OCA #21 SPRING 2016 WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM Text by Dario Colón
What has estranged the Armenian nation from virtually all other nations in the world when it comes to the build-up and maintenance of a national identity? The answer could be: a profound collective conviction of “It’s them or us”. Armenians tend to believe that in the end they have no friends to defend their land and their lives. Hideous experiences coming from having been near the point of near-extinction have hardened Armenians’ point of view to such an extent that giving in means suicide. Nothing else can ever prevail over that.
Each and every Armenian, whether he lives in the poor, barren deep south of Armenia’s deprived rural provinces or in a luxury estate on the coast of California, is ready each and every moment to engage himself in the struggle for the Hay-dat, the Armenian “cause” – even if it means taking up arms for the purpose. Claims to incorporate vast territories outside the present-day Republic of Armenia, stretching from Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding areas in southwestern Azerbaijan (under occupation since 1993) to the east to vast areas including the provinces of Van, Bitlis, Kars, Hamadan and from there westward including the historic city of Trabzon on the Black Sea Coast, are the most visible aspect of the movement. But underneath there is an entire half-mystical world of notions and convictions not as usual shared by members of some sect or congregation, but by a whole nation, scattered over the earth but yearning for one thing only: being free at home, in the lands surrounding Mount Ararat, the place where Noah’s ark is supposed to have landed.
The Armenians are believed to stem from Noah’s son Japheth, and in later times became subordinate to the northern-Mesopotamian, King Bel, the same who ordered the Tower of Babel to be built. In the chaos that followed the Armenians decided to leave the king’s domain and travel north. The campaign itself was conducted by the supposedly legendary leader, named Hayk. After having successfully waged battle against Bel, the people travelled out of Mesopotamia until they found (or conquered) a new homeland which would shield them forever from domination by more powerful nations of different origin. As the nation consolidated in the course of many centuries, it developed under a dynasty of kings into a power to be reckoned with in the region.
The Armenian Church was founded in the early fourth century A.D. Though a member of the Church of Rome, the Armenian Church has been autocephalic (self appointing) from the very beginning and remains so up to this day. Not unlike other Christian communities in the Middle-East, the Armenian clergy has been a hardline defender of its people’s rights and territorial claims throughout its history. In centuries that followed, feudal families took the lead where secular power was concerned. These “erestavis”, as they are known, did a lot to preserve the identity and the lives of the Armenian people under the occupation of (mainly Persian, later in cohesion with the Arabs and finally with Turks come from the east) – but a true, independent fatherland aloof from external threats was something they were unable to offer.
It was only in the course of the eighteenth century A.D. that the ideology dating from biblical times was picked up again by a jeweller from Constantinople, named Mikayel Chamchian (1738–1823), who at a younger age entered an Armenian clergy order and withdrew in a cloister to dedicate himself to reviving the written Armenian language, write an updated and revised version of the History of Armenia, several liturgies and other works. His chef d’oeuvre was the tale of the creation and development of the world – starting from the very beginning up to the day of writing.
It is in this voluminous work that the Hay-dat has elaborated upon. It comes down to the notion that God created the Armenians with a special purpose, namely to preserve His identity and purposes in their purest form, clean from the deviations caused by other faiths (the Georgians have similar beliefs in this context). But this task can only be carried out under conditions of purity, meaning keeping the Armenian nation purely Armenian and the land on which it is living free from outside distortions. This quest has not only spiritual dimensions, but also secular ones now, here on earth.
It was exactly this that must have worried the Ottoman authorities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the Empire was over its apogee and fears of disintegration were on the rise.
In late 1985, massacres of Armenians broke out in Constantinople and soon spread east to the rest of the Armenian-populated provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Erzurum, Harput, Sivas, Trabzon, and Van. Estimates differ on how many Armenians were killed but European documentation of the pogroms, which became known as the Hamidian massacres, placed the figures at between 100,000 and 300,000. In the course of the next decade, tensions resulted in a new round of massacres in the east-Anatolian Adana province. The number of Armenians killed in the course of the Adana massacre ranged between 15,000 and 30,000 people.
There is general agreement among western historians that over 500,000 Armenians died between 1914 and 1918. Estimates vary between 800,000 and 1,500,000 (per the governments of France, Canada, and other states). Encyclopædia Britannica references the research of Arnold J. Toynbee, an intelligence officer of the British Foreign Office, who estimated that 600,000 Armenians “died or were massacred during deportation” in a report compiled on 24 May 1916.This figure, however, accounts for solely the first year of the Genocide and does not take into account those who died or were killed after the report was compiled on 24 May 1916. Some tend to claim that hardly more than 100,000 Armenians survived the ordeal.
On numerous occasions between 1895 and 1916 the ailing Ottoman Empire witnessed scenes unseen since the days of Tamerlane in the region: people including women, children and the elderly were dumped from vessels into the sea, raped and cut into pieces, left to rot in the desert of northern Syria, poisoned among other crimes. Not just western witnesses (including diplomats from Turkey’s allies in the war such as Germany and Austria) but also numerous well-educated Turkish citizens showed themselves indignified over the countless mass-slaughters they encountered.
Yet, no member of the Entente appeared to care about the massive atrocities once the war was over about the terrible, and by and large senseless campaign against the Armenians. No justice was sought on any level. Revenge is held equal to survival, pardon equal to surrender and opening the door to new campaigns of extermination. This created the Hay-dat as it is today as an unshakable notion on every Armenian’s mind. This homo armeniensis neither tolerates no argument nor trusts no friend. Reconciliation can be seen as a tactical mover at best: it will never come from the Armenian heart.