ARMENIAN POLITICS AND RELIGION

Just when I thought I’d hit on a topic with no political overtones. . . .

At dinner with my Armenian cousins a couple of months ago, my older cousin shared the story of his sister’s wedding which might not have happened. He said a family friend approached their father about Araxy’s fiancé, warning him against allowing his daughter to marry this man. “He is Tashnug (also known as Dashnak)!” the friend exclaimed. “You are Rumgavar!” My uncle was, apparently, unmoved. Bottom line, my cousin married the Tashnug – they had three children and lived happily for many decades.

As my cousin was telling this story, I was confused. I had never heard the terms before. But I didn’t want to admit my ignorance so I let it go. I tried to search for the terms, but didn’t know the proper spelling, so nothing turned up.

Fast forward a couple of months. I was making cream kadayif with my new friends at the Armenian Apostolic Church. Two of the more elderly women were talking about “the other Armenian church” in the area. “They are Tashnugs,” one said, with a swipe of her hand. “We are Rumgavars.”

There were those terms again.

“Are those political terms?” I ventured to ask, hoping they’d take pity on me, a humble Protestant, and explain.

The elder of the two ladies nodded. No further explanation.

“How do you spell them?” I asked, hoping to search for the information that was not being shared.

The two ladies looked at each other and shrugged.

So I took the question to an Armenian friend. Here is what it boiled down to: “Tashnugs” view Turkey as their homeland. It was theirs before it was the Turks’, and they’re still prepared to fight to the death to get it back. Rumgavars view their homeland as Russian/Communist, and are content with the homeland they now have.

Armenian Revolutionary Federation Sheild (2)

Tashnugs (Dashnaks) are the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an Armenian nationalist and socialist political party founded in 1890. They traditionally advocated democratic socialism and have been a member of the Socialist International since 2003. It is the most politically oriented of the organizations and has been one of the staunchest supporters of Armenian nationalism. The party campaigns for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the right to reparations. It also advocates the establishment of United Armenia, partially based on the Treaty of Sevres of 1920. In 1918 the party was instrumental in the creation of the First Republic of Armenia, which fell to the Soviet communists in 1920. After its leadership was exiled by the communists, the ARF established itself within Armenian diaspora communities, where it helped Armenians preserve their cultural identity. After the fall of the USSR, it returned to Armenia, where it now has a presence as a minor party in Armenia’s parliament. The party lost political representation after the 2018 Armenian parliamentary election after receiving only 3.89% of the votes, which is lower than the 5% minimum required for representation in the parliament.

Armenian Democratic Liberal Party Sheild (3)
Rumgavars are the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party – an Armenian political party in the Armenian diaspora, including the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and Australia. The Rumgavar party advocates liberalism and capitalism, unlike the other two classical Armenian political parties (Social Democrat Hunchakian Party and the Constituent Democratic Party) which both have the leftist ideology. It was established in Constantinople in 1921 as a result of the unification of 3 political parties: the Armenakan Party, the Liberal Party of the Reformed Hunchakians, and the Constituent Democratic Party. The Armenakan Party was founded in 1885 by Mekertich Portukalian as part of the national movement in Van in the Ottoman Empire. In the Armenian parliamentary elections on May 25, 2003, the party won 2.9% of the popular vote but no seats. Ever since, the party has lost all presence in the political landscape of Armenia. A few pockets of its presence exist in the diaspora with ever-decreasing numbers, a far cry from their heyday during the Soviet era.

In the 21st century, most Armenians are Christians (94.8% and are members of Armenia’s own church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the oldest Christian churches. It was founded in the 1st century AD, and in 301 AD became the first branch of Christianity to become a state religion.

According to a Pew Research publication in December 2018 Armenia is the 2nd most religious country among 34 European nations, with 79% of respondents saying they believe in God with absolute certainty.

The largest minority Christian churches in Armenia are composed of new converts to Protestant and non-trinitarian Christianity, a combined total of about 38,989 persons (1.3%). Non-Christian religions have only a few adherents.

No surprises, actually, that political parties within other countries battle ideology. The surprise for me came in the form of how the political party of our Armenian ancestors translates into competition within religious sectors here in America.

 

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IN THE BEGINNING…

My grandfather (medz ha’/eer) and grandmother (medz ma’/eer) immigrated from Kharpert (also known as Harpoot) in Armenia. Don’t try to find Kharpert on a map of Armenia–it’s no longer there. Kharpert was one of the casualties of the Armenian genocide, along with many of its citizens. According to Richard G. Hovannisian, Kharpert “…was truly a crossroads of ancient civilizations, where Hurrian, Urartian, Semitic and Indo-European peoples met and mixed, as did their customs, religions and vocabulary. Through Kharpert…passed the famous royal military army of the Persian Achaemenians and later the major supply routes of the Romans. Here lay a fertile plain, traversed by tributaries and branches of the Aratsani or Eurphrates River. The shimmering waters and the waves of grain made this the Golden Plain (Voski Dasht) of Kharpert.”

Truly a historic land, the local inhabitants endured generation after generation under Arab, Turkic, Mongol, Turkmen, and Ottoman dominion. Even through the difficulties endured under the dominations, Armenian life on the Golden Plain continued uninterrupted until 1915. Most Armenian children were in school, and literacy was becoming universal for boys. Many villages also operated primary schools for girls. These focused on reading, writing and arithmetic as well as sewing and training for homemaking.

Hardships of life were made bearable by a religious calendar filled with holy days that involved both fasting and feasting. Weddings lasted as long as seven days and seven nights. All but the smallest villages had an Armenian Apostolic Church, and many larger villages had Protestant and/or Catholic congregations. The church was the most prominent structure in all the villages.

Extensive emigration to the United States took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by economic and political forces. They traveled overland to the seaport of Samsun, followed by taxing sea journeys via Constantinople and Marseilles to Ellis Island or other U.S. ports of entry. Men usually intended to stay only long enough to return home to purchase land or open a business. Their brides and children were left behind in the care of the extended family during their absence. Tragically, the massacres and genocide tore them apart.

Many members of all families, including my ancestors, perished during the genocide years. My grandfather left Kharpert in 1895 after marrying my grandmother, who was eleven years old at the time. (I do not know if they consummated the marriage at that time, although I know their first child wasn’t born until 1908.) My grandfather became a naturalized citizen in 1905. My grandmother arrived, according to public records, in 1907 or 1908 (existing records conflict). Between then and 1918 she produced five children–my father was the youngest.

While there are indications that my grandmother missed her homeland, the family as a whole embraced being Americans. As more family members joined them from “the old country,” some of the elders were less inclined to assimilate. But their offspring were so American they resisted speaking the language of their parents’ homeland (either Armenian or Turkish or both). The men fought in WWI and WWII. Armenian and Turkish was never spoken in the home I grew up in, unless elder family members were present – and even then it was a mix of Armenian and English! One of my aunts taught us how to count in Armenian, and of course a few swear words! But mostly they were so content in their new world, they increasingly left the old world behind.

Which isn’t always entirely a good thing, because that connection with your roots is a drive in all of us who didn’t have that first hand knowledge. That’s why so many services like Ancestry.com are so popular. There seems to be a drive in most of us to know who we are at the level of our genes – where we came from.

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BOOK TALK CATCH-UP

A lot has happened since January, when I began posting topics related to my new project about Armenians: the genocide, mass migration by survivors, and the generations of Armenian Americans they produced. That project is a long way from done, since I’m still in the research phase and haven’t begun to do any actual writing. All in good time.

Meanwhile, after a string (yes, a LONG string) of rejections by publishers and non-responses by agents, I’m happy to say I have a publisher for The Eyes Have It!!! Currently still in negotiations, I will provide updates in the coming weeks and months.

While I’m still happy-dancing, I’m also still immersing myself in experiences that feed my Armenian soul (in more ways than one!). Yesterday, I joined 15 or so women (and one man) at St Peter’s Armenian Church for a day of making Cheoreg (an Armenian sweet yeast roll) in preparation for their massive annual festival on June 1 and 2. What fun! Their stories abound, and vary from a recent immigrant from present-day Armenia, to a woman who was adopted as a baby and raised in an Italian family. She didn’t know she was Armenian until she took an ancestry DNA test! She now knows she’s 50% Armenian and 50% Italian. She’s searched out and met some of her Armenian relatives, most of whom didn’t know she existed (and for the few who did, she was a “family secret.”) These gatherings to prepare for the festival continue throughout the month of May. I’m signed up for only 2 more, due to a packed schedule. But if any time opens up, I will be sure to sign up for more! Yesterday’s efforts yielded 1039 rolls:

IMG_2934 (2) And because we packaged them 6 to a bag, there was one left over. One roll, torn into 15 pieces…but that tiny piece was pure heaven!

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MAN’S INHUMANITY TO MAN: The Armenian Genocide

Armenian Monument - Troy

Site of the Armenian Heritage Monument, Troy, NY

On this date, April 24, in 1915, 300 Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy and dignitaries in Constantinople (Istanbul) were taken from their homes, briefly jailed and tortured, then hanged or shot. Thus began the massive extermination of 1,500,000 Armenians in the waning Ottoman Empire

I couldn’t possibly tell this story any more effectively than as it appeared in The History Place: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/armenians.htm. This post is excerpted almost directly from that site.

For three thousand years, a thriving Armenian community had existed inside the vast region of the Middle East bordered by the Black, Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. The area, known as Asia Minor, stands at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Great powers rose and fell over te many centuries, and the Armenian homeland was at various times ruled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Mongols.

During the repeated invasions and occupations, Armenian pride and cultural identity never wavered. The snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat became its focal point and by 600BC Armenia as a nation sprang into being. Following the advent of Christianity, Armenians became the very first nation to accept it as the state religion. A golden era of peace and prosperity followed which saw the invention of a distinct alphabet, a flourishing of literature, art, commerce and a unique style of architecture. By the 10th century, Armenians had established a new capital at Ani, affectionately called the “city of a thousand and one churches.”

In the eleventh century, the first Turkish invasion of the Armenian homeland occurred. Thus began several hundred years of rule by Muslim Turks. By the sixteenth century, Armenia had been absorbed into the vast and mighty Ottoman Empire.
But by the 1800s the Ottoman Empire was in serious decline. For centuries it had spurned technological and economic progress, while the nations of Europe had embraced innovation and became industrial giants. As the empire gradually disintegrated, subject peoples including the Greeks, Serbs and Romanians achieved their long-awaited independence.

By the 1890s, young Armenians began to press for political reforms. The despotic Sultan responded to their pleas with brutal persecutions. Between 1894 and 11896 over 100,000 inhabitants of Armenian villages were massacred during widespread pogroms conducted by the Sultan’s special regiments. In 1908, reform-minded Turkish nationalists known as “Young Turks” forced the Sultan to allow a constitutional government and guarantee basic rights.

Armenians in Turkey were delighted with this turn of events and its prospects for a brighter future. But their hopes were dashed when three of the Young Turks seized full control of the government in 1913. This triumvirate of Young Turks concocted their own ambitious plans for the future of Turkey, uniting all the Turkic peoples in the entire region while expanding the borders of Turkey all the way into Central Asia, creating a new Turkish empire, with one language and one religion. The traditional historic homeland of Armenia lay right in the path of their plans. The large population of Christian Armenians totaling some two million persons made up about 10 percent of Turkey’s overall population.

There was a dramatic rise in Islamic fundamentalist agitation. Christian Armenians were once again branded as infidels (non-believers in Islam). Anti-Armenian demonstrations occurred. During one in 1909, two hundred villages were plundered and over 30,000 persons massacred. Sporadic local attacks against Armenians continued unchecked over the next several years.

When WWI broke out in 1914, leaders of the Young Turk regime saw that the outbreak of war would provide the perfect opportunity to solve the “Armenian question” once and for all. Turks disarmed the entire Armenian population. Every last rifle and pistol was seized, with severe penalties for anyone who failed to turn in a weapon.

About 40,000 Armenian men were serving in the Turkish Army. Their weapons were confiscated and they were put into slave labor battalions building roads or used as human pack animals. They suffered a very high death rate. Those who survived were shot outright.

The decision to annihilate the entire Armenian population came directly from the ruling triumvirate of ultra-nationalist Young Turks. The actual extermination orders were transmitted in coded telegrams to all provincial governors throughout Turkey.
After the first 300, arrests of Armenian men throughout the country followed. The men were tied together with ropes in small groups, then taken to the outskirts of their town and shot or bayoneted by death squads. Local Turks and Kurds armed with knives and sticks often joined in on the killing.

Then it was the turn of Armenian women, children and the elderly. They were ordered to pack a few belongings and be ready to leave home, under the pretext that they were being relocated to a non-military zone for their own safety. The were actually being taken on death marches heading south toward the Syrian desert.

Then homes and villages left behind were quickly occupied by Muslim Turks. In many cases, young Armenian children were spared from deportation by local Turks who took them from their families. The children were coerced into denouncing Christianity and becoming Muslims, and were given new Turkish names.

I will talk more about the annihilation of nearly two million Armenians as this series continues. But this post is about the beginning of the official genocide, from April 24, 1915 to the end of WW1, and continuing at a lesser level into the early 1920’s. Please take the time to read the entire article from which this was taken. If you live near where memorial services will be held today and tonight, consider attending. Man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds. And religious extremes compound that nature. We must strive against attacks on people based on religion or national origin or lifestyles that do not harm others. As Martin Luther King said, judge people by the content of their character.

We must never forget.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Armenian_Genocide_memorials

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Easter Miracles

Shnor-ha-vor (soorp) za-deeg
Happy Easter!

Easter Sunday was a big deal in our Armenian church when I was growing up. Of course, it was the fifties and sixties, so standards and expectations were quite different then. In many ways, that’s a loss for kids of today.

Weeks before Easter, preparations were made, both at the church and in the homes of members.

Solicitations appeared in the church bulletin and weekly service programs for donations of lilies and other décor for the altar and other parts of the church.

Choir practice ramped up to make choices about just the right music and ensure that the members of the choir knew and could sing the chosen pieces well. All amateurs, planning and practice was essential to our (yes, I was in the choir) performing respectably – sometimes even commendably!

And in homes all over Troy, NY and nearby, even the least financially endowed church members pieced together the money to buy Easter outfits, complete with hats, purses, gloves, and often white patent leather shoes. In our family, that sometimes included new spring coats as well, although that didn’t happen every year. Even on non-holiday Sundays, we dressed up for church. But Easter pushed that to another level. The downside of that plan in the great northeast was the likelihood of frigid and sometimes snowy or rainy weather that interfered with the planned image!

On ordinary Sundays the church enjoyed modest attendance, regulars who were there every Sunday barring unforeseen circumstances. On Easter when I was a child, it was standing room only, a circumstance that both thrilled and baffled me. Where were all those people on other Sundays? You might say I had somewhat of an all-or-nothing view of the world around me in those days.

Easter today still is celebrated among Christians, but there seem to be fewer of us who actively practice our faith. My church is closed—others are, too. It’s a loss on many fronts. But people and our country evolve.

And the good news is Easter still is celebrated by millions, in this country and around the world. The revered Notre Dame Cathedral won’t be holding services this Easter, but who can ignore the message of the miraculous survival of the glowing cross and other significant symbols among the embers and ashes?

Till next time….

Gu des-nu-veenk no-ren
I’ll see you again!

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Armenia – Small Country, Huge History

Ancient Armenia:

IMG_2745

IMG_2785 (2)                                                                (Armenia today)

Armenia’s conversion to Christianity between 301-314 AD made it the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, predating Ethiopia (330 AD) and Rome (380 AD). Religion was a key component in the conscious effort to establish a distinct identity in the region.

Religion also formed the foundation of their social systems, arts, and education.
The first complete printed Armenian bible is dated at 1666. But during ancient and medieval times the books comprising the Bible were laboriously copied by hand, with each book bound separately and traded between churches. The printing press made it possible to publish the separate books together as a complete bible in 1666, with woodcut illustrations taken from the 1857 Dutch Bible Sacra. One thousand copies were printed but only about one hundred survive today, five of which are held in the collection of the Armenian Library and Museum of America.

Christianity found its way into every facet of Armenian life. This 1735 copper tray depicts Christ and the 12 Apostles . It was designed and commissioned by the monk Elija, who donated it to the Armenian Catholicos Ghoukas I Atchabahian The inscription in classical Armenian is in rhymed verse, suggesting that the designer was highly educated. The tray was saved from destruction during the Armenian Genocide by a man named Garabedian, who strapped it to his back (it weighs 80lbs) and climbed across the Taurus Mountains with it. He brought it to Lebanon and it was subsequently shipped to New York City.

IMG_2758
Armenians are famed for their beautiful religious art: church architecture, illuminated manuscripts and intricate Khatchkars (stone crosses). But the most famous form of artistic expression was through textiles. From time immemorial Armenian women have created and ornamented clothing and created works that delighted the wearer and viewer. A bride’s worth and reputation was judged by her hand skills.

This embroidered panel from the late 19th century has a dark blue handwoven cotton fabric base, embroidered with interlaced embroidery (called nakash) in circles, crosses and other geometric designs.
IMG_2753
The art of doll making, once specifically intended for children, became a means of expressing the yearning for a lost homeland for Armenian-American women. Dolls are a means of celebrating the lost traditions of folk dress that once defined all Armenian women, identifying their ethnicity, social class and region of origin.
IMG_2784

Next time, more about the Armenian people and how they found their way to America.

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ARMENIAN DELIGHTS

Since late last fall, I’ve been immersing myself in all things Armenian, as I have begun to formulate a direction for my book about Armenian families. Although my childhood was consumed with Armenian foods and practices, I slid away from that after I married and allowed my jobs to consume me. The more I’ve reconnected with my “inner Armenian,” the stronger the pull to be more involved has grown.

Armenian CDs (4)

I’ve often listened to music as I worked on writing endeavors. Now, as I pursue the preliminary efforts toward envisioning what form the book will take, my music of choice is Armenian folk and dance.

I’ve delighted in revisiting the food of my young and Armenian church-going days, tweaking recipes from my old Rose Baboian Armenian Cookbook until my palate recognizes just the right combination of flavors from those days.

My first culinary adventure was Lahmajoun.
Lahmajoun
My mother used to describe it to non-Armenians as an Armenian pizza. A mixture of ground lamb, green and red peppers, tomatoes and a long list of seasonings spread thinly on a thin base of bread dough create a one-of-a-kind experience for your palate. Even if you think you don’t like lamb, you should try this!

We never made it at home, but I knew exactly when I hit on my aunt’s cheoreg creation, a yeast roll that is slightly sweet and made unique with a near east seasoning called mahlab. The version in this picture are simple round shapes. But you might also see them rolled into pencil-size ropes that are braided together and/or curled into a pretzel look-alike.

Cheoreg

Next up was the Armenian Sugar Cookie (left) and Easter Gurabia (right), both sinful sugar cookies that melt in your mouth for an orally orgasmic experience. These are dangerous if you don’t want to replace your jeans with a larger size!

Sarma and Dolma were on last week’s menu. Sarma is cabbage stuffed with a meat (lamb is best, but others can be used) and rice mixture. When you use the mixture to stuff peppers and other vegetables, it’s called Dolma.Sarma and Dolma

And yesterday I had a delightful experience making Yalanchi with a group of women at St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Watervliet, NY. I joined them for 3 hours during which we made in excess of 1100 stuffed grape leaves! This photo isn’t from that batch, but looks the same, although not piled as high as our group creation! These may look familiar, as they are found on some salad bars and are a culinary concept shared with the Greeks.

Yalanchi

 

I’ve lost a lot of years of connection with fellow Armenians. But the renewal has been most enjoyable – AND inspiring. Each new experience and person I encounter brings me closer to my original goal: to write about Armenian Americans. But a pleasant bonus has been my enjoyment of reconnecting with my heritage and the welcoming warmth of my widening circle of Armenian friends.

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