Spotlight on the Armenians

Historically, Armenians have been an integral part of the ethnic mix in Turkey's east, although today very few remain in the region. What happened to them is a topic of sensitive debate in Turkey.

There were various Armenian kingdoms in the region starting in the 3rd century BC and lasting until almost the 11th century AD. After that, the Armenians—who adopted Christianity in AD 301—became the subjects of a succession of rulers, from the Byzantines, to the Persians, and finally the Ottomans. Armenians became the bankers and traders of the Ottoman Empire and ended up living throughout the Ottoman world, with Istanbul eventually becoming one of their main cultural centers. Armenians were legendary builders and many fine examples of their buildings survive, while their influence can also be seen in Seljuk architecture. The great Ottoman architect Sinan was born to an Armenian family and in the 19th century the Armenian Balyan family were the sultan’s official architects, designing Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace among many other important buildings.

During World War I, when the Ottomans came under attack by Russia and the other Allied powers, some Armenians in the east saw this as a chance for independence and rose up in revolt. The Ottoman Turks, afraid of how much land would be left to them in an empire filled with Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs, deported the entire Armenian population of Anatolia on foot across the mountains into the deserts of Syria and Iraq, a process that led to significant deaths and suffering. Many did not arrive, and Armenian survivors and U.S. consular staff reported massacres. The Armenians claim that hundreds of thousands (some claim even 1.5 million) perished and have been trying to have the events of the time recognized as genocide. The Turks, while admitting that large numbers of Armenians died at the time, say this was the result of war and disease, which also cost the lives of many others living in the region—the deaths of Turkish and Kurdish villagers in revenge attacks are often cited as examples. It remains a highly sensitive topic, but Armenian culture has sprouted in the region in recent years, with an annual Armenian service in the Akdamar Church and the restoration of Diyarbakır’s abandoned Armenian cathedral.

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