This article is from Ethnic Groups in Michigan, Vol. 2 of The Peoples of Michigan (Detroit, MI: The Ethnos Press, 1983), pp. 12-17. The original pagination has not been kept intact and the paragraphing has been altered for web use.
This web edition © 2004 Dennis R. Papazian.


THE history of the Armenian people is a long and interesting one, dating far before the first millenium before Christ. Armenians are of Indo-European descent, relating them to the major language families of Europe, such as the Romance, the Germanic, the Slavic, and the Greek. Ancient Armenia was located in an area known as the Armenian Plateau, a highland area north of the lowlands of Mesopotamia, south of the Black Sea, southwest of the Caucasus Mountains, and east of present-day Turkey. During various periods, the Armenians ruled the entire plateau, even extending their way to the Black Sea on the north and the Mediterranean in the southwest; at other times the Armenians have been compressed within the central and eastern part of their native land. (See also: Map of Armenia)

The Armenian tableland is rugged, and it has produced a rugged people. Its numerous mountains and hills are separated by deep gorges and great river valleys, which, from early times, have divided the people into regional clans. The center of the area is occupied by Mount Ararat (also called Massis by the Armenians). It was on its snowcapped peaks, rising above the countryside, that the Bible tells us the ark of Noah landed after the proverbial flood.

Armenia was also famous for its three great lakes, the fabled Van, Sevan, and Urmia. Due to the viscissitudes of history, Lake Van now lies in Turkey, Urmia in Iran, but Sevan still lies within the border of Armenia S.S.R.

The great plain of Ararat, which is traversed by the Arax River on its way to the Caspian Sea, is surrounded by mountains and is abundantly watered. It has since the earliest times been the most thickly populated portion of historic Armenia. It is on this plain that the city of Erevan, the capital of present-day Armenia, lies. Erevan, over 2,750 years old, was originally established as an Urartian fortress called Erebuni.

The rugged land of Armenia and the many levels of altitude cause broad regional diversities of climate, a situation which allows for the cultivation of a variety of plants and crops. Since antiquity, the mountains of Armenia have been renowned for their rich deposits of copper, tin, iron and other metals. Furthermore, we know that the people in the area were among the first of mankind to use bronze and iron. In fact, the famous French scholar Jacques de Morgan believed that Armenia was the birthplace of the art of iron making.

Excavations have shown that the land of Armenia was inhabited as early as the Old Stone Age. Weapons and artifacts found in graves indicate that the population of the area was as skillful and warlike in character as the people surrounding than. With their neighbors, the people of Armenia shared a civilization which was at the time the highest in the world. With a high degree of proficiency, these people were active in agriculture, cattle raising, metallurgy, jewelry making and ceramics, and monumental building in brick and stone.

It was probably over a thousand years before the Christian era that the clans and smaller states of the Ararat region slowly merged to form the empire of Urartu (Ararat), composed chiefly of the people of Nairi (living on the south of the plateau). Yet the present-day Armenians are not descended from the Nairi-Urartians alone. They were to be mixed with the Hai-Amens and others who migrated into the area at a slightly later date. But where did these Armens, whose name Western historians gave to the land, come from originally? The accepted theory is that many centuries before the present era they lived with the ancestors of the Greeks and the Balkan peoples in the southeast corner of Europe. Herodotus, writing about 450 B.C., said that the Armens crossed the Straits from Europe to Phrygia in Asia Minor about the 12th century before Christ. There they lived before engaging in further migration which took them eventually to their final homeland.

Armenian legend traces its origin to Haik, a great-grandson of Noah. Movses of Khoren, the earliest Armenian historian, said that Haik fought his cousin Bel for the right to live freely. Haik defeated Bel and started a nation called "Hai", named after himself. However, scholars today dispute the story and believe that Movses probably invented the hero "Haik" and that the name "Hai" was taken from the name of a small tribe living in the region.

During a period of great political unrest, circa 301 A.D., Armenia became the world's first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion. It is known, however, that there were organized Christian communities in Armenia before the official conversion of the government. The apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the first enlighteners of the Armenian people and helped to spread the gospel of Christianity in Armenia.

When the Armenian national church was established, the people of Armenia wanted to build new church buildings in a style that was unique and that expressed the Christian faith as the Armenians felt it. For this reason, a new style of church architecture was developed. Constructed completely of stone, solid and massive, the new churches gave the worshippers a feeling of spaciousness. A central dome rising high overhead gave the whole structure a lofty appearance. The churches built on this plan, many of which are more than 1,000 years old, still stand today in spite of centuries of exposure to the severe climate, to frequent earthquakes, and to military attacks. Armenian churches built in the United States still follow the architectural features of the early churches.

One serious problem facing the Armenians in the third century A.D. was the absence of an alphabet and of any literature written in Armenian. This was an obstacle for the church. Moreover, the absence of an alphabet also hindered the development of the intellectual and social aspect of the nation. In conjunction with an Armenian patriarch, Saint Sahak, Saint Mesrop-Mashdotz devised a clear and concise alphabet for the Armenian language. The new alphabet, founded in 404 A.D., contained thirty-six letters representing all of the sounds of the language. St. Sahak and St. Mesrop, together with other select scholars, translated the Bible into the new Armenian alphabet. Soon after, they dedicated themselves to the translations of the books of the liturgy, the rituals of baptisms, of marriage, of funerals and other services of Armenian Christian life.

Years after the development of the Armenian alphabet, Armenia fell into Persian and Byzantine domination for more than two hundred years. During this period the Armenians were often harassed on account of their religion. These persecutions were political in cause since the Persian rulers planned to unify their kingdom under their own Zoroastrian religion. After conquering other territories, the king of Persia attempted to convert the Armenians. After dispatching the national army, of reportedly 66,000 troops, Vartan Mamigonian, a traditional military leader, met the numerically superior Persian forces in battle. After Vartan was killed in battle the Armenians were forced to retreat. Even so, they continued to fight for over thirty years until a treaty was finally concluded with Persia granting the Armenian people religious freedom.

In the early sixth century, when the Armenians were living peacefully with the Persians, a new religion was founded. This religion, Islam, proved to have a profound effect on civilization. The followers of Islam initiated a Holy War to convert the world to their religion.

Arab armies attacked the Persian and Byzantine empires. They took over Egypt, Syria, Palestine and all of the provinces of the Near East. Soon they gained control of Afghanistan, Turkistan and finally India. Later they conquered North Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to occupy Spain.

In the year 640, the Arabs commenced their conquest of Armenia. Within seven years the land of Ararat fell to Arab rule and would remain so for more than two hundred years. The Islamic rule was extremely harsh yet at times was benevolent. Through strong Armenian feudal lords, progress and civilization were carried to new heights. In the eighth century Arab strength began to decline and the Armenians were able to overcome some of the Arab domination.

Commerce, art and industry developed; especially noteworthy was the flowering of architecture and the art of building. Many churches, abbeys and cathedrals of superior quality were constructed, along with castles and fortresses. Education, predominantly but not entirely religious, grew apace and reached new heights. It seemed for a while that a totally new and vibrant era was blossoming for the Armenians.

Treatment of Armenians Under the Turks

After barbaric treatment by the Seljuk Turks, who later invaded the country, Armenians began leaving their homes and migrated to Cilicia in the southwest. Here, the Armenians built schools and churches along with cities and fortresses for self-protection. However, over 150 years later the Armenians lost their political power in Cilicia and once again began to migrate. After years of constant struggles with invading peoples, historic Armenia ultimately divided into portions controlled by Ottoman Turks, the Persians and later the Russians. The western portion of Armenia was controlled by the Turks, as it still is today.

Beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, American missionaries traveled to Turkey to present Christianity to the Moslems. Conversion to Christianity was strictly forbidden by the Turkish government and anyone found doing so would be severely punished. Because of their great difficulties in trying to convert these people, American missionaries began to concentrate their efforts in helping the Armenians, who were already Christian. Together they founded schools and universities and became active in western Armenia dedicated to helping the people.

Because of the education they received through the efforts of the missionaries, many Armenian students left their homes and traveled to Europe and the United States in order to complete graduate studies. Toward the end of the nineteenth century there were many Armenian students throughout the world, including some who studied at The University of Michigan.

During this period, from 1894 until 1896, the world witnessed a systematic slaughter of some 300,000 Armenians in Turkish Armenia, under the leadership of Abdul Hamid ("The Bloody Sultan"). Soon Armenian survivors immigrated to the United States, settling in the New England region, with the aid of the American missionaries. These Armenians escaped to avoid further persecution by the Turks and with the intention of earning money and sending it back to help their relatives and friends still living in Armenia.

In 1908, a group called the "Young Turks" staged a coup-d'etat against the existing regime in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks proclaimed a constitution promising that minorities living in Turkey would be equal and able to enjoy the same rights as the Moslem population. Armenians were not free to travel or change domiciles, and were drafted into the Turkish army. However, there were many young people who did not trust the Turks' intentions and consequently left the country. One year later, in 1909, 30,000 more Armenians were massacred.

More Armenians fled to the United States and other European countries trying to start a new life. Many of these people were young adults who had lost or had left their families or who had the foresight to leave in order to avoid further persecution. Those who left settled in larger, industrial cities seeking employment, again, with the intention of earning money to send back to their families. However, any hopes they had of returning to their loved ones were dashed in 1915 when the Turks annihilated over one and one-half million Armenian men, women and children. The orders were issued by Talaat Pasha, and the systematic plan of annihilation went into operation. First, the able-bodied men were "inducted" for army service and organized into forced labor battalions in which they were driven mercilessly until they fell from exhaustion, starved to death, or were shot. Next, the leadership of the Armenian people--all the prominent intellects, artists, writers, teachers, lawyers and clergymen--were rounded up and sent their way to extermination. None of them was ever heard from again. Then came the mass deportation orders. Endless caravans of old men, women and children torn from their confiscated hones and lands were herded toward the deserts. Along the way they were subjected by the Turks to torture and mutilation, rape and massacre. Exhaustion, disease and starvation did the rest . . . over a million Armenians were dead; another million were homeless refugees; and countless children had been abducted and forcibly turned to Islam . . . lost forever to their families, their nation and their church.

Until the end of the first world war, some of the survivors of the massacre, through benevolent organizations, especially the American Near East Relief, were concentrated in orphanages throughout the Near East and Europe. From 1921 until 1925 many orphans were brought to the United States, either through the efforts of relatives or friends or through the arrangement of marriages. It is estimated that some 40,000 Armenian refugees immigrated into the United States as a result of the holocaust of 1915. Without any homeland to which they could return, they pledged their allegiance to the country which was now opening its arms to them. They instilled in their children here the importance of becoming loyal and patriotic American citizens.

Meanwhile in the Armenian homeland, there was resurgence of Turkish power, even though Turkey had been on the side of the Central Powers during the war, and changes were occurring in Russia. The February 1917 bourgeois revolution in Russia worked to the temporary advantage of the Armenians in the homeland. The Tsarist regime had expired and the new bourgeois government, while it, could not easily establish control in the borderlands of the empire, offered its protection to the Armenian provinces in Turkey. Then came the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, which was destined to change the whole history of the modern world. The Bolsheviks, needing peace in order to establish internal control in Russia, signed a treaty with Turkey (January 1, 1918) by which they ceded Kars, Ardahan and Batum. With Russian forces neutralized, despite the heroic efforts of the Armenians, the Turkish army began a successful drive into the Caucasus. The advance of the Turks forced the rupture of the short lived Transcausian Republic and caused the Armenians to act independently. Armenia was saved at the heroic battle of Sardarabad (May, 1918), where all elements of the nation arose as one man to defend the remainder of the homeland.

The Armenians had declared their independence in May, 1918, but the independent Armenian state was viable only as long as neighboring empires were exhausted by the war. Soon both in Turkey and in Russia, due to the inability of the Allies to control post-war events, new power centers emerged and the border states had to become reconciled to the domination of one power or the other. With the ever-present memories of the Turkish massacres in their minds, and under great duress, the Armenians decided to cast their lot with the newly emerging Soviet state and on November 29, 1920, Armenia was proclaimed a Soviet Republic.

The Armenians in the dispersion had found it difficult to reconcile their vision of a united, free and independent Armenia with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic; nevertheless, in the eyes of most Armenians, Soviet Armenia is a peaceful interlude in the almost 3,000 year turbulent history of the Armenian people.

Armenians in the Metropolitan Detroit Area

The history of the Armenians of metropolitan Detroit is a part of the story of the Armenians in America, a story yet to be written in its entirety. Apparently the first Armenians to come to America were two silkworm-breeding experts who, at the invitation of the governor of Virginia, joined the Jamestown Colony sometime before 1623. Other Armenians came over at various times in the ensuing years, but we know little about them.

Beginning in the 1830s, a small stream of students began to arrive to further their studies at American institutions of higher education--frequently at medical schools. Many of these young people returned home after completing their work; others stayed to find a place for themselves in the New World, and still others worked in the expectation of some day returning to their homeland. Armenian immigration did not assume noticeable proportions, however, until the last quarter of the 19th century, especially before and during the terrible massacres of 1894-96.

The Armenians in America have always desired to preserve the best of their Old World traditions as a contribution to the richness of their new home. This meant in particular the establishment of churches, community organizations and schools. The first Armenian church in the New World was built in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. By 1897 there were already six Armenian clergymen, in this country serving their several flocks. With the exception of Worcester, however, religious services were held in church buildings of other denominations, chiefly Episcopalian.

In 1898 the Catholicos (head of the Armenian church) Mkrtich I, Khrimian, in response to the request of the Armenian communities in the U.S., established a diocese for the Americans. Organization of the diocese kept pace with the expansion of immigration, and soon churches were either purchased or built in various communities on the east and west coasts. By 1982, there were over 100 churches and parishes in North America alone, South America having become a separate diocese in 1938. Most Armenian communities are concentrated in the East and Midwest or in California. California was made a separate diocese in 1927 and now has over 30 churches and parishes. The American Diocese of the Armenian Church (Eastern) has its headquarters in New York and the Western Diocese has its office in Los Angeles. While there were Armenians in Detroit before the turn of the century, it was not until 1909 that an Armenian community as such could be recognized. The Detroit Armenian community, which numbered some 3000 in 1915, has since grown to become one of the larger Armenian communities in the United States, with an estimated 35,000 members.

Thousands of Armenians settled in Detroit because they had relatives there or for the prospect of obtaining employment. Because many were unskilled or uneducated, they worked in factories or foundaries, working long, exhausting hours in order to make a living in their new homeland. Most of these early immigrants settled in the Delray, Highland Park, Saline and Pontiac areas, specifically for job opportunities.

Although most of the early Armenians settling in Michigan rarely had a formal education, they considered learning a highly valuable and important matter. They strove to support their families and struggled so that they and their families could acquire an education. They were proud of the accomplishments of their children.

For many years the community could worship in their own tradition only periodically, at such times as when an Armenian clergyman might visit and offer the Divine Liturgy in a church building borrowed for the occasion. Finally in 1913, the Very Rev. Sahag (Isaac) Vartabed Nazaretian became the first permanent pastor of the local Armenian community. Still the Armenians had no church building and it was necessary to accept the hospitality of St. John's Episcopal Church, whose pastor offered their sanctuary for Armenian use on Sunday afternoons.

In 1928 the first church building committee was formed and after many months of difficult work, it succeeded in purchasing a site on Oakman Boulevard near 14th Street. The time for a building project could hardly have been less opportune, for the great depression was sweeping the country. Yet by considerable sacrifices on the part of the community, a new church building was completed in 1931. By 1935, due to the strenuous efforts of the leaders of the congregation, the mortgage on the church building was paid in full amid great rejoicing.

Since the building of that church on Oakman Boulevard, the Armenians in Detroit have built several churches representing the traditional Armenian church, the Protestant Armenian community, and the Roman Catholic Armenian community. St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church, located on Ford Road in Dearborn, represents a complex and highly developed community consisting of a church, a cultural center, a parochial school and a senior citizens complex. St. Vartan Armenian Catholic Church, located on Greenfield Road in Dearborn, also has facilities for worship, education, and community gatherings.

The Armenian Congregationalist Church, located at 12 Mile and Northwestern Highway, provides ample facilities for the Armenian Protestant community of the Detroit Metropolitan Area.

The largest complex, however, is that of St. John's Armenian Church in Southfield. The church building, of cathedral proportions, represents in minute detail traditional Armenian architecture. On the same property we also find a cultural center, the Alex Manoogian Armenian School, a Veteran's Memorial Building, and a sports and athletic complex for the youth of, the community. St. John's Church, with its golden dome, has become a landmark in the community.

There is also the Alex Manoogian Home for the Armenian Aged on Middlebelt Road in Livonia, as well as several buildings owned and operated by compatriotic societies consisting of members whose families originated in the same cities overseas.

Following World War II, a second immigration took place with many Armenians fleeing war-devastated Europe and the instability of the Middle East. Finally with the recent discord in the Middle East becoming more pronounced, there is a third immigration which began in the early 1970's and continues to date. These later immigrants were often professional people who had businesses or careers overseas which they lost in wars and revolutions.

Today, Armenians can boast of a community that is highly educated, professional and prospering. Armenians are continuing to preserve their rich culture and identity and are loyal citizens. Throughout countless generations, Armenians all over the world have maintained their rich heritage. Centuries of oppression, annihilation and dispersion have not weakened the spirit of the Armenian people. Awareness and remembrance of a proud and fantastic history have bound the Armenian people as their language, culture and tradition still thrives.

By: Dennis Papazian and Carolyn Sirian


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