JACKLIN GHARIBIAN–STAFF WRITER
Approximately half of the Armenian population in the world lives outside of its homeland. Armenians have created new headquarters all over the globe, forming the Armenian Diaspora which was mainly caused by the 1915 Armenian Genocide. They have built communities in Greece, France, India, Australia, Iraq, Italy, Canada and (of course) America. However, there exists an Armenian community in Iran that has survived for the past 400 years. No, I am not referring to New Julfa (Isfahan), rather to a cluster of villages, nearly 90 miles west of New Julfa, called Peria (Pear-e-a). “So what? Who cares? What’s the point?”, one may typically ask. It is easy to underestimate what an unknown group of individuals living in a remote part of the globe could achieve. However, Perians (Armenians of Peria) have not only endured living in an exile and being treated as second-class citizens, but they have survived to create a thriving Armenian community. Most importantly, Perians have been courageous enough to practice their doctrine for nearly four centuries without giving up their faith in God. To this day, they remain valorous Christians in a country of Muslim nationalists.
“Who are these people, how did they settle in Iran, and why?” To discover the answers, we have to journey back to the period of Ottoman and Persian domination of Armenia. In the early 1600’s, the Persians controlled the eastern half of Armenia; while the Ottomans ruled over western Armenia. At the time, the two empires played the power game–each trying to expand its jurisdiction over Asia Minor which included Armenia.
In 1603; Shah Abbas I of Persia launched an attack on Ottoman lands, conquered Tabriz, fought against the Turks to seize Nakhichevan, and, in 1604, he captured Yerevan. From Constantinople, Sultan Muhammad sent forces to fight against the Persians. Because of this, Shah Abbas ordered the Armenians to pack up and abandon their homes. To enforce his ruling, the Shah commanded his men to burn down the Armenian homes–this way, the Armenians would have no choice but to leave. From Armenia, they were forced to march towards Iran. On their way, the Armenians encountered another obstacle; they had to cross the Araks river–but there were no bridges available and the Persians (having learned that the Ottomans were in the surrounding area) forced the Armenians to swim across the river. Old men, women and children jumped into the freezing waters of the Araks–only the fortunate few successfully made it to the opposite side; the rest died as their bodies floated on the waves of the Araks.
Finally, in the spring of 1605, the Armenians were transferred to Isfahan. Approximately, 25,000 families took this journey from 11 known regions in Armenia, such as Van, Kars, Alashkert, and Manezkert. The Persians burdened themselves with this for a very simple reason: Shah Abbas wanted to improve the agricultural economy of the Persian Empire, and the Armenians (being advanced in this field) were the best candidates to fulfill the needs of the Persians. Of those who arrived in Isfahan (New Julfa), some were transported to Peria. Peria had rich soil and a climate that favored the agriculturists. The Armenians were reminded of their homeland as they glanced over the heavenly landscape of Peria. At the time of settlement, Shah Abbas executed careful politics, as he reasonably sided with the Armenians at times of conflicting instances with the local Persians, and he even allowed the Armenians to continue living as Christians. However, Shah Abbas believed that within time the Armenians would automatically integrate with the local Persian population and adopt the Islamic way of life. Although this scenario took place in certain Armenian communities, Perians proved to contradict the Shah’s predictions, as they fought to maintain their cultural and religious identities. Several Armenians (of Peria) were butchered to death for refusing to become Muslims.
The population of Peria fluctuated along with the number of villages that existed. People, over time, moved away and some relocated from one village to another. In 1851, 4,949 people lived in 19 villages; by 1910 the population increased by more than 200 percent (25 villages were populated by 12,083 people). These figures from the 20th century indicate that Peria was a strong Armenian community outside of New Julfa. Interestingly enough, Peria was a segregated community; no Muslims were allowed to reside in any of the villages. At certain times, the villages of Peria survived harsh economic conditions, such as droughts, by assisting one another without depending on the Persians. Hence Peria was a self-supporting, self-governing community under the authority of the Muslims.
My 84-year-old grandmother, Vartanoush Gharibian, was born in Mealagerd, one of the villages of Peria. “In my time, things were much better…they [the Persians] didn’t harass us as much as in the old days,” she stated. “During Zella Sultan’s time [1890’s], Armenian men were forced to walk on broken glass, in mud, with their bare feet…”.
My grandmother’s generation was fortunate to have lived in Iran in the early 20th century; for at the time, the Turks were calculating the “crime of the century”. In 1915, Vartanoush was four years old. She had no idea that Armenian children, her age, were being massacred by the Turks in the very same regions that her ancestors were once forced to abandon. It is tragic to think that “what if” the Armenians were not forced to march towards Persia, nearly three centuries before the Genocide. “What would have happened then?” Although this question is too vague and controversial; it does, further, explain how the faith of the Armenians partly depended upon the command of Muslim dictators (Shah Abbas, Talaat Pasha, etc.).
Reports about the Genocide reached Peria, “Armenians [from the Ottoman Empire] escaped and came to Peria…they told us everything,” said Vartanoush. The Armenian Genocide was committed by the Turks, why didn’t the Persians murder the Armenians in Persia (since they did not cooperate with the notion of becoming Muslims)? There are several reasons: first, the Persians did not have an “Armenian Question” to solve; second, the circumstances of the two Armenian centers (Armenia and Peria/New Julfa) were totally different because each was under the authority of two distinct governments. Most importantly, the Armenians in Peria (and New Julfa) were considered to be assets for Persia–they were valued and respected for advancing the economy of the country. Thus, killing the Armenians would be similar to throwing away gold (a treasured resource). “Armenians worked well…we earned respect from the Persians…so, we knew that we were superior,” explained Vartanoush.
Perians, over the four centuries, developed a unique community. Thus, when examining their history one would be foolish not to pay a closer attention to their culture. “What did these people do on a daily basis, how did they make a living?” The majority of the Perians (possibly 95 percent) were agriculturists. Those who were wealthy enough to own land employed other Armenians (and sometimes Persians) to cultivate such crops as wheat, barley, grain, potatoes, beans, and grapes. Being farmers, they also raised farm animals. A wealthy family owned perhaps 500 acres of land and 100 sheep. In other words, money was not considered to be wealth. Many farmers, traveled to New Julfa to trade their harvested crops for commodities that they could not produce with their own resources which included, sugar, certain clothing items, shoes, school supplies, etc. A few of the Perians, perhaps five percent, made their living as carpenters, musicians (Sazandar), stone-carvers, fabric-makers, tailors, and shoe-makers.
To organize the farm in an efficient manner, Perians had large families. For instance, my fraternal grandfather shared the tasks of the farm with his two brothers and their large families. Thus, three families, a total of 20-25 people, lived as one larger family. They shared their wealth (land, cattle, etc.) among one another without there begin a dispute about the responsibilities of a given family member. This domestic life was typical of other families as well.
Marriage is an interesting topic for the Perians. From one generation to the next, they followed ancient disciplines and rituals with very little change. Because labor was an essential part of the agricultural economy, adolescents married to produce labor by creating a family. In some instances, the bride and the groom met at their own wedding, because their families had pre-arranged their marriage. My grandmother married at the age of 19. “My uncle knew Haroutoun [her future husband], and he knew that he was a good family-man…so, I had to marry him, and it really didn’t matter,” she said. One must realize that life in Peria was methodical and simple. People only demanded to have a secure life and all else was a secondary matter. “You have to look back seven generations from each side of the family to see if the girl or the boy came from a good family…you ask friends and relatives to find out,” Vartanoush explained. Researching the past generations of a given family was conducted before the blessing of the marriage, because it was necessary to make certain that the two families were not related. This system functioned perfectly, because they were no lonely singles walking about the villages searching for love, the divorce rate tended to remain near zero percent, and no one complained.
One of the most fascinating institutions in Peria, beyond the Apostolic churches, was the Armenian school. Although, it is not to be compared to the formal educational system of today; it, nevertheless, represents the concepts that the Perians valued. The first school in Peria was founded sometime between 1630-1640. This was only 25-35 years after the time that they had actually settled in Iran. Until 1896, students were only taught religion–they studied the Bible and the interpretations of the Divine Liturgy. This, of course, served the purpose of preserving their Christianity. For the first time, in 1896, (in the village of Khogan) English, Persian, math, and music were added to the curriculum. In the 1937-38 academic year, there were 23 schools in Peria with 63 educators and 2056 pupil. This was one of the greatest achievements of the isolated community.
Today, Peria has disappeared; most of its inhabitants live in New Julfa, some traveled to Europe and America, only a dozen Armenians still live in Peria as agriculturists. My father’s generation, in the 1960’s and 70’s, moved from the villages of Peria in search of more challenging opportunities. Peria is now occupied by Muslims–the simple, stable, society changed dramatically. Perians, who live in New Julfa, are integrated with the Persians. Today, there are rumors of a record number of Armenians marrying Muslims and adopting the Islamic way of life, but those who do are a small minority (maybe 1 in a 1000). Now, it is up to the upcoming generations to comprehend the importance of preserving and enhancing their cultural traditions.
Perians are a minority among Armenians, but they represent the foundation of all Armenians–a strong, nationalistic group of independent-minded individuals who have survived to claim the pride of their rich heritage. It was not faith that preserved them, it was they who preserved their faith.