Angelina Der Arakelian

Growing Up Armenian-Cypriot: Caught Between Two Fronts

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By Angelina Der Arakelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

“So, where are you from?” This is a common question to which an Armenian born and raised in Cyprus cannot articulate a simple answer.

Armenians in Cyprus today date back from the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, when thousands had migrated from the Ottoman Empire to the small Mediterranean island close by. But the history of Armenians present in Cyprus originated much earlier than that, with the first links between Armenia and Cyprus being formed in 578 AD. Following that, during the Middle Ages, Cyprus formed an extensive connection with the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.

At present, Armenians in Cyprus make up a small minority of about 3,500 out of the total population of 1.2 million. While a majority of Armenians are Cypriot born, about 1,000 have immigrated from the Republic of Armenia as well as other countries in the Armenian diaspora, such as Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

Mislabeled as a Religious Group

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Despite Armenians having been present on the island for centuries, the way they have been perceived has altered over time.

Before 1960, Armenians co-existed with two other primary nationalities, Greeks and Turks, under British rule. Following the independence of Cyprus, when Greeks governed the island, Armenians were asked which side they would like to live on; the area designated to Greeks, or the area that was allocated to Turks. Today, Armenian Cypriots co-exist with Greek Cypriots, living in the southern side of Cyprus despite the existence of the Saint Magar Monastery located on the northern Turkish side, which indicates of course that they once lived there too.

Armenians have maintained strong relations with Greeks, particularly as they were united by a common Christian religion, and both face a common rival, Turkey, so, naturally, the decision was to co-exist with Greeks, rather than Turks.

Upon that decision, Armenians were categorized as a special group of people.  Today Armenian Cypriots are recognized as a “religious group,” one of three along with Latins and Maronites.

The use of this term has been subject to misunderstanding and confusion. It has confused the identity of Armenian Cypriots because by definition, a religious group implies a group of people defined by their religion, and not their nation or nationality.

As such, Armenian Cypriots can easily be misjudged as a religious group, rather than a people with its own nation, language and culture.

Armenian Identity after Invasion of 1974

After the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, the distinctions between Greeks and Turks became even stronger. Each possessing land of their own, Greeks and Turks have since defined their share of the island.

With two dominant nations clashing over a communal problem, the Armenians, forming a minority community, have been forced to assimilate into the majority – in this case, the Greeks, as mentioned by Andrekos Varnavas in his study in The Cyprus Review (Vol. 22.2, Fall 2010).

In this context, Armenians have had to deal with multiple questions regarding the status of their nationality, and to some extent, their culture. As an Armenian Cypriot myself, I have faced multiple episodes of questioning, both from myself and others.

Where am I from? My name, language and culture tell me I’m Armenian. My birthplace and location tell me I’m Cypriot. How do I distinguish between the two?

If the idea of being Cypriot is based on belonging to one of the mainstream communities – Greek or Turkish – then what happens when I declare that I am neither?

Maintaining Armenian Identity in Cyprus

Following the closure of the Melkonian boarding school, Cyprus’ only remaining Armenian school is Nareg, which operates in the cities of Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol.

I am grateful to have been able to attend an Armenian elementary school that taught me the Armenian language from the very beginning of my education, and for having the chance to immerse myself in an Armenian community, no matter how small in size.

Most Armenians are trilingual, speaking English, Armenian and Greek; some speak four languages (with the older generation still speaking Turkish). Some may also learn French or another foreign language at a private secondary school.

While the curriculum of Nareg had been taught in primarily English and Armenian, it has gradually started to shift to teaching subjects such as science and geography in Greek. Still, Armenian Cypriot students generally continue their education at private, English-speaking schools, followed by universities abroad.

Outside of school, clubs run by organizations such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) function to keep the Armenian community together.

Armenians have been present in Cyprus for as long as Greeks and Turks have, along with numerous other communities. The fact that Armenians have been grouped as a religious minority gives the impression that their main distinguishing factor is their religion.

As with Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, Cyprus’ Constitution has yet to recognize Armenian Cypriots as an ethnic people, with their own country, language and culture. Instead, they are perceived as a “religious group” which has resulted in the unequal footing of Armenians in terms of having their voice heard as Cypriots.

Since the choice that was made in 1960, Armenians have lived with Greeks, setting their ethnicity and culture aside to foster a smooth transition from British to Greek and Turkish rule.

Still, to this day, Armenian Cypriots, born and raised in Cyprus, don’t have their voice heard fully. Despite being able to vote in elections, they don’t have a vote in Parliament through their elected representative, and an Armenian-Cypriot cannot qualify as a presidential candidate, which leads me to wonder, Where am I from?

Angelina Der Arakelian is a published author and poet born in Cyprus. She is currently studying film and English at the University of Southampton as an aspiring filmmaker. She is also a freelance writer and journalist, with a passion for exploring history and its effects on society today.

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