The Formation of the Armenian Community in Thessaloniki
Traces of Armenian presence in Thessaloniki can be found in the Byzantine and early Ottoman periods. Nevertheless, the first record of permanently settled Armenian families dates back to 1881. The first institutional establishment of the Armenian community in Thessaloniki, with the church and the school as its principal institutions, also dates back to the mid- 1880s (Hassiotis 2005). According to professor Ioannis Hassiotis, the history of the community can be divided into three periods (Hassiotis 1997, 2005). The first period, which approximately coincides with the late phase of the Ottoman rule and the liberation of Thessaloniki, begins in the midnineteenth century and ends in the early twentieth century, after the end of the First World War.
The second period begins in 1919-1923 with the arrival of more than ten thousand refugees from Eastern Thrace, Cilicia and Asia Minor, within the frame of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Turkey, and the ensuing exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. The newly arrived refugees enhance the community numerically and, despite the fact that a big part of them does not settle in Thessaloniki but finally moves towards Europe and America, they create an active and well-organised community (Oikonomou 1999). In 1929, the city of Thessaloniki counts approximately six thousand five hundred Armenians. This second period ends in 1946-1947, at the beginning of the Cold War and during the Greek Civil War, with the departure of a big number of Armenians. The latter responded to the invitation of the then Soviet Union for permanent settlement in the Soviet Republic of Armenia and “returned” to their homeland.
The third period starts in 1947 and lasts up to the present day, always according to professor Hassiotis (2005). From the 1950s until the 1990s, a stable number of approximately one thousand two hundred people is recorded. Nevertheless, in 1991 the socio-political changes in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union and the dysfunction that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime results in new flows of migrants to Greece. This includes a large number of Armenians probably due to the geographical and cultural proximity between the two countries (Vergeti 1991; Emke- Poulopoulos 1992; Petrinioti 1993; Psimmenos 1995; Lazaridis 2001). The settlement of the Armenian immigrants, especially in the city of Thessaloniki, strengthens at least demographically the already existing community and affects the overall politico-ideological and socio-economic profile of the Armenians in the city. Despite the fact that the majority of the new arrivals are not typically recorded in the register of the community for various reasons, their massive arrival and settlement in Thessaloniki constitutes another milestone in the history of the community.
For the above reasons, it seems legitimate to distinguish another period, that is, the fourth period in the history of Armenian community in Thessaloniki, which starts in 1991 and lasts until today. During this last period, one may observe not only quantitative but also some qualitative characteristics that differentiate the first Armenians or Greco-Armenians of refugee origin coming from Turkey or Turkish Armenian provinces, from the new Armenian immigrants, coming from the Republic of Armenia.
According to the 2001 Census, the Armenian community counts over seven thousand eight hundred members (1 per cent of the immigrant population), of whom four thousand one hundred sixty are in fact women (53 per cent) (Emke-Poulopoulos 2007). The Armenian immigrant population, thus, follows the trend of feminisation of migration observed in many countries of Eastern Europe and in the ex-Soviet Union.1 Almost half of the Armenian population in Greece (47 per cent) is settled in
Thessaloniki, probably due to the historical Armenian community of the city. The Armenians represent 2.69 per cent of the foreign citizens in the city of Thessaloniki, while the nationwide rate is 0.30 per cent (Katsavounidou and Kourti 2012). Given the large number of Armenian immigrants who have settled in Thessaloniki, the community has had to address the problems of employment, housing and care of these people, at least upon their arrival.
The official figures of Armenian immigrants, according to the 2011 Census, appear slightly lower than in 2001, either because some of Armenian population have already acquired Greek citizenship, or because some members of the Armenian community have returned to their homeland as a result of the recent economic crisis in the Greek society. What should be stressed, however, is that according to data provided by the community, the number of people who chose the Macedonian capital for temporary or permanent residence cannot be accurately estimated. Most of them have not registered with the community; some of them have been incorporated into Greek society, not necessarily through the community, while others have no residence permit in Greece (Kassapian 2005). Those registered, who actually constitute the community, are about six thousand people, mainly Greco-Armenians of refugee origin. It seems that the new Armenian immigrants have not yet made their presence felt in the life of the Armenian community in Thessaloniki.