LONDON: When Armen Sarkissian, Armenia’s president, stepped off his plane in Riyadh in October this year, he became the first president of the tiny former Soviet republic to visit Saudi Arabia.
For nearly 30 years, since Armenia declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, there have been virtually no diplomatic relations between it and some Islamic countries.
One reason for the lack of ties is the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which on the face of it pits Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan. This, along with the 1915 Armenian Genocide 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 kept the country firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence, leaving successive governments little room for manoeuvre.
Beyond politics, however, relations between Armenians and Arabs, especially on a personal level, have grown much closer. Indeed, Armenians have sought fortune and found refuge in Arab lands for centuries, mostly harmoniously, though often as members of an inconspicuous community.
Armenia, a country of 3 million people, is a small, landlocked, earthquake-ridden state hemmed in 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 stark modernism.
The ruins of the medieval capital of Ani bear witness to the fact that before World War I, 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 countrymen.
Armenians were famous builders. Indeed, Sinan Pasha, the great architect of the Ottoman Empire, would have been of Armenian origin. Many members of the diaspora have carved out niches for themselves as intermediaries, translators, bankers and traders. One such character, Mr. Youkoumian, is an antihero in Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel “Black Mischief,” set in a fictional Ethiopia in the 1930s.
Armenians were able to maintain their identity through the millet system of the Ottoman Empire and later through colonial mandates. In these systems, the payment of taxes and the settlement of personal status disputes regarding 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 still is, the center of Armenian life, ensuring the welfare of the needy and the education of the young.
This resulted in a strong sense of community and identity, which was nurtured and sustained through 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 through his foundation. .
For the most part, these communities were apolitical. An exception to this was the career of Nubar Pasha, a famous prime minister of Egypt in the late 19th century. He served three terms of varying lengths, helped negotiate terms for the construction of the Suez Canal, reformed the consular court system under which colonial powers maintained a parallel justice system, and led fickle rulers such as the energetic but spendthrift Ismail Pasha.
Nubar Pasha’s patron, Boghos Bey, was an Armenian who became secretary to 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 Lebanese capital’s Armenian quarter. It was first formed as a refugee settlement after World War I and hosted thousands of people who had fled massacres in eastern Turkey and northern Syria.
Inland, Anjar, on the Beirut-Damascus highway, is also an Armenian city known for its magnificent archaeological remains and as the former headquarters of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian system, Armenians are guaranteed six seats in the 128-seat parliament, but have maintained a low political profile.
To the south, St. James Cathedral is at the center of the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the smallest of the four quarters.
Armenians are one of the three main guardians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reputedly built on the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Old City. Monks in their distinctive black hoods kept Armenian church traditions 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, Armenians would have largely supported the Assad regime.
As a result, Jdaideh (New), a historic area outside Aleppo’s ancient walls and the neighborhood most associated with Armenians, was heavily damaged during the civil war. Distressing images of blown up ancient palaces and museums are flooding the internet.
And in Iran, where modern Armenia derives 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 to try to repel the Turkish armies, Shah Abbas of Persia forcibly settled thousands of Armenians south of the Zayande River which runs through Isfahan. Armenians remain a significant minority in Iran.
Today, the Kardashians, Cher, Andre Agassi and Charles Aznavour, to name a few, are internationally famous offshoots of Armenia. But closer to their homeland, Armenians have a long history as one of the oldest and most prosperous communities in the Middle East.