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The Armenians of Cyprus: History, Identification and Community

The Armenian compound in Strovolos, location of the Virgin Mary cathedral, Nareg Armenian school and the Armenian Genocide Monument in Nicosia (Photo: Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra/Wikipedia)

The Armenian Diaspora is vast and scattered the world-over even in the smallest and most hidden corners of the world. One such corner is my country: Cyprus, which has a small but actively robust community that is constitutionally recognized as an integral religious group on the island. But how exactly have Armenians come to be a part of Cyprus and how do they identify?

Cyprus’ Armenian community has been present for over 1,500 years, where, over the centuries the community has waxed and waned, but always evolved, impacted by domestic or international political developments or business interests. I recently spoke with Haig Utidjian, PhD, MSc(DIC), CAS(GSMD), a native of this Cypriot-Armenian community. Mr Utidjian is an orchestral conductor, chorus master and musicologist who currently lives in the Czech Republic. In his native Cyprus, Utidjian was a pupil of Archbishop Zareh Aznaworean and is a Senior Deacon of the Armenian Church, with research interests in the musicology and theology of the Armenian Hymnal and in the works of St. Gregory of Narek.

Utidjian was recently decorated with the Komitas medal by the Armenian state and the Yakob Meghapart medal by the National Library of Armenia. His publications include the volumes “They who imbibed the effusions of the Spirit”: The Art of the Armenian Book through the Ages (2016), Treasures of the earliest Christian nation: Spirituality, Art and Music in Mediaeval Armenian Manuscripts (2018), and Tntesean and the Music of the Armenian Hymnal (2018).

 

The Evolution of the Armenian Community in Cyprus

Armenians arrived in Cyprus during the Byzantine Era, as mercenaries and generals serving the Byzantine Emperor. During the Ottoman takeover of Cyprus, the Armenian population increased to between 20,000 to 40,000 as the island sought out Armenian craftsmen. It was during this period that Armenians constructed the Monastery of Magaravank, now crumbling in the occupied north of the island. The Monastery, perhaps the best piece of Armenian artistry on the island, nestled in the Kyrenia Mountains, was once a stopover for pilgrims going to the Holy Land.

Within a century of Ottoman rule, Armenian numbers fell to 2,000 people, lower than today’s current Armenian population of 3,500, only to increase once again during the British colonial era, where over 10,000 Armenians sought refuge from the Genocide. Unlike Cypriots who were mostly agrarian and rural back then, Armenians were urban and mercantile.

“With their knowledge of languages and familiarity with the Ottoman milieu [Armenians] were able to contribute culturally, in the arts, as well as in the crafts and the professions,” explained Utidjian. “They spoke Turkish, having arrived from the Ottoman Empire during the Genocide… yet naturally could integrate with the majority Greek-speaking population, with whom they shared their Christian faith and certain other traditions and tendencies.”

Utidjian’s family history in Cyprus can be traced back to the late 19th century. Utidjian’s great grandfather, attended Constantinople’s Robert College and became fluent in English and Turkish. In 1878, he was invited by Wolsely Garnett, the first Commissioner of Cyprus, to come to Cyprus from Constantinople, in order to work as an interpreter for the British crown. His son Utidjian’s grandfather continued the profession.

Utidjian’s family history in Cyprus can be traced beyond the 19th Century. On his father’s he comes from a Constantinopolitan family. In 1878 his paternal great-grandfather was chosen by the British to move from Constantinople to Cyprus in order to work as interpreter of state documents. During that time the British were in the position of administering Ottoman Law. This was just before the island came under British possession.

On his maternal side, Utidjian’s family has been in Cyprus from the 18th Century having emigrated from Cilicia. Other family members having arrived in Cyprus from Smyrna, via Alexandra and Cilicia. Evidence of Utidjian’s maternal family’s lineage and history in Cyprus can be seen from the inscription, written in Armenian, at his family home, which now lies in Nicosia’s Old Town, that since 1963 has been under Turkish occupation.

Cypriots and Armenians share common ground when it comes to education. Cypriots as well as Armenians… will incur all sorts of sacrifices to educate their children” and are “great believers in ‘ta grammata’ [Greek for ‘writing’] and the importance of becoming men and women ‘of letters.’ The same can be discerned from the emphasis on books, manuscripts and so forth.”

In the 1960s, Armenians began leaving due to the island’s intercommunal violence. The Armenian community suffered several blows, the most recent of which was the destruction of the Armenian quarter in 1963 of which the consequences are still very much with us, since its effect was… a severe weakening in the sense of an Armenian community that has been more or less continuous in its existence for a very long time and [then again during] the Turkish invasion of 1974.”

Prior to the 1974 Turkish invasion, as fighting broke out between Greeks and Turks in the 1960s, people living in their neighborhoods in the walled-city of Nicosia were forced to relocate. The Armenians were forced to leave the ‘Armenomahallas’ (the Armenian quarter in Nicosia’s walled city), their homes eventually overtaken by the Turkish community. The boundary that divided the city eventually became the Green Line.

“Even within my own childhood, I was aware that there were many more burials than births or weddings. Our school classes got smaller and smaller,” recalled Utidjian.

With the inter-communal violence of the 1960s, Utidjian explained, “any Armenians, anticipating that there would be potential instability in the aftermath of British colonial rule… left shortly after independence. These three waves of emigration from Cyprus further reduced the community.”

“However, Cyprus has always been a hospitable haven for Armenians during times of distress and each time it looked as if the Armenian community in Cyprus will be depleted to something below the critical threshold required for it to survive, some external catastrophe meant that… new people came and boosted the stagnant community.”

“This happened in the late 1970s with the troubles in Lebanon.” Utidjian was in school at that time, and he remembers his class size increasing with Lebanese-Armenians. “Although many of those who came from Lebanon did remain in the longer term, rather using Cyprus as a place to regain their bearings and then proceed from there to Canada, Australia and the US, nonetheless their arrival gave a sort of infusion of vitality to the community.”

“Something similar has happened with the war and poverty in the present-day Armenian Republic… substantial numbers of citizens have moved to Cyprus, and managed to establish themselves in various professions and gain legal residence. A substantial proportion have chosen to remain in Cyprus, rather than use Cyprus as a springboard to go further to the West.”

The Armenians’ arrival in Cyprus was a renaissance for the community. “The Church Choir in Nicosia has become rejuvenated. Relations between the older residents and the newer arrivals from the Armenian Republic are truly cordial.”

However it is not unlike Armenians to seek their fortunes further afield. “Some Armenians have left Cyprus for better opportunities, as I myself wished to do and proceeded to do,” clarified Utidjian. “My own profession is rather a specialized one, and one needs to live in a larger center to have a chance of practicing it.’

 

The Identification of Cypriot-Armenians vis-a-vis the Armenian Diaspora and homeland Armenians

Utidjian explained his thoughts on Cypriot-Armenians, how they identity and the differences between the diaspora and Armenians in their homeland. Utidjian believes here are few differences, but these are not very pronounced. It seems a characteristic feature of the Armenian Diaspora that Armenians… are influenced by the milieu in which they live, and so they adopt many of the customs, attitudes or elements of etiquette of their host communities. Thus, Armenian Cypriots behave very much as other Cypriots do in many ways.”
“However, these differences are…largely superficial. There are perhaps greater differences between Middle-Eastern Armenians [that include Cypriots] and their counterparts in the US—where I have noticed that in many ways Armenians behave as Americans.”

However he believes that Cypriot-Armenians differ from Armenians in their homeland but much of that stems from the geographic dispersal of Armenians.

“Even before isolation and Sovietisation, eastern Armenians were culturally rather different to western Armenians,” explained Utidjian. Having “lived under Russian rule, as opposed to Ottoman rule… dialects, customs, food… were different even before the twentieth century.”

“Until very recently… most diasporan Armenians were from western Armenia. In the twentieth century, the divergence grew and perhaps somewhat dramatically so. Many people from either community, diasporan and from the Caucasus, will probably tell you that they are different, though they both feel Armenian.”

Utidjian clarified how the Armenians differ within themselves. “The diasporans are more westernized, jealous of their hard-earned reputations in their host countries, and thirsting for all things Armenian.” He believes that if diasporans “speak Armenian, it has been an act of will, and the language is a little like a sacred relic. They have also been taught that Armenia is a sort of ideal land, and the Motherland is something of an abstract concept, one might almost say celestial, and of course nothing in the real world could possibly match such a rarified, idealized land.”

How exactly do Armenians from Armenia differ from their diasporan kinfolk? Utidjian believes that Armenians in Armenia, or those who have recently emigrated are more traditional and conservative. He said, “They are not Armenians by choice (unlike their Diasporan cousins, for whom maintaining their identity is an act of will), and are much more pragmatic regarding Armenia. They also use a communist orthography and the language they use has been systematically filled with Russian words, even when Armenian equivalents exist. Specialized terminology is all Russian to the chagrin of western Armenians.”

 

The Cypriot-Armenian Community Today

It was the Egyptian-Armenian Melkonian brothers, whose donation in the 1920s, funded the construction of an orphanage to shelter and educate Armenian children after the Genocide.

Melkonian is located on a vast site near the capital’s center surrounded by a small urban forest. The buildings and garden are hidden from view by tall cypresses. I drove past the site hundreds of times, but it was not until recently that I discovered that the tall trees were planted in the 1920s as a memory to the children of the orphanage who lost their parents during the Genocide. It is now a protected forest, just under a hundred years old, which has withstood Cyprus’ drought as well as the Turkish bombs that were dropped on the Melkonian site during the 1974 Turkish invasion. In the 1940s, the orphanage became the primary Armenian school on the island, serving the region’s diaspora as well as the country, until its controversial and unhappy closure in 2005.

As a child, on day trips to Nicosia I would try and see what lay behind the cypresses into the complex. Glimpsing the ornate stone carving on the imposing building, the school seemed magical especially when compared to my bland concrete-structure of a school.

As of the mid-1980s the school did not seem financially viable, and parts of the land were cheaply sold off by the Armenian General Benevolent Union to generate funding for the school. Claiming a lack of funds Melkonian closed.

Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Western Armenian National Council and now prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America said, “If there are 1,200 schools in Armenia, adding one more would simply bring the total to 1,201… closing a school in the diaspora will have dire consequences for… Armenia.”

Though he was not an alumnus of Melkonian, Utidjian, like many Armenians, regrets the school’s closure. “The closure was effected in an unbelievably devious and dishonorable manner. I do not know what else could have been done.” Utidjian said he believes the Cyprus government did what it could to support and try to save the school.

The Cyprus government, recognizing its historical and cultural value, listed Melkonian as a protected site. “In effect they succeeded in blocking the sale of the Melkonian… for which we are most grateful,” Utidjian said.

“The real damage had of course been done by closing the school as a working institution. No, on this occasion it was Armenians cutting off their own nose, I’m afraid,” said Utidjian.

The closure of Melkonian, though a massive setback, was only part of the Armenians’ long history in Cyprus. Under the constitution, Armenians are recognized as one of the five communities of Cyprus with an elected representative in Cyprus’ House of Representatives.

Cyprus, always the runner-up, (second in Eurovision; runner-up in the Australian Open; and its one and only Olympic medal was silver) was the second country to recognize the Genocide, doing so after Uruguay. It was surprising Cyprus was not first due to the country’s support of Armenia.

However Cyprus has also taken other steps in supporting Armenia both politically and culturally. In 1990 Cyprus recognized April 24 as Genocide Memorial Day. Prior to that, a Nicosia municipality renamed the quirky-sounding Cyclops Street, named after the one-eyed mythological giant, to Armenia Street.

Greek and Turkish are the country’s official languages but in 2002 Armenian became an official minority language. And that’s saying something. Despite everyone in Cyprus speaking English, it has not been awarded any special status. With over 50,000 native-Russian speakers on the island, the government has not batted an eyelid over any recognition of Russian as a special language even as a Russian political party tries to make it into parliament.

 

What Next?

When I lived in Nicosia, under a Cyprus government scheme, I learned Turkish for a year cost-free. Turkish Cypriots who crossed the Green Line into the Republic had the option of learning Greek, also at no financial expense. Through education, the government scheme aimed, quite rightly, to bolster ties between the island’s two main communities. However with the Cypriot government focusing on Greek-Turkish Cypriot relations it has neglected its other historical communities.

For example the language of Kurbetcha (spoken by the island’s Roma community) is disappearing as there is no cultural or political impetus to protect it. The Armenians are not in that situation, protected by the constitution and the community. Yet there is little visibility over Armenian culture and history. ‘Seek and you shall find’ goes the proverb, but must people seek to find what’s already there and should be celebrated?

It is unlikely that Armenian will be taught outside the community just as unlikely is someone wandering into an Armenian church unless they are Armenian or interested in the culture. So what can be done to prevent the Armenian community from being relegated to nothing but a constitutional curiosity?

Why not create a Museum of Cypriot-Armenian Heritage? If Melkonian won’t reopen as a school, why can’t it become an Armenian museum? How about an annual Armenian Cultural Festival?

The Israeli Embassy used to offer heavily discounted Hebrew lessons, and the Russian emigres have created a cultural center as well as numerous cultural and business events. Why shouldn’t (and why couldn’t) the Armenians who have a historical legacy on the island steal with pride what others have done? Some may argue that events and festivals are only skin-deep and that Armenians have contributed greatly to Cyprus and their community through their achievements.

Living on a small island with only so much to see and do means Cypriots would turn up to the opening of an envelope, so it’s guaranteed that a cultural event or an Armenian Food Festival would be successful. Or perhaps I’m wrong and nothing needs to be done. There are plenty of events to celebrate Armenian culture within the community. Some might argue that Armenians have legal rights and political influence, so why promote the culture in this way?

Since Armenians are so well-embedded on the island, they do not need museums to prove the community has left a historical footprint. They are safe in the knowledge that they have a legitimate right to be part of the intricate Cypriot mosaic.

Maybe it’s just me… wanting some Armenian food.

George Tsangaris

George Tsangaris

George Tsangaris was born in London and raised in Cyprus. He currently lives in Australia where he is either working on his novel or discovering the great Australian outback. He enjoys travelling to far-flung places and discovering remote cultures and regions.


https://armenianweekly.com/2018/11/08/the-armenians-of-cyprus-history-identification-and-community/

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