Armenia and its people: a history of struggle

Mt. Ararat's 16,946 feet of gray stone, though no longer within the borders of present-day Armenia, stands as the firm, spiritual symbol of that country, whose borders have shifted like an oil slick on troubled waters. The story of Armenia and its proud and fiercely independent people is a tragic and complicated one.

Modern historians believe that the Armenians crossed the Euphrates and came into Asia Minor in the 8th century BC. The Armenian Empire of Tigran the Great in 70 BC cut a wide swath from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Seas and almost to the Black Sea. It included what are now parts of the Soviet Union, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

Today, the only part of the world that is officially called Armenia is the 11,500-square-mile state of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, an area a little larger than Maryland. It is the smallest of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union, with a population of some 3.2 million Armenians. There are estimated to be a total of 5.5 million Armenians worldwide.

Part of Armenia's strife lay in its geographical location -- the much-traveled gateway and invasion route between the eastern Orient and Europe to the west.

Centuries before the Christian era, the Persians came as conquerors. In 330 BC Alexander the Great captured the territory and later the Seleucids did likewise.

In following centuries, Armenia came under the heels of the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, and others -- with usually short-lived attempts at independence between.

Christianity was introduced to Armenia in the latter part of the 3rd century AD, largely through the work of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Armenia is considered the oldest Christian state. The church became autonomous in the next century, and in the 5th century the Armenians developed their own written alphabet -- largely, it is believed, to phonetically record the Bible in their own language.

At the end of the 11th century, the area fell prey to the Seljuk Turks, and later to the Ottoman Turks. From the latter 14th century to World War I, Armenia was carved up among the Persians, Russians, and Turks. Most of what is considered historical Armenia came under the powerful arm of the Ottoman Empire in 1514. The result was persecution and discrimination against the Christian Armenians by the Muslim Turks.

In 1828 the Russians acquired from the Persians what is now Soviet Armenia.

Between 1894 and 1915 the Ottoman Turks continued to hold Armenian ground, and persecutions prevailed. Tension heightened in 1915 when the Armenians were accused of fomenting rebellion with Russian assistance. As a result, Armenians were deported and many perished during a forced march into the Syrian Desert.

Armenians estimate that 1.5 million of their people were killed in what they term an Armenian genocide. The Turks deny that there was a genocide and say that some 300,000 Armenians died in the deportations.

Perhaps because of this history of diaspora, persecution, and the search for a homeland, the Armenian people have clung tenaciously to those things that are uniquely a part of their culture.

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