In this world burgeoning with nearly six billion people, Armenians are few. Worldwide, there are perhaps 7.5 to 10 million Armenians. Approximately 3.2 million live in the Republic of Armenia, located to the northeast of Turkey, northwest of Iran, west of Azerbaijan and Artsakh (formerly Nagorno-Karabagh), south and southeast of Georgia. It is a perilous neighborhood. Just in the last ten years and continuing even now, shooting wars thundered in the Nagorno-Karabagh (historic Artsakh) to the east of the current Republic of Armenia, Iraq to the south, and in Georgia and Chechnya to the north. Continuous low level and sometimes not so low level warfare goes on in the Turkish Kurdistan, also to the south. Just recently, Iraq is again in flames. Further southwest, Lebanon has been a basket case of factional warfare.
At its greatest extent, under Tigran (or Tigranes) II the Great at the end of the first century AD, Armenian lands extended as far south as the north of modern Iraq, as far west as the Turkish province of Mersin (about midway west through Turkey), as far east as the Iranian province of Zinjan (about halfway from the western Iranian border to Teheran), incorporating many non-Armenian subjects as well as ethnic Armenians. Armenia may be the oldest relatively autonomously surviving state in the world. The story of Armenian statehood webbed and flowed until the demise of the Armenian Cilician Kingdom in 1375 when the defeat of the Armenian forces by the Egyptian Mameluks opened the floodgates of the Turkish tide which later swamped the entire Anatolian Peninsula.
A majority of Armenians, about 5.5 to 7 million are Eastern Armenians (arev-elkya hayer, Sunrise Armenians), while the smaller number, 2 to 4 million, are the Western Armenians (arev-mta hayer, Sunset Armenians). Until the breakup of the Soviet Union Eastern Armenians lived in Armenia, Russia and the other former republics of the defunct Soviet Union and in Iran. Most Western Armenians live elsewhere around the world. The largest contingent lives in Turkey, followed by the United States, France, Syria, Lebanon and Argentina. Starting in about 1929, the Soviet Armenia welcomed and financed the repatriation of the Armenian refugees, including Western Armenians. Tens of thousands of Western Armenians, mostly from the Middle Eastern countries, moved back to Armenia in mid-20th century to rejoin the “homeland” they really never knew. The Western (Sunset) Armenians composed almost the entire Armenian Diaspora before the fall of the Soviet Union, except for the contingent in Iran. Iranian Armenians are Eastern Armenians. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent impoverishment of the former Soviet Union republics, combined with inhumane blockade of the Republic of Armenia by Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabagh war with Azerbaijan, Armenian Diaspora grew to include many Eastern Armenians, especially the United States Diaspora. Western Armenians differ from their Eastern Armenians by language, by food, and by their customs. In fact, although both languages are mutually comprehensible, they are different not only by an accent, but also by sentence structure, alphabet and by word conjugation. Such a large difference in languages indicates an ancient separation of the ethnic subgroups speaking each respective language. By way of comparison, American English is very different from British English in accent and pronunciation, but is virtually indistinguishable from it in writing despite 230 years of separation.
Although there are major differences in languages, the roots of nearly all words are the same. Eastern Armenians tend to pepper their speech with Russian borrowed words while the Western Armenians, all or most of who originally lived on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire, borrowed Turkish, Arabic, and French words, latter because Arabs themselves borrowed modern words and expressions from the French. There is an amusing story which illustrates the origins of borrowed words each group uses: when Western Armenians began arriving to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia the locals made fun of them saying that the western Armenians have trouble getting to anywhere on time because they have to carry around their beds tied to their necks. The pun had originated from the French word “cravat”, meaning necktie, used by the Western Armenians. Russian word “kravat”, familiar to the Eastern Armenians, means a “bed”. Since most Western Armenians came to the Soviet Armenia from Arabic countries and Turkey, there also may be a play on the more relaxed, Middle Eastern, attitude of the Western Armenians to time.
The tragedy of Western Armenia is that its rich culture, history and heritage are about to recede beyond the horizon of time. A hemorrhaging blow was struck long ago when of many of the educated members of the community were rounded up and summarily murdered during the Armenian Genocide in the beginning of the 20th century. The center of the Western Armenian culture then (and going back for centuries) was Constantinople (now Istanbul), for nearly fifteen centuries the center of many cultures. Although splashes of violence and ethnic cleansing by the Turks against the Armenians were recorded back to 1895, an extended period of indiscriminate killing began with the rounding up and murder of the leaders of the Constantinople community starting on April 24th, 1915. Next year will be one hundred years since that iniquity was perpetrated. It wasn’t just the people who were killed, an entire civilization was beheaded.
Some hearths keeping the embers of culture alive remained in Lebanon until that country imploded. In Iraq until the 2nd Gulf War and in Syria now also in flames. In these mostly Muslim turbulent countries the Christian Armenians kept to themselves. The United States – peaceful, Christian and prosperous, presents a different kind of challenge to the Western Armenian culture. Armenians, often industrious and frequently enough prosperous because of their industry, assimilate easily. In losing their own culture they contribute yet another very small bright thread into the colorful tapestry of the greatest country in the world.