Back to the future: the Hellenes of Armenia

Billy Cotsis takes us on a journey through the Hellenic history of Armenia, and its contemporary remnants

Travelling through the picturesque mountains of Armenia, one can’t help but feel as though they have been transported to another time and place. This can’t be Europe! With little evidence of the hustle and bustle of a Rome and none of the pollution one would find in a big city, Armenia is a breath of fresh air. With the absence of skyscrapers and a slant on maintaining a style of architecture from a bygone era, Armenia is almost a Back to the Future visit. It is also known for its hospitable treatment of visitors.

I was driving from the capital to some of the Greek areas with the chairperson of the Union of Greek Public Organisations, Arkadi Khitarov, and teacher Tagvor Ambakumyan. Travelling with Mr Khitarov gives you an instant connection to the Greek people of Armenia, with most here holding on to the dialect that is consistent with Pontian Greek.

My companions were able to point out a lot about the Hellenic history of Armenia. One aspect they highlighted is that the Greek and Armenian cultures are not that far removed from each other. Both are adherents of the Orthodox faith, and both suffered under the final years of the Ottoman catastrophe. Armenia was the first country or empire to declare Christianity the state religion. The second was, of course, the Greek-speaking Byzantium.

SADNESS
I chose to visit in 2015, the year of the 100th ‘anniversary’ of the beginning of what the locals call the Armenian genocide. At the hotel where I stayed, staff were quick to point out this was not the actual start of a horrific period. “We suffered before 1915, we faced many problems … people died. Tried to fight back, but the Turks were too strong. Russia, as they always do with friends, abandoned us.”

As someone who consistently maintains the line of harmony and peace with modern Turkey, I always believe that history cannot be forgotten if we are to be true neighbours and genuinely friendly in the long term. My own grandparents are refugees. Mostly, Greece and Cyprus have overcome their hurdles with Turkey, though many, many issues remain. For Armenia, there is no such rapprochement. The border remains closed and the history of the last years of the Ottoman Empire is forgotten by no one in this country of just 3.2 million.

HELLENIC HISTORY
It was in this context that I arrived in Armenia. For the Pontian Hellenes, they too have a tragic tale to tell, for they were forced out of Pontus and the Ottoman Empire at various stages. Those who came in the 20th century only had heartbreak to tell – many settled in Armenia which has a long connection to the Hellenic world.

Aside from religion, there were times in the ancient Hellenistic era when the strong Armenian kingdom and Pontus shared common enemies, particularly against the Romans and other Anatolian regimes. In late medieval times when Constantinople was temporarily taken from the Byzantine Empire (by Latins), the Queen of Georgia helped Byzantine exiles create a new Greek entity. This was called the Empire of Trebizond, with the wealthy Pontian city as the capital. Hellenes, Armenians and other Christians were part of the fabric of the Greek-speaking kingdom.

Trebizond took in the Pontic area of the Black Sea and a significant chunk of the Crimea. When the empire fell to the powerful Sultan Mehmet in 1461, many exiles made their way to lands where Armenians and Georgians were a majority. It is possible that Greek speakers in Armenia have an unbroken link from antiquity, however it’s almost impossible to verify.

In 1763, as Ottoman control was starting to loosen in many areas of their empire, thousands of Pontians made their way to Armenia. The first Pontian people to arrive in Armenia were miners seeking an opportunity to make their fortunes, while trying to leave behind growing tensions in the Ottoman Empire. There were 800 families in this group of settlers. In 1918, many Pontians fought alongside Armenians in their battle for independence.

“Across the Caucasus region, the overwhelming majority of Greeks are Pontians,” I was told by Dr Marina Mkhitaryan over coffee in Yerevan. Indeed, there are an estimated 100,000, with up to 2,500 living in Armenia.

Dr Mkhitaryan has dedicated her life to photographing and capturing the Hellenic people of Armenia, with the Memory Project.

“My vast photo collection is documentary evidence of the various aspects of their life and history. The first ethnographic photographic exhibition was opened at the Consulate of Greece in Yerevan in 2009, where my photos are still in view.”

With an Armenian father and a Greek mother (from Madan), Marina has been actively promoting her Greek culture to the international community. In 2017 she will showcase her work in Australia and London in what will be a chance for Hellenes abroad to connect with those in Armenia. Marina proved how accommodating Hellenes are no matter where in the world they reside, virtually arranging my entire trip, linking me to key people including the Greek Union/Federation.

THE GREEK COMMUNITY OF ARMENIA
Mr Khitarov and Mr Ambakumyan met with me at the main Greek office (Yerevan). Tavgor, a teacher born in Greece to Armenian parents, teaches the Greek language at the Greek offices of Alaverdi and Vanadzor. His love of Greece is evident, and like everyone I met, is keen to preserve the Greek language and culture in Armenia.

The Greek facility includes a school classroom, a meeting room and the main office. While there may be less than 10 per cent of the Greek community living in Yerevan, this is where its heartbeat is. The capital is a place where opportunities can be found for young people to work and study, connect with the outside world. This is very important, for the community is at a crossroads moment; many have migrated to Greece since the USSR was disbanded. A vibrant and economically sustainable community can only truly come from the capital.

“I am proud of the work we do to help preserve our culture. Armenia is a small country with a long history,” said Mr Khitarov, from Vanadzor, whose daughter Anna is also content to stay in Armenia to help promote Pontian history.

WHERE TO FIND THE GREEK VILLAGES
The stronghold and spiritual hub is in the picturesque northern region. A drive in the area highlighted how rural and unspoilt the nature of Armenia is. Under Russian communism it was easy to live off the land. Unfortunately, the end of the Soviet era brought with it the stark reality that Armenia, and in particular the region that contains the Greek villages, has many economic challenges ahead.

Numerous villages are found along the border with Georgia, especially the Lori Marz province. Alaverdi is possibly the largest, and a place where you can bump into Greek speakers on the street, which is also the case in Vanadzor, Gyumri, Stepanavan, Hankavan and Noyemberyan. Each one usually has a Greek Community Centre or office where you can locate Greek speakers.

At least another 300 (no, these are not the Spartans) can be found in what is called the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. This is a disputed area that wants to unite with Armenia, but was held back by neighbouring Azerbaijan, a country which sits next to the Caspian Sea.

The people of the villages generally work in agriculture, horticulture, craft-making and industry. The massive melting factory at Alaverdi , which can be seen from miles away, employs dozens of Hellenes and is traditionally run by them. I was told the majority of old Greek settlements were located next to mines. Greek churches were built, though they are no longer active. Greeks nowadays attend the local Orthodox services.

In Yerevan, many Greek speakers are involved with sciences and education as they seemingly access opportunities afforded by tertiary studies.

HELLENIC HOSPITAL
I had heard of the Greek Medical Foundation Hippocrates from Australia many, many years ago, and it was a surreal moment to finally visit. It is a medium-sized facility set against the backdrop of small settlement near Alaverdi, next to a mountain. The facility has numerous practitioners and around 10 treatment rooms including those for rehabilitation.

Formally opened in 2001, it was funded by Hellenicare under the leadership of Greek American, the late Andrew Athens. Costas Vertzayas, then the Oceania president, had told me about the facility when SAE was helping bring this project to life.

The director of the Greek Medical Fund is Dr Simon Zhakharov, who originates from Alaverdi.

“The aim of the fund is not only to serve the Greek population of the region but in general people who are in need,” he says.

Simon proved to be a charismatic person, telling me about his life that included a stint working in the mines of Alaverdi before enrolling in medical school.
Without doubt the medical facility is a wonderful achievement, but life as a medical practitioner still has its struggles.

“We make very little money; it is hard in Armenia,” he confessed. “Probably the equivalent of US$200 per month. Economically, life is hard for us here. When the facility runs out of equipment or machines become old, we struggle to replace them sometimes.”

I was taken for a short drive to what appeared to be a mechanic yard to see their ambulance. An impressive vehicle, I thought, until I looked down … all four wheels were missing! “Sadly, we do not have the funds to replace them. Any help we can get from Australia or abroad will help get the ambulance back on the road!”

THE FUTURE
Marina told me that “all of the Greek people speak Armenian, usually Russian for those born before 1991”, while some were able to converse with me in English. Being able to speak more than one language certainly helps the new generation to connect with the outside world, though attention needs to be placed on the Pontian dialect, an extension of the Ionian dialect of Greek. More and more Greek youth are learning Modern Greek and this may come at the expense of the ancient language, though Pontian remains a spoken language in the villages.

I was invited to dine at the wonderful Milos Taverna in Yerevan with Marina and Anna Khitarova, a young person who is a pointer to the future of Greek speakers.

Anna, who is in HR and in her 20s, is keen to make her contribution to the Greek history of Armenia. Conscious of her Pontian heritage, she has connected with the Pontian international organisations. Her English and Greek are fluent which will of course open more doors for her abroad.

“I was 11 when I first went to Greece,” she tells me. “I remember very well how I felt when I stepped out of the plane and felt the Greek air. That was something very special and it is hard to explain in words. I felt that finally I came home. I have the same feeling every time I visit Greece, feelings that become stronger with each visit.”

Anna and her friends have formed the Greek Youth of Armenia. Each of the nine Greek communities in the country has a youth group.

“I am very proud to represent Pontian Youth of Armenia (region of former USSR countries). In late 2015 I attended the second Global Pontian Youth Forum in Thessaloniki with 500 international representatives. It was very emotional and impressive to see others that live in totally different parts of the world speak a different language but in reality we are the same; the same history and feelings,” adding that all the young people have a love for Greece as well as Armenia; in her words, they are brother nations.

While tragedy and sadness have helped unite these ancient peoples, there is a certain warmth and shared history in Armenia that will help protect Pontian culture. The Hellenes of Armenia may have dwindled, but they and their culture are safe among friends.

*Billy Cotsis is the author of the Many faces of Hellenic Culture. Get in touch with Dr Marina Mkhitaryan (marinamkhitar@mail.ru) if you wish to contribute to the Hellenicare facility, including replacing the wheels of the ambulance!