Armenians of Turkey and the Middle East

Location: Istanbul, Lebanon, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries
Population: Total 350,000-400,000 (est.)
% of population: Lebanon 5%; elsewhere much smaller
Religion: Armenian Apostolic Church and other Christian churches
Language: Armenian

The Armenians are a distinctive people whose traditional homeland lies in eastern Anatolia straddling present day Turkey and the USSR. They have faced a series of genocidal massacres, most notably in 1895 and 1915, which has reduced them to a small minority in Turkey and scattered them throughout the Near East, western Europe and elsewhere. The core of the Armenian community today is in Soviet Armenia.

The Armenians are descended from ancient tribes who inhabited Eastern Anatolia for thousands of years and who from about 600 BC intermingled with an invading people called “Hayasa” from central Anatolia and adopted an Indo-European language. At the time of Julius Caesar the Armenians ruled a great independent kingdom, although this was later conquered by the Romans. Armenians became Christians from the third century AD, making them the oldest Christian nation, and the Armenian church proved of vital importance in preserving Armenian unity in the following centuries, which saw domination by the Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans. Throughout these centuries Armenians were deported or emigrated in great numbers, often establishing themselves in trade and banking.

Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

Within the Ottoman Empire Armenians were organized into their own millet or semi-autonomous community, with the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople at its head. In the mid-nineteenth century there were probably about 2.5 million Armenians in Turkey but they faced strong pressure from the neighbouring Kurds and later Muslims who had fled from Russian domination. Armenian nationalist sentiment grew during the nineteenth century; few however sought independence but rather administrative reforms and cultural and religious freedoms. After the disappointment of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 (which promised protection to the Armenians by western powers but failed to give it) Armenian self-defence groups and armed revolutionary societies were formed and the first Armenian uprising, the Samsun rising of 1894, was suppressed with considerable ferocity by Ottoman troops. This led to a series of massacres of Armenians in the 1890s in which perhaps 300,000 Armenians died.

The Young Turk revolution of 1908 at first promised new reforms, but within a year there was a further massacre in which 30,000 Armenians were killed. The ideology of the ruling triumvirate was now pan-Turkism (or pan-Turanianism) which had as its goal the uniting of all Turkic peoples and the Turkicizing of the minorities. During World War I and despite the fact that 250,000 Armenian men were conscripted and fought loyally in the armies of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Ottoman government turned on the Armenians and from April 1915 began a series of systematic and genocidal massacres. In towns and villages in Turkish Armenia and Asia Minor the entire Armenian population was ordered out, the men shot and the women and children forced to walk southwards in huge convoys into the deserts of northern Syria; a journey in which most perished. The survivors were herded into large open-air concentration camps in Ottoman Syria where they were tortured and killed. The killing continued well into 1916 and beyond. The present Turkish government still refuses to concede either the scale of the killings or that it was a deliberate policy — despite evidence for both — maintaining that it was a civil war between armed bands. The number of Armenians killed was probably in the region of 1.5 million with another half a million refugees. From a population which had been over 2 million, 100,000 Armenians remained in Turkey.

Independent Armenia 1918-20

On May 28, 1918 an independent Armenian nation was declared after victories by Armenian commanders in the vacuum left following the Soviet withdrawal from the Caucasus in 1917 and the defeat of the Ottomans. Thanks to initial British support the territory of independent Armenia grew considerably and included not only present-day Soviet Armenia but Kars and Ardahan in present day Turkey. Economic conditions were catastrophic, there was famine and privation in the winter of 1918-19, although there was a recognizable improvement by early 1920. But it was meaningful support from the great powers which was crucial, and this was not forthcoming. Although President Wilson of the USA delineated and gave legal recognition to an independent Armenia, none of the powers were prepared to back it by arms, especially in the face of a revived Turkey under Kemal Atatürk who reached an understanding with the USSR. Turks invaded Kars, the Soviets closed in from Azerbaijan and proclaimed a Soviet republic in Erevan (to which the independent Armenian government decided peacefully to accede) and the arrangement between the two was confirmed in the Treaty of Kars (October 1921). Independent Armenia ceased to exist. (For Soviet Armenia see USSR.)

Armenians in Turkey

After the war there were relatively few Armenians left within Turkey. In the early years of the State when Turkey was fighting to establish itself they, along with other minority groups, suffered badly; however for most of the inter-war years Armenians were able to live relatively unmolested lives, although mainly in Istanbul and a few other cities. Those who attempted to return and claim lands and properties were often attacked by local mobs. In 1939 a further 15,000 Armenians left the Alexandretta district of Syria which had been ceded to Turkey, and Armenians suffered from discriminatory taxes imposed on non-Muslim minorities during World War II. The main protection for all non-Muslim minorities in Turkey was the Treaty of Lausanne of July 1923, signed by a number of European and other powers and guaranteed by the League of Nations, most specifically Articles 38-44, which guaranteed the life, liberty, freedom of movement, religious tolerance, education and customs of the minorities by the Turkish state. Yet the provisions of this Treaty, which is still valid, have not in general been fulfilled by the Turkish government.

According to the Turkish census of 1960 there were 52,756 Armenian speakers in Turkey, the majority of whom (37,700) were in Istanbul. Today these numbers are probably smaller. Most Armenians have been able to live reasonably well, provided they kept a low profile and abstained from political activities. There were however riots against them (and the small Greek minority) in 1955, financial and property restrictions on the church, and educational restriction on community schools in the 1970s and onwards, and official harassment in the early 1980s in response to isolated incidents of Armenian terrorism (from Armenian groups outside Turkey). In addition scholars have protested against government neglect, destruction or misrepresentation of Armenian cultural monuments in Eastern Turkey. The Turkish government continues to deny charges of genocide of Armenians in 1915 although in 1989 it announced that it would open historical archives to scholars. It also continues to deny any Armenian historical presence and in December 1986 the publisher of a Turkish version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was facing prosecution because it contained an article on an Armenian state in Anatolia in the eleventh century.


Armenians have lived in Persia from the early seventeenth century, when Shah Abbas deported thousands from the plain of Ararat to his capital at Isfahan where they founded a colony at New Julfa. However most of Iran’s 180,000 Armenians now live in Tehran where the community has several churches and cultural institutions, including a newspaper. Before the overthrow of the Shah, Tehran Armenians owned many prosperous business concerns, including breweries. Current economic and political upheavals have proved serious to Armenian business interests and many have subsequently left Iran. Nevertheless the Armenian community is a recognized religious minority and thus has been accorded some protection by the authorities.

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After the massacres of 1915 Lebanon was the centre of the Armenian world (with Soviet Armenia). The Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, the Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics, and the President of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Middle East have their headquarters in the Beirut area. The Armenian population of perhaps 175,000 (in the mid-1980s) constitutes 5% of the Lebanese population and are the seventh largest community. The majority live in Beirut and its suburbs. Before the outbreak of the civil war there were 60 Armenian schools, 20 Armenian churches and a dozen magazines and newspapers based there. There were three major Armenian political parties — the nationalist Dashnaks, the more conservative Ramgavars and the progressive Hunchaks. Armenians played an important role in the Lebanese business world.

The civil war has been disastrous for the Armenian community, even though it has sought to maintain a neutral stance. However by the end of 1986 an estimated 1,000 Armenians had been killed and many thousands wounded. The murderous 1989 bombardment and subsequent exodus from Beirut was only the final chapter in the flight of the Armenian community from the Lebanon often to sanctuary organized by the Armenian diaspora around the world. Large numbers are now trying to re-establish themselves in Nicosia, which will probably inherit the central role of Beirut.

Elsewhere in the Middle East (for Armenians in the USSR, see USSR)

The Armenian community in Cyprus suffered in the Turkish invasion of 1974 during which an Armenian High School was hit by a Turkish bomb. Armenians in the northern sector have been turned out of their homes and shops and Armenian churches and monuments destroyed by Turkish troops or settlers. There are smaller Armenian communities in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel and Iraq.