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The Armenian Community in Thessaloniki: The Dynamics of Religion

Niki Papageorgiou


The Armenians are one of the most ancient peoples. Except for periods when they enjoyed their independence, the Armenians had long periods of subjugation to Mongols, Seljuks, Ottomans, Persians, Russians and Soviets. The history of Armenia has been sealed with wars and disasters and its people have suffered in many ways. This situation is due to the strategic position of Armenia, between Asia and Europe, covering an area from the Black to the Caspian Sea and from the Mediterranean Sea to Lake Urmia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia exists today as a landlocked, independent republic and is home to some three million Armenians. Nevertheless, it takes up a very small percentage of what is regarded as the ancestral land of historic Armenia. The biggest part of historic Armenia and a population of about seven million Armenians are not included in the contemporary state of Armenia (Bournoutian 2002; Aghapatian 2003; Payaslian 2007; Kurkjian 2014).

The tumultuous history of the Armenian people has led them many times to cross the borders of their birthplace, as refugees or migrants,

N. Papageorgiou (*)

Department of Theology, Aristostle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece

© The Author(s) 2017

E. Sideri, L.E. Roupakia (eds.), Religions and Migrations in the Black Sea Region, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39067-3_3

and create new homes in diaspora communities (Connor 1986; Safran 1991; Schnapper and Davis 1999; Brubaker 2005). Armenia is seen as an “imagined” homeland by those who are outside Armenia, especially those Armenians who have never actually been there (Anderson 1991). Oftentimes, they distinguish between “home” (the diaspora) and “homeland” (the Republic of Armenia or perhaps, more correctly put, historic Armenia) (McCollum 2004).

To survive in diasporic conditions and conserve communal bonds despite geographic dispersion, the Armenian people developed a culture often characterised as “culture of diaspora”, within which all reproductive mechanisms of minority groups are put into function. The culture of diaspora consists of all those institutions that strengthen group cohesion and solidarity as well as reproduce traditional identity. These institutions include religious rituals, pedagogical institutions, traditional festivals, specific religious and/or national events and so on (Schnapper and Davis 1999). Under diasporic circumstances, the Armenian people re-create their religious institutions which, in combination with communal institutions, contribute to the following: development of material or symbolic solidarity, preservation of “Armenianism”, creation of a sense of belonging to the Armenian community and Armenian civilisation, and reproduction of “Armenianness”.

Armenianness is defined by the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is an ancient-historic religion, as well as by the Armenian language, the collective memory of national independence in a circumscribed territory, and the trauma of betrayal, persecution and genocide (Safran 1991; Hovanessian 1992; Melson 1992; Hirsch 1995; Zekiyan 1997; Bjorklund 2003; Guroin 2014). It is important to note here that populations who rely both on the religious and ethno-historical dimensions of their tradition have a greater chance to survive in diaspora. This is true in the case of Armenians for whom religion and nation are strongly bound together (Schnapper and Davis 1999; McCollum 2004). It is often said that to be Armenian means to be Christian (Panossian 2002; McCollum 2004).

This chapter describes and analyses the dynamics of the religious factor in the establishment of the Armenian community, as well as the cultivation and reproduction of Armenianness focusing on the Armenian community of Thessaloniki. This community presents a special interest because, in addition to its historical significance, it includes two different groups: on the one hand, the descendants of the first-wave refugees who arrived in Thessaloniki after the end of the First World War and the dramatic events that took place in Turkey (1919-1923); and on the other hand, the new immigrants who arrived in Thessaloniki after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent effects of destabilisation and financial hardship in the Trans-Caucasia region in the 1990s. Religion and ethnicity, ecclesiastical and communal institutions, first refugees and new immigrants, past and present, memory and oblivion, expectations and disappointments, all constitute the multiple intersecting axes around which the structure and function of the contemporary Armenian community of Thessaloniki are interwoven.

On this basis, this chapter attempts to explore firstly the role that the Armenian Apostolic Church—as the major faith among the members of the Armenian community—plays in the self-definition and hetero-definition of the first refugees and new immigrants; and secondly, the mechanisms with which the Church supports or reproduces modern Armenian identity in Thessaloniki. For this purpose, a field research was carried out in the Armenian community of Thessaloniki during the spring and summer 2014 based on the participant observation method, as well as structured and semi-structured interviews. The data extracted shed light on issues regarding the organisation of the modern Armenian Orthodox community in Thessaloniki, and the interaction between the early settlers and newly arrived Armenians.

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