The conflict in Syria has displaced most of the country’s Armenian minority. Dispersed around the world and without the sanctuary of a closed community, they face the risk of losing their distinct Armenian identity. For those who relocated to Australia, Europe, and North America that risk is imminent. Those who moved to Armenia, however, have a better chance of remaining Armenian, but still face the danger of losing the identity they’ve cherished for a century.
Before the conflict, Syria was a main sanctuary of western Armenian culture. In 2005, about 80,000 Armenians lived in the country, mostly in Aleppo. Most of their forefathers inhabited the western parts of historical Armenia that were part of the Ottoman Empire and that are located today in eastern Turkey. At the beginning of the 20th century some Armenian survivors of the Ottoman genocide established communities in what eventually became northern Syria.
For about a century Armenians in Syria remained part of that country’s diverse mosaic of people, without being forced to assimilate. In Aleppo, Armenians became an integral part of the local economy. Culturally, however, they remained a closed minority group. They preserved their distinctive western Armenian traditions by cooking their own food, sending their children to Armenian schools, perpetuating the western Armenian language, and establishing their own cultural centers and religious institutions.
This taste of Levantine diversity has now been brought to Armenia’s capital Yerevan, thanks to the Syrian-Armenians who relocated there from Syria. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 22,000 Armenians arrived in their motherland between 2012 and 2018, and about 14,700 of them continue to live there. Those who remained recreated their cultural traditions in Armenia, most prominently the food culture.
Their arrival sparked a culinary revolution, with Middle Eastern food outlets mushrooming, especially in Yerevan. Since then, Syrian restaurants, fast-food eateries, and butchers have proliferated. At first these businesses relied mostly on Syrian customers, but many of them gradually won the hearts and stomachs of locals as well. Syrians also popularized oriental ingredients. Aleppian traders began importing goods from Turkey and Syria to supply food outlets and Syrian Armenians with the necessary products. The Syrians have also attempted to grow their own locally.
With good food came good service. Friendly, patient, and welcoming waiters sought to revive the culture of hospitality that thrived in Syria. Customers had to feel welcome, receive good service, and therefore want to come back. Although not all Syrian food outlets in Armenia could live up to Aleppo’s high standards, they offered better service than most local restaurants and shops.
Though Syrian-Armenians were able to preserve their food culture, the same could not be said of their western Armenian linguistic heritage. Syrian-Armenians living in Armenia face the inevitable outcome of losing their language through integration. Indeed, their tradition has been endangered for decades.
The Armenian language has two standardized forms: Syrian-Armenians speak western Armenian, whereas those from Armenia proper speak eastern Armenian. The two forms are mutually intelligible but have phonetic and grammatical differences. While Armenia guarantees the preservation of the eastern form by using it in its institutions and schools, western Armenian is listed by UNESCO as one of its endangered languages due to the decline in the number of diaspora communities around the world that speak it.
The upheavals in the Middle East in the past two decades have only reinforced this trend. The displacement of Armenians from Syria is only the most recent blow to western Armenian culture. The depopulation of the Iraqi Armenian community during decades of hardship and war in the country preceded what happened in Syria. The next victim could be Lebanon’s Armenian community if the country’s economy and security situation continue to deteriorate.
In order to preserve their food culture, Syrians, driven partly by need and partly by the economic benefit the sector could bring, took matters into their hands. However, preserving their language is something else altogether and requires a state-sponsored plan for teaching western Armenian, especially in basic education. Given the absence of such plans, future generations of Syrian-Armenians are unlikely to read and write the language of their forefathers.
The consequences of this are already visible among a young generation of Syrian-Armenians. Children from the community who attend local schools are more integrated into Armenian society than their parents. They have a better command of eastern Armenian as well as more local friends and acquaintances than do their parents. But this has come at a price. Local schools do not teach western Armenian extensively and currently there are no alternative institutions to comprehensively fill the gap.
In fact this is not the first time that the western Armenian language tradition has faced such a challenge in Armenia. In the second half of the 1940s, Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union, received about 90,000 repatriates from a dozen countries, including Syria and Lebanon. Under Soviet rule, there were no programs to preserve the distinct identity of the incomers who once brought more color to Soviet Armenia. Today, the children of this generation are hardly distinguishable from other eastern Armenians.
The problem now seems similar. However, unlike during Soviet times the independent Republic of Armenia has the choice of making the preservation of the Armenian mosaic a state policy. Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, it has welcomed Syrian-Armenian refugees and offered them privileges and citizenship for those who requested it. Yet that is not enough to preserve this distinct shade of Armenian identity. The Armenian state, in cooperation with Syrian-Armenian community leaders, has a unique chance to set a precedent for other diaspora communities that might want to, or have to, repatriate by finding a fine balance between integration and preservation of Syrian-Armenian identity.
Under such a policy, and in a turbulent world with the possibility of increased forced migration, Armenian society could be the land of eastern Armenians but also a mosaic of the various shades of Armenian identity in the diaspora. In that way, individuals could continue to cook their food, sing their songs, and speak their tongue.