They’ve been implicated as the hidden genetic and geographic source of Ashkenazi Jews, and they’ve been put forward as one of the mystery strains in Cherokee Indians and Melungeons. Their position in Christianity is shown by their being one of the keepers of the keys to the City of Jerusalem. The entertainer Cher supposedly belongs to this ancestry on her father’s side.
Armenians, who have a greater importance in the world than many people think, have been added to DNA Consultants’ population database thanks to the kind suggestion of Eran Elhaik. The Armenian population data represent DNA samples from 404 unrelated individuals residing in four historically Armenian regions on the border between Western Asia and Eastern Europe or Russia: 105 individuals from the Ararat Valley, Armenia, 95 from Gardman, Azerbaijan, 103 from Sasun, Turkey, and 101 from Lake Van, Turkey. A minimum of two generations of ancestry information was recorded for each donor to establish regional descent.
The Armenian people are given short shrift in most historical accounts, but there is one book where they figure prominently. Johns Hopkins historian and MacArthur Prize recipient Philip D. Curtain in his Cross-Cultural Trade in World History devotes an entire chapter to the position of Armenian merchants as carriers of goods, ideas and people between Europe and East Asia. Surprisingly, the Armenian trade diaspora was more active and influential than Jews in both overland trade as well as maritime trade, reaching from China, India and the Indian Ocean to the Americas.
Historical Armenia consists of the broad area around the Caucasus region where present-day Turkey, Iran and the Soviet Union intersect. It is regarded geographically as part of Western Asia, but culturally as belonging to Europe. Armenians still live in those three countries, though the Socialist Soviet Republic of Armenia is the only residual political state that carries the name, and ethnic Armenians are widely scattered throughout the world. Altogether, they are estimated to be about six million, half remaining on the high plateau of the Armenian homeland and half living elsewhere, usually in strong diaspora communities, elsewhere in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Armenians are united by a common language, religion (a form of Christianity) and distinct culture. Their language belongs to the Indo-European family, where it constitutes a one-language language group. Linguists in the past classified it with Persian, but its separate status and autonomy are now recognized. It was one of the earliest languages in the region to be written and enjoys its own distinctive alphabet and long-flourishing literature. The Armenian religion is also a venerable and distinctive form of Christianity.
“In the early centuries after Christ, Armenia was in contact with the Christianizing Roman Empire, but outside its frontiers. Partly for this reason, it looked for religious authority to its own hierarchy, separate doctrinally from both the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and Nestorian Christianity that spread along the trade routes between Rome and China. With the rise of Islam in the Middle East generally, Armenia managed to maintain its position as a Christian island in a Muslim sea – much as Ethiopia did in Africa… Isolation as a separate religious community among Muslim neighbors also underlined the need to deal tactfully with Muslims and may help to account for Armenian commercial success as long-distance traders through Muslim lands.”
Strategically placed, though landlocked between the Caspian, Black Sea and Mediterranean, the Armenian homeland acted as a crossroads for trade passing from China and India to Europe and the Near East along the famous Silk Road and other caravan routes and sea lanes.
Armenian commercial success was also conditioned by three periods of empire. In the sixth through the ninth centuries BCE, the Armenian kingdom of Urartu enjoyed great prominence. As Rome rose to power in the second century BCE, the Armenian empire controlled all overland trade to and from China, belonging to the Parthian bloc rather than Roman orbit. And finally, in the tenth century CE, became again prosperous and powerful, its reach extending even to the Mediterranean. Not until it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in 1070 did Armenia decline.
In the meantime, many important Armenian trade colonies developed in the Levant, Constantinople, the Crimea, Russia, Persia and even in cities of Europe like Bruges, Nuremburg and Lisbon. These maintained a distinct Armenianness through contact with the Armenian homeland in the Ottoman Empire.
“With the Turkish seizure of Crimea in 1475, many of the Crimean Armenian were forced to move west as refugees into Moldavia, Transylvania and mainly to Galicia, now in southern Poland. In central Europe, they made contact with other Armenian communities in closer touch with the homeland. They therefore changed their culture once more – back to norms more nearly those of contemporaneous Armenia. In spite of many vicissitudes, the Polish and other Armenian settlements in central Europe kept their position in the overland caravan trade till they were finally displaced by railroads in the nineteenth century (p. 186).”
Such a conjoining of peoples squeezed out of Khazaria and Armenians driven eastward into Central Europe may explain the genetic confusion of Ashkenazi Jews and Armenians first suggested by Elhaik. This remains a huge controversy in population genetics. Whatever the explanations and disentanglements, however, our experience has definitely shown that it is easy for Jews to be Armenian results (though not vice versa) and for those with Cherokee ancestry to get both Armenian and Jewish matches.