Armenians in Iran (ca. 1500-1994)
Prior to the third century A.D., Iran had more influence on Armenia's culture than any of its other neighbours. Intermarriage among the Iranian and Armenian nobility was common. The two peoples shared many religious, political, and linguistic elements and traditions and, at one time, even shared the same dynasty. Sasanian policies and the Armenian conversion to Christianity, in the fourth century, however, alienated the Armenians from Zoroastrian Iran and oriented them toward the West. The Arab conquests which ended the Iranian Empire and the conversion of Iran to Islam in the seventh century culturally separated the Armenians even further from their neighbour. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks drove thousands of Armenians to Iranian Azerbaijan, where some were sold as slaves, while others worked as artisans and merchants. The Mongol conquest of Iran in the thirteenth century enabled the Armenians, who were treated favourably by the victors, to play a major role in the international trade among the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean seas. Armenian merchants and artisans settled in the Iranian cities bordering historic Armenia. Sultanieh, Marand, Khoi, Saimas, Maku, Maraghe, Urmia, and especially Tabriz, the Mongol center in Iranian Azerbaijan, all had, according to Marco Polo, large Armenian populations.
Ottoman-Safavid Rivalry and the Depopulation of Armenia
Tamerlane's invasion at the end of the fourteenth century and the wars between the Black and White Sheep Turkmen dynasties in the fifteenth century had a devastating effect on the population of historic Armenia. The latter part of the fifteenth century witnessed the weakening of the White Sheep and the attempts of the Ottoman sultan, Bayazid 11 (1481-1512), to take advantage of the situation and to extend his domains eastward into Armenia and northwestern Iran. At the dawn of the sixteenth century, however, Iran was unified under a new dynasty, the Safavids (1501-1732) and after some nine centuries once again acquired the sense of nationhood which has continued into the present.
The Safavids assumed importance during the early fourteenth century when Sheikh Safi ad-Din established his Sufi order in Iranian Azerbaijan. A century later, the order, now known as the Safavi, had assumed a wholly Shi'i nature and began gathering support among the Turkmen tribes of northwestern Iran and eastern Anatolia. The order obtained the support of a number of major Turkic tribes, who called themselves the kizil-bash, or "red heads" (from the red caps that they wore). By 1501 the Safavid leader Isma'il seized Transaraxia from the White Sheep and declared himself shah. Ten years later he managed to gain control over Iran, historic Armenia, and much of eastern Transcaucasia, and he founded a theocratic dynasty that not only claimed to be descended from 'Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, but that also portrayed the shahs as reincarnations of the Shi`i imams or saints. Shi' ism thus became and remains the state religion of Iran. The emergence of the Safavids and the rise of Shi'ism in eastern Anatolia were major threats to the Ottomans, whose claim to the caliphate and the leadership of the Muslim world was challenged by the new Iranian dynasty. In 1514 Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) crossed the Euphrates River and for the first time entered historic Armenia. Shah lsma'il was not ready to fight the Ottomans and withdrew his forces, burning many villages en route to forestall the advancing Ottoman army. Thousands of Armenians were force to leave their land. The Ottomans pushed deep into Armenia and on August 23, 1514, at the Battle of Chaldiran, destroyed the Iranian army through superior numbers and artillery. Although Selim captured Tabriz, the admimistrative center of the Safavids, he had to withdraw a week later, as Ottoman military leaders refused to winter in Tabriz or to pursue the enemy into the Iranian highlands. This pattern was to be repeated a number of times, particularly during the reign of Shah Tahmasb I (1524- 1576), who also pursued scorched-earth policy when he had to face the mighty Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The harsh Armenian climate and difficulties in transportation and in communications with Constantinople made it possible for the Safavids to repeatedly survive such defeats. Although the Safavids managed to recover Tabriz, Iran relinquished most of eastern Anatolia. The first peace agreement between the two powers in 1555 left the western parts of historic Armenia in Ottoman bands, while the eastern parts ended up under Iranian control. Realizing the vulnerability of Tabriz, Tahmasb moved the capital south to Qazvin. The uncertain situation over Tahmasb's succession encouraged the Ottomans to invade Armenia again in 1578 and to continue their campaign until 1590, taking most of Transcaucasia and once again occupying Tabriz.
Caught in the middle of these warring powers, some Armenians were deported by the Ottomans to Constantinople from Tabriz, Karabagh, and Nakhichevan and others, by the Iranians, to Iranian Azerbaijan from Van. To replace them, Sultan Selim and his successors settled Kurdish tribes in Armenia, a policy which continued into the seventeenth century. Indo-European speakers like the Armenians, the Kurds were Muslims who were divided into Sunni, Shi'i, and Yezidi sects. They were a nomadic people who were exempt from cash taxation, but had to present a quota of their herds and guard the border regions. Their settlement in historic Armenia was to create a major problem later for the Armenians when the state was powerless to control the Kurds or, conversely, when it actually used them against the Armenians. The protracted Ottoman-Safavid war and the resulting forced migrations depopulated parts of historic Armenia, and the Kurdish settlement changed its social and ethnic balance.
The Great Migration
It was Shah `Abbas the Great (1587-1629) who left the greatest imprint on modern Iran and the Iranian Armenian community. Recognizing the comparative weakness of the Iranian army, he quickly concluded a treaty with the Ottomans in 1590, Ceding eastern Armenia and parts of Iranian Azerbaijan. He then began the Formation of a new force, recruiting Georgian and Armenian mercenaries and Converts as sharpshooters, and, with European help, fashioned an artillery and the basis of a modem army. He moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan, a safer location. Isfahan was also closer to Baghdad, the soft underbelly of the Ottoman Empire.
By the start of the seventeenth century `Abbas felt strong enough to break the peace he had made with the Ottomans in 1590. In the autumn of 1603 the shah advanced to retake Iranian Azerbaijan and to force the Ottomans out of Transcaucasia as well. He succeeded in taking the cities of Tabriz, Marand, Ordubad, Akulis, and the province of Nakhichevan, which included the town of Julfa. The shah was greeted as a liberator by the Armenians, who could no longer endure heavy Ottoman taxes, and the Shi`i Muslims, who were tired of religious persecutions. The Armenian merchants of Julfa, who had been engaged in international trade for some time, were especially happy with the Iranian capture of Julfa. According to one primary source, the Sunnis of Nakhichevan province were killed and their villages were razed by the Safavid army. The same source adds that `Abbas deported the Armenian merchants of Julfa to Iran at this time in order to prevent the region from regaining its economic viability. All other contemporary sources, however, indicate that only the main fortress of Nakhichevan was destroyed in 1603 and that the Armenian population was not moved until 1604. In November 1603, `Abbas laid siege to the fortress of Yerevan, a formidable bastion constructed by the Ottomans. The siege lasted over seven months and resulted in the conscription of over 10,000 local Armenians and Muslims, which. in turn, spelled an economic and demographic decline of that province. In the summer of 1604, at the news of an Ottoman counteroffensive, `Abbas laid waste much of the territory between Kars and Ani and deported its Armenians and Muslims into Iranian Azerbaijan. `Abbas was sure that the Ottomans would not launch an attack so close to winter and according to some sources, demobilized most of his army in the fall. The Ottomans, however, did advance, catching the shah unprepared. Orders went out from `Abbas to forcibly remove the entire population residing in the regions of Bayazid, Van, and Nakhichevan and to carry out a scorched-earth policy.
Primary sources estimate that between 1604 and 1605 some 250,000 to 300,000 Armenians were removed from the area. Thousands died crossing the Arax River. Most of the Armenians were eventually settled in Iranian Azerbaijan, where other Armenians had settled earlier. Some ended up in the Mazandaran region and in the cities of Sultanieh, Qazvin, Mashhad, Hamadan, Arak, and Shiraz. The wealthy Armenians of Julfa were brought to the Safavid capital of Isfahan. The Julfa community was accorded special care and seems to have suffered less in their migration. They were settled across the banks of the Zayandeh Rud and in 1605 a town, called New Julfa (Nor Jugha), was constructed especially for them.
Persian masons, together with Armenian craftsmen, built the new settlement. Many churches were constructed, thirteen of which survive today. Armenians had rights, which were denied other minorities. They elected their own mayor, or kalantar, rang church bells, had public religious processions, established their own courts, and had no restrictions on clothing or the production of wine. No Muslims could reside in New Julfa. The Armenian mayor was given one of the shah's royal seals in order to bypass bureaucratic tangles and had jurisdiction over the two dozen Armenian villages around Isfahan. He collected and paid to the throne a poll tax in gold, which was gathered from each adult male. In time, the Armenian population of New Julfa and the surrounding villages grew to some 50,000. Here they were granted trading privileges and a monopoly on the silk trade, which transformed the community into a rich and influential one and New Julfa into a main center of trade between Iran and Europe. Interest-free loans were granted to the Armenians to start businesses and light industries. Soon a major part of Iran's trade with Europe, Russia, and India was handled by the Armenians, who enjoyed the shah's protection and who had outbid the British on the silk monopoly. The New Julfa merchants formed trading companies, which competed with the Levant, East India, and Muscovy companies, and established businesses in Kabul, Herat, Qandahar, Marseilles, Venice, Genoa, Moscow, and Amsterdam, and in cities of Sweden, Poland, Germany, India, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. `Abbes would spend time in New Julfa at the houses of the most successful merchants, known as kolas. or notables, whom the silk monopoly had made extremely prosperous. Sources describe their fabulous houses, decorated with Oriental and Western artwork, with tables set with gold utensils. The Armenians paid a set fee for each bale of silk and most of their profits remained in Iran. Ottoman profits from overseas trade fell and the Persian Gulf became a center of trade with Western ports. The military decline of the Ottoman Empire encouraged the West to establish new contacts in the East. Western diplomats, visitors, and merchants were dispatched to Iran and most were housed in New Julfa. The Armenian merchants' contacts with the West made them a conduit through which the shah was able to secure diplomatic and commercial alliances against the Ottomans.
The Armenians of New Julfa became a unique part of the diaspora in other ways as well. They formed a separate ecclesiastical unit under their own bishop, appointed by Etchimiadzin, which had jurisdiction over all Armenians of Iran and Iraq. New Julfa soon became a cultural center. A school was opened for the sons of the kolas as well as for some of the talented boys from less prominent Armenian families. The future catholicos, Hakob Jughaetsi (1655-1680), was among its graduates, as were a number of historians and translators. One graduate, a priest, was sent to Italy to learn the art of printing and brought back the first printing press in Iran. The first printed book in Iran, in any language, was an Armenian translation of the Book of Psalms, produced in 1638. Manuscript illuminators developed a distinct New Julfa style, beginning in the first half of the seventeenth century, with the work of Mesrop of Khizan, originally from Armenia. A few artists even began to copy European works brought to New Julfa by the kolas. Prior to 1600, Armenian merchants had for some five hundred years conveyed Eastern technology to Europe. From the seventeenth century onwards, beginning with the New Julfa merchants, the Armenians were one of primary channels for the introduction of Western technology and culture to Asia.
European sources of the seventeenth century portray `Abbes as a great benefactor of the Armenians, who secured them from the Turks and who made them wealthy in New Julfa, Armenian historians of the time, however, such as Arakel of Tabriz, view Shah `Abbes' deportations and the Turko Iranian conflict in Armenia as a major catastrophe, during which the land and the people suffered terribly, with the resulting depopulation making the Armenians a minority in most of their historic land. `Abbes' policies did indeed have varying short-term effects, in the long term, however, the forced deportations established the basis for the Armenian diaspora in Iran and India, communities which, as we will see, were to play an important role in the Armenian cultural and political revival of the nineteenth century.
One of the intangible benefits of Armenian economic power in Iran was the transformation of the Armenian self-image. After centuries of conquest by Muslim invaders, Armenians were granted equal and at times even greater privileges than Muslims. This increased prestige extended to the Church as well, and enabled the leaders at Etchmiadzin to regain some control over outlying dioceses and communities and to establish ties with the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem. This new status also allowed a number of Armenian secular leaders to achieve recognition and to rally support. This was particularly true of the lords, or meliks, of Karabagh and Zangezur who, under the patronage of the shahs, the Church, and the Armenian merchants, retained and expanded their ancestral fiefdoms in Karabagh. The meliks were the last scions of Armenian nobility in eastern Armenia. They lived in mountainous regions and usually paid tribute directly to the shah. Unlike the Church leaders, they lacked unity and had to contend with Muslim rulers, who viewed any landed and armed Christian nobility as threat. Their autonomy and occasional defiance, however, attracted some popular support, and, as will be seen, they initiated, together with some Armenian merchants and clerics, the Armenian emancipation movement.
Eastern Armenia (1639-1804)
The Treaty of Zuhab partitioned historic Armenia in 1639 between the Ottomans, who took western Armenia, and the Safavids, who took eastern Armenia. Eastern Armenia was itself divided into the beglarbegi of Chukhur Sa'd (the regions of Yerevan and Nakhichevan), and the beglarbegi of Karabagh (the regions of Karabagh-Zangezur and Ganja). The first was thus composed of sections from the historic Armenian provinces of Ayrarat, Gugark, and Vaspurakan; the second from Artsakh, Siunik, and Utik (see map 3). Administered by khans, mostly from the Qajar clan, the regions were under the supervision of a governor-general stationed in the city of Tabriz, in Iranian Azerbaijan. The beglarbegi of Chukhur Sa'd was especially important, for its main city, Yerevan, was a center of Iranian defence against the Ottomans.
Although `Abbes protected the Armenians of New Julfa and prevented the Catholic missionaries from making major inroads in the community, his death and the eventual decline of the Safavids in the second half of the seventeenth century forced some of the kolas to emigrate to India and Italy, where they established branches of their trading houses. The absence of an Iranian merchant marine meant that the Armenian merchants of New Julfa, over time, could not keep up with the large English or Dutch joint-stock venture companies such as the East India Company, which, by the mid-eighteenth century had taken over much of the trade of the region. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, growing Shi'i intolerance and new laws unfavourable to the Armenians also created a difficult situation for the kolas, and more of them emigrated to Russia, India, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Insecurity at home also meant that Armenians would look to Catholic Europe and especially Orthodox Russia for protection or even deliverance.
The fall of the Safavids and the Afghan occupation of Isfahan and New Julfa in 1722 marked the end of the influence of the kolas, but did not end the Armenian presence in Iran. Large Armenian communities remained in Isfahan, New Julfa, and a number of Iranian cities. The fall of the Safavids encouraged Peter the Great to invade the Caspian coastal regions, while the Ottomans broke the peace of Zuhab and invaded eastern Armenia and eastern Georgia in 1723. In two years' time the Ottomans were in control of the entire region, save for Karabagh and Siunik, where Armenian meliks under the leadership of David Beg, Avan Yuzbashi, and Mekhitar Sparapet held them off for nearly a decade. The Ottomans installed garrisons in Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi), Nakhichevan, Ganja, and Yerevan. The fortress of Yerevan was repaired and served as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman military-governor of eastern Armenia.
By 1736 a new ruler, Nader Shah (1736-1747) and a new dynasty, the Afshars, had restored order in Iran, had convinced the Russians to withdraw, and had pushed the Ottomans back to the boundaries of 1639. Rewarding the Armenian meliks for their stand against the Ottomans, the shah exempted them from tribute and recognized their autonomy. Catholicos Abraham Kretatsi (1734-1737), who had befriended the shah, was a guest of honour at Nader's coronation. The new shah not only visited Etchmiadzin but reconfirmed its tax-exempt status. Nader removed a number of Turkic tribes from eastern Armenia, especially Karabagh, and divided the region into four khanates: Yerevan, Nakhichevan, Ganja, and Karabagh.
Nader's assassination in 1747 unleashed a fifteen-year period of chaos in eastern Armenia. The exiled Turkic tribes returned and, led by the Javanshir clan, established a strong presence in the plains of Karabagh. The highlands of Karabagh, composed of the five districts of Gulistan, Khachen, Jraberd, Varanda, and Dizak, as well as a number of districts in Siunik, as noted, had been controlled by Armenian meliks and became known as Mountainous Karabagh and Zangezur, respectively. The region had its own See in Gandzasar. The lowlands, stretching to the Kur River, were populated by Turkic and Kurdish confederations. By allying themselves with Melik Shahnazarian of Varanda, Panah Khan Javanshir and his son Ibrahim Khan managed to gain a foothold in a part of the exclusively Armenian stronghold of Mountainous Karabagh. By 1762 another ruler and dynasty, Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779). took control of most of Iran and was recognized as their suzerain by the khans of eastern Armenia. His seat of power was in southern Iran, however, and Transcaucasia was left to Ibrahim Khan of Karabagh and King Erekle II (1762-1798) of eastern Georgia, both of who divided parts of eastern Armenia into two zones of influence. The death of Karim Khan in 1779 started another fifteen-year conflict among Ibrahim, Erekle, the khans of Yerevan and Ganja, and the Armenian meliks. More Armenians emigrated from the khanates of Yerevan and Karabagh to Russia and Georgia. Tiflis, the main city of eastern Georgia, became a major Armenian center. Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its 1793 Treaty of Georgievsk with Erekle once again involved Russia in Transcaucasian affairs. The khans of the region rushed to make their own separate peace agreements with each other, and with Georgia, Russia, or Iran. Iran, in the meantime, was in the throes of another dynastic struggle. By 1794, Aqa Mohammad Khan, the leader of the Qajar clan, had subdued all other pretenders to the Throne and now swore to restore the territory of the former Safavids. Most of the khans of eastern Armenia soon submitted, but Erekle of Georgia, relying on Russian protection, refused. Aqa Mohammad invaded Georgia, sacked Tiflis in 1795, and on his return was crowned shah (1796). To restore Russian prestige, Catherine the Great declared war on Iran and sent an army to Transcaucasia. Her death, shortly after, put an end to that campaign, however. Aqa Mohammad soon contemplated the removal of the Christian population from eastern Georgia and eastern Armenia. His new campaign began in Karabagh, where he was assassinated in 1797. Aqa Mohammad Khan, who had been castrated by his enemies as a youth, was succeeded by his nephew, Fath `Ali Shah Qajar. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the new shah had to face a third and final Russian challenge.
Socio-economic Conditions in Eastern Armenia (17th-early 19th centuries)
During the seventeenth century the Safavids transformed Iran's economy. A number of towns in eastern Armenia, located on the trade routes between Asia and Europe, served as depots for goods from India, China, and Iran, which, in turn, found their way to the markets of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Western Europe. Well-maintained, safe roads, uniform tariffs. and comfortable caravansaries aided in the transfer of merchandise. Eastern Armenia itself exported wheat and silk from Karabagh and dried fruit, salt, hides, and copper from Yerevan. The large nomadic population supplied wool and Caucasian carpets and rugs woven by Armenians and Turkic craftsmen, which were valued for their colours and design.
The population of eastern Armenia prior to the Russian conquest consist- ed of a Muslim majority and an Armenian minority. The Muslims were divided into Persians, who formed much of the administration and part of the army; the settled and semi settled Turkic tribal groups, who were either engaged in farming or formed the balance of the army; and the Kurds, who led a traditional nomadic existence and who formed a part of the Iranian cav- alry. Although the Armenians were engaged in trade and formed the majority of the craftsmen, most of them were farmers.
The khans were responsible for the defence and the collection of taxes and were usually the sole authority in their khanates. They themselves were exempt from taxes and received lands from the crown in recognition of ser- vice. When the central government was weak or had collapsed, the khans tended to become the hereditary owners of their domains. Tax collectors, accountants, scribes, police officers, judges, and other officials managed the administration. Various property and personal taxes and a rigid land tenure system supplied the revenues and compensated the administrative officials. Corvee, or forced labour, was performed by most peasants. The Armenian villages were supervised by their elders or belonged to the Church as endowed and charitable tax-exempt property, or waqf. The Muslim villages were supervised by their own elders (begs). Since eastern Armenia was a dry region, irrigation played a crucial part in the life of the inhabitants. Canals, some stretching twenty miles, were common, and officials in charge of irrigation followed a rigid set of rules to supply all farmers with water.
Large villages fanned communally, while small settlements were generally farmed by large clans. Agricultural lands followed a primitive two-field rotation system; half the plot planted, half left fallow. Oxen and wooden plows were used, and manure was used both as a fertilizer and as a fuel. Honey, nuts, millet, barley, and various oil seeds were the mekior crops. Cochineal insects, the source of the famed Armenian red dye, were highly prized. Gardens and orchards were especially abundant and produced a large variety of fruit, especially grapes, and vegetables. Since the peasants surrendered dared much of their harvest as taxes to the state or the lord, life was frugal. Rice, meat and high-quality wheat were reserved for holidays. Yoghurt, cheese, and bread baked in clay ovens, accompanied by greens and vegetables, were the main diet. Few people had beds, most slept on mats and used wooden utensils.
Family life was patriarchal. Men worked in the fields or pastures, while women, supervised by the oldest female (tantikin), threshed the grain, spun wool, and made carpets. The oldest male (aqu, tanmetz, or tanuter) headed the clan and had the final word on most matters. Sons inherited, while daughters generally received a dowry. Just like their Muslim counterparts, Armenian women rarely spoke in the presence of men or strangers, covered their faces, and were secluded. Apart from religion and customs concerning marriage and divorce, there were few differences between Muslims and Armenians. Age-old habits, prejudices, and superstitions were shared by both groups.
Armenians in Nineteenth-Century Iran
In 1801, Russia annexed eastern Georgia and began its final penetration of Transcaucasia. In 1804 Russia started the First Russo-Iranian war (1804-1813) and a year later, with the assistance of the Armenians of Karabagh had captured half of eastern Armenia. The chaotic political and socio-economic conditions of the previous century and the departure of many Armenians to Georgia hurt the economy of Yerevan, the center of the Iranian defence of Transcaucasia. Iranians, in order to save the rest of eastern Armenia, heavily subsidized the region and appointed a capable governor, Hosein Qoli Khan, to administer it. The khan, together with the Iranian crown prince, `Abbes Mirza, initiated a number of administrative and military reforms and, aided by Napoleon's campaigns in Europe, managed for two decades to thwart Russian designs on the remaining territories in eastern Armenia. In the end, superior Russian forces conquered all the lands north of the Arax River during the Second Russo-Iranian war (1826-1828). Transcaucasia became part of the Russian Empire, and the fate of eastern Armenia, henceforth known as Russian Armenia, was inextricably tied to that of Russia (see map 5). Some 30,000 Armenians left northern Iran and settled in Russia. The Armenian community in Iran revived in the second half of the nineteenth century, thanks to commercial ties with Armenian merchants in Russia and to the benevolence of the Qajar shahs. New Julfa re-emerged as well and its cathedral-monastery complex of the Holy Saviour organized an excellent library. The first Armenian periodical, and a history of the Armenians of New Julfa were published in 1880. The Armenian school in New Julfa received a state subsidy, Armenian clergy and churches were exempted from taxes, and confiscated Church property was returned. Armenian merchants opened new trading houses in the Caspian and Persian Gulf regions and traded with Russia, India, and Europe. Dried fruit, leather, and carpets were exported, and machinery, glassware, and cloth were imported. Royal sponsorship brought Armenians to Tehran, where, taking advantage of their linguistic abilities and foreign contacts, Nasr al-Din Shah (1848-1896) used them as envoys to Europe. Some of them, like Mirza Malkum Khan, David Khan Melik Shahnazar, and Hovhannes Khan Maschian were responsible for the introduction of Freemasonry, Western political thought, and technological innovations into Iran. Armenian tailors and jewellers introduced European fashions, and Armenian photographers were among the first in that profession. Armenians were also among the first Western-style painters and musicians. By the end of the nineteenth century there were some 100,000 Armenians living in a dozen cities in Iran (see map 6). The Armenians in Iranian Azerbaijan were soon exposed to the national and political ideas of the Armenians in Transcaucasia and, as will be seen, were to play a significant role in the history of twentieth-century Iran.
Armenians in Twentieth-Century Iran
By the twentieth century, Iran, like Egypt, was a major center of Armenian life in the Middle East. As we have seen, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were some 100,000 Armenians in Iran. The proximity of the Armenians in Iranian Azerbaijan to Transcaucasia and eastern Anatolia brought them under the influence of the political activities of Russian and Turkish Armenians. Armenakan, Hnchak and Dashnak cells opened in Tabriz and Salmas and a number of Armenian revolutionaries sought refuge from the tsarist and Turkish police there. The massacres of 1895-1896 brought Armenian refugees to north-western Iran. The Revolution of 1905 in Russia had a major effect on northern Iran and, in 1906, Iranian liberals and revolutionaries, joined by many Armenians, demanded a constitution in Iran. Although the shah signed the document, his successor dissolved the majlis or parliament and it was only in 1909 that the revolutionaries forced the crown to give up some of its prerogatives. The role of Armenian military units under the command of leaders such as Yeprem Khan and Keri, in the Iranian Constitutional Movement is well-documented. Thousands of Armenians had escaped to Iran during the genocide. The Turkish invasion of Iranian Azerbaijan during World War One devastated a number of Armenian communities in that region, such as Khoi. The community experienced a political rejuvenation with the arrival of the Dashnak leadership from Armenia in 1921. The establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty began a new era for the Armenians. The modernization efforts of Reza Shah (1924-1941) and Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) gave the Armenians ample opportunities for advancement. Armenian contacts with the West and their linguistic abilities gave them an advantage over the native Iranians. They soon gained important positions in the arts and sciences, the Iranian Oil Company, the caviar industry, and dominated professions such as tailoring, shoemaking, photography, auto-mechanics, and as well the managing of cafes and restaurants. Immigrants and refugees from Russia continued to increase the Armenian community until 1933. World War Two gave the Armenians opportunities to increase their economic power. The Allies decided to use Iran as a bridge to Russia. Western arms and supplies were shipped through Iran and Armenians, with their knowledge of Russian, played a major role in this endeavour. The Hnchaks, especially, were active and the Iranian Communist Party had an Armenian contingent. The majority of the Armenians remained loyal to the Dashnaks, while the minority, who had communist sympathies, either went underground or left with the Iranian Socialists when they fled to Russia in 1946. In 1953 the Iranian and few Armenian communists made a brief comeback during the Mossadeq period, but the return of the shah, once again decimated their ranks. Most Armenians, under Dashnak leadership, however, had remained neutral or loyal to the regime and were rewarded by the shah, For the next quarter of the century Armenian fortunes rose in Iran, and Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan became major centers with some 250,000 Armenians. The shah trusted and liked his Armenian subjects and Tehran, like Beirut, became a major center of Armenian life. Armenian churches, schools, cultural centers, sports clubs and associations flourished and Armenians had their own senator and member of parliament, Thirty churches and some four dozen schools and libraries served the needs of the community. Armenian presses published numerous books, journals, periodicals, and newspapers. such as The Wave (Alik). The better educated upper classes, however, were fewer in number and, compared to their counterparts in Lebanon, were relatively unproductive culturally. Although the Islamic Revolution has ended the second golden age of the Armenian community in Iran. the community has not lost its prominence altogether. Ayatollah Khomeini's restrictions, the Iran-Iraq War, and the economic problems resulting from Iran's isolation. forced the exodus of 100,000 Armenians. The current government is more accommodating and Armenians, unlike the Kurds and Iranian Azeris, have their own schools, clubs, and maintain most of their churches. The fall of the Soviet Union, the common border with Armenia, and the Armeno-Iranian diplomatic and economic agreements have opened a new era for the Iranian Armenians.
Source: A History of the Armenian People Volume II
By: George A. Bournoutian