Detroit (GPA) – As a part of GPA’s current series highlighting the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, this brief explainer will help to better explain Armenian history.
The history of the Caucasus is complex, involves many different nationalities, and spans back centuries. This article will be part one of two attempting to better explain this history as it relates specifically to Armenians by way of maps from the time of antiquity until the dawn of the modern era.
You’ve probably heard the term “Geography is Destiny” and in the case of Armenia, this tends to be true. Armenia is located in the Transcaucasus mountains located at the border of what is now considered Eurasia and the Middle East.
Armenia was continuously inhabited since the Stone Age, notably being the site of the World’s oldest leather shoe and wine press. So from this, we can see that the people living here split their time between animal husbandry and farming in the river valleys.
Generally, once a people become entrenched in the mountains they tend to stay put. Linguistics shows that Armenians were one of the early branches of the Indo-European family tree showing that the population of Armenia is one of the oldest existing ethnic groups in the region.
This is in contrast to the steppe lands and coastlines which tend to enable the mass migrations of peoples. From the topographical map, we can see that the region of Nagorno-Karabakh shares a natural boundary with the Armenian highland. Whereas most of Azerbaijan is a continuation of the Eurasian steppe only separated from the homelands of the Turkic peoples by the Caspian sea.
The earliest possible mention of the Armenian people is from an inscription by Sargon of Akkad circa 2300 BCE. By 1000 BCE the Armenians had established the independent kingdom of Urartu but were absorbed into the Persian Empire as described in the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great (circa 522 BCE)
For the rest of antiquity, Armenia was ruled as either a Saraptry of the Persian empires, as a Province of the Roman empire, or as an independent client state-
only maintaining semi-independence by playing these great powers off one another. The Armenian people spread throughout these empires serving as peasants merchants and soldiers but also as Emperors and Visors.
As the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301 CE, claiming their own apostolic succession independent of Rome or Constantinople, the Armenians were able to maintain semi-independence whether they were under the Orthodox-Roman or Zoroastrian Persian and then later Muslim control.
Rise of Islam
By the birth of Muhammad in 600 CE, the empires of Rome and Persia were decayed and exhausted from decades of war and Bubonic plague. The Arabs were another buffer state between them who were inspired by the message of Islam turn the tables on their would-be masters. Within a few generations, the Ummayade Caliphate controlled all of Persia and the wealthiest regions of the Roman Empire.
The Romans refocused their empire around Greece and Anatolia with Armenia again serving as the buffer, the highlands were more often than not under Muslim control as the Emirate of Arminya whereas the Byzantine Romans formed the Armenikon Theme, a sort of floating army to protect the low lands from yearly raids coming into Anatolia thru the caucuses.
Stoped from spreading west into Europe by the failed siege of Constantinople in 717 and civil war the Abbasid Caliphate expanded west out of Persia into the Eurasian steppe, the homeland of numerous nomadic peoples such as the Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Mongols, Magyars, Tatars, and Turks.
The Seljuk Turks
The Iranians themselves were descended from Steppe nomads who settled in Persia in prehistory. The nomadic steppe cultures shared similar cultures despite ethnic and linguistic differences. These groups were excellent horsemen and archers. At first, the Turks were the victims of Arab and Persian raiders who wanted their services as slave-soldiers.
But from these humble origins the Turks, under the Seljuk dynasty, took control of Persia and in 1071 they finally broke through the Byzantine defenses in Western Armenia at the Battle of Manzikert. The Seljuqs themselves had adopted Persian language and culture but many of their troops were Turks fresh from the Eurasian steppe.
They conquered most of Anatolia, establishing the Sultanate of Rum before the empire eventually fell to the Mongols. The First Crusade was declared in 1096 in response to the invasion of Western Armenia and the rest of the Byzantine Roman heartland.
The Azeri people are descendants of this wave of migration.
Rise of the Ottoman Empire
In the wake of the Mongols the Sultanate of Rum had mostly dissolved into semi-independent fiefdoms called Beylicks, Bey Osman I and his Ottoman descendants reconquered much of Anatolia and expanded into the Balkans. Like the Seljuqs before them, the Ottoman Turks had sought out the services of Turkish steppe warriors, many of which were refugees fleeing from the Mongols.
Unlike the Seljuqs who adopted Persian language and culture, the Ottomans kept speaking Turkish. Fueled by their successes in Anatolia the Ottomans declared independence from the Mongols in a civil war and set their sights on Constantinople itself. Material conditions of warfare had changed substantially since 717. Not only did the Turks have more control over land and sea routes than the 8th century Arabs. They also had gunpowder.
Sultan Mehmet II used a giant 30 ft long canon and dozens of smaller ones to blast through the as-of-yet impenetrable triple-walls of Constantinople in 1452. The Ottoman Turks created the Millet system in order to govern the diverse populations of their new territories in Europe and Anatolia. With full access to the Mediterranean and control of the most defensible capital in the world. The Ottoman Turks began to rival the European sea powers in the age of Colonial Expansion.
Along with the Discovery of the Americas 40 years later, the fall of Constantinople can be thought of as the beginning of the Early Modern period of history.
Continue to follow GPA’s Armenia Speaks series to see part two of Armenian history through maps.
Featured Image: Flickr – Adam Jones
Tyler Aram Vosgerchian is an Armenian-American union organizer and activist in the metro-Detroit area.