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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Little Family History, part I

Five years ago, if I told you I was Armenian, you'd probably give me a quizzical look. Or you'd start debating predestination with me (haha, as in Arminian vs. Calvinist? The two major schools of protestant belief? You got that pun, right?). These days, thanks to the Kardashians, you'd be more likely to surreptitiously glance at my booty to see if it really IS an Armenian thing (It is. We were making those jokes years before those lovely sisters came on the scene). I'm actually just half Armenian: my mom is Armenian, and like most Armenians in the United States, her family came over right before or during World War I. This is because that time period was the height of the Armenian genocide.
The genocide itself is a hot-button issue. Although Armenia had been subject to sporadic raids from the Turkish army for years, an all-out, kill women and children, ethnic cleansing type of attack should have garnered the notice of international powers. But it didn't: America was on the brink of a world war, and for some reason the genocide went largely ignored (although the New York Times tried to bring attention to the slaughter and actually still offers one of the best histories here). Current-day Armenians want other nations to recognize that it occurred; some more political types want an apology or restitution from Turkey. Turkey's government does not recognize the genocide and even speaking of it in Turkey is a crime. Many Turks, even in the US, deny that it occurred. Most governments, including the United States, will not use the word genocide for fear of losing Turkey as an ally. I don't get angry over the issue because I let bygones be bygones, but I did have a run-in with a Turkish optometrist once. I was at a check up when I was twelve and the optometrist, who was obviously Turkish by name and appearance, mentioned that my eyes looked "Persian" and was I Turkish? I said no, Armenian - not thinking this was a big deal - and he immediately stopped the exam, washed his hands, and left. I waited for half an hour until an assistant came in and told me that another doctor would finish my exam! However, since that time I've worked along side several Turkish doctors and we've gotten along beautifully.
Armenian history is fascinating. Historical Armenia is the land of Ararat, the landing place of the ark. Armenians don't speculate "if" the ark is up there. They talk about it confidently - and many claim to have seen it from afar. Some - including my extended family - have small pieces of petrified wood taken from the site. In ancient days, the Armenians had a system of gods still used commonly in Armenian names (I have 4 or 5 goddesses in my family). Some of these gods are borrowed from the Assyrians and Babylonians, who conquered Armenia - along with Israel and other nations - around 500 BC. That date is totally an estimate. After brief periods of time under the rule of the Greeks and Romans, Armenia gained independence. The nation has the distinction of being the first Christian nation - as early as 300 AD. Th Armenian apostolic church argues with the Coptic church about whose religion is older! Much of the history after this point is filled with fighting, as nations invaded the land. Armenia was rich in natural resources and (despite what they'll tell you) not exactly a great warring nation. It was more like a nation of farmers, shepherds, and vintners. Eventually Eastern Armenia came under the power of the Russian empire, while Western Armenia was constantly under duress from the Turks and the Ottoman empire. As the Ottoman empire waned, the genocide began, with its beginnings in a Turkish quest for wealth and spoils as their nation struggled economically.
The genocide was a horrible, terrifying thing, and I'd have to make this an adult-only blog if I included information. If you're interested, google it...but I am warning you, unsettling pictures and stories will appear. If you're a nightmare person I'd skip it!
The diaspora to safe nations resulted in large numbers of Armenians in the United States. Many arrived in California, which has some geographic similarities to Armenia, and large numbers settled in the Northeast.
Some interesting facts about Armenia:
- The nation adopted Christianity as the state religion years before Christianity was even LEGAL in Rome!
- Armenia is first mentioned in writings dating to around 3000 BC
- Armenian last names end in "ian" or "yan" depending on the choice of spelling; it means "son of".
- The Armenian alphabet is exquisitely phonetic and easy to use because it was invented around 400 AD to more accurately translate scripture. Before that time the nation used cuneiform methods. The alphabet was designed for ease of use and learning.
- Armenia is very mountainous, which lead to some of the earliest studies in astronomy and metallurgy (mining is still a big industry).
- In the course of wars Turkey now holds Mount Ararat, but the mountain is a symbol of Armenia.
- Some Armenians call themselves "Hayes" (pronounced hi) because Hayastan is Armenian for Armenia!
- Thanks to the diaspora, wars, and earthquakes, almost four times as many Armenians live outside of Armenia as in the country.
- Armenians are called "Caucasian" because the nation is in the "Caucasian mountains" - the term in this sense is used to denote location, not race (however, Armenians are considered Caucasian by race for census purposes although we share physical and genetic characteristics of many people groups, including eastern Europeans and middle easterners. This is debated and many Armenians don't consider themselves racially "white"!).
- Armenian is considered an Indo-European language, but it occupies its own branch on the language tree, so it does not have any related languages (however, modern speakers often use Turkish words).
- Besides the Kardashians and myself, famous Armenians include Andre Agassi, Princess Diana (she was 1/64th Armenian!), William Saroyan, the Zildjian family (ever seen that name on cymbals?) , and Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death).

Where am I going with all this? A little discovery I made. But this post is already miles long so I'll finish this tomorrow!
And - not to pry, but - what's your family history and ethnic background?

Photo from National Geographic.


  1. I've learned a lot in this post! Will be interested to read the next part of your post. I honestly don't know much about my family history other than it's mostly German.

  2. Abbi, I forgot how much of WV is German! A lot of German influence in the area.

  3. Wow, I learned a heck of alot in this post. Very interesting. I have to say, I know so little about other countries histories. I try to read a couple of non-fiction books a year so I can learn more about our world, though. But there is just so much to learn and discover.

    I am what you would call a mutt. I have quite a bit of German & Swedish ancestry, but after that it's pretty much a mix of a whole lot of other things!