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.