A minority in the majority
There is a well-known Assyrian shrine, ‘Marez’, in the yard outside Lusya Edigarova’s house and the Assyrians come here from all over the world to light a candle, pray and take a handful of soil from here.
“When my ancestors immigrated to Armenia from Iraq, they brought some land along with them. Part of it got here. So, that’s the place where Marez was built, which means Virgin Mary. Whoever comes here, asks me: “Can we take a bit of land from the Saint? The mothers of the guys, who are drafted into the military, take icons from here and then, two years later, when their sons return, they bring back the icon of the Virgin Mary, says Edigarova, the Assyrian. She lives in Verin Dvin village, Ararat region. Assyrians make 70% of the village population.
When Edigarova, 78, talks about her family, her eyes, that are as blue as the sea, get even brighter from emotions: “I am pure Assyrian. I’ve got 5 sons. One of my daughters-in-law is Russian, another one is Armenian, the third one is Ukrainian and two more of them are Assyrians. And all of them regard themselves as Assyrians. I have 15 grandchildren, 8 great-grandchildren. One of my granddaughter was named after the ancient capital of Assyria-Nineveh.
Although there are also the Armenian families in Verin Dvin village, located at a 25km distance from Yerevan, but everyone here speaks Assyrian. Armenian speech could be heard in the village, which is extremely unusual for Armenia.
Rima Badalyan, 58, who was brought up in Armenian family, and who later married an Armenian, speaks only Assyrian to her husband and children.
“My mother was Armenian. Even when she spoke Armenian to us, we answered her in Assyrian. We still rarely speak Armenian at homes. There are many mixed families here. You won’t find a single house, where there are no Armenians, either a daughter-in-law or a husband. Both nations share the same religion, Christianity, therefore the faith doesn’t hamper intermarriages, explains Rima.
Razmik Khosroev, an actor at Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theater and Chairman of the Coordination Council of Ethno-Cultural Organizations of the National Minorities of Armenia, explains that having lost their statehood 1750 years ago, the Assyrians have preserved their identity through the spoken language:
“Thus, written communication is our weak point. Written language has not been used for nearly 1000 years, whereas the spoken language has been always maintained. With this in mind, the Assyrians allowed a family man, whose daughter could speak Assyrian, to give half of the dowry or not to give it at all. It was very important for us to protect our national gene and our families. Therefore, everyone can speak Assyrian nowadays. People have an instinct instinct to preserve their native language.
The majority of 3,000 Assyrians of Armenia reside in Verin Dvin, Dimitrov and Arzni villages. Verin Dvin is regarded as the village that is most densely populated by Assyrians. The Assyrian St. Thomas Church was built here. Later it was reconstructed on the funds donated by a philanthropist from Switzerland.
“The Assyrians hadn’t prayed in their own language for over 100 years. Before the reconstruction, the ST. Thomas Church was in ruins. Parallel to reconstruction, we were registered as a religious organization- the Assyrian Church of the East, says Khosroev.
He was born in the village of Gelaysor (an Assyrian garden), which lies between the Garni gorge and Khosrov forest reserve. 20 Assyrian families, who emigrated from Turkey, settled there back in 1805. The second wave of Assyrians’ immigration to Armenia took place in 1826-1828, during the Russian-Persian war. The Treaty of Turkmanchay, concluded between Russia and Iran in Turkmanchay settlement, in 1828, marked the end of the war. It was then that 100 Assyrian families asked for a permission to settle in the territory of Russia and took up their residence in Armenia.
“In 1949, Gelaysor was subjected to pressure on part of the Soviet authorities, that suspected Assyrians of the pro-Western sentiments. Most of the village residents were exiled to Siberia, Barnaul, whereas others were resettled in various villages. Many of our fellow villagers settled down in Verin Dvin, says Razmik Khosroev.
Many Assyrians left Armenia in the post-Soviet period. In Khosroev’s words, the migration process among Assyrians was more active than among Armenians: in Soviet times, the number of Assyrians in Armenia made 7,000 people.
The father of Seda Nikolayevna, a resident of Verin Dvin, is Assyrian and her mother is Armenian. Her daughters, as well as her son, married the Armenians:
“I am proud to be an Assyrian. My father is Assyrian. Assyrians are the men of honor. If someone in the village is facing problems, the whole village gathers to help him/her. As for the difference between Armenians and Assyrians, it’s just the matter of language and a few traditions, says Seda. “Unlike Armenians, we don’t have restaurant wedding parties. We have preserved our traditions. When the bride is brought to the groom’s house, she is presented gifts right at the house entrance. The guests are asked to come in turns and present whatever gifts they have prepared. A wedding bull is traditionally slaughtered on Friday night and a portion of that meat is sent to the co-parents-in-law.
That’s how Razmik Khosroev portrays his compatriots: “Foreigners always say, the Assyrians have an extra rib, i.e. they are hardcore stubborn people. If an Assyrian said ‘no’, then nothing on earth could make him change his mind. Of course, it’s a good national trait. Once he says matsun is black, then it’s black.
Assyrians celebrate their new year on April 1. In addition, they also mark Shara national holiday- the day of songs and dances that usually takes place in Arzni village. St. Thomas and Marez day is also celebrated. During all those celebrations the Assyrians make a common sacrifice. A huge bull is slaughtered in every village at night, in the moonlight, accompanied by the sounds of prayers. Then the raw meat is distributed to all residents.
Lusya Edigarova says, special halva is cooked and also distributed to everyone on Marez holiday. “Every year we celebrate Marez on June 14. Halva is a sacrifice of that day. We call it mortuha. First the drawn butter is warmed up in a big pan and then flour, milk and eggs are added. Then it is thoroughly cooked, remove from the heat, wrapped in lavash and distributed to people.
Rima and Seda are in the kitchen, cooking the Assyrian byushala, which is very similar to the Armenian spas.
“We add the white beet leaves, celery and green pepper. We like to have this dish on the table, it’s am Assyrian custom, says Seda Nikolayevna.
Razmik Khosroev points out that the Assyrian community of Armenia has been never facing any political problems, their troubles are mainly of cultural and educational nature:
“We’ve failed so far to make the the national minorities’ ethnic culture part of the Armenian culture. The Government and the Ministry of Culture have much to do in this regard. For example, it would be very good if students were enrolled in culture universities based on the state order [i.e. to be entitled to study free of charge].
Another problem is related to the Assyrian language. It isn’t taught in any of the Armenian higher education institutions. We send our youth to study at the Assyrian University of Urmia (Iran) on the community funds. Then they return home and teach children in rural schools. But even in this case, they still have to take extension courses at Yerevan Pedagogical University in order to be qualified as a teacher. All the aforesaid are problems.
Razmik Khosroev says, AMD10 million (about US$20,000) are allocated annually by the government to all 11 national minority groups. This sum is equally distributed between them irrespective of the group size. In Khosroev’s words, the national minority rights are protected by both, the Treaty of the Council of Europe and the Armenian Constitution, as well as by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. However, they don’t actually benefit much from that.
“A few years ago we introduced to the government a bill on national minorities, which, if adopted, would have provided a mechanism for solving our problems. But this bill wasn’t even sent to the Parliament. All our problems are solved through sending letters, making requests and pulling strings.
However, the stout-hearted Assyrians pledge to fight for their rights and to achieve practical effect. And they assure: don’t worry, we aren’t going to declare matsun black.