armenian Fund for Economic Development are putting the community on the road to recovery with members in parliament and the central government.

The Armenians in Iraq arrived primarily in the 1920′s and, during the British mandate, established communities in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. Armenians were engaged in private businesses, worked in technical, administrative and financial positions for the British Petroleum Company, or participated in the trade between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. Even after Iraq achieved its independence in 1932, the British presence did not end and the Armenians continued to enjoy the benefits of Iraq’s economic rise, especially since they, unlike the Assyrians and Kurds, did not engage in antigovernment and nationalist activities and were viewed as loyal citizens. Armenian businesses, churches, schools, and organizations grew until there were some 35,000 Armenians in that country. The revolution of 1958 and the subsequent radical policies of the Ba’th Party forced the migration of many Armenians from Iraq to Lebanon, Kuwait, United States, and the Gulf States. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Armenians were drafted and killed both in the Iranian and Iraqi forces. The difficult political and economic conditions, combined with the disastrous Gulf War, spelled the doom of the Armenian community of Iraq. Many emigrated or have temporarily abandoned the unstable situation. Less than 10,000 Armenians remain in Iraq today.

By the twentieth century, Iran, like Egypt, was a major center of Armenian life in the Middle East. As we have seen, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were some 100,000 Armenians in Iran. The proximity of the Armenians in Iranian Azerbaijan to Transcaucasia and eastern Anatolia brought them under the influence of the political activitics of Russian and Turkish Armenians. Armenakan, Hnchak and Dashnak cells opened in Tabriz and Salinas and a number of Armenian revolutionaries sought refuge from the tsarist and Turkish police there. The massacres of 1895-1896 brought Armenian refugees to northwestern Iran. The Revolution of 1905 in Russia had a major effect on northern Iran and, in 1906, Iranian liberals and revolutionaries, joined by many Armenians, demanded a constitution in Iran. Although the shah signed the document, his successor dissolved the maflis or parliament and it was only in 1909 that the revolutionaries forced the crown to give up some of its prerogatives. The role of Armenian military units under the command of leaders such as Yeprem Khan and Keri, in the Iranian Constitutional Movement is well-documented.

Thousands of Armenians had escaped to Iran during the genocide. The Turkish invasion of Iranian Azerbaijan during World War One devastated a number of Armenian communities in that region, such as Khoi. The community experienced a political rejuvenation with the arrival of the Dashnak leadership from Armenia in 1921. The establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty began a new era for the Armenians. The modernization efforts of Reza Shah (1924-1941) and Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) gave the Armenians ample opportunities for advancement. Armenian contacts with the West and their linguistic abilities gave them an advantage over the native Iranians. They SOOD gained important positions in the arts and sciences, the Iranian Oil Company, the caviar industry, and dominated professions such as tailoring, shoemaking, photography, auto-mechanics, and as well the managing of cafes and restaurants. Immigrants and refugees from Russia continued to increase the Armenian community until 1933. World War Two gave the Armenians opportunities to increase their economic power. The Allies decided to use Iran as a bridge to Russia. Western arms and supplies were shipped through Iran and Armenians, with their knowledge of Russian, played a major role in this endeavor. The Hnchaks, especially, were active and the Iranian Communist Party had an Armenian contingent. The majority of the Armenians remained loyal to the Dashnaks, while the minority, who had communist sympathies, either went underground or left with the Iranian Socialists when they fled to Russia in 1946. In 1953 the Iranian and few Armenian communists made a brief comeback during the Mossadeq period, but the return of the shah, once again decimated their ranks. Most Armenians, under Dashnak leadership, however, had remained neutral or loyal to the regime and were rewarded by the shah. For the next quarter of the century Armenian fortunes rose in Iran, and Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan became major centers with some 250,000 Armenians. The shah trusted and liked his Armenian subjects and Tehran, like Beirut, became a major center of Armenian life. Armenian churches, schools, cultural centers, sports clubs and associations flourished and Armenians had their own senator and member of parliament. Thirty churches and some four dozen schools and libraries served the needs of the community. Armenian presses published numerous books, journals, periodicals, and newspapers, such as The Wave (Alik). The better educated upper classes, however, were fewer in number and, compared to their counterparts in Lebanon, were relatively unproductive culturally.

Although the Islamic Revolution has ended the second golden age of the Armenian community in Iran, the community has not lost its prominence altogether. Ayatollah Khomeini’s restrictions, the Iran-Iraq War, and the economic problems resulting from Iran’s isolation, forced the exodus of 100,000 Armenians. The current government is more accommodating and Armenians, unlike the Kurds and Iranian Azeris, have their own schools, clubs, and maintain most of their churches. The fall of the Soviet Union, the common border with Armenia, and the Armeno-Iranian diplomatic and economic agreements have opened a new era for the Iranian Armenians.

The genocide, as we have seen, destroyed western Armenia and numerous other Armenian centers in Turkey. By the Second World War, Constantinople or Istanbul was the sole urban center with an Armenian presence. In 1945, an arbitrary property tax on the minorities impoverished many Greek and Armenian businessmen. Ten years later, mobs looted and burned Greek and Armenian businesses in Istanbul. At present there are some 75,000 Armenians in Turkey, the majority of whom live in Istanbul, where conditions, despite cultural pressures and occasional hostile acts, are not as unfavorable as one may imagine. Twenty schools, some three dozen churches, and a hospital maintain a strong Armenian identity. A number of Armenian newspapers, including the daily Marmara continue to publish, and Armenian organizations go about collecting donations and sponsoring cultural activities. The Armenian patriarch is also invited to official Turkish state ceremonies. Major problems include the lack of a seminary, Armenian institutions of higher education, and linguistic assimilation.

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