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Western Armenians in Iran after the Genocide

Today Eastern Turkey, the ancestral land of the Armenians, is devoid of its ancient ethnic inhabitants.

Based on realistic estimates, during those bloody and tragic years, around one and half million Armenians perished. Out of a population of more than two million Armenians before 1915, only 60 to 80 thousand are left in today’s Turkey, mainly in and around Istanbul.

After the Armenian Genocide, a small number of survivors reached Arab lands, who in later years formed the Armenian communities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. In the more recent years some of the Persian Gulf countries have also become home to the Armenian communities. Some survivors, with the support of charity organisations, ended up in the USA and some European countries – particularly France.

More lucky ones, like Armenians of “Vasporakan”, i.e. mainly city of Van in Eastern Turkey, resorted to armed resistance against Turkish army until the arrival of Russian Army. But they also left the city once the Russian Army retreated, leaving civil population defenceless and with no hope to carry on defending the Armenian neighbourhood.

In such desperate circumstances, Armenians had no choice but to abandon their ancestral homeland and flee to the Russian empire, or more specifically to Eastern Armenia and Georgia. This part of the Armenian history is known as “Gaght” and “Gaghtagan” meaning respectively a situation between migration/seeking refuge and migrant/refuge.

At that time, Armenians living close to the Turkish-Iranian border were unable to take refuge in the neighbouring Iran. This was because the Kurdish tribes present around this border, had received official permission to treat fleeing refugees as they wished, i.e. looting and killing them.

After years of wandering in Russian Empire – and later Soviet Union – many Armenians of Van region and in general eastern Turkey preferred to settle in Iran – mostly in Iranian Azerbaijan and especially in Tabriz. My paternal grandparents were among these “Gaghtagan” Armenians from Van.

Most probably knowing Istanbul Turkish, as a close language to Azari Turkish (the language of Iranian Azerbaijan), motivated them to settle and start working in that region. But perhaps there was also a more hidden motivation involved in this decision. They were settling relatively close to their ancestral land with the hope of one day returning to it. However, this sadly proved to be just a dream – as we now know – and Eastern turkey became increasingly devoid of Armenians.

Those who stayed in Turkey had no choice but to forget their Armenian language; and to convert to Islam.

With Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia and later Caucasus, this uprooting became ever more realistic, resulting in deeper pessimism among Armenian refugees within Iran and Armenia. Lenin, and later Stalin, handed over chunks of western Armenia, such as Kars and Mount Ararat to the new Turkish leader, Kamal Atatürk in order to neutralize and attract Turkey towards communism. Thus, for these exiled families from Van and other Western Armenian cities, towns and villages, ‘homeland’ became just a distant memory.

My own family and grandparents were among these migrants. I vividly remember my “Vanetzi Gaghtagan” grandmother who had left Van when she was only a 25 year old. She was mainly living with her memories from childhood and young years in Van. She never adjusted herself with the new life in Tabriz or later in Tehran. In other words, she lived in total alienation from Iranian social environment. At that time, being a teenager, I was unable to empathise with her. Only now, when I am a migrant myself came to Britain in much better circumstances, I can understand her feelings.

I have to add that Iranian-Azari hosts treated Armenian migrants and refugees quite well; this helped them settle as quickly as possible in Iranian Azerbaijan. Interestingly, this is despite the fact that few years prior to the arrival of these Armenian migrants, there had been clashes between Azeris and indigenous Armenians, especially in Orumieh, another major city in Azerbaijan province around turn of the century.

We have to take into account that there were a number of other factors in the rapid integration of the Armenians in Iran; which can be counted as below:

  • The value of ‘hospitality’ in the Iranian culture;
  • Reputation of the Armenians as honest and hardworking people;
  • Popularity of notable Armenian figures, such as Yeprem Khan, a key military leader, influential in the success of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1907.
  • And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the presence of an established age-old Armenian indigenous community in the same region.

This final point was a great contributing factor in accelerating the process of settlement of the newly-arrived Armenians. This is quite an interesting factor, considering the fact that the indigenous Iranian-Armenians live in geographically different – and relatively distant locations -to where the Genocide took place; and were therefore, unaffected by this horrific event.

At that time, the Iranian-Armenian community was constituted of two main sections:

  1. Descendants of the millennium old indigenous Armenians who had lived in Iran – particularly in northern provinces – from ancient times;
  2. Descendants of forcibly migrated Armenians from Caucasus to central Iran by Shah Abbas, the king of Iran, in 1604.

Despite major differences in dialects – which could jeopardise communication – and a certain degree of cultural differences, indigenous Armenians greatly identified with the plight of their fellow Armenians from Turkey and did take care of them. Over the years, a strong unification and a certain degree of homogenization occurred between the two.

We have to consider that the reorganisation and expansion of the party of “Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries”- or “Dashnaktzootiun” in Armenian- in Iran after the arrival of considerable number of high ranking party members following the communist takeover in Armenia, has played a major role in this unification and homogenisation. This unification is now to the extent that Iranian-Armenians in their totality consider recognition of the Armenian Genocide as an objective to be achieved together with a united front.

The famous Iranian author Mohamad Ali Jamalzadeh is one example of how Iranians regarded Armenian survivors in Iran. On his way to Europe via Turkey in 1915, he encountered groups of starving Armenian survivors – young and old – in desperate condition; and empathises with them in his short notes on those sad days.

Another example of the treatment and respect for Armenians in Iran prior to the Iranian revolution is granting the permission to build a number of memorials for the Armenian Genocide Victims in different Iranian cities.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for Iran, alongside the 32 other countries and some American states, to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact.

The number of Armenians in Iran with “Vanetzi” ancestors is considerable, to the extent that there is a “Vasporakan” society in Tehran. This society has been active for years, arranging tours to Van – and Western Armenia – and organising lectures and presentations on Armenian history and culture.

By: Adom Saboonchian

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