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Monte Melkonian: Our Origins –  True and False

Monte Melkonian: Our Origins – True and False

"Our origins: true and false" is a thesis research on the origin story and development of the Armenian people. The article is taken from the official journal "Armenia" (July-August, 1981, Beirut). Moreover, it is published in Monte Melkonian's collection of essays "The Right to Struggle". We do know Monte as a national hero, a fighter for the justice, a soldier and a strategist, while we know little about him as a publicist and a researcher. 

This article shows the influence of research he undertook in 1977 in connection with his graduating thesis from the University of California at Berkeley on the subject of the rock cut tombs of Urartuan royalty. Three points emphasized here remained relevant to Monte’s lifelong approach to the national question: 

1. his observation that Armenians were constituted as a people native to eastern Anatolia; 

2. his repudiation of all genetic or racial theories of national origin; and 

3. his view that "culture,” broadly defined, is central to Armenian national identity. 


This article is not an attempt to justify our present struggle by invoking ancient history. The fact that Armenians were constituted as a people in their homeland over the course of several thousand years does not in itself say very much about the political demands that we are advancing today. Nevertheless, the archaeological and historiographic record refutes racist Turkish propaganda to the effect that Armenian presence in the region is much more recent. So at the risk of sounding irrelevant, our chronology will begin in prehistory. 

Because very little archaeological work has been undertaken in eastern Anatolia, we do not know much about the region’s earliest inhabitants. We do know that human beings have been present there for hundreds of thousands of years, though. As elsewhere, human societies in the region made a transition from hunting-and-gathering economies to economies based on cultivation and animal husbandry. Architecture, religion and other forms of cultural expression developed apace with the division of labor and the increased forces of production. 

We also know that as early as the thirteenth century B.C. the area was populated by a number of tribes which remained more or less isolated from each other. The Assyrians referred to this area as Uruatri when the Assyrian king mounted a campaign in the region to secure metals essential to Ids Empire. The unorganized hill tribes of Uruatri were no match for the mighty Assyrian Empire. Having no use for the indigenous people they encountered, die Assyrians massacred the population and destroyed their means of subsistence by cutting down their trees and vines. In response to years of such destruction the various tribes of Uruatri united under a single king. As a result of this political unification an effective resistance was mustered against dir ruthless Assyrian army in the ninth century B.C.  

Failing to differentiate between political, tribal and geographic terms, the Assyrians referred to the new political entity formed by the merger of the hill tribes as "Urartu.” The inhabitants of the region, on the other hand, referred to themselves as “the Tribes of Nairi,” or “the Tribes of Bianili.” It is interesting to note that the word “Van” came from “Bianili.” Eventually, the tribal confederation’s capital city, which was first called Tushpa, came to be known as Van. With the capital and ruling family at Tushpa, the basic administrative language of the confederation became the language of that city, which was Urartuan. This language was unrelated to Semitic, Indo- European, Altaic or any other family of languages spoken by neighboring peoples. Apart from Urartuan, little is known of the languages spoken in the tribal confederation.

There existed within Urartu two regions of special interest to us: Urme (or Arme) and Hayasa. These regions were located on the northern and western extremities of the confederation. The obvious proximity of the words Urme/ Armenian and Hayasa/Hai (the Armenian-language term for the Armenian people) suggests that these regions were the original home of the people who would later become known as Armenians. Unfortunately, archaeological work to date has not uncovered decisive evidence concerning the various tribes. To make matters even more obscure, the tribes of Urme and Hayasa in particular have been neglected because of their distance from the “main flow” of imperial history, which was then located between the Assyrian and Urartuan capitals.

During the seventh century B.C., major changes took place. By then horse- riding nomadic tribes bringing traditions from Central Asia began their penetration of both Urartu and Assyria. The mobility provided by their horses made their assaults forceful and lethal. Eventually these invaders brought about the downfall of both the Assyrians and the Urartuans. By 585 B.C. both had been defeated. The victorious horsemen looted the countryside, burned the cities and killed everyone within their reach. This, coupled with the subsequent onward push and partial assimilation of the nomadic tribes, left Urartu relatively underpopulated.

It was not until after the dissolution of the tribal confederation that reference to “Armenia” began. In the early fifth century B.C. references to the Achaemenid Armenian Satrapy were engraved as part of the monumental text of Behistun. “Armenia” was incorporated into the Persian Empire in the early years of Achaemenid rule (from 560 B.C. on). At that time Armenia was ruled locally by a monarch subordinate to the Persian King. The probable reason for the rapid establishment of an Armenian monarchy on the ruins of Urartu was the need for an indigenous governing authority. 

Since the tribes of Urme and Hayasa were the furthest removed from the main assaults of the nomads, they were also the least affected by the defeat of their Urartuan allies. And this in turn made them the most available population for the Persian king to dominate.

Archaeological evidence confirms the continuity of the populations of Urartu and Armenia and discounts the “Indo-European invasion theory.” Not only is there no evidence for a substantial influx of no indigenous peoples, but among these populations there was evidently a great deal of continuity in architecture, art, clothing, pottery, etc. All of this suggests that the “Armenian” people were originally incorporated into the tribal confederation. Just as the Urartuans derived their name from their land, the Armenian (or Hat) people derived their name from their own region of origin.

Over the centuries, the Armenian people developed as a distinct cultural entity. A key post on east-west trade routes, Armenia was conquered by competing empires representing different religions, languages and cultures. Armenian culture was stimulated by exposure to diverse cultural developments from Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, a great deal of intermarriage took place with peoples from as far away as China, India, Egypt and Rome. The physical variety among Armenians today is a result of this intermarriage. Armenian culture, on the other hand, developed into something clearly distinguishable from neighboring peoples. In centuries past, as today, culture rather than genetic lineage has come to define the Armenian people, the Armenian nation.

At this point, some readers may ask: If all this is so, then why do so many people and books claim that Armenians are “Indo-Europeans”? To answer this, we must turn our attention to more recent history. But first let it be noted drat the term “Indo-European” is a linguistic term, and oily a linguistic term.

It has only been given “racial” connotations by unscrupulous authors and politically-inspired propagandists. Comparative linguists in the “West” have long acknowledged that Sanskrit far predates any contemporary European language. However, when it began to dawn on British scholars of the colonial period that there were linguistic ties between Hindi and European languages, they dropped the idea of a racial-linguistic relation. Any insinuation of a racial relationship between proper British gentlemen and their dark-complexioned colonial subjects was just too much for the former to take—and just enough to put linguistic ties into proper theoretical perspective.

It is true that the Armenian language has been located at the end of a branch of the family tree of Indo-European languages. However, this fact alone sheds no light on the origins of the Armenian people. As explained above, material evidence suggests indigenous eastern Anatolian origins for the Armenian people. Although the reasons why these indigenous people adopted an Indo-European language remain obscure, one thing is clear and bears repeating: no racial connotations can be applied to the use of a language.

We might gain an insight into why some Armenian intellectuals came to accept the notion of an Indo-European “race” by taking a quick glance at the ideological milieu within which this “theory” gained currency. Most of the literature that propagates this notion was either written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or refers to sources written at that time. At the turn of the century, of course, the Armenian people were subject to extremely heavy oppression by the Ottoman sultan. Entertaining tragically misguided hopes of being aided by the European powers, some inexperienced and naive Armenian leaders embraced a very regrettable strategy — one which even more regrettably has not been abandoned to this day: they attempted to enlist the imperialist powers to intervene on behalf of the Armenians. Now if they were to intervene on the side of Armenians, they would have to have same reason to do so, some common ground. In an almost pathetic attempt to establish such a common ground, some Armenian intellectuals pulled religion and linguistics out of their hat. They argued that the Armenian people had a religious affinity with Europe (although Armenian monophysite Christian doctrine and the Gregorian Church are obviously quite different from European forms of Christianity), and that Armenians spoke a language related to those of the Great Powers. From there they argued that Armenians were long-lost European brothers (the “Indo-European invasion” hypothesis) who were in need of fraternal assistance from the “civilized world”.

Well, subsequent events — and one and one-half million martyrs — show how convincing this line of argument was for our “Indo-European brothers”. Lamentably, the oily people who have been fooled by these appeals to foreign powers have been Armenians. 

The time to repudiate these discredited ideas is long overdue. There exists no Armenian “race”. There are only an Armenian people, an Armenian nation. This is why we need to fight. The Armenian people in the Diaspora are losing their identity as a cultural-national entity, succumbing to the centrifugal effects of cultural assimilation. If Armenians of the Diaspora do not claim their right to live in their homeland they will gradually lose their common cultural identity. And if this happens, the white massacre of our nation will have succeeded. 

Source: The Right to Struggle (Selected Writings of Monte Melkonian on the Armenian National Question).

Illustration: Anaïs Chagankerian


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