Assyrians in Armenia. I have visited Armenia every year since 2003. I have seen a lot of changes, and many for the better. Money has poured in. Infrastructure has improved greatly, whether it is roads, hotels, restaurants, and tour providers. With the improved infrastructure and positive media, I have seen tremendous growth in tourism. The vast majority of tourists, of course, are all visiting the same sights (and rightfully so, they are fantastic). There is Noravank.
Tatev Monastery. All must-sees.
But if you have time, no matter where you are, it is always great to peel back a layer of that onion. While enjoying an Armenian barbecue (khorovats) on a lazy and warm Saturday afternoon in a dacha outside of Yerevan, my friend Aspet gathered my attention. Aspet, who is a double threat, he is both an Armenophile and historian, informed me that this dacha was located in the Assyrian village of Arzni. And that is quite interesting for the fact that Armenia is a quite the homogeneous nation. Over 98% of this diminutive population of three million is ethnically Armenian. Yazidis, the ISIS persecuted Christian minority comprise 1.2% and ethnic Russians make up .4% of the population. And then there are smatterings of Tats, Udis, Ossetians, Mordvins, and yes, Assyrians. Less than 3,000 Assyrians make there home in Armenia, including the village of Arzni, where I was happily munching on barbecue pork and chicken.
Assyrians have managed to preserve their culture in this thick Armenian stew. The schools in these Assyrians villages teach their native Aramaic tongue. The Assyrians are also fluent in Armenian and in Russian. And the Assyrians also maintain their religion as they worship Syriac Christianity.
The Assyrians are an ancient people dating back to 2500 BC, tracing their roots to Mesopotamia, found in today’s in the Middle East. Over the centuries, their lands have waxed and waned with the Assyrian diaspora spread around the globe.
After sipping some warm vodka and Armenian pomegranate wine, Aspet corralled the curious and we began our walking tour of Arzni. In just moments, we were in the tiny center of the village. Our first stop was a monument to the Great Patriotic War. You might know this better as World War II. Throughout the Soviet Union there are countless monuments, whether giant ones in sprawling metropolises or in a tiny village like Arzni. The people of the Soviet Union made brutal sacrifices in battling the Nazis, hence the ubiquity of these monuments throughout the region.
The monument had similar symbolism that I had seen many times, but one fact stood out immediately. Besides the expected Armenian and Cyrillic script, an unrecognized alphabet was also included. Aspet shared with us that this was the Syriac alphabet, looking a bit like Arabic.
A man played with his dog near the monument, and Aspet provided a greeting, but not Parev (Armenian) or Privyet (Russian), but smiled and stated Shl’lam. I crinkled my eyebrows in slight surprise. This sounded identical to the Hebrew greeting.
Next up was a simple Assyrian Church.
I walked inside and spied a bible and some icons in the Aramaic script.
We passed the compact town hall, and I noted the seal with both the Armenian and Assyrian flag. And also Russian, Armenian and Aramaic script.
Next to the town hall was the local market. I spied a shopkeeper sporting a t-shirt adorned with the Assyrian flag. One of the shopkeepers called out to Aspet, “Shl’lam-okhon”. This was the Assyrian formal greeting. Again, I crinkled my eyebrows in surprise. This greeting sounded like it was 50% Hebrew and 50% Arabic. But of course, Aramaic predates both languages.
And then a young kid passed by also wearing a sharp looking shirt with the Assyrian flag.
We visited the smaller of the two Assyrian churches, this was surrounded by a series of gravestones, some new, some old.
Our impromptu tour had concluded, and we headed back to continue our barbecue. I grinned as I shouted out a Shl’lam as I passed a final villager on the street.
Assyrians in Armenia.
And check out Yerevan Free Walking Tours to learn about the capital.
And before you leave check out the Yazidis of Armenia.