The Armenian Community in Thessaloniki:

Origin, Organisation and Ideological Evolution

I. K. Hassiotis

(extract from Queen of the Worthy, Thessaloniki, History and Culture, volume I, History and Society, edited by I. K. Hassiotis, Paratiritis, 1997, pp.296-305)

Despite references to the presence of individual Armenians in Thessaloniki as early as the Byzantine period, the history of the Armenian community as much cannot be traced beyond the 18th century, and in fact, the existence of a stable core of Armenians permanently settled in the city is first documented in March 1881. Beginning then in 1881, the history of the community can be divided into three periods: the first ended in the early 1920s when, with the arrival of thousands of Armenian refugees from Eastern Thrace and in Asia Minor, a new phase began, marked by significant changes in its size and social character; the second period ended in 1946-47, when the majority of our Armenian compatriots left Greece to “return” to Soviet Armenia, while the third period continues to unfold.

The demographic changes during the course of these three periods of the community’s documented history display considerable fluctuations. In March of 1881 we have, as we noted earlier, the original core community of 20-25 named Armenian families, for a total of about 80 persons[1]. This number doubled during the next fifteen years, reaching 324 souls by 1896[2]. With the incorporation of the city to the Hellenic territory in 1912, the total dropped slightly (to about 250)[3], as a number of Armenian officials in the Ottoman administration left Thessaloniki at that time. This number remained stable until after World War I, when it doubled to 500-600[4].

But the spectacular growth in the size of the community (which also holds true for the overall population of the city) occurred during the years 1920-1923), with its numbers first climbing to about 3,500[5], to reach 10,000 by 1923[6]. From that point on, this astounding number gradually began to fall. Starting in the autumn of 1924 and over the next three years more than 3,000 Armenians, or one in three of the total 1923 population, left the city. By 1929 the community numbered barely 6,500[7], at which level it held steady until after World War I. During the summer of 1946 there began a veritable exodus of our already much-wandered Armenian fellow citizens, not only from Thessaloniki but from so many other places as well. Tens of thousands of scattered Armenians from the Middle East and the Balkans, from Western Europe and America, accepted the invitation of the Soviet Union to settle permanently in Soviet Armenia. By November 16, 1947, some 4,600 Armenian residents of Thessaloniki had left the city[8]. The remaining community was soon further reduced: a goodly number of Armenians left Thessaloniki over the next five years to seek a better life in Western Europe or Latin America. By 1953 the community numbered 451 families, or 1,157 persons[9]. This number has remained fairly stable, with the current Armenian population of the city estimated at about 1,200.

From the economic and social point of view, the community displayed significant variations in its development. Late in the 19th century the Armenians of Thessaloniki were typical of the Sultan’ s Christian subjects who, along with the Greeks, took the lead in the modernisation and the westernisation of the Ottoman Empire. This picture changed somewhat after 1912: the Armenians who remained in the city were employed principally in the commercial sector or ran small industries, a fact which was underlined by their massive support for the city’ s International Trade Fair, right from its very first year (1926). The social nature of the community was somewhat altered by the influx of thousands of homeless refugees in the early years of the third decade of the century for, from thence forward, the core of prosperous businessmen was flanked by a huge mass of under-employed labourers and small tradesmen who lived –alongside the Greek refugees- in barracks or poor huts, mainly in the neighbourhoods of Aghia Paraskevi, Elefteria (Harmankioi), Kato Toumba, Harilaou, the Armenohoria (Sykies) and the Upper Town. These were the people who subsequently left Greece in 1924-27 and 1946-47, seeking a better life in the West or (the majority) in Soviet Armenia. Today the social character of the Armenian community does not differ in either diversity or dynamism from the population of the city as a whole.

The community began to organise itself in the 1880s. In 1884 the first six-member “National Council” (Azkhain Khorhurt) was formed, elected from the community’ s already well-established representative assembly[10]. The community, as well as its church, was under the rule and the jurisdiction of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople, which, in the period 1885-1922, appointed its parish priests. After the catastrophe in Asia Minor, the Armenian Church in Greece was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Armenian Apostolic Catholicate in Echmiadzin, Armenia. Since 1957 the parish priests of this community, as of the rest of the country, have been appointed by the Armenian Catholicate formerly of Cilicia, now of Antilias, in Lebanon[11].

With the appointment of the first parish priest, Father Michael Hovannesian, proper registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths, as well as archives, however sketchy, of the community, began to be kept. These archives are to a certain extent still extant. Within the next two years, 1887-1888, the community acquired its own cemetery, now close to the “Aghios Dimitrios” Hospital.

It was at this time too (1887) that the first Armenian school began to operate in more or less systematic fashion, with the parish priest as the teacher of a class of 10-12 pupils. In 1907 the community acquired its own two-storey school building, erected next to the church. It was here that the first properly trained teacher, Manig Depanian, began her career, initially with 30-35 and later with 40-45 pupils[12]. After 1922 the school building was used, as we shall see below, as the headquarters for the Armenian “Metropolitanate” (Bishopric) of Thrace and Macedonia. At the same time, it also served some of the pressing needs of the community, needs resulting from the influx of hundreds of homeless refugee children, housing a kindergarten, primary school and orphanage. Also doing what they could were the community’ s other schools: a girls’ school, opened in 1923 in Harilaou, and the so-called “national school” (kindergarten/primary school), which opened in 1928 in Bech Tsinar. Other schools which opened from time to time, wherever there was an Armenian neighbourhood, also served the double function of school and orphanage. All these permanent or temporary institutions were run, in the main, by the community, under the co-ordination of the Armenian Bishopric of Thrace and Macedonia and the various Armenian philanthropic societies, some of which were local and some of which were affiliated either with corresponding (and often under the same name) institutions run by the Armenian Diaspora or with foreign charitable organisations or missions[13].

Initially the Armenians of Thessaloniki fulfilled their religious needs in the Greek Orthodox churches[14]. In 1884 they began to organise a campaign to build their own parish church, seeking contributions from within the community and from other Armenian communities abroad. In 1902 they were able to acquire the land necessary to build a church, a school and a house for the priest[15]. Work began immediately, and within little more than a year the church had been completed. This is attested to by the inscription (in Armenian) which is set into the building above the door: “This Church was erected in the name of the Holy Virgin with the support of the (Armenian) community in Thessaloniki on the 16th of November of the Year of Our Lord 1903 and by the Armenian calendar 1352”. It is interesting to note that the church was designed by a major figure in the architectural history of the city, the Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli, who created many of the city ‘s best-known neo-classical buildings[16].

From the very beginning of its existence, the community lived the various ideological currents that marked the Armenian nation, especially within the Ottoman Empire. Neither its limited numbers during the initial phases of its history, nor its social composition, permitted it to be associated with the activities of the Armenian patriotic organisations during the decade of the 1880s, nor with the dynamic initiatives of the Armenian revolutionary parties in the dramatic decade of the 1890s. For this reason the Armenians of Thessaloniki escaped, in 1894-96, the terrible experiences of their brothers in Constantinople, Trebizond, Van and Zeytun, as well in other cities and areas of the Ottoman Empire[17]. We have not record of any connection between the Armenian community and the Young Turk movement, despite the collaboration of Constantinopolitan representatives of the two most important Armenian revolutionary parties[18]. In any case, in 1910, immediately after the Adana massacres, the community proceeded to set up its first philanthropic institution, for the purpose of relieving the orphans and other victims of the Cilician tragedy. Two years later, another similar association assumed responsibility for the care of Armenian prisoners in the First Balkan War[19]. In the summer of 1915, with the news still branded on their minds of the systematic genocide practised in Ottoman Turkey against their compatriots there, the Armenians of Thessaloniki endeavoured to stir up public opinion through a variety of manifestations[20]. During this period the community was actively campaigning for the liberation of the Armenian prisoners who had served in the Bulgarian forces (being resident in Bulgaria) but then joined the Allied (Entente) forces on the Macedonian Front (1916-1918).

In 1918 the community engaged in an extraordinary number of activities, given its tiny size: It contributed to the succour of the first refugees (Greek and Armenian) arriving from Thrace and western Asia Minor, and was involved in the mobilisation of Armenian volunteers for the Caucasus and Middle East Fronts, particularly in the formation of the famous “Legion d’ Orient” which subsequently was active in Cilicia[21]. That was also the year of the founding, by some of the younger members of the community, of an ideological movement, the “Armenian Youth Union”[22].

All these initiatives took place within a general climate of prosperity and national enthusiasm which gradually spread throughout both the Armenian colony and the Greek community in general, especially after the Armistice of Moudros (October 1918)[23].

Throughout the period of the Asia Minor expedition, and after the Greek defeat and the arrival in Thrace and Macedonia of waves of Greek and Armenian refugees, a number of the Armenians in the city, despite the opposition of the leaders of the community, were active in the campaign to mobilise the young compatriots to fight with guerrilla bands in sensitive areas on the frontier or in a case there should be a fresh outbreak of hostilities between Greece and Turkey while the Treaty of Lausanne[24] was being negotiated.

The ideological fermentations within the community grew sharper and more obvious during the decade 1915-1935, once the situation of the refugees in Northern Greece, including Thessaloniki, had stabilised somewhat. The ideological conflicts within the city’ s Armenian microcosm revolved around two issues, apart from the perennial problem of the preservation of the Armenian language and the ethnic character of the community in general: First and foremost, the question of the attitude to be adopted by the Armenian Diaspora towards the Soviet Republic of Armenia. One section of the community, those who were at least unable to make a comfortable living in their new homes, saw no other course open to them than “repatriation” to the distant but sole Armenian homeland in Transcaucasia. This faction was represented by three political parties: the Armenian communists, the small nucleus of the former Marxist Hintsakian party, and the supporters of the liberal-democratic party, Ramgavar Azantagan, which had been reorganised in 1921.

These three parties either organised the actual “repatriation” or lent it their support. By contrast, the majority of the Armenians supported the powerful socialist, but tenaciously pro-western, party of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Hai Hegapohagan Dasnaktsoutyun), which preferred to keep the Armenian nation dispersed but ready for any revival of the issue of a national homeland in the lost territories of eastern Turkey[25].

The second major issue challenging the community concerned its legal status (religious community or ethnic minority), the problem of the Greek citizenship of its members and generally of relations between Greece’ s Armenian population and both their social setting and the local national authorities.

These ideological conflicts were also fought in the pages of the Armenian press in Thessaloniki. It is an astonishing fact that, despite their struggle for survival, the Armenians of Thessaloniki published during the inter-war period (1923-1938) more than ten Armenian-language newspapers. Many of these were of course short-lived, while others did not appear regularly or were circulated in mimeograph copies. There were some, however, which played a major role in the life of the community, especially in a period when, as was true of the Armenian communities elsewhere in Northern Greece, within its relatively large circles extremely interesting ideological movements were taking shape[26].

Today the small number of the Armenians left in the city precludes the publication of the Armenian newspapers. The community does still have a printing press, however, which publishes fine works of literary, historic and social interest.

Towards the end of the 1960s the Armenian colony in Thessaloniki, abandoning (like the rest of the Diaspora) its community-centered focus, awoke to a rekindled sense of their Armenian ethnicity.

This change made itself felt not only in increased Armenian language teaching but in fairly frequent political manifestations on the anniversaries of the 1915 Genocide. This phenomenon was due partly to the growing social self confidence of the third and fourth generation, but also to the need to circumscribe their assimilation into the Greek community in the midst of which they live.

The trend to assimilation seems to have increased over the past thirty years, resulting in an inevitable shrinking of the Armenian community: 218 births to set against 573 deaths, plus increasing numbers of mixed marriages (55 out of total of 130)[27].

The small size of the community has however in no way impeded its cultural and political activities. In 1987 it acquired an “Armenian Cultural Centre”, one of the best in the city. The following year it inaugurated its own “Young Armenians”, summer camp in Pefkohori, Chalkidiki, one of the largest of its kind among the Armenians of the Diaspora. Following the proclamation of the independence of the Armenian Republic (September 1991), the community, jointly with all the other Armenian communities in Greece, hastened to despatch aid to help the new-born Republic face the tremendous economic problems created in the first instance by the Gmri (formerly Alexandropol/Leninakan) earthquake of 1988 and later (1992) by the Armenian-Azeri war for Mountainous Karabagh and the strangling embargo imposed by Turkey.

In fact the activity of its Armenian community has made Thessaloniki the principal channel for the air-lifting of food and medical supplies from the West to the embattled Trans-Caucasian Republic.

Notes

[1] Asadur H. Magarian, Hushakirk Tragio yev Makedonio Hai kaghutneru (Memorandum on the Armenian communities in Thrace and Macedonia), Thessaloniki 1929, pp.86-87.

[2] Public Record Office, Foreign Office (hereinafter: PRO/FO) 78/4734, ff.383-385 (Thessaloniki, 27 November 1896).

[3] Garo Kevorkian, «Dasn’ evyotu dari hunahai kaghutin het, 1922-1939” (Seventeen years with the Greek-Armenian community, 1922-1939), Amenum Darekirk, 7 (1960), Beirut 1959, p.354.

[4] At that time (November 1918) there were a total of 1,500 Armenians in Greece: 500-600 in Thessaloniki, 300 in Athens-Piraeus, 100 in Crete, and the rest in the islands and in the other cities in southern Greece and Macedonia. Consult Arthur Beylerian, Les grandes puissances, l’ empire ottoman et les Armeniens dans les archives francaises (1914-1918). Receuil de documents, Paris 1983, pp.713-716. See also I.K. Hassiotis, “Οι Αρμένιοι της Ελλάδας: Ιστορία, οργάνωση, ιδεολογία, κοινωνική ενσωμάτωση», («The Armenians in Greece: History, organisation, ideology, integration”), Histor, no.8 (1995), pp.86-89.

[5] A list of the names of this first group of refugees is preserved in the Αρχείο της Αρμενικής Κοινότητας Θεσσαλονίκης (Archives of the Armenian Community in Thessaloniki) (hereinafter: AAK), Deder Artsanakr tian kaghtaganats (Register of Refugees), no. 1, s.d.

[6] Of the total of approximately 55,000 Armenian refugees in the country as a whole, 20,000 of whom had settled in Northern Greece by 1924: see the report of the Armenian Bishop for Thrace and Macedonia, dated August 21, 1924, in: Αρχείο Υπουργείου Εξωτερικών (Archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs), 1924, 1st Political Directorate, series League of Nations, file F3 (hereinafter: AYE/1924/A/KtE/F 3), no.117 (transmitted to the Ministry by the Governor-General of Macedonia, no.16751, on August 24, 1924). Cf. Magarian, op.cit. p.137, Kevorkian, op.cit., p.354, and Hassiotis, «Οι Αρμένιοι της Ελάδας», (“The Armenians in Greece”), pp.89-90.

[7] Magarian, op.cit., p.137. Cf. Kevorkian, op.cit., pp.355-356 (by 1930, approx. 6,000 persons).

[8] I. K. Hassiotis – G. Kassapian, “The Armenian Colony in Thessaloniki”, Balkan Studies, 31/2 (1990), pp.216-217. Regarding the “repatriation” see Hassiotis, op.cit., pp.92-94, 102-104.

[9] Hassiotis – Kassapian, op.cit., p.217.

[10] Magarian, op.cit., p.90, with the names of the members of that first council.

[11] Magarian, op.cit., pp.90 and 133-136 (list of the parish priests between 1885 and 1903). For the submission of the Armenians in Greece to the Catholicate of Antelias and the events this provoked in the community, see Kevorkian, op.cit., pp.295-296. Cf Hassiotis, «Οι Αρμένιοι της Ελλάδας» (“The Armenians in Greece”), pp.94-95.

[12] Magarian, op.cit., pp.98-100; cf. Kevorkian, op.cit., pp.353-354.

[13] For community schools and orphanages, Magarian, op.cit., p.144 ff.

[14] P. M. Kontoyannis, «Σχολεία αλλοφύλων εν Θεσσαλονίκη», (“Schools operated by other nationalities in Thessaloniki”), Macedonian Calendar of the Pan-Macedonian Association, 1910, p.182.

[15] In the AAK there is a «hotzeti» dated 3 Safer 1320 (12 May, 1902), which mentions disputes within the community on the nature of the site. The difficulties must have been overcome within the year 1902, since work began on the church that same year.

[16] B. S. Kolonas – L. G. Papamatthaiakis, Ο αρχιτέκτονας Vitaliano Poselli: Το έργο του στη Θεσσαλονίκη του 19ου αιώνα (The architect Vitaliano Poselli: His work in the Thessaloniki of the 19th century), Thessaloniki 1980, p.64, photos 57-63.

[17] There is absolutely no record of any form of political collaboration whatsoever between the Armenian community in Thessaloniki and its counterpart in Athens, which, as we know (See I.K. Hassiotis, “The Greeks and the Armenian Massacres, 1890-1896”, Neo-Hellenica, 4 (1981), pp.87-109), played a major role in the Armenian revolutionary movement during the period 1890-1896.

[18] For these connections, see E. E. Ramsey, The Young Turks: Prelude to the Revolution of 1908, Princeton 1957, pp.62-64, 124-130.

[19] Magarian, op.cit., p.259.

[20] Beylerian, Les grandes puissances, pp.59-60.

[21] Beylarian, op.cit., pp.489, 716.

[22] Magarian, op.cit., p.259.

[23] I. K. Hassiotis, «Shared Illusions: Greek-Armenian Co-operation in Asia Minor and the Caucasus (1917-1922)”, in Greece and Great Britain During World War I, ed. Institute of Balkan Studies, Thessaloniki 1985, pp.144-160.

[24] See Magarian, op.cit., p.129.

[25] For the attitude of the Armenian political parties of the Diaspora towards Soviet Armenia and the problem of “repatriation”, see I.Libaridian, “Armenia and the Armenians: A Divided Homeland and a Dispersed Nation”, in the volume Soviet Asia Ethnic Frontiers (ed. W. O. McCagg, Jr.-Br. D. Silver), New York 1979, pp.36-39, 47-51 and 59, notes 79-80. Cf. Hassiotis, «Οι Αρμένιοι της Ελλάδας» (“The Armenians in Greece”), p.93 and 103.

[26] Titles and ideological currents are listed by G.Tousimis, «Ο αρμενικός τύπος της Θεσσαλονίκης γύρω στα 1930» (“The Armenian Press in Thessaloniki around 1930”), Actes of the VIIth Panhellenic Historical Congress, Thessaloniki 1986, pp.109-118.

[27] These numbers are taken from a quick tally of births marriages and deaths recorded between 1960 and 1993 (inclusively) in the Domar (register) of the community. The information yielded reflects, on the one hand, the natural diminution of the community and, on the other, the increasing numbers of mixed marriages. This factor is apparent in the drop in the birth-rate, from an average of 8.1 in the period 1960-1980 to an average of 4.6 over the following 12 years. As for the mixed marriages, while these were markedly fewer than inter-Armenian marriages during the first period (38 to 64), they were more numerous in the second (17 to 11): Hassiotis, «Οι Αρμένιοι της Ελλάδας», pp.109-110.

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