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Armenian Origins

This article was first printed in November, 1985. It is being reprinted here as part of a series of looking back at the pages of Hye Sharzhoom.

Randy Baloian

Tracing the origins of Armenia is a task which does not lend itself to simplicity. Since it is likely that Armenians are descended from a collection of different peoples, it is often difficult to delineate the impact of each group on the ancestry of Armenia. Evidence comes from three complimentary sources: 1) archaeology 2) linguistic analysis and 3) ancient historical records. Unfortunately, these sources are often lacking in sufficient quantitative or qualitative data. Archaeological data is more often than not scarce; linguistic analysis is a poor indicator for determining absolute dates; and ancient histories are sometimes considered unreliable or suspect. It is not surprising then, that the study of Armenian origins contains a shortage of concrete facts and a myriad of uncertainty and speculation.

Below is a summary which includes the reflections of such scholars as Greppin, Burney, Lang, and Piotrovsky. Armenia (Armina) was first mentioned by name in 520 B.C. by Darius the Great, King of Persia. However, the earliest reasonable evidence of Armenian origin comes from the Hittites and Hurrians, both inhabitants of Anatolia during the second millennium B.C. Although the Armenian language is not thought to be closely related to Hurrian or Hittite, linguists point out that some words in Armenian could have been borrowed from Hittite and Hurrian languages (or vice versa). Word borrowing is a good indicator of cultural contact. Hurrian and Hittite nations fell in 1400 B.C. and 1200 B.C. (approx.) respectively. However, this does not rule out the possibility of these languages being spoken afterwards. Therefore, even though some links exist between the Armenian language and Hittite and Hurrian languages, it cannot be said when this occurred. Although Armenian and Hittite are Indo-European languages, linguists contend that both languages had been separated for a considerable amount of time. Thus, any Armenian contact made with the Hittites would have occurred long after the initial Hittite migration into Anatolia (2000 B.C.).

The southern migration of the early Greeks and Phrygians constituted a later Indo-European incursion into Asia Minor and the surrounding areas. The Phrygians in fact contributed to the demise of the Hittite empire and later occupied former Hittite territories. Armenian shows close linguistic similarities with both Greek and what little is known of Phrygian. In addition to linguistic comparison, some ancient historians equate Armenians as being Phrygians or having the characteristics of Phrygians. However, some cast doubt on such direct Armenian ties with the Greeks and Phrygians (Wilkinson, 1983). Between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C. the kingdom of Urartu occupied the land of what was later to be called Armenia. In its day, Urartu was a formidable nation; it contained irrigation systems, a central government, social stratification, an armed force, and complex transportation networks. Although archaeological data is good for this time period, it is not quite clear whether the Armenians lived within the empire or on its peripheries. Comparison of the material culture of Urartu and the early Armenian nation is presently not possible, since there is little archaeological data available for the following 4-5 centuries. Unlike Armenian, Urartian is a non-Indo-European language and shows close affinities with the Hurrian language. However, it is known that Armenian has borrowed Urartian words, especially proper and geographical names. A 65 year gap separates the fall of Urartu (approx. 585 B.C.) from the first reference to Armenia. History credits the Scythians and Medes with the fatal blow, but it is uncertain what role the Armenians played in the termination of Urartu. The only clue comes from the Greek historian Xenophon (of the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.), who refers to an Armenian revolt during the reign of King Cyrus. Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty, which replaced the Medes as rulers of Persia (550 B.C.). Xenophon goes on to say that Cyrus acts as a mediator between the Armenians and Alarodians (surviving peoples of Urartu). Cyrus convinces the valley dwelling Armenians to allow the Alarodians to cultivate the fertile soils of the valley, in exchange for tributes and use of Alarodian hills for pasture.

In analyzing the evidence presented, it seems there are few consistencies and patterns from which to form any concrete hypothesis. The emergence of Armenian culture appears to be a synthesis of Indo-European and indigenous Anatolian elements. Yet, without further data, any less general statement will be based on speculation. Furthermore, if Armenians were descended from a particular tribe (a self admitted speculation), it is very unlikely that any evidence could be found to prove this; tribes usually do not develop any written form of language or leave much in the way of distinctive material culture. For the time being, it must suffice to say that early Armenians, like their modern counterparts, were influenced by a variety of different cultures.