The Struggle for Armenian Culture and identity

A1We have chosen here to introduce the specificity of an ancient culture, too often overlooked because of its tragic historical context. Today, we are indeed witnessing the return to life of a little-known culture and country.

The sociological notion of identity has to do with a person's self-conception, social presentation, and more generally, the aspects of a person that make them unique, or qualitatively different from others. Identity can also be manifested in the bloodline, land, language, history, culture and religion.

At the end of Antiquity, the Middle East was indeed shared between different territorially-disputed Empires: notably the Persian, the Byzantine and the Armenian. Our purpose here will be to explain the checkered destiny of the latter, and the construction of it culture through different ages and in different localities.

A brief history of the Armenian people: the manufacturing of an identity…

First of all, the original Armenian word for Armenia is Haystan (Land of Hayk) in reference to the legendary patriarch of the Armenians, who was purportedly a great-great-grandson of Noah. According to the 5th-century AD author, Moses of Chorene, Hayk defeated the Babylonian King Bel in 2492 BC and established his nation in the region of Mount Ararat.

Then, around 600 BC, the Kingdom of Armenia was established under the Orontid Dynasty. The kingdom reached its height between 95 and 66 BC under Tigranes the Great, becoming one of the most powerful kingdoms of its time within the Middle East. Throughout its history, the kingdom of Armenia enjoyed both periods of independence and periods of autonomy as subject-state to contemporary empires (Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman Turk and Russian).

As a basis for the elaboration of a new and authentic Armenian nation, the monk Mesrop Machtots created a new alphabet, to serve the hayaki language. Between the 16th and early 19th century, under Ottoman rule, the Armenians were granted considerable autonomy within their own enclaves and lived in relative harmony with other groups in the empire (including the ruling Turks). However, as Christians under a strict Muslim social system, they still faced pervasive discrimination. When, between 1894 and 1896, they began claiming for more rights within the Ottoman Empire, Sultan ‘Abdu’l-Hamid II, nicknamed the ‘Red Sultan’ in reference to his bloody deeds, organized a series of massacres.

When World War I broke out leading to confrontation between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire in the Caucasus and Persian Campaigns, the new government in Istanbul began to consider the Armenians with distrust and suspicion. This was notably because the Russian army comprised a contingent of Armenian volunteers. As from 24 April 1915, a large percentage of the Armenians living in Anatolia were henceforth to perish in what has become known as the Armenian Genocide.

The Turkish authorities, however, still today maintain that the deaths were the result of a terrible civil war, coupled with disease and famine, with casualties incurred by both sides. However, for the first time last year, in April 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered what the government declared unprecedented condolences to the grandchildren of the million and a half Armenians killed during World War I by Ottoman soldiers.

The Role of Language

From the very beginning of the 5th century CE, Armenia was already torn between the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid Empires. Indeed the very existence of Armenia was under threat.  Both Byzantium and Persia were expansionist and proselyte, extending the domination of their respective beliefs and languages. So the Armenian King Vram Chabour, the Christian Sahak Bartev and the erudite Mesrob Machtoutz together decided to revolutionize Armenian culture forever.

Mesrob Machtoutz created a specific alphabet. He thought the latter would better guarantee Armenian independence, stimulating the creation of its own literature for Armenia and revitalizing patriotic sentiment. Mesrob Machtoutz was a close friend of the Christian patriarch. The alphabet was also a way to convert a population with an oral tradition towards the status of being a ‘people of the Book’.

First at all, he became a scribe at the royal court. After great labours, he created the alphabet through a phonetic system and started using it and spreading it thanks to the transcription of the myths of Solomon. he also visited Mesopotamia in order to study other languages.

Most of those first writings have been conserved in the Matenadaran archives in Yerevan. A lot of these books are bibles.  Before the creation of the Armenian alphabet, the king’s scribes were in the habit of transcribing and writing down the king’s words in their own language, Aramaic for example. Before having their own alphabet, they used to write in Greek and Syriac.  Language has a big role in the specificity of the Armenia identity, but intellectuals have also contributed to this Culture.

Intellectuals have a role to play

On April 24th, 1915, also named ‘Red Sunday’, a lot of intellectuals were jailed and assassinated. Up to 270 intellectuals were killed on that day because they were, of course, the primary target of the young Turks.

The convention of December 9th 1948 defined as genocide  “…any intentional will to kill wholly or in part a community, a race, a creed, because they belong to this community”. More than 20 countries in the world recognized this International Convention on Genocide and the French National Assembly passed a law for its public recognition in 2001.

Today in 2015, the 1915 Genocide is still a big issue.

The European Union has recognized it, but some historians like Gilles Weinstein or Bernard Lewis still refuse to acknowledge its existence. A certain number of Kurds also assisted the young Turks in this process, but they have publicly acknowledged their share of responsibility.

Taner Akçam is a historian and in 1990, he set out to inform Turkish people about what took place in their country at the beginning of the last century. Hassan Cemal’s grandfather Ahmet Cemal, was one of the main culprits for the Genocide, along with Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Because of Taner Akçam, Hassan Cemal came to understand the crime committed by his grand-father. Then he went to Armenia and met some descendants of the people killed by his grandfather. He notes the importance of a journalist like Hrant Dink, of Turkish origin but a native of Armenia, murdered in 2007 precisely because of his origins and his struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. After his death, one hundred thousand people of both Turkish and Armenian origin subsequently took to the streets to demonstrate in Istanbul to protest his assassination and in homage to his memory.

Hassam Cemal, Ahmet Insel and two other eminent people then decided to create a petition in order to seek forgiveness from the Armenians. This had a big impact and thirty thousand Turkish nationals signed. Among them, there were a lot of intellectuals.

Famous author and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk signed the petition and subsequently ran into trouble with the authorities. Other well-known Turkish voices are still in trouble because they hve been campaigning for the recognition of the massacres. The film director Fatih Akin, for example, has recently brought out a film entitled the Cut, which is about the Armenian Genocide. He said in an interview “it is time to speak about this in Turkey, people are ready to hear and not deny anymore”. This mobilization of intellectuals is currently having a big impact and highlighting Armenian identity as an importance factor in Turkish society. It is also raising some prickly Political issues. Armenian intellectuals have also had a big influence during some very important events for Armenian history.


For decades, when the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of a single Soviet state, many Armenians lived in Azerbaijan – predominantly in Nagorno Karabakh – while large numbers of Azerbaijanis lived in Armenia. Nagorno Karabakh is an area in South Caucasus, an ancient part of Armenia which represents a surface of 4400 square kms. The president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Robert Kocharyan, first became Prime minister (1997) and then President of Armenia (1998 - 2008), so the links between the two states are closely tied.

At the end of the nineteen eighties, Gorbatchev launched his policy of Perestroika and Glasnost, which triggered a signal for freedom of expression. In 1987 a petition demanded the right for the Karabagh to be attached to Armenia. Worried by this Armenian nationalism, the Azeri government repressed the population from Nagorno Karabakh and murdered some civilians.

On February 26th 1988, nearly one million people demonstrated in Yerevan to claim Nagorno Karabakh as Armenian. Protests had been initiated during the eighties, but they started to turn violent towards the end of the Soviet state. Nagorno Karabakh, an area mainly inhabited by Armenians, claimed for its independence in 1991, and plebiscited the latter by 90%. But this treaty was not acknowledged by the Azeris, and the relations between the ltter and the Armenians descended into military confrontation during the last two years preceding the Russian intervention in 1994. This War killed 23, 000 people, including a majority of Azeris, and the conflict caused a mass exodus. Today this is still a big issue: current Armenian policy remains in favour of unifying Karabakh with the rest of Armenia.

This period of Armenian history is still relevant in the area, and diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan have become complicated because of this independent territory. This area is a space symbolic of the Armenian struggle to reassert national origins, culture and rights. Still today, demonstrations take place regularly each year in Turkey, particularly during Newroz, a festivity celebrated both by the Kurds and in Iran, where a lot of Azeris also live. Finally Armenian influence would not have the same clout without its diaspora around the world.

There is also another big issue at stake between the Azeris and the Armenians. Indeed the Azeri government has shown itself to be a trustworthy and important partner for the Jewish state (in 2014 Israel bought 40% of its petrol from Azerbaijan).

However, Maxime Gauin and Alexander Murinson from, argue that Israel should not be selling weapons to its key ally in the neighbourhood, namely Azerbaijan, which is currently accused of 'genocide', or genocidal desires against the Armenians.

For the Armenian community, the genocide of 1915 is a fundament element in identity construction. It is more important than the bloodline from Noah, than the Machtotsalphabet or the will to recover all their ancient lands, and especially Mount Ararat (currently, on Turkish territory). The Armenian community is still not at peace with Azerbaijan, and tensions are now growing between Armenian descendants of genocide victims and the Israeli state, itself peopled by descendants of victims of the Nazi genocide in 1940-45, who are considering selling weapons to the Azeris. Are such ongoing issues likely to appease tensions, with the date of the commemoration of the genocide, the 24 April 2015, fast approaching?


The modern Armenian diaspora was largely formed after the World War I as a result of the Armenian Genocide. Estimates may vary greatly, because no reliable data is available for some countries. In France, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Germany and many other countries, ethnicity has never been taken into account during population censuses for constitutional reasons, and it is virtually impossible to determine the actual number of Armenians living there. Lilit Sargsyan has written and published a thesis about the role of Diaspora in the Armenian economy, which highlights its importance.

There are between 6 and 7 million Armenians in the world and most of them live outside Armenia - an ever-growing trend. Before 1990s, the Diaspora didn't represent more than 50%, whereas, today it represents the majority.

One and half million Armenians live in Russia, 800,000 in the United States and 200, 000 in Canada, 500, 000 in Georgia, 50, 000 in Ukraine and an equal number in Central Asia. 450, 000 live in France and 50, 000 in the rest of the EU, 80, 000 in Lebanon and Iran., 50, 000 in Turkey, 4000 in Cyprus, an unknown number in Romania, 100, 000 in Argentina, 70, 000 in South America, and 20, 000 in Australia…

They have spread the Armenian influence throughout the world and are keeping their culture alive. The Armenians first arrived in France by sea, through the Mediterranean port of Marseille, during the First World War. There is still a big community at large in this city, but also throughout the whole Provençal region. For instance, they settled in and around Valence and the community there is still very dynmic, with their own ceremonies, associations etc. While being very well integrated, they remain attached to their origins. The Bullukian Foundation provides an example of the importance of this community, very prosperous today. Thanks to this foundation, schools are being rebuilt in Armenia, but it are also takes an interest in the development of art in general.

To conclude, the Armenian diaspora is stronger every day, continuing to commemorate the Genocide and a lot of cities all over the world are participating in the events it organizes to communicate on this issue. Monuments have been built, and cultural activities are being organized and continue to circulate through the medium of the arts in particular. One well-known example is Elia Kazan, for instance, a very famous film director who shot a movie called America America, in which he focuses on the Armenian genocide and the flight of the Armenian people from Turkey, their original country….