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The History of the Armenians in the Orontes River Middle Valley
BEIRUT, LEBANON, Friday, 28 January 2005 (Haigazian University Department of Armenian Studies Press Release) - Hagop Cholakian, a seasoned Armenian educator and author based in Aleppo, Syria, was the guest of Haigazian University on the evening of Friday, 5 November 2004. He delivered a public lecture entitled ''The History of the Armenians in the Orontes River Middle Valley''. The talk was organized by the university''s Department of Armenian Studies.
Alongside his distinguished career as a teacher and author of a number of textbooks of the Armenian language, Cholakian is a poet and has a number of academic publications in the field of Armenian Studies. He received his university education in Yerevan. His lecture was the summary of his doctoral dissertation defended at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography in the Armenian National Academy of Sciences in 2002.

Cholakian told the audience, at the beginning of his lecture, that classical sources attest that Armenians lived in the city of Antioch, as well as in nearby villages scattered throughout the Orontes River Valley, as early as late Roman times. Armenians continued to live in the area in the Byzantine era, and the Armenian population of the area actually increased during the period of Arab domination. When the Byzantine Empire recovered the area as a consequence of decline of Arab military might, it transferred there new waves of Armenians. Some governors of Antioch were Armenians in the 10-11th centuries. Philaretus Varazhnuni, a former Armenian commander in the Byzantine army, briefly captured Antioch in 1078, before the city passed on to the Seljuks.

Citing mostly contemporary Arab sources, Cholakian spoke in detail about the assistance rendered to the Crusaders in 1097-98 by the Armenian population of Antioch and the neighboring villages and fortresses. The lecturer surmised that these Armenians were probably hoping to establish an Armenian state with the help of the Crusaders, for, once they witnessed the confiscation of their fortresses by the Crusaders and realized that the latter had come to Antioch to stay, the Armenians of Artah rebelled and got in touch with the Rawan, the Muslim ruler of Aleppo, as early as 1103, seeking on this occasion the latter''s assistance against the Crusaders. During the ensuing decades, some Armenians fought as mercenaries for the Crusader Principality of Antioch, and when Saladin advanced into the area in 1188, the fortresses of Kifr Tebbin (modern Hamameh) in the Shughr area, which was controlled by an Armenian, surrendered without a fight. Some scholars believe that the present Muslim inhabitants of Hamameh are the descendants of Islamized Armenians. Armenian sources refer to three separate dioceses of the Armenian Church in this area in the twelfth century, based respectively in Laodicea (modern Lattakia), Apamea and Antioch.

Cholakian outlined how the Armenians of the region suffered during the period of Mamluk and Ottoman dominion. Many villages vanished and their inhabitants migrated. All Armenian monasteries disappeared during this period. By the mid-nineteenth century, Armenians of the area had retreated into five relatively small enclaves: around the town of Beilan near the Bay of Alexandretta; the region of Musa Dagh; around the village of Kessab; on the Nusayri mountains east of the town of Lattakia (including the villages of Aramo and Ghnaymiyyah); and along the Orontes Valley (including the villages of Qnay and Yaqubiyyah). Armenians in these clusters shared a common dialect and many similar customs. Although the Armenians of the Orontes River Middle Valley had adopted Arabic as their mother tongue by the mid-nineteenth century, they still used a number of Armenian words in their vocabulary and children''s play songs.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, said Cholakian, the apathy of the Armenian Church leaders in Cilicia, Jerusalem and Aleppo made it relatively easy for Protestant and Catholic missionaries to convert a significant number of Armenians in the area. The lecturer cited a number of instances where individuals manipulated the opportunities for conversion to push for their material interests. Cholakian argued that these conversions also caused assimilation among many Armenians living in the area.

The region was heavily affected during the massacres of Armenians in Cilicia in 1909, said the lecturer. However, the Roman Catholic missionaries in Yaqubiyyah and Qnay managed to prevent massacres in those villages by arranging for the arrival of Ottoman troops from Antioch, an event which encouraged a new wave of Latinization among the local Armenians.

Cholakian stated that all Armenians in the region were deported during the genocide of 1915, except a few villages in Musa Dagh, which resisted until their rescue by Allied ships. The Armenians of Yaqubiyyah and Qnay were not deported. The exact reason behind their avoiding the sad fate of their ethnic kin in the region is not known. The local Roman Catholic priests claim that these Armenians escaped deportation because they were registered as Christians of the Latin rite. Other Armenians of Latin rite from Kessab and Beilan were deported, however. The deportees, who survived the ordeal, returned to their villages after the armistice signed in late 1918, only to clash with the local Muslims, who made them scatter into the neighboring Christian villages until 1923.

The last part of Cholakian''s lecture dealt with the attempts of the Armenian Church to reassert its presence in the area. In 1923, for example, Catholicos Sahak II of Cilicia, now based in the new state of Syria, tried to revive the activity of the Armenian Church in Kessab. In 1928, the Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo sent an Arabic-speaking priest to Yaqubiyyah. He reopened the old Armenian church in the village and helped the majority of the local Armenians return to the fold of their old Church. Yaqubiyyah soon got an Armenian school as well, and, in 1954, a new church was built. A number of Armenian students from Yaqubiyyah studied in Soviet Armenia from the mid-1950s and played an important role in reviving Armenian cultural life in the village after their return. Today, speaking the Armenian language has again become the norm for the Armenians living in Yaqubiyyah. Some Armenian villagers of Latin rite in Qnay, too, are now sending their children to an Armenian school nearby, and the speaking of the Armenian language is also on the increase in Qnay. Past Armenian migrants of Latin rite from these two villages have not undergone similar re-Armenization, however. Finally, the Armenians of Beilan and Musa Dagh (except the village of Vakif) all migrated when the French mandatory authorities ceded the sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, Cholakian surveyed a number of suggested etymologies regarding the place names Ghnaymiyyah, Qnay and Yaqubiyyah that are in circulation today. He also pointed out that Armenians from Yaqubiyyah are active in the cultural life of Syria. Cholakian commended the role played by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian in 1946 when he arranged that the Armenians of Latin rite living in Kessab should join the Armenian Catholic Church, which uses the Armenian language in its church services. Since the Armenian language is now taught in Syria as a language of religious rites, Latin rite schools cannot teach the Armenian language, because the Latin Church does not use Armenian in church services. Moreover, all Armenians of Latin rite from Kessab and Musa Dagh who had migrated to South America before 1946, have not maintained links with the Armenian Catholic churches on that continent. Cholakian also praised the work of Sister Marie Jeanne Topalian, an Armenian Catholic nun, who teaches Armenian songs to children among the Arabic-speaking Armenians in Qnay and encourages parents to send their children to the nearest Armenian school. He concluded that the Armenian Church should learn lessons from the fate of the Armenians of the Orontes River Valley and become more active among its flock so as to preserve Armenian national unity. Finally, a member of the audience pointed out that the first ever Armenian Diasporan student to study in a Soviet Armenian institution of higher learning in the post-Stalin period was from Yaqubiyyah.
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