© 1987 Dennis R. Papazian

ARMENIANS (September 8, 1987)

By Dennis R. Papazian

Professor of History

The University of Michigan, Dearborn

Armenia and Armenians

Armenia is one of the fifteen constituent republics of the USSR. The present-day Armenian SSR, located in Transcaucasia, represents only the eastern fringe of the traditional Armenian homeland which extends east from the Euphrates across the mountainous Armenian plateau in eastern Anatolia presided over by Mt. Ararat of Biblical fame. Historic Armenia has also been described as the land of the three major lakes--Van (presently in Turkey), Sevan (in present-day Armenia), and Urmia (presently in Iran).

Armenia has one of the oldest indigenous cultures of any of the peoples of the USSR. Armenia is also credited as being the first state to establish Christianity as its official religion.

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.

The Armenian language, like Greek and Iranian, is a part of the Indo-European family of languages that is spoken from north India, through Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, and Greece into Europe and European Russia. The Armenian alphabet, devised early in the fifth century by St. Mesrob (Mashtotz)--who also produced a script for the Christian Georgians and Caucasian Albanians--is unique, although based in part on Greek uncials and the Armazi variety of Aramaic script. Armenia was located near the cradles of ancient civilizations--the Mesopotamian, bordering immediately to the south; the Egyptian in the southwest; and the Indus to the east--and was affected by each, but most significantly by Mesopotamian. The name "Urartu", in the form "Urashtu", occurs frequently in Babylonian inscriptions. The earliest known mention of the "Armenian" people (as the Armenoi), occurs in the writings of the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 BC), and of "Armenia" (Armina) in the Behistun [Bisitun] inscription of Darius I (c. 520 BC).

Present-day scholarship shows that Armenia experienced its Lower Paleolithic period from 500,000 BC or earlier. A change from nomadic to sedentary life occurred in the Neolithic period in Armenia (c. 6,000 BC) about the same time as in the lower valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the headwaters of which rise in Armenia. Chalcolithic culture (4,000 BC) relates Armenia to the Caucasus, Iran and Mesopotamia; while the Bronze Age in Armenia began c. 3,200 BC and extended up to and coexisted with the era of iron smelting and working which was inaugurated c. 1,000 BC. Erevan (Erebuni, Arin-Berd), the capital of the Armenian SSR, was founded before 782 BC, when we find it first mentioned in historic sources.

The rise of Achaemenid Persia (c. 550 BC) brought Armenia into the Iranian socio- political-economic orbit, and it became a satrapy (number XIII) of the empire under the first semi-autonomous Armenian dynasty, the Orontids [Avestan aurand, mighty hero; Pahlevi, arvand; Armenian, ervand], related to the Persian royal house.

The Persian trade and defense system encouraged significant expansion of Armenian travel and commerce. The classical description of Armenia under the Achaemenids is that of Xenophon, who crossed it with his Ten Thousand (c. 400 BC). It is during this period that the Armenian nobility adopted Mazdaism and saw it merge with indigenous native beliefs of which we have only scant knowledge.

Pre-Christian Religions

The earliest Armenian pantheon was most likely similar to the pre-historic Indo-European pantheon; and, it probably included eponymous and other legendary heroes as well. It seems that the Armenians also had nature gods and, indeed, worshiped the elements.

During the fifth century BC, the Armenians adopted the Iranian form of these divinities and domesticated them. Ahura-Mazda, who assumed the status of father of the gods, was wor- shipped as Aramazd. Mithra, god of light and justice, was known as Mihr. Anahita, goddess of fertility and mother of all wisdom, became Anahit--the favorite goddess of the Armenians. Verethrangna, the god of war, was worshipped as Vahagn. Astghik was the goddess of love. Tir, the scribe of Aramazd, was the god of science and the recorder of man's deeds of good and evil. Barshamin and Nane, probably of Syrian origin, also formed part of the Armenian pantheon.

With the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), and the successor Seleucid Empire, Armenia entered the Hellenistic orbit and identified its gods (as did the Romans and others) with the Greek pantheon. Thus Aramazd became Zeus; Mihr became Hephaestus; Anahit became Artemis; Vahagn became Heracles; Astghik became Aphrodite; Tir became Apollo; and Nane became Athena; only Barshamin retained his original form.

This characteristic syncretism also appears in Persia, where Ahura-Mazda became Zeus; Mithra became Apollo; and Anahita became Athena.

Pagan Greek priests brought cult statues of the gods to Armenia and placed them in Hellenistic temples. Thus, an Irano-Greek form of paganism existed in Armenia, along with the worship of local spirits, up until the establishment of Christianity in the early fourth century. Some aspects of the old religion survived in folklore and customs for centuries thereafter.

The weakening of the Seleucids allowed the founding of the Armenian Artaxid dynasty (189 BC). Sometime later, the Artaxiad Tigranes II, the Great, (95-55 BC), along with his ally Mithradates VI (Eupator) of Pontus established a short-lived Armenian-Hellenistic empire which stretched from the Caucasus to Lebanon, and from Mesopotamia to the Pontic Alps. By this time the great Armenian feudal nobility (the nakharars) were well established. The empire of Tigranes was destroyed by the Romans, who were gradually expanding into the Middle East. Roman incursions were led in turn by Lucullus, Pompey, Crassus, Mark Antony (who captured Artavasdes II by ruse), and Caius Caesar (sent by his grandfather the Emperor Augustus). Western Armenia thus fell under Roman hegemony, while the eastern territories came to be dominated by the Parthians.

Trdat, the brother of the last important Parthian king, Vologases I (AD 51-77), was appointed by him as king of Armenia (AD 52). Trdat was also recognized by Rome (AD 66), and thus he became the founder of the Arsacid (Parthian) dynasty which ruled Armenia until AD 428.

With the rise of the second Persian empire (Sassanid, AD 226-651), eastern Armenia was drawn more deeply into the Iranian orbit, while western Armenia remained chiefly under Roman and then Byzantine influence. The two great empires, Rome and Persia, vied for centuries to establish dominance over Armenia, making Armenia the scene of almost constant warfare.

This struggle was carried on in ernest when the founder of the Persian Sassanid dynasty, Ardashir I, overthrew the Parthian kingdom in Iran (AD 226), invaded Armenia, overwhelmed the Armenian Arsacids, and attacked the Roman Empire. After over a century of warfare, peace was signed between the Eastern Roman Empire and Iran in AD 387, dividing Armenia into two vassal states--one controlled by Byzantium and the other by Iran. In Persian (eastern) Armenia, the Armenian Arsacids retained nominal supremacy until AD 428; but, after the natural extinction of the Armenian dynasty, the Iranians appointed a marzpan (margrave) to rule as governor.

Christianity in Armenia

Christianity arose in Palestine and spread from there along trade routes, by land and sea, through cities which had Jewish colonies to attract and shelter the Apostles. Thus, Christianity took root early in Egypt and North Africa (as far south as Abyssinia [Ethiopia]), Greater Syria (the followers of Jesus were first called "Christians" in Antioch), Anatolia (especially in Cilicia, Phrygia, Cappadocia and Galatia, where St. Paul preached), parts of Iran and as far east as India, as well as in Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia and Rome.

Armenian tradition maintains that Christianity was introduced there by Sts. Bartholomew (an Apostle) and Thaddeus (one of the Seventy). It is also known that small Jewish colonies, dating back probably to the period of the Babylonian Captivity, existed in Armenia and probably served as nuclei for the spreading of the Good News (gospel). Tradition also links Armenia with the semi-legendary Christian king Abgarus of Edessa. These traditions are the foundation of the Armenian church's claim to apostolic origin.

Armenian merchants and travelers frequented Antioch, one of the earliest sites of Christian teaching and practice, and had relations with the even closer Christian centers of Edessa and Nisibis (in northern Mesopotamia), where Christianity flourished in apostolic times. Tertullian (AD 155-222), in his Answer to the Jews (Chapter VII), includes the Armenians among the very first Christians from the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History quotes a letter from Dionysus of Alexandria to "Meruzhan [Mitrozanes], Bishop of Armenia" (c. AD 254). We also know that there were persecutions of Christians in Armenia under King Artashes (c. 110) and King Khosrov (c. 230).

In any case, Christianity must have had many adherents and a formal structure in Armenia by the time of the official conversion of the king by St. Gregory (Grigor) the Illuminator, which by tradition took place in c. AD 301. The Armenians are the first people to have adopted Christianity as the official religion of the state. While some investigators now date the conversion of Armenia as late at AD 314, it would still make Armenia the first Christian state in history.

The Armenian chronicler Agathangelos gives the follow story of the conversion of the Armenians by St. Gregory. King Trdat of Armenia had begun anew in AD 287 the persecution of the Christians in his country. [St.] Gregory Partev [the Parthian], was the son of an Arsacid (Parthian) Armenian prince, Anak, who had killed the father of King Trdat. In punishment, Anak and his family had been annihilated. Only one child, Gregory, escaped. He was taken to Leontius, Archbishop of Caesarea, for protection, and was brought up as a Christian.

Gregory returned to Armenia to evangelize. He was discovered by the king and cast into a pit, where he survived for fifteen years. King Trdat continued his persecutions until he was stricken with lycanthropy. On the urging of his Christian sister, we are told, Trdat ordered Gregory released and brought before him. Trdat was duly healed and converted by Gregory. A mass conversion of Armenia followed.

Gregory, yet a layman, went to Leontius, Archbishop of Caesarea, his childhood protector and patron, for ordination and episcopal consecration. He returned to Armenia and was chosen catholicos (head) of the Armenian church. The term "catholicos" was used at that time by the Persian church. He and the king went about the country with great zeal; with extensive help from Greek and Syrian priests, they destroyed pagan temples, including their treasuries, libraries, and archives, dispersed their soldiers and priests, and built churches in their place. Indigenous Armenian church architecture is one of Armenia's great contributions to world art. Yet, because of this destruction, we have scant knowledge of pre-Christian history and religion in Armenia. A cathedral was built in the then capital, Vagharshapat, at a site called Echmiadzin (meaning "The Only-Begotten [Son] descended"), which is a few miles outside present-day Erevan, the capital of the Armenian SSR. Echmiadzin was made the Holy See of the Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians. Echmiadzin never ceased to be revered, even when owing to political changes the Mother See was temporarily moved to other locations. The See is now occupied by His Holiness, Vazgen I (1955- ).

As in other newly converted countries, paganism was not entirely wiped out by the initial Christian effort, nor was the established church to be free of dissenting sects. Primitive religious rituals were passed on in the villages by oral tradition; and heresies, particularly the Paulician and the Tondrakian, appeared over time. Yet, the predominant culture in Armenia became Christian and characterizes the nation until this day.


In its teaching on the sacraments and church order, the Armenians do not differ from the Eastern Orthodox Church. Of the seven ecumenical councils, the Armenian Church accepts the first three, rejects the fourth (which its delegates could not attend), and has not pronounced on the remaining three. The Armenians accept the principle of the infallibility of the Church in ecumenical council. In doctrine, the Armenian church continues to follow the orientation of the church of Alexandria, principally as found in the teachings of the Cappadocian fathers.

The Armenian Church is frequently considered by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to be monophysite, along with the Coptic, Abyssinian, Syriac, and Indian churches, which as a group are often called the Lesser Orthodox Churches. This is not correct even though the Armenians came to reject the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), a council which took place when the Armenians were at war with Persia. The Armenian Church, with its sister churches, resented the growing political and ecclesiastical power of Byzantium and Rome and the fading prestige of Alexandria, Antioch and Caesarea as leading Christian centers. Thus, it held to the earlier Christological definition of St. Cyril of Alexandria at the council of Ephesus (AD 431), "the one nature united in the Incarnate Word of God." To speak of "two natures" after the union, the Armenians insist, is to revert to the Nestorian heresy and endanger the doctrine of redemption.

This doctrinal position taken by the Armenian Church has served to separate it from the Chalcedonian churches and to have preserved its individuality. On the other hand, it has caused great conflict with the Byzantine Church, which frequently resorted to persecution (and even mass deportations) in order to bring the Armenians into the Orthodox fold. Later, during the period of the Cilician kingdom of the Armenians, at the time of the Crusades, it brought the Armenians into contention with the Roman Catholic Church. In modern times, it has tended to separate the Armenians from the Russian Orthodox Church and the tsarist government. The Armenian Church professes the Nicene creed, at which council the Armenians were represented by St. Aristakes (AD 325).

The Armenian Divine Liturgy (Mass) is consonant with the Orthodox and Roman eucharistic services. Armenian practice retains an earlier structural form of the liturgy, that of St. Basil of Caesarea, which differs from current Orthodox practice only in external appearances. For example, the Armenians still use a curtain to veil the sanctuary, while the Greeks have an iconostasis. More controversially, the Armenians use unleavened bread and wine unmixed with water in the eucharist, and they add the words "who was crucified for us" in the Trisagion. The Armenians differ from Rome in rejecting the "filioque" in the Nicene creed, papal supremacy and infallibility, and, formerly, communion in one kind. The Armenians continued to practice "the kiss of peace," which has only lately been reinstated in the Roman rite.

The Armenian priests, as typical in the Eastern Church, are divided into the monastic and parish clergy, with all the hierarchs coming from the former group. Today, celibate priests often serve in parishes. The Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6, and they observe Easter with the Western Church. The Church offices (services) are in the classical Armenian written language, grabar.

Golden Age of Armenian Literature

After the conversion of the Armenians, church services were held in Greek or Syriac, depending on the district. The Holy Scriptures were read in church in one or the other of these languages, with an immediate translation into Armenian made by a special order of clerics called "Translators." This lack of a native writing system was seen by the ecclesiastical and political leaders as inimical to both the nurturing of Christianity and national cohesion. Consequently, the Catholicos Sahak (Isaac) and King Vramshapuh appointed a learned monk, Mesrob Mashtots, to devise an alphabet, which was finished in c. AD 400-404.

The invention of the Armenian alphabet--of 36 letters--brought on the Golden Age of Armenian literature. Students were sent to the centers of classical and Christian learning in Edessa, Caesarea, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens, to prepare themselves to translate the Bible, the liturgy, the important writing of Greek and Syrian church fathers, and classical literature--Greek and Latin--into Armenian. The Bible, translated from the Septuagint, was finished in a few years; it and most of the Patristics were translated within thirty years; but the whole process, including the translation of secular books, lasted some two hundred years.

Interestingly, the first known translation of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) was the Syriac (Beshito, second century AD); the second was the Latin (Vulgate, AD 392); the third was the Coptic (early fifth century); the fifth was the Abyssinian (Ethiopian, fifth century); the sixth was the Armenian (fifth century); the seventh was the Georgian (translated by St. Mesrob and his assistant, late fifth century); and the eighth was the Slavonic (ninth century).

The "Holy Translators" are highly revered in the Armenian church. Many of the works translated have since been lost in their Greek or Syriac original, but have been preserved in the Armenian.

Original works were also composed during the Golden Age, including works on history, philosophy, hagiography, homilies, hymns, and apologetics. Later works on the sciences were written. While much has been lost due to the ravages of war and time, many are preserved today in the great library of the Matenadaran (in which, for example, there are almost three hundred manuscripts of Aristotle's works) in Erevan and in the Armenian monasteries at Jerusalem, Venice and Vienna. Thus, the Armenian church provided the Armenian people with a strong national culture just at the time the Armenian state was losing its political independence. It has been the church, indeed, that has preserved Armenian national consciousness during the many centuries in which there was no Armenian state.

War for Religious Freedom (AD 451)

The newly aggressive Iran under the Sassanids sought to bring the Armenians closer to its orbit by imposing Mazdaism (Zoroastrianism) on the Armenians in its sector. A national resistance movement led by the flower of the Armenian nobility (the nakharars) under the hero Vardan Mamigonian (St. Vardan), the hereditary commander-in-chief of the Armenian armed forces, met physical disaster on the plain of Avarayr in AD 451. The war was immortalized by the national historian Eghishe (Elisha). The battle of Vardanantz is still commemorated by the Armenians as the preeminent national contest for religious independence and freedom of conscience. Some thirty years later, the nephew of Vardan, Vahan Mamigonian, and the Armenian nobles wrested the Treaty of Nvarsak (AD 484) from the Persians, in which the Armenians won freedom of religion.

Arab, Seljuk, Mongol Invasions

The rise of the Arabs once more shows how the Armenians were dramatically effected by a major political change in the area. Armenia soon fell (c. 650), along with most of the Near East, to the Arab forces. Armenia alternatively suffered or prospered depending on who held the Caliphate and the condition of public order. The catholicosate was transferred from Dvin (where it had been moved from Echmiadzin to be near the king) to the more secure city of Ani, capital of the Bagratid Armenian princes. Finally in AD 885, after much effort, Ashot Bagratuni secured appointment by the Caliph in Baghdad and (in 886) by the Emperor in Constantinople as king of Armenia. The royal house of the Bagratids was divided into two branches, the Georgian Bagratunis (who passed into the Russian nobility as the Bagrations) and the Armenian branch which ruled the glorious medieval Armenian kingdom of Ani (885-1045).

This period witnessed a renaissance in trade, art, architecture, translations, church and secular literature, and scientific studies. Histories, such as those of Moses of Khoren, John of Drashanakert, Thomas Arzruin, and Stepanos of Taron were written. Special mention must be made of Moses of Kalankatui's History of Albania, and important source for the history of Caspio-Albania. The revered [St.] Gregory of Narek (AD 951-1003) wrote ecclesiastical poetry and hymns which is still used in church offices. After the collapse of Ani, most of western Armenia fell to Byzantium.

The defeat of the Byzantines by the Seljuks at the battle of Manzikert [Manazgerd] in Armenia (AD 1071), brought all Armenia under Seljuk rule. The devastating Mongol invasion began in 1220 and ended with the occupation of Armenia in 1236. Unlike the Russians, the Armenian elites eventually prospered under the Mongols, serving as agents and being able to engage in international trade via the newly secured routes through Central Asia to India and China. Furthermore, cordial relations developed between the Mongols and the Armenian nobility. As the Mongols declined in power, however, Armenia was devastated by raiding bands of nomadic tribes. The final destruction came with the invasion of the hordes of Timurlane c. 1400. Beginning in the tenth century (perhaps earlier), many Armenian noblemen, their armies and their people, fled southwest to Cilicia to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses there.

Cilician Armenian Kingdom

In time, these immigrants grew so numerous and so powerful that they established a principality which eventually became a kingdom.The medieval Armenian kingdom of Cilicia (1080-1375) existed, under the Rubenids (a junior branch of the Bagratids), among the Taurus and Amanus mountains and along the Mediterranean coast to Alexandretta. It enjoyed a high culture and great prosperity at a time when the Armenian homeland was slowly falling into ruin. The catholicos, who had taken refuge in the castle of Romkla on the Euphrates, moved (1293) to Sis, the capital of Cilicia. The Cilician Armenians fraternized with the Crusaders, and members of their nobility and royal house intermarried with the "Latin" nobility. This last Armenian kingdom fell in 1375; and the last Armenian king, Leo [Levon] V (VI), died in exile (1393) in France and is buried in the abbey church of Saint Denis, next to the tombs of the French kings to whom he was related.

This Cilician period was productive of great wealth, substantial learning, and a high culture. Specifically, it produced the most glorious period of Armenian ecclesiastical manuscript illumination, particularly under the school of Toros Roslin. It was also a period of almost continuous negotiations, with the intent of reunion, between the Armenians and both the Greek and the Latin churches. The records of these negotiations reveal a great deal about Armenian church doctrine and practice. Special attention must be called to the correspondence of bishop Nerses, surnamed Shnorhali [the Grace-filled], later Catholicos (1166-1173), particularly his Apologia, to Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180) of Byzantium (who at the same time was flirting with the Latins in the hope of military support), and his Endhanrakan [Encyclical], documents which stand as authoritative sources on Armenian ecclesiastical doctrine and practice.

Latin influence was strong in Cilicia during the thirteenth century, due particularly to the great military expeditions of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1228) and of King [St.] Louis IX (1248) and the desire of the Armenian princes to acquire political and military support. It was during this period that Italian colonies were established in Cilicia and Armenian colonies were founded in Italy. Venetian power, in particular, grew apace.

While the head of the Armenian Church lived in Cilicia (1294-1441), ecclesiastical policies were closely tied to the well being of the Armenian kingdom, which meant seeking a political and religious accommodation with Rome and Byzantium. But with the failing power of the Armenian kings, the "Eastern Divines" (anti-Greek and Roman theologians from Armenia), fought for a return of the Catholicosate from its "Babylonian Captivity" in Sis back home to Echmiadzin. They realized a victory in 1441. Yet without political independence and a strong central state power in the homeland, the church gained little advantage save to avoid union.

One bright light in this otherwise dark period was the Catholicos Mikael (Michael) of Sebastia (1542-1570), who inaugurated Armenian printing by establishing presses in Venice, Echmiadzin, Isphahan and Amsterdam, and who raised educational standards. The first printing of the whole Bible in Armenian was done in Amsterdam in 1666.

Another pioneer of the reform movement was the Catholicos Movses (Moses) of Tatev (1629-1632), who also obtained protection from the Shah of Persia against local Muslim chieftains. His successors carried on his work. A new vitality showed itself in the church during the eighteenth century. Catholicos Simon of Erevan (1763-1780) was one of the most capable personalities of the period. He founded a college in Echmiadzin, expanded the use of printing in his educational activities, and established the first regular contacts with the Russian government.

The Ottoman Turks

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who had earlier accepted Islam, in 1453. The Muslims make little distinction between the functions of "church" and state as is done in the West. It was the prophet Muhammad, himself, who first instituted the dhimma, or treaty, defining the relationship between the "people of the Book" defeated in a Jihad (Holy War), the dhimmi (tolerated people), and the power of Islam. These treaties usually specified that the conquered "people of the Book" (i.e., Jews and Christians), in return for submission and the payment of a tax [jizya], would have protection for their lives, religion, and property. This protection was denied to pagans.

Accordingly, Sultan Mohammed II, the "Conqueror," (1451-1481) established the non- Muslim religious communities in the Ottoman Empire as domestic self-governing entities under the hegemony of the Sultan and his court officials. Thus, the Greeks were organized into a community (millet, flock) and the Greek Patriarch was granted social and civil governing privileges (granted rights) over his millet in those areas which were connected with the Muslim concept of societal responsibilities, such as contracts within the community, family life, marriage, public instruction, charities, worship, clergy, ecclesiastical administration, and the like.

The Armenians had been among the more favored subject peoples in the Empire, and now Mohammed II sought to make them a counterbalance to the Greeks in the capital. He expanded the Armenian colony in Constantinople by bringing Armenians en masse from Brusa and near by Asia Minor, and then he appointed (1461) their bishop, Hovakim, as Armenian Patriarch over his millet, with privileges similar to those accorded the Greek Patriarch.

All the Orthodox dyophysites, including the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, Syrians, Melkites, and Arabs, became associated through their respective religious heads with the jurisdiction of the Greek (Ecumenical) Patriarch; while the Orthodox monophysites, comprising the Armenians, Syrians, Chaldaeans, Copts, Georgians, and Abyssinians, became subject, through their respective heads, to the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarch.

The Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople became per force the most influential ecclesiastic in the Armenian church, and he presided over the Armenian catholicoses of Sis, Aghthamar, and Jerusalem, while acknowledging the "spiritual" primacy of the Catholicos in Echmiadzin.

The Armenian church in the homeland, denied political security and economic support, had fallen into a lamentable state. While Armenian communities prospered in metropolitan trade centers in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, India, Russia, Poland, and later in Egypt, the vast Armenian peasantry in the Caucasus and, especially, in eastern Anatolia suffered great privation and personal insecurity. While individual clerics and church leaders did heroic work keeping alive the Armenian Christian consciousness and a spark of learning in Armenia and eastern Turkey, there is no splendid story to tell. Istanbul became the thriving center of Armenian social, economic, cultural, and religious life in the Empire, while the provinces suffered under grinding poverty and increasingly horrifying misrule.

Armenian Catholics and Protestants

Francis I of France was the first Western ruler to acquire a treaty of concessions, called capitulations, with the Ottoman Empire (1535). This treaty of extraterritoriality attached to individuals (akin to diplomatic immunity), gave the Latins, or Franks, as they were called, unique political and civil protection within the Empire. Certain Armenians, some with high motives, accepted union with Rome in order to enjoy French protection. Thus the Armenian Uniate church came into existence. Fewer than 1% of the Armenians belong to this church today.

The most famous of the Uniate clerics, Mekhitar of Sebastia, founded the Mekhitarist religious order (1717), which even now has important monastic centers of learning in Venice (San Lazar Island) and Vienna. The political status of the Armenian Catholics was regularized in 1831 by the Sultan who established a "Catholic Millet" in the Empire.

American Protestant missionaries were sent to the Ottoman Empire, beginning in the 1830s, by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Since they were prohibited by law from converting Muslims, they began to work among the indigenous "degenerate Christians of the East." Being totally rejected by the proud Greeks, who by then had an independent state of their own, they began to work among the Armenians, who welcomed Western learning. Some Armenians converted. In 1847 the Sultan, this time persuade by the American protestants, established a "Protestant Millet." By 1891, the Americans had founded nine colleges in the Ottoman Empire, six of which served primarily Armenians.

While both of these new millets were nominally for all Ottoman subjects in these confessions, they consisted primarily of Armenians.


The Ottoman Empire at its zenith was well governed, and religious and national minorities were treated as well as any place in the known world. With its decline, however, the Empire became a corrupt and backward state. Christians were treated as gavours (infidels) and denied basic civil, religious, and human rights; and, at times, they suffered dire persecutions.

In the nineteenth century, when so much of Europe was being inspired by the ideas of the French revolution--liberty, equality, and fraternity--reforming Sultans in the Ottoman Empire sought to bring about progressive change under the banner of the Tanzimat. The Armenian church was able to take advantage of the reform atmosphere (under Abdul-Mejid [1839-1861] and Abdul-Aziz [1861-1876]) to establish the Armenian National Constitution (1863), a liberal document--involving substantial lay participation--by which the church and the community (Millet) were governed.

The coming to power of Abdul-Hamid II (1876-1909) marked the end of the Tanzimat, especially after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Abdul-Hamid, who had witnessed the empire disintegrate in the Balkans and the Caucasus under Russian pressure, decided to punish--through periodic massacre--his subject Christians, whose general plight served as an excuse for European intervention.

It was the Young Turks (1908-1917), however, inspired by neo-fascist and pan-Turanian ideologies, who decided to rid themselves (under the cover of World War I) of the Armenians. The Armenian genocide of 1915-1916 effectively wiped out the Armenian population of Turkey, claiming some 1.5 million victims. Perhaps 75,000 Armenians endure in Turkey today, most of them in Istanbul. With the demise of the Armenian population of Turkey, the Armenian Patriarchate has become--just like the Greek Patriarchate--a melancholy anachronism.

Armenian Church in Russia

Russian expansion into Transcaucasia and eastern Anatolia (the Armenian homeland) brought large numbers of Armenians into the Empire. In 1836, Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) promulgated the polozhenye (statutes), which governed the administration of the Armenian church, and, by extension, Armenian community affairs. It gave the Armenians some autonomy and established a Holy Synod to share power with the Catholicos. The circumstances of the Russian Armenians were far superior to those of their co-religionists in Turkey.

The Russification policies of Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1917) caused smoldering resentment in the Armenian church, particularly as governmental policies affected Armenian parochial schools. During the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, Armenian schools were closed, Armenians were removed from the civil service, and church properties were placed under governmental management (1903). It is also suspected that the Russian governor-general was behind the pogroms in the Baku oil fields in 1905, which left hundreds of Armenians dead. Yet, by 1913, government policies towards the Armenians changed in a positive direction, and a new era seemed to be dawning for the Armenians and the Armenian church in Russia.

Mention must be made in this context of the Armenian national and church hero Mkrtich Khrimian (endearingly called Hayrik, "little father"), who was Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (1869-1873) and Catholicos in Echmiadzin (1892-1907). He was deposed as Patriarch by the Sultan for his enthusiastic support of the Armenian cause in Turkey, and he led the resistance against the tsar over the issue of church properties in 1903. His life (1820-1907) was totally dedicated to the protection of the Armenians both in Turkey and in Russia.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917

The February/March 1917 bourgeoisie revolution, which was warmly welcomed by the Transcaucasians, caused the collapse of the Russian front in Turkey. The native Russian Armenians and the Armenian refugees from Turkey were thus put at risk of total annihilation by the advancing Turkish army.

The Bolshevik revolution of October/November 1917 made matters worse. In May 1918 the Transcaucasian Republic disintegrated, and on 30 May (retroactive to May 28) the Armenians were forced to announce their independence. Military matters went from bad to worse, especially since the Bolsheviks sought and developed a rapprochement with Turkey. On 30 November 1920, the leadership of the Armenian Republic accepted the status of a Soviet Socialist Republic to secure Russian protection, and in 1922 it was incorporated into the newly formed Transcaucasian SFSR. The Soviet constitution of 1936 dissolved the Transcaucasian Republic and made Armenia one of the union republics of the USSR.

The Armenian church suffered grievously under Stalin, as did religion in general in the Soviet Union. The situation during World War II was only marginally better. In 1955, however, Vazgen I was elected to the patriarchal throne and the situation in the Armenian church has improved steadily ever since. Today there is an active seminary at Echmiadzin, the veharan (home of the Catholicos) has been refurbished, ecclesiastical museums built, churches restored, and Armenians from all over the diaspora make frequent pilgrimages to the Mother See. The Armenian SSR in general, and Echmiadzin in particular, are frequented by Soviet and foreign visitors. The Catholicos is periodically allowed to make trips to Europe and America to attend international conferences and to visit his flocks.

Catholicosate of Cilicia

At the time catholicosate of the Armenians was returned to Echmiadzin in 1441, the tradition of electing a "Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia" continued, as did the tradition of electing a catholicos in Aghtamar (until 1915) with regional jurisdiction. The See was moved from Sis to Antilias, Lebanon, following the Armenian genocide in Turkey. The present occupant is Karekin II. While the Catholicos in Echmiadzin is recognized as "Catholicos of All Armenians," as a practical matter his jurisdiction over some dioceses in the Middle East is presently nominal.

Until 1956, there were no fundamental disagreements between the two, and the present contention is not doctrinal but administrative. During the years 1953-1956, a dispute over the process by which the new catholicos of Cilicia would be elected was aggravated by the Cold War and the resultant temporary polarization of political division among Armenians throughout the world. In 1956 the Catholicos of Cilicia acquired the dioceses of Iran, Greece, and a split group in America. This bifurcation now affects many Armenian church dioceses throughout the world. Attempts to rectify this disharmony are currently being made.

The Diaspora

The Armenians since the middle ages have been in large measure a diaspora people. Today, there are perhaps 6,000,000 Armenians in the world. Some 4,500,000 live in the USSR, of whom perhaps 3,400,000 live in the Armenian SSR. The United States has an Armenian population of 500,000, and Canada has 45,000. France has some 250,000, while Iran has 200,000, Lebanon 200,000, Syria 70,000, Argentina 65,000, and the rest are scattered throughout colonies in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia.

Each of these communities has an active church life and retains important ties to the Mother See in Echmiadzin. While some dioceses have primary allegiance to the Catholicos of Cilicia, probably nearly a third of the Armenians in the diaspora, all Armenians continue to acknowledge at least the titular primacy of the Catholicos of Echmiadzin.

Armenian seminaries exist in Antilias, Jerusalem, New York, and in Echmiadzin. Parochial schools are maintained all over the world outside the USSR. Armenian involvement in the church in the diaspora is very great; and church administration and governance involves a high percentage of lay people. Lay delegates are involved in the election of clerical leaders from the parish level up to the level of the Catholicos.

There is every indication that the ancient Armenian church will continue to contribute to the richness of the Christian ecumene into the indefinite future.

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[With minor corrections, July 18, 1994, by Gerald Ottenbreit Jr.]

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