Armenia-Israel Friendshipstar-ArmeniaReflections on an Armenia trip

Armenia, I must confess, wasn’t my first choice as a holiday destination. Nor was it my second but while there I discovered many points of connection between Armenia and Israel. Armenians and Israelis have much more in common than I dreamt. 

Should anyone like to repost this in the Armenian language, I would be delighted. Mail to David at
PS This is a sort of sequel to Boker Tov Indochina where I discussed similarities between Vietnam, Cambodia and Israel. Yes there are some.

(Almost) unique

Have you noticed how the Israel Haters presume to define Jews because the Jews clearly can’t define themselves without fibbing? In discussion group after discussion group they deny that being Jewish is both a unique national, ethnic label and a unique religious one.

Perhaps they deny the uniqueness of the Jewish nation , because Palestinians as Levantine Arabs of the Sunni Muslim religion have so little to back up their own claims.

I didn’t have another example of this duality, until I discovered the Armenians. Armenians, like the Jews are blessed with a unique language combined with a unique alphabet. Like the Hebrew language, I guess the linguists will be able to point to an evolution and connection with other existing and extinct languages‡ but an English-speaking tourist can forget about understanding a single word. The tourist won’t even begin to guess what is written on the street signs.

Armenian script

Armenian script

Armenian script, invented in 405-406 AD by the medieval linguist and cleric Mesrop Mashtots, stands alone. It looks a little like the Khmer alphabet but there is no connection. Good luck with trying to read it.

This is analogous to coming to Israel and attempting to read the signs without learning the alphabet. If you inspect ancient Semitic script you can see similarities with ancient Greek script but this helps you not-at-all with modern Hebrew. BTW I know from my own experience that many Jews learn to read Hebrew in cheder (Sunday school) without understanding the words.

Unique languages led to unique literature (undoubtedly combined with unique culture and shared experiences) which contributes to a feeling of unique ethnicity that Armenians and Jews share. Armenia script You may ask but aren’t the Armenians Christians? Very much so but it is a unique to Armenian Christianity and they define themselves by it.

It is a source of immense pride to them that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as state religion. The Armenian Apostolic Church is thus the world’s oldest national church.

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Armenia's Vatican

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Armenia’s Vatican

We were told that when the rest of the early Christian world were defining themselves at various councils the Armenians were busy fighting a war and couldn’t come. Is that something like claiming to have been at home ill when the teacher handed out the material to be tested? BTW Wikipedia disagrees. The claim is that although not physically part of the discussions, they officially accepted the decisions made there. Accept either version, Armenian Christianity is unique to Armenia.

Travellers be warned. Armenian pride in the combination of religion and history makes travelling in Armenia mostly A.B.C.another bloody church! After a while they seem to blend into each other but at least the scenery tends to be dramatic.

Armenia is almost homogeneous but there are some ethnic minorities, mostly Yazidi. They don’t reach the magical 20% pivot point where ethnic minorities (like the Arabs in Israel) start challenging the identity of the majority.

We’ll discuss parallels with Nagorno-Karabakh which I didn’t visit and Judea-Samaria a little later.

There is even a small Jewish community.

Armenia's chief (only?) rabbi

Armenia’s chief (only?) rabbi

Yephigis tombstone with Hebrew lettering

Yephigis tombstone with Hebrew lettering

Most, including the experts, didn’t realise how far back the Jewish connection goes.  A medieval Jewish cemetery at Yeghegis, now preserved as an Armenian national heritage site, was discovered less than twenty years ago. From the graves we can guess the community was quite well established.

For a time, in the first century BCE, the Armenian empire and Israel were even neighbours but there is no folk memory of hostility or persecution on either side. To be fair, no memories. How odd is that?

Armenian Empire at its greatest

The Kingdom of Armenia at its greatest extent under Tigranes the Great, who reigned between 95 and 66 BC††

The Great Crime†

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that either Israel or Armenia are defined by their respective holocausts, they have too much history for that, the wounds are still fresh and suspicion of the perpetrators (and their allies) is evident*.

Defining genocide

Defining genocide

There is a significant difference between how much of the world views the two catastrophes. While the world, and certainly the Germans and their collaborators, accept the fact of the Jewish Shoah and a certain amount of responsibility the Turks (as successors to the Ottomans) refuse to acknowledge it happened.

Ignore for a moment the neo fascist Holocaust deniers, the nut-case conspiracy theorists and their Arab/Muslim allies (It’s complicated and I won’t go into it right now. Read Holocaust Remembrance Day). They really are not mainstream. Few deny the documented evidence of the attempted genocide of the Jews during the Second World War but the attempted genocide of the Armenians during the First is another matter.

The Turks deny the deliberate slaughter and attempt to exterminate the Armenians during the First World War. Only twenty-two other states, not including Israel, officially acknowledge it.

Holocaust memorial

Holocaust memorial, Genocide Museum

Should Israel publicly bear witness to the Armenian Genocide? This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the pros and cons but after visiting Armenia I am much more in favour than I was before.

Like Israel, remembrance of Holocaust is everywhere but centred on the Armenian Holocaust Museum in Yerevan. The similarities with Yad Vashem are obvious.

Separated at birth

Armenian SSR Coat of Arms

Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Red star over Ararat.

Armenia split into two. Genocide Museum

Armenia split into two. Genocide Museum

The most iconic image of Armenia is Mount Ararat (actually two mountains). The second icon is the red pomegranate. Israelis will find it very familiar. You will find dozens of examples of it in every souvenir shop in Israel.

There is just one big problem. This ultimate symbol of Armenia, dominating Yerevan, the capital, and featured on T-shirts and baseball caps, sits in Turkey – or as every Armenian will tell Western Armenia. Very, very few Armenians can reach Western Armenia.

When I saw this I was immediately reminded of the position in Israel from 1948 to 1967. The ultimate Jewish symbol for more than two thousand years, the Western Wall of the Temple, was almost in sight — a five minute walk, if Jews had been allowed to walk it — but denied to us. Judea and Samaria, the heartland of Jewish history was a bus trip away — but no buses were permitted for Israelis.

When the paratroopers took Jerusalem in 1967 Lt. General Mordechai (Motta) Gur, approached the Old City and announced to his company commanders, “We’re sitting right now on the ridge and we’re seeing the Old City. Shortly we’re going to go in to the Old City of Jerusalem, that all generations have dreamed about. We will be the first to enter the Old City…” and shortly afterwards, The Temple Mount is in our hands! I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands! General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief chaplain of the IDF, sounded the Shofar at the Western Wall to signify its liberation. To Israelis and Jews all over the world, this was a joyous and momentous occasion. Many considered it a gift from God.

Copied from The Six Day War 1967: Reunification of Jerusalem,
CAMERA Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America

Does anyone have any doubt that Armenians would experience the same emotions if Western Armenia was returned?

The brain game

Here’s a trivia question for you.

Maoveyan memorial

Mikoyan memorial

What does MiG, the name of Russia’s iconic jet fighter stand for? I learnt, in Armenia, that it stood for Mikoyan (an Armenian) and Gurevich (a Jew) Design Bureau. The memorial to Artem Ivanovich Mikoyan (in Armenian Artyom Hovhannesi Mikoyan) complete with a MiG-21 stands at his birthplace at Sanahin in Armenia.

I brought up Mikoyan because like the Israelis, the Armenians pride themselves on their brain power. Also like the Jews/Israelis they have a large diaspora which allows them claim as native sons and daughters scientists/engineers who either were born or did their research in places other than Armenia. For much of the 20th Century contributions by born-in-Armenia scientists were mostly credited to the Soviet Union.

Glancing through a long list we have the inventor of the color television; founder of the first nuclear reactor in the USSR; the pioneer of cromolyn sodium inhalation therapy for asthma; the discoverer of the mechanisms by which LSD produces hallucinations and the author of the first book on transistors, to name but a few.

Sounds familiar to Israelis, doesn’t it?


Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags

Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags

Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent but unrecognized state established on the basis of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR of the Soviet Union. has been Armenian since the 2nd century BCE and maybe as far back as the 7th century. It remained that way until lost to Caucasian-Albania in the 4th century, although the population remained Armenian.  In the 5th century, the first-ever Armenian school was opened on the territory of modern Nagorno-Karabakh—at the Amaras Monastery—by the efforts of St. Mesrob Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. In the same 7th century, Armenian poet Davtak Kertogh wrote his Elegy on the Death of Grand Prince Juansher, where each passage begins with a letter of Armenian script in alphabetical order.

I could go on with a detailed time line but I’m trying to make a point not a history lesson. Nagorno-Karabakh has been Armenian for a long time.

Jumping quite a bit ahead in time and ignoring invasions. In 1822, the Karabakh Khanate was dissolved, and the area became part of the Elisabethpol Governorate within the Russian Empire. After the transfer of the Karabakh Khanate to Russia, many Azerbaijani Muslim families emigrated to Persia, while many Armenians were induced by the Russian government to emigrate from Persia to Karabakh.

The point being that the population changed, changed back and changed again.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

The present-day conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin and the Caucasian Bureau (Kavburo) during the Sovietization of Transcaucasia in 1920. Needing to placate Turkey, the Soviet Union agreed to a division under which parts of the province would fall under the control of Armenia, while Karabakh and Nakhchivan would be under the control of Azerbaijan. Had Turkey not been an issue, Stalin would likely have left Karabakh under Armenian control. As a result, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was established within the Azerbaijan SSR on July 7, 1923.

The point being that Nagorno-Karabakh became a pawn for imperialistic outside forces, acting in their own perceived interests.

With the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged. Accusing the Azerbaijani SSR government of conducting forced Azerification (if you haven’t twigged yet, the Azeris are Muslim) of the region, the majority Armenian population, with ideological and material support from the Armenian SSR, started a movement to have the autonomous oblast transferred to the Armenian SSR.

Since 1991 Azerbaijan has not exercised power over most of the region. A bitter, destructive war has reerupted periodically.

In 2008 the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted a resolution. condemning the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenian forces and Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, alleged ethnic cleansing against the Azeri population, and charged Armenia with the “destruction of cultural monuments in the occupied Azerbaijani territories.” In the same year the UN General Assembly “demands the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.

In 2001, the NKR’s reported population was 95% Armenian. Still the Azerbaijanis complained that some 15,000 Armenians have been illegally settled on Azerbaijan’s occupied territories.

If you think that the history and vocabulary of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute seem strangely similar to the Israel-Palestine dispute, you are not the only one.

The Armenian answer we received to the question, “Why doesn’t Armenia just give Nagorno-Karabakh (back) to Azerbaijan,” is also strangely familiar. They answer, “Why should we give it to them. It’s ours”.

Charles Aznavour (Born Shahnour Vaghenag Aznavourian) makes a testament to his friendship and gratitude to the Israeli humanitarian aid, addressing solemnly to the people of Israel. Sorry he only did this testament in French. In December 1988 an earthquake with a phenomenal power killed over 30,000 people and left hundreds of thousands wounded in Armenia. First responders on site were special Israeli emergency teams.

Extra credit

† (Armenian: Հայոց Ցեղասպանություն Hayots’ Ts’yeghaspanut’yun), also known as the Armenian Massacres and by Armenians as the Great Crime (Armenian: Մեծ Եղեռն Mets Yegherrn)
‡ Linguists classify Armenian as an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. Armenian shares a number of major innovations with Greek, and some linguists group these two languages together with Phrygian and the Indo-Iranian family into a higher-level subgroup of Indo-European, which is defined by such shared innovations as the augment. More recently, others have proposed a Balkan grouping including Greek, Armenian, Phrygian, and Albanian (from Wikipedia – where else?)
* I would, however, claim that Palestinians are defined by their Nakba, but claiming it as their holocaust is a travesty compared to the real holocausts suffered by Armenians and Jews. Without the Nakba no Palestinian identity — without the Shoah many more Jews.
†† Map by Aivazovsky, loosely based on George A. Bournoutian’s A Concise History of the Armenian People: From Ancient Times to the Present ISBN 1568591411

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
This entry was posted in 5MFI Blog and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.