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Armenians have sought their fortunes and found refuge in Arab countries for centuries

LONDON: When Armen Sarkissian, the President of Armenia, got off his plane in Riyadh in October this year, he became the first president of the small former Soviet republic to visit Saudi Arabia.
For almost 30 years since Armenia declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, there has been virtually no diplomatic relationship between it and some Islamic countries.
One of the reasons for the lack of ties is the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which at first glance pits Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan. This, along with the Armenian genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks, dominates Yerevan’s relations with many countries in the Middle East.
Geopolitically, the continued presence of several thousand Russian troops in Armenia has allowed the country to remain firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence, leaving successive governments little room for maneuver.

The first Armenian presidential visit to Saudi Arabia since its independence. (AFP)

Beyond politics, however, relations between Armenians and Arabs, especially on a personal level, have been much closer. Indeed, Armenians have sought their fortunes and found refuge in Arab countries for centuries, mostly harmoniously, although often as members of a low-key community.
Armenia, a country of 3 million people, is a small landlocked state plagued by earthquakes and surrounded by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east. Yerevan, the capital, is a Tsarist gem with a layering of Soviet kitsch and striking modernism.
The ruins of the medieval capital of Ani bear witness to the fact that before WWI Armenians lived west of Mount Ararat in much of eastern Turkey. But the events of 1915 (and before) propelled tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Armenians into a diaspora to the south.
There they found a warm welcome in the cosmopolitan cities of the Levant among the existing communities of their compatriots.

The Armenians were the main builders of the Ottoman Empire. (AFP)

The Armenians were famous builders. Indeed, Sinan Pasha, the great architect of the Ottoman Empire, would be of Armenian origin. Many in the diaspora have carved out niches for themselves as middlemen, translators, bankers and merchants. One of these characters, Mr. Youkoumian, is an anti-hero of the comedy novel “Black Mischief” by Evelyn Waugh, set in a romance Ethiopia in the 1930s.
Armenians were able to maintain their identity through the Ottoman Empire’s millet system and later through colonial mandates. In these systems, the payment of taxes and the resolution of personal status disputes concerning births, deaths, marriage and inheritance were vested in religious leaders.
As such, Armenian bishops and archbishops were responsible for the behavior of their communities. From Aleppo to Cairo, from Basra to Beirut, the church was, and is, the center of Armenian life, bringing well-being to the needy and education to the young.
This gave rise to a strong sense of community and identity, which was nurtured and sustained by philanthropy. Calouste Gulbenkian, for example, one of the first Armenian pioneers in the oil industry, became fabulously wealthy and funded dozens of Armenian schools, orphanages and churches across the Middle East with his foundation. .
For the most part, these communities were apolitical. The career of Nubar Pasha, the famous Egyptian prime minister at the end of the 19th century, was an exception. He served three terms of varying lengths, helped negotiate the terms for the construction of the Suez Canal, reformed the consular court system under which the colonial powers maintained a parallel judicial system, and led inconsistent rulers such as the energetic but spendthrift Ismail Pasha.
Nubar Pasha’s boss, Boghos Bey, was an Armenian who became the secretary of Muhammed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt. When Alaa Al-Aswany chose the title of his brilliant novel “The Yacoubian Building”, he was paying homage to the Armenian contribution to Cairo.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Beirut’s Burj Hammoud is often considered the Armenian quarter of the Lebanese capital. It was first formed as a refugee settlement area after World War I and hosted thousands of people who had fled massacres in eastern Turkey and northern Syria.

INNUMBERS

29,743 km² – Surface area of ​​Armenia

3 million – total population according to the 2011 consensus

Inland, Anjar, on the Beirut-Damascus highway, is also an Armenian city known for its magnificent archaeological remains and as the former headquarters of the Syrian secret service in Lebanon.
Under Lebanon’s denominational system, Armenians are guaranteed six of the 128 seats in parliament, but have maintained a low political profile.
To the south, the Cathedral of St. James is at the center of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the smallest of the four quarters.
Armenians are one of the three main custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, reputed to be built on the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion in the Old City. The monks in their distinctive black hoods kept the traditions of the Armenian church alive during the long decades of Soviet atheism in Armenia itself.
In Syria, Aleppo was the center of the Armenian population. The city’s famous Baron Hotel was owned and operated by the Mazloumian family. There, as a relatively prosperous minority, the Armenians would have largely supported the Assad regime.
As a result, Jdaideh (New), a historic area outside the old walls of Aleppo and the neighborhood most associated with Armenians, was heavily damaged during the civil war. Distressing images of exploding palaces and museums are plaguing the internet.
And in Iran, from where today’s Armenia receives much of its energy supply, there is the famous Cathedral of the Holy Savior, also called Vank, in the New Julfa district of Isfahan.
In the early 17th century, as part of a scorched earth policy in an attempt to repel Turkish armies, Shah Abbas of Persia forcibly settled thousands of Armenians south of the Zayande River that runs through Isfahan. Armenians remain a significant minority in Iran.
Today the Kardashians, Cher, Andre Agassi and Charles Aznavour, to name a few, are famous descendants of Armenia internationally. But, closer to their homeland, Armenians have a long history as one of the oldest and most prosperous communities in the Middle East.