Historical Background of Armenian Diasporan Communities

Detail from an illumination
In the beginning of the 17th century in Europe, proliferation of printing presses, newspapers and institutions of higher education with secular outlook were important building blocks that played a major role in spreading literacy and democratization of education and culture. While European countries were building solid foundations that led to the enhancement of their languages, literature and culture, the Armenian homeland was left in ruins. Armenian monasteries were a particular target for destruction.

Deportation of 40,000 Armenians by the Russian army in 1827. 19th cent. engraving
In the 7th century, the Byzantine emperor Maurice was the first to deport thousands of Armenians to be resettled in Philippopolis (Plovdiv) in Bulgaria. The next important wave of massive migration began with the destruction of Ani by the Mongols in 1064 and the demise of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia in 1375. The war between the Ottomans and Persia started in 1602 further devastated the Armenian homeland. Shah Abbas, the Sefavid ruler of Persia, forced the relocation of tens of thousands Armenians to disrupt the advance of the Ottoman armies. During the Russo-Ottoman war of 1827, another 40000 Armenians were relocated to the Crimea by the Tsarist armies of Russia.

Armenian merchant from Nor Julpha
As a result, organized Armenian communities were present throughout Europe and Asia. Ultimately, these
The coat of arms of Armenian Cilician Kingdom flying on an Armenian vessel in the Indian Ocean. 18th cent. engraving
colonies helped create a commercial network that stretched from London and Manchester to Venice, Marseille, Amsterdam, Leghorn, Antwerp and other cities in Europe while from Iran to China, by way of India and Tibet, Armenian communities served as staging posts that also included the Russian territories, from the capitol of the Russian empire to Archangel on the shores of the White Sea. In other words, most of the world trade was controlled by Armenian merchants during the 16th and 17th centuries. Eventually, British, Dutch and Portuguese armies in Asia put an end to this domination while creating Dutch, British and Portuguese trading companies, imitating the models pioneered by Armenian traders.

Language & Culture in Diasporan Communities:

Lazarian Institute in Moscow, Russia
When the destruction of the Armenian homeland put an end to the political leadership of the nation and the disappearance of the nobility, a new class of leadership emerged to at least insure the spiritual and cultural continuity of the nation. The new leaders were mainly issue of the traders who used their knowledge and experience to serve their nation. It is no coincidence then to note that the first printing presses were established (circa 1500) in Amsterdam, Marseille and Venice where Armenian merchants had a dominant presence. The paradoxical situation of the Armenian homeland in ruins and the fact that Armenians were one of the first communities in the East to maintain pace with the advanced instruments of spreading literacy and culture available to their European counterparts, is a unique phenomenon.

Bible, published in Venice
There is an interesting parallel between the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 5th century Armenia and the intense efforts to create a network of printing presses in early 16th century: An emphasis on religious texts. If in 5th century Armenia the Bible was the first text to be written in Armenian letters, the same Bible was the first book to be printed at the beginning of the 16th century, albeit in a land that was far away from the motherland.

Aztarar no. 18, 1796, published in Madras, India
Ultimately, historiography became an important part of the printing enterprise to be followed by publications on language and culture. However, European cities did not have a monopoly in the development of Armenian culture. The first Armenian newspaper, Aztarar, was published in 1794, in Madras, India. Considering the Armenian presence in India, this not a coincidence. Fernand Braudel, the French historian wrote: “Where would Madras be without the Armenians?”

Mekhitarist Monastery in Venice, Italy
One should also note the important contribution of the Armenian Catholic monastery in Venice. Founded in 1717, the Mekhitarist Monastery became one of the most dynamic centers of Armenian language, literature and culture. The noted Armenian historian, Leo, did not exaggerate when he assessed the role played by the Brotherhood of the Mekhitarist monks by writing “The 19th century is the century of the Mekhitarists.” Yet, in addition to their contribution to the enlightenment of the Armenian nation, the input of this monastery to bridge the cultures of the East and the West remains vastly underestimated. Here, the Armenian tradition of translating important works continued by making important works available to Europeans and cultures of the Middle East.

Today, the Armenian diasporan tradition continues. Unlike voluntary migrations that are often a quest for better economic opportunities, Armenian diasporas, historically, were a matter of survival. Currently, the narrative of the Armenian Genocide is almost limited to the loss of 1.5 million Armenians. Sadly, this narrative often ignores the larger consequence of the event. The crime, perpetrated by the Turks in 1915, created the largest Armenian Diaspora, dispersed around the world. For most Armenians living in these diasporas who are born under different skies, Historical Armenia is not a place but a point of reference. In the absence of the place and in order to maintain the point of reference alive, Armenian language is one of the important ingredients.

It is a struggle to maintain the collective memory of a nation. However, throughout their 4 millennia history, the struggle to survive has always been a second nature to Armenians!

I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.
Samuel Johnson