The Myth of the “Western Armenian”

What or who is a “Western Armenian”? Is it someone descended from genocide survivors who came from communities in the western areas of the Armenian Highlands? Or is it someone who speaks a dialect that is associated with the western areas of the Armenian Highlands? Is it whatever is on the other side of the border with Turkey? I’m sure there is no universal answer for these questions, but let’s give it try.

Armenians have been around for five-thousand years (myth-wise), hailing from a mountainous expanse we call the Armenian Highlands. Being an ethnic group of merchants and wanderers, Armenians began to spread out for various reasons through the centuries. Many went to the North Caucasus; others, west into Anatolia; some even made it to Transylvania and Venice. And of course, we all know about the establishment of the Kingdom of Cilicia on the Mediterranean by a collective of Armenians escaping the Seljuk invasion of the Caucasus.

Recognizing that there was a distribution of Armenians in different geographies and under different empires before the Genocide did not negate the centrality of the Armenian Highlands as the cradle of the nation. It still remains as such.

But in the post-genocide reality of Armenians spread around the world, it seems the pre-Genocide narratives surrounding different geographies of Armenian communities were simplified for a new generation born in the Diaspora. Everything west of the border with the Republic of Armenia became Western Armenia; anyone descended from a community inside the Ottoman Empire became Western Armenian, and so did anyone speaking an affiliated dialect.

First off, those claims are contradictory. Kars, which spoke a dialect of Eastern Armenian, is now considered Western Armenian because it is currently in Turkey. This means, the delineation of Western Armenia’s location, is more or less decided upon where the border is on any given day. And that’s probably common thinking since everyone has a different map of Western Armenia. Some stretch it to Dikranagerd and Sepastia, which are outside of the Armenian Highlands; some narrow it down to modern-day geopolitical outlines such as Wilsonian Armenia.

Second, Armenians descended from communities in Cilicia, which also claim to be Western Armenian. However in truth, there is quite a distance from the geography we consider Western Armenia and where the kingdom of Cilicia was established. So then, how can a Cilician be Western Armenian? A lot of Diaspora-Armenians hail from the Cilicia communities, and a lot of their culture and cuisine is nowadays marketed as Western Armenian. You realize this when visiting restaurants in Yerevan owned by Armenians coming from the Middle East; somehow the menu is promoted as ‘Western Armenian’ when in fact it is simply not. It’s more Middle Eastern than any kind of Armenian. I’m not sure hummus was a thing in Mush, Van, or Alashkert. But now it’s presented as Western Armenian by individuals who probably descend from Genocide survivors from Cilicia and not Western Armenia.

One can argue that after the Genocide, in the Diaspora, the new generations had to re-imagine what Western Armenia was and thus the result became an entangled mix of Western Armenian, Cilician, and newly Middle Eastern since most of the communities settled in the Middle East. In the process, we have a marketed ‘Western Armenian’ culture and traditions that pre-Genocide Western Armenians would find alien.

So, if we agree that not everything west of the border is Western Armenia and that not everyone from the Ottoman Empire was Western Armenian, where, then, are all the Western Armenians we talk about? Are they a myth?

No. As there are many Diaspora-Armenians who descended from Cilicia, there also many who descended from Western Armenia such as Sasun, Van, Kharpet, etc (I’m still not sure Dikranagerd is Western Armenia, sorry). There are even some Armenians living in Turkey that claim to be from areas of Western Armenia.

And how about those who speak a dialect of Western Armenian? That’s complicated. Because, you will find many Cilicia-descendants speaking Western Armenian in the Diaspora, and then you will find many Western Armenia-descendants speaking Eastern Armenian in Armenia itself. Walk up to a random person in Yerevan and ask where their roots are from: most likely, it will be somewhere in Western Armenia proper. Indeed, Western Armenian dialects survive to this day in villages and towns in Armenia. Along with dialects are the cultural songs, dances and real Western Armenian cuisine. Travel along the western provinces in Armenia, and you will see Western Armenia survived by those who during the Genocide skipped over the border toward the Russian Empire. Gyumri is more Western Armenian than Bourj Hammoud.

Where does this leave us? Nowhere really, just a bit more informed about how we should approach our pre/post-Genocide geographies and each to its own uniqueness and history.  But it is also time we revise the way we have educated ourselves about ourselves.

Enough with the simplifications. Five-thousand years of history means giving an effort.

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Apo Sahagian

Apo Sahagian is a Jerusalemite-Armenian musician and writer.
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17 Comments

    • I don’t touch on genes, because of course we all have the same genes since we all hail from the Highlands.

  1. I think DNA dispels any myths about who the true White Aryan Western Armenians are. According to National Geographic’s Genographic Project (tracing human migrations out of Africa) Western Armenians have been in places like Portasar for over 80,000 years. Portasar is near Marash and Urfa in the Western Armenian Highlands. Portasar is the cradle of human civilizations going back at least 12,000 years ago: far earlier than the Egyptian pyramids.

    • Portasar and Urfa are clearly significant major sites with some form of Armenian presence. Can you provide more sources on the Genographic Project DNA evidence? I support the view that there was migration both Northwards as well as trade relations with Mesopotamia. The existence of the Nairi tribes in the Armenian highlands suggests a genetically diverse population.

  2. Armenians left to endless lands but they carry the same genes where ever they settled…
    How about the original Armenian Hemshin..did you forget them…???
    They have the purest Armenian genes in my opinion…
    I like to repeat ..religion is not a gene…

  3. Thanks for your interesting article, Apo. I really enjoyed it. The split into Eastern and Western Armenia and Armenian is a result of our circumstances throughout history. While all the repatriates to Soviet Armenia in the 1940 were Western Armenians, their children and grandchildren became Eastern Armenians, even after they left Armenia, so the definition is quite arbitrary. Sadly, it is divisive, reminding us that we are different, when in reality, we are not. I hope it will wane as Armenia becomes stronger and we in the Diaspora view it as our motherland, not just the motherland of the Eastern Armenians. And while Western Armenian continues to fade with the depletion of our communities in the Middle East, in a few decades, we will be left with one version of the language, a natural process that happened to Grabar a few centuries ago, and I believe that will have a unifying effect on our people.

  4. Why can’t western Armenian be known as simply an identity? Why does it need complexities?

    The most persistence of all Armenian myths is the myth that Armenians are exclusive in their pain and exclusive in our situation. We’re not, we’re human.

    Our identity evolves like identity always does. Our food evolves and what evolves (including food) doesn’t become less valid as “western Armenian” or inauthentic.

    Also before someone goes there, 70+ percent of the modern republic was people from Western Armenia. There are people who moved from ottoman empire to Russian and Persian empires before and after the turn of the 20th century. The DNA differences that were are sassountsis and artsakhtsis and cicilia and stuff like that, which were more isolated so naturally developed genetic variation, not east vs west.

  5. The answer is easy… we should be using labels such as ‘Western Armenian’ and ‘Eastern Armenian’ for the difference in the Armenian dialect spoken not for which side of the borders we came from.

    I am also fed up of this myth of ‘Pure Armenians’. There is no such thing as pure Armenians. We started with a mix of tribes in the region joining together.

    The question us Armenians should be asking ourselves is what are we going to do to keep our identity alive as there are a lot of diasporans marrying into other cultures and not passing their culture down to the next generation. It is inevitable that over time there will be less Armenian speakers in existence.

    • Not just Diasporans marry non-Armenians, but Armenians from the motherland as well…. which is more shocking

  6. I would hardly call myself more informed after reading this. My intention is not to be unkind. Still, if it is information (and clarity of information) that we’re looking for,
    we’ll need to learn to differentiate between three things: the term widely used for a major group of dialects of the Armenian language; a perfectly accurate and helpful way to refer to a very large geographic area (including in its span several regions, with their respective mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, forests, plains, coasts, cities and villages); and a colloquial way of referring to the people whose ancenstors comprised one of the two major parts of the Armenian nation.
    Some will have caught on to that last distinction, that the people groups which comprised that part of the Armenian nation are not the descendents (often referred to anatopically as the diaspora), but the ancestors (who also were more properly, the diaspora).
    But I am of the opinion that the confusion caused by the fog that hangs over the juxtaposition of these three things is not entirely due to a lack of carefulness; rather, it serves the perceived interests of large swaths of people around the world who are of Armenian descent.
    Any person who is glad about their Armenian heritage should first first learn to be an Armenian, rather than busy themselves with attempts to efface the differences between themselves and Armenians in an effort to supplant Armenian language, values, and identity with other languages, values, and identities as we are instructed to suppose, as Armenian.

  7. Arabized Armenians from Syria and Lebanon do not represent authentic Armenian culture. I have personally witnessed many of them speaking in Arabic with each other when I know for a fact that they speak fluent Armenian! Western Armenians will eventually assimilate and their descendants will most likely be forgotten. We will have people who barely resemble Armenians walking around calling themselves Armenians. It’s the big elephant in the room that Armenians do not talk about.

  8. Theophilus, let me piggy-back on your language and say that I have personally witnessed many Eastern Armenians speak Russian to each other when I know for a fact that they speak fluent Armenian! In the Republic “lule-kebab” is the most popular dish and it is Azeri, while vodka is the most popular drink and it is Russian. Let us respect and understand each other and not demonize each other with stereotypes, because it can go both ways.

    • Moushetsi, I agree Theophilus made a ridiculous post, however, your claim that “lule-kebab is Azeri” is even more ridiculous. Are you even serious? Where do you get your info from, sites like Trend-az or Azeri festivals?

      Seriously, we Armenians are our own worst enemies.

  9. After reading this article, I have no idea what the author is trying to say, especially with the title and conclusion which contradict each other. However, there were also some annoyances.

    For example: “Armenians have been around for five-thousand years (myth-wise)”

    “myth-wise”? Why on Earth would any Armenian write that? In fact, you made a mistake with your five thousand year claim, and then doubled down on it trying to claim it is a myth. For your information, Armenians have been around before any other race or nation on this planet. Discovery after discovery in historic Armenian lands verify this. Armenia as a nation in our history was founded about 4500 years back, that doesn’t mean before that “Armenians were not around and that is only a myth”. Just recently a tooth found in Artsakh was shown to have genetic matches with modern Armenians, and that was seven thousand years old ie 5000 BC. So yes, I will also say Armenians being only five thousand years old is a myth, but for a different reason than you. We are much, much older than that, non-myth-wise.

    Next we have in regards to a cuisine discussion, “Western Armenian by individuals who probably descend from Genocide survivors from Cilicia and not Western Armenia”.

    Again, what in God’s name are you talking about?? You start out saying Western Armenia is not a thing, and then make geographic conclusions on it citing it in your point? And Cilicia is some “other place”? Come on.

    Sadly, Armenians in Soviet Armenia somehow convinced themselves incorrectly that “real Armenian food is from Armenia proper” (Of course after when 90% of Armenian lands were lost). This idea is very damaging to our culture, that is why today, we make the distinction between Western and Eastern Armenian cuisines. The bulk of our cuisine hails from “Western Armenian Cuisine”, and also, we can safely say, the majority of “Turkish Cuisine” is based on Western Armenian and the majority of “Azerbaijani Cuisine” is based on Eastern Armenian cuisines.

    I can appreciate pointing out about hummus being incorrectly labeled as Western Armenian, but that can also be a moot point. And I doubt your claim that in the menus of such Western Armenian restaurants, it is presented as such. Hummus can be a part of Western Armenian cuisine and be served in such restaurants without having to claim that “hummus is of Armenian origin”. This is for the simple fact that, 1. the history of hummus is not well established and 2. Western Armenians have been eating it in the Levant since they were ever there, and that can include many centuries, not one century. All we can conclusively say is hummus is most likely the creation of the geographic region spanning from the Levant to Egypt. As an example. Does hummus go back 2000 years? In that case 2000 years ago the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) and even Israel WAS Armenia. Heck, even the Israelis are trying to claim hummus. The way I see it, if they can, we can before them.

    And by the way, regarding the myth of “Turkish Cuisine”, we know with 100 percent certainty that some of our foods like Sarma/Dolma are of Armenian Origin. Are you as concerned and trying to correct that misinformation campaign about Turks and Azeris stealing our food identity as you are Western Armenians claiming hummus (if that is true)?

    Finally, people who claim stuff like “Western Armenia” never existed in history and is not a thing, etc, trying to seem intellectual, in my view have missed the entire point of why the concept of “Western Armenia” came about. Western Armenia simply is a way to convey the message that our western lands are currently occupied by Turkey which committed Genocide in order to occupy those lands. This for me is the main purpose behind it. Generally, it can also be seen as, Eastern Armenia is those lands which were under Persian and Russian rule, and Western Armenia is those lands part of the Ottoman areas like the “Six Vilayets” including Cilicia.

    Final note: The “Six Vilayets + Cilicia” is a pretty close estimation of that comprises “Western Armenia” before the Genocide. Turks absolutely abhor the historic existence of the Armenian Six Vilayets. Ultimately, it can have legal connotations, and its area is a lot more than “Wilsonian Armenia”. Armenians need to pursue this course in addition to Wilson’s borders, because the Six Vilayets were documented by the Ottoman government, and not randomly created.

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