Armenian Origins

Although now a diaspora – a dispersed and martyred people – the Armenians have preserved their language, culture and religious beliefs.

by F.C. Edward
photos: courtesy of St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral

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Some 600 years before Christ, during the great Aryan migration, a nomadic tribe settled in western Asia in a region north of the great rivers in the expanse between the Black and the Caspian Seas.

This enterprising and prolific people called themselves Haikh, and their country Hayastan; we know them as Armenians. The place they chose was fertile with lakes and lofty plateaus bounded north and south by towering mountain ranges. The site where Noah’s ark came to rest, Mount Ararat, lies in what is now Turkish Armenia.

Unfortunately, the Armenian homeland has always been situated on the borders of great empires. Its area has proved a constant battleground fought over and conquered in turn by Persians and Greeks, Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Arabs, with rare periods of precarious peace and independence. Today Armenia is split between Russia and Turkey. Wars and raids, earthquakes, and outright genocide have marked the long history of the Armenian people.

Under similar circumstances less hardy people have disappeared altogether from history, or have been absorbed by surrounding countries. The Armenians have managed to maintain their cultural and national identity. Their national religion, most of all, their common language, their native resourcefulness, and remarkable adaptability have made survival possible.

Though the statistics can only be approximate, some 4.5 million Armenians are now said to live throughout the Soviet Union, of whom two million remain in Soviet Armenia. One-third of an estimated 6.5 million Armenians reside outside Russia; they are scattered throughout the Near East, Europe, and the world. A half-million are said to live in the U.S.

It’s a proud Armenian boast that theirs was the first Christian nation to embrace Christianity as a result of the preaching of St. Gregory the Illuminator. An ancient national tradition traces their Christian origins to the Apostles, Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and all reputable historians acknowledge that there were Armenian Christians before St. Gregory. The Armenians rejected the teaching of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (450). Since the Crusades a portion of the nation has remained in communion with Rome; with the vast majority not in communion, relations are very cordial.

Until the fifth century the Armenians lacked a written language. Then, St. Mesrop devised an alphabet based largely on Greek and some Syriac in order to translate the Bible and sacred writings into the native tongue.

Catholics of Armenian rite have as shepherd, Ignatius Peter XVI Batanian, whose title is Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, and whose see is located near Beirut. His immediate predecessor, Cardinal Gregory Peter XV Agaganian, resigned as Patriarch to take up duties at Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

As spiritual leader of Armenian rite Catholics, Ignatius Peter XVI presides over 100,000 people with bishops in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel in the Near East, and in Greece, Roumania, Poland, and France. In the U.S. Armenian rite Catholics have organized parishes in New York, Paterson, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Detroit, and Los Angeles where they are under the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishop. The non-Roman Armenians are much more numerous and widespread and are under their own bishops.

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