Another People of the Book: Armenian history and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict
Several weeks ago, Robert Fisk, the Doyen of Middle East correspondents, wrote a profile for The Independent of a forgotten hero of the 20th century world wars. He describes “a loyal servant of his brutal government… at great risk to his own life, he saved hundreds of men and women doomed for mass extermination by employing them in his military factories.”
But he was not talking of the man we immediately think of, Oskar Schindler. Fisk continues,
“As his Turkish masters proceeded with the Armenian Holocaust… Kunneh sheltered hundreds of these terrified civilians, men, and women, half-starved and en route to the death marches on which they were intended to perish.”
He is instead describing Cemil Kunneh, a little known functionary who worked as a naval officer in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Like Schindler, he is credited with saving hundreds of lives.
It is one of the uncanny parallels between the histories of the Jewish and the Armenians peoples. They are two of the first monotheistic civilizations on the earth, both have been scattered from an ancestral homeland that they have only recently reclaimed, and both of their modern histories are scarred by a mass slaughter conducted under the cover of a world war.
Most crucially for their international relations, however, both countries domestic politics are consumed by an issue over the contested occupation of land- land that both countries claims as their ancestral homeland. For Israel, this is the Palestinian territories, and for Armenia, it is the hauntingly beautiful ancient land of Nagorno Karabakh. To understand why the region of Nagorno Karabakh is so important to modern Armenia, we must understand the history of the Armenian people.
The Armenians are another Middle Eastern nation with an equally fascinating and tragic story, whose past also bleeds uneasily into an uncertain present. This is a people that have existed since the time of the bible, with the capital city of Yerevan being approximately 2700 years old. They have a complex and highly developed language and literature with a unique writing script. Archaeologists have found evidence of some of the world’s earliest wine making, metallurgy and even shoemaking in the historic Armenian regions. But the nation had the ill fortune of being on the borders of, over the millennia, the various Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. After being variously conquered by one or another warring power, it did not reclaim its independence until the fall of the Soviet Union.
As the first Christian nation, they claim direct descent from Noah and his sons. According to their mythos, the Armenians were the people who came down from Mount Ararat after the great flood described in Genesis and settled on the lands around modern-day Lake Sevan and Nagorno Karabakh. This means the area has a great religious significance.
Thomas Duvall, a historian and expert on the Caucuses at Carnegie Europe, describes it as follows:
“For Armenians, it is kind of the eastern outpost of their civilizations. It is full of old Armenian churches; it is of great cultural significance for them and for the last few hundred years it has had a significant Armenians population. Armenians say that losing Karabakh for them would be like losing what they regard as Western Armenia all over again. They lost Western Armenia, which is now eastern Turkey in 1915, and its population was either murdered or displaced and they feel like this would be a second genocide.”
This remains a difficult and controversial subject. Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, the killings of over a million Armenians in 1915/16 are still not officially recognized as a genocide by the Turkish government. The United States has only recognized it since December 2019. Turkey, as a crucial NATO ally of the West, exerts huge pressure on foreign governments not to recognize this darkest chapter of its history.
Duvall recalled a conversation he had with an Armenian history professor. He’d been told “for Armenia, we have three pillars of our modern identity. The first Christian nation, the genocide, and the victory in Karabakh. In a nation that ceased to exist almost a thousand years ago, there had been several large and powerful Armenian states but except for this little state of Cilicia by the Mediterranean sea on the border of Syria and Turkey, there was, in Eastern Anatolia or the caucuses, no Armenian state for almost a thousand years. Armenian history was about the righteous people that were continuously defeated, and then suddenly there was a military victory and this victory has become an enormous part of Armenian identity.”
So with these issues in mind, what are the chances of resolving this most intractable of conflicts? Not high, for the mean time. The most recent serious international attempt to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict came in 2001, where President George W Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell organized a summit at Key West in Florida. But the summit ended inconclusively, and the US government was reported to believe that neither party was serious about solving the conflict. The September 11 attacks came soon afterwards. The international community became focused on conflicts in the Middle East, first in Iraq and Afghanistan, then the upheavals of the Arab Spring. The Nagorno Karabakh conflict has been left to fester, despite a brief resurgence in violence in 2016. Like the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it is unknown whether these wounds will ever heal.
Written by Nick Mutch
Additional notes by Michael Hilliard