Armenian History

By Levon Zekiyan –

Contemporary scholarship suggests that the Armenians are descendants of various indigenous people who meld (10th through 7th century BC) with the Urarteans (Ararateans); while classical historians and geographers cite the tradition that the Armenians migrated into their homeland from Thrace and Phrygia (Herodotus, Strabo), or even Thessaly (Strabo). These views are not necessarily contradictory, since present-day Armenians are undoubtedly an amalgam of several peoples, autochthonous (Hayasa-Azzi, Nairi, Hurrians, etc.) and immigrant, who emerged as one linguistic family around 600 BC.

Armenian tradition has preserved several legends concerning the origin of the Armenian nation. The most important of these tells of Hayk (Hayg or Haig), the eponymous hero of the Armenians who called them-selves Hay (Hye) and their country Hayk’ or Hayastan. The historian of the 5th century, Movses Khorenatsi, also relates at some length the valiant deeds of Aram whose fame extended far beyond the limits of his country. Consequently, the neighboring nations called the people Armens or Armenians.
Archeology has extended the prehistory of Armenia to the Acheulian age (500,000 years ago), when hunting and gathering peoples crossed the lands in pursuit of migrating herds. The first period of prosperity was enjoyed by inhabitants of the Armenian upland in the third millennium B.C. These people were among the first to forge bronze, invent the wheel, and cultivate grapes. The first written records to mention the inhabitants of Armenia come from hieroglyphs of the Hittite Kingdom, inscribed from 1388 to 1347 B.C., in Asia Minor. The earliest inscription to be found directly upon Armenian lands, carved in 1114 B.C. by the Assyrians, describes a coalition of kings of the central Armenian region referring to them as “the people of Nairi.”

By the 9th century B.C., a confederation of local tribes flourished as the unified state of Urartu. It grew to become one of the strongest kingdoms in the Near East and constituted a formidable rival to Assyria for supremacy in the region. The Urartians produced and exported wares of ceramic, stone and metal, building fortresses, temples, palaces and other large public works. One of their irrigation canals is still used today in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital – a city which stands upon the ancient Urartian fortress of Erebuni. In the 6th century Urartu fell to the Medes, but not long after, the Persian conquest of the Medes, led by Cyrus the Great, displaced them. Persia ruled over Armenia from the 6th century until the 4th century B.C. Its culture and Zoroastrian religion greatly influenced the spiritual life of the Armenian people who absorbed features of Zoroastrianism into their polytheistic and animistic indigenous beliefs.

As part of the Persian Empire, Armenia was divided into provinces called satrapies, each with a local governing satrap (viceroy) supervised by a Persian. The Armenians paid heavy tribute to the Persians, who continually requisitioned silver, rugs, horses and military supplies. The governing satraps of Armenia’s royal Orontid family (Ervanduni Dynasty) governed the country for some 200 years, while Asia became acquainted with invading Greeks from the west. With the fall of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 331 B.C., the Greeks appointed a new satrap, an Orontid named Mithranes, to govern Armenia. The Greek Empire, which stretched across Asia and Europe, was one in which cities rapidly grew, spreading Hellenistic architecture, religion and philosophies. Armenian culture absorbed Greek influences as well. As centers at the crossroads of trade routes connecting China, India and Central Asia with the Mediterranean, Armenian cities thrived on economic exchange. The Greeks also infused Armenia’s version of Zoroastrianism with facets of their religious beliefs. After Alexander’s sudden death in 323 B.C., the partitioning of his empire and warring among his generals led to the emergence of three Greek kingdoms. Despite pressure from the Seleucid monarchy, one of the Greek kingdoms, the Orontids, continued to retain control over the largest of three kingdoms into which Armenia itself had been divided: Greater Armenia, Lesser Armenia and Sophene.

Seleucid influence over Armenia finally dissolved when, in the second century B.C., a local general named Artaxias (Artashes) declared himself King of Greater Armenia and founded a new dynasty – Artaxiads Dynasty (Artashesian) – (The Artain 189 B.C. Artaxias expanded his territory by defining the borders of his land and unifying the Armenian people.

The “renaissance of Armenia” was accomplished during the reign of Tigran the Great (94-54 B.C.), who proclaimed himself “King of Kings.” Under Tigran II, Armenia grew to a great degree of military strength and political influence. According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, the Roman general Lucullos said of this king,

“In Armenia, Tigran is seated surrounded with that power which has wrested Asia from the Parthians, which carries Greek colonies into Media, subdues Syria and Palestine and cuts off the Seleucids.”

And Cicero, the Roman orator and politician, adds, ”

He made the Republic of Rome tremble before the powers of his arms.”

Armenia’s borders extended from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Tigran’s victories were, however, destined to hasten his downfall, which occurred in 66 B.C. His son, King Artavazd II, governed Greater Armenia for 20 years until Anthony and Cleopatra had him brought to Egypt in chains. Artavazd refused to name Cleopatra as his queen and was executed.

By 64 A.D. the new Arsacids dynasty (Arshakuni Dynasty), a branch of the Parthian Arsacids, came to power, and the country as a whole soon became a buffer zone over which the Romans and Parthians fought for domination. In order that we may realize the real implications of the history of Armenia and grasp the soul of this people, we must turn our gaze upon the beginning of the 4th century, which was momentous in its consequences for the growth of the nation. King Tiridates III (Trdat), having been converted by Gregory the Illuminator, proclaimed Christianity as the religion of the state in 301 A.D. Thus, Armenia became the first nation to embrace Christianity officially. This was 12 years before the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan which declared tolerance of Christians in the Roman Empire. Gregory the Illuminator, later canonized, was elected Catholicos of the new Armenian national Church, the first in a long line of such clergy to be elected supreme head of the Armenian Church.

The conversion to Christianity was inevitably to bring in its wake complications of a political nature and to arouse grave anxieties in neighboring Persia. The Sassanian Persians took advantage of Armenia’s inner weakness and launched a campaign to stamp out Christianity there and replace it with Mazdaism. Under this common threat, the princes, nobility and the people of Armenia rallied, and in 451 under the leadership of the Commander-in-Chief Vartan Mamikonian, the Armenians heroically faced the Persians at Avarair in defense of their faith and national heritage. Heavily outnumbered, they were defeated; Vartan Mamikonian and many valiant men fell fighting. But guerrilla warfare continued in the mountainous regions. Vahan Mamikonian, a nephew of Vardan, continued the struggle. This time the Persians, realizing the futility of their policy, were obliged to come to terms with the Armenians. Freedom of religious worship was restored with the Treaty of Nvarsag.

In the 7th century, the mighty Arabs stormed into Armenia and conquered the country. Beginning in the 9th century, Armenia enjoyed a brilliant period of independence when the powerful Bagratids Dynasty (Bagratuni Dynasty) asserted political authority. Resumption of international trade brought prosperity and the revival of artistic and literary pursuits.

The capital of Ani grew to a population of about 100,000, more than any urban center in Europe. Religious life flourished and Ani became known as the “city of one thousand and one churches.” In the middle of the 11th century, most of Armenia had been annexed by Byzantium. The destruction of the Bagratid Kingdom was completed by raids of new invaders, the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia. With little resistance from weakened Byzantium, the Seljuk Turks spread into Asia Minor as well as the Armenian highlands.

The Seljuk Turks invasion compelled a large number of Armenians to move south, toward the Taurus Mountains close to the Mediterranean Sea, where in 1080 they founded, under the leadership of Ruben (Rubenian Dynasty), the Kingdom of Cilicia or Lesser Armenia. Close contacts with the Crusaders and with Europe led to absorbing Western European ideas, including its feudal class structure. Cilician Armenia became a country of barons, knights and serfs. The court at Sis adopted European clothes. Latin and French were used alongside Armenian. The Cilician period is regarded as the Golden Age of Armenian Illumination, noted for the lavishness of its decoration and the frequent influence of contemporary western manuscript painting. Their location on the Mediterranean coast soon involved Cilician Armenians in international trade between the interior of Western Asia and Europe. For nearly 300 years, the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia prospered, but in 1375 it fell to the Mamelukes of Egypt. The last monarch, King Levon VI, died at Calais, France in 1393, and his remains were laid to rest at St. Denis (near Paris) among the kings of France.

While in the 13th century the Armenians prospered in the Cilician Kingdom, those living in Greater Armenia witnessed the invasion of the Mongols. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran. With the annexation of the Armenian plateau, the Armenians lost all vestiges of an independent political life. The Persian leader Shah Abbas I inaugurated a policy of moving populations of entire Armenian regions to his country to create a noman’s land in the path of the Ottoman advance, and to bring a skilled merchant and artisan class to his new capital, Isfahan. The Armenian community of New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, was held by Shah Abbas I in great esteem and became one of the economic bases of the Safavid state.

Persians ruled Eastern Armenia until 1828, when it was annexed by Russia. However, it was the Ottoman Turks who governed most of the Armenian land and population (Western Armenia). During the 19th century, Armenians under Turkish rule suffered from discrimination, heavy taxation and armed attacks.
As Christians, Armenians lacked legal recourse for injustices. They were taxed beyond their means, forbidden to bear arms in a country where murdering a non-Muslim often went unpunished, and were without the right to testify in court on their own behalf. During the late l9th century, the increasingly reactionary politics of the declining Ottoman Empire and the awakening of the Armenians culminated in a series of Turkish massacres throughout the Armenian provinces in 1894-96. Any illusion the Armenians had cherished to the effect that the acquisition of power in 1908 by the Young Turks might bring better days was soon dispelled. For in the spring of 1909, yet another orgy of bloodshed took place in Adana, where 30,000 Armenians lost their lives after a desperate resistance. World War I offered a good opportunity for Turks to “solve the issue.” In 1915, a secret military directive ordered the arrest and prompt execution of Armenian community leaders.

Armenian males serving in the Ottoman army were separated from the rest and slaughtered. The Istanbul government decided to deport the entire Armenian population. Armenians in towns and villages were marched into deserts of Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia. During the “relocation” many were flogged to death, bayoneted, buried alive in pits, drowned in rivers, beheaded, raped or abducted into harems. Many simply expired from heat exhaustion and starvation. 1.5 million people perished in this first genocide of the 20th century. Another wave of massacres occurred in Baku (1918), Shushi (1920) and elsewhere.

The defeat of the Ottoman Turks in World War I and the disintegration of the Russian Empire gave the Armenians a chance to declare their independence. On May 28, 1918, the independent Republic of Armenia was established, after the Armenians forced the Turkish troops to withdraw in the battles of Sardarapat, Karakilisse and Bashabaran. Overwhelming difficulties confronted the infant republic, but amid these conditions the Armenians devoted all their energies to the pressing task of reconstructing their country. But due to pressure exerted simultaneously by the Turks and Communists, the republic collapsed in 1920. Finally, the Soviet Red Army moved into the territory (Eastern Armenia) and on November 29, 1920, declared it a Soviet republic. Armenia was made part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic in 1922, and in 1936, it became one of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics.

The tumultuous changes occurring throughout the Soviet Union beginning in the 1980’s inevitably had repercussions in Armenia. In 1988, a movement of support began in Armenia for the constitutional struggle of Nagorno Karabagh (Artsakh) Armenians to exercise their right to self-determination. (This predominantly Armenian populated autonomous region had been placed under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan by an arbitrary decision of Stalin in 1923.)
That same year, in 1988, Armenia was rocked by severe earthquakes that killed thousands, and supplies from both the Soviet Union and the West were blocked by the Azerbaijani Government fighting the Armenians in Nagorno Karabagh. Both of these issues have dominated Armenia’s political arena since the first democratic election held in Armenia during the Soviet era. In 1990, the Armenian National Movement won a majority of seats in the parliament and formed a government. On September 21, 1991, the Armenian people overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence in a national referendum, and an independent Armenia came into being.


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