The Armenian community in Iran

There has been an Armenian community in what is today Iran and what was formerly Persia for many centuries, and some extremely ancient Armenian Apostolic churches are to be found in the north of the country – for example, the so-called “black church” of Surp Tade Vank south of the town of Maku and the Surp Stepanos Maghartavank monastery in a gorge near Julfa which form part of a UNESCO-recognised world heritage ensemble of exceptional interest.

Armenians of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in Persia at the time of the 1915 Genocide, while other immigrants arrived after the Russian Revolution, and the Armenian population of Iran may have risen to a million or more at its peak. Today, however, the community is dwindling due to emigration, although not due to political or religious factors, as one might assume. While there is some inevitable discrimination given that modern Iran is by definition an Islamic state, a majority of those local Armenians leaving Iran are doing so for economic reasons and emigrating particularly to USA (rather than to the Republic of Armenia or Western Europe). Some of the traditionally strong Armenian communities, such as those in the New Julfa (or Nor Jugha) quarter on the south side of Isfahan and in the city of Tabriz and the vicinity of Urmia, have seen significant drops in population. Although the actual figures seem to be unknown and the process of emigration is continuing, it is thought that the total Armenian population of Iran may have fallen to as low as 75,000 in the years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the liberal, westward-leaning Shah.

The Armenians in Persia also had strong links with India and especially with the British in India, operating alongside (and often on behalf of) the Honourable East India Company along the overland trade routes to the subcontinent. This is why there are Armenian churches in various cities in India, even though the actual Armenian community is now greatly reduced in number. Armenian cemeteries are also important for those British family historians with East India Company connections, as the burials of the British usually took place in Armenian cemeteries where there was not a Church of England or other Protestant church. In Iran this practice remained prevalent until the end of the 19th century. A very good example of this is at the port of Bushire (Bushehr) in Iran.

The Google Map shows the Armenian communities and places of worship (not all extant today) in Persia / Iran in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these are in the far NW of the country around Lake Urmia, where Armenians have lived among Assyrians, Azeris, Kurds and other peoples for centuries. Some churches have been damaged by earthquakes and war but generally the Iranian state has been sympathetic to the Armenian heritage (compared to the neglect and destruction it has suffered in Azerbaijan and Turkey). Spellings of place names on the map have not been standardised.

 

This blog and map were first published by bluebirdresearch in 2012.

The Jews of Kurdistan

There are very few Jews remaining today in Kurdistan, although, post-Saddam, conditions would be more favourable for Jewish life at least in Iraqi or southern Kurdistan. While a few elderly Jews survive in the larger cities, and there are doubtless not a few part-Jewish Kurds descended from urban mixed marriages, most Kurdistani Jews left Iraq and Iran during the 1950/51 airlift to Israel.

The community was quite insular, unlike many other Jewish communities in the Middle East, including of course Baghdad, where Jews were cosmopolitan and often had extended family connections across the region. Furthermore, the native language of Kurdish Jews was Aramaic (although Jews in Mosul spoke Arabic) and secondarily the local Kurdish language (generally Kurmanji but Sorani towards the south of the area inhabited).

The Google Map shows the majority of towns and villages of former Jewish settlement in Kurdistan – an invisible country divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey (sometimes called respectively eastern, southern, western and northern Kurdistan).

Blue pins are former Jewish settlements in Iran; red pins in Iraq; green pins in Syria; and yellow pins in Turkey. Question marks show the approximate position of unlocated villages.

The map also gives 1881 population estimates for various larger places; these are taken from Andree’s “Zur Volkskunde der Juden” (pub Leipzig, 1881). There were 25,000 or so Jews across Kurdistan in the 1940s. Following the “Operation Ezra & Nehemiah” exodus to Israel in 1950/51, there are very few Jews resident today anywhere in Kurdistan.

 

Sources

The map is drawn from a number of print and online sources including Ora Shwartz-Be’eri’s fine illustrated volume The Jews of Kurdistan (Jerusalem, 2000) – to which particular acknowledgement is paid and which is highly recommended for family historians with Jewish roots in Kurdistan – and Evyatar Friesel’s Atlas of Modern Jewish History, and the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

This article and map were originally published by bluebirdresearch in 2012.