Armenians in Bulgaria

According to 1994 data, as many as 13 000 Armenians live in Bulgaria. There are three Armenian newspapers (Yerevan published in Sofia, Vahan in Plovdiv and Armentzi in Bourgas, all of them bilingual). Most of the ethnic Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church (Armenian Apostolic Church or Gregorian Church), a small number of them  are Evangelists.

The earliest evidence of Armenian settlers in the Bulgarian lands dates from the 5th century. They were cavalry soldiers coming with their families from Eastern Armenia, under Byzantine rule at that time. Presumably, most of the Armenian migrants between the 7th and 11th century were assimilated.

One hypothesis claims they were what are known as "Pavlikiani" (Paulicians) - followers of a heretic Christian teaching introduced by Armenians and Syrians. The Paulicians merged with the native Bulgarian Bogomils; later, however, most of the heretics embraced Catholicism. Meanwhile, the number of Gregorian Armenians grew up. Following the Ottoman conquest,  both Bulgaria and Armenia became provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

The repeated devastation of Armenia by Turks, Arabs and Persians forced an ever growing number of Armenians to migrate to the Balkans. The first census conducted in the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia after the restoration of Bulgaria's statehood in 1878, recorded a total of 5300 Armenian residents. The young Bulgarian state proved to be a good soil for the activation of Armenian structures - the church, schools, associations, charities, the emerging intelligentsia, the establishment of active relations with Armenian colonies in other countries. It should nevertheless be mentioned that the first Armenian newspaper appeared in the city of Varna as early as 1833.

In the late 19th century (1894-1896) the Ottoman administration inspired and conducted in Western Armenia and European Turkey "ethnic cleansing" involving inconceivable atrocities during which more than 300 000 Armenians were massacred. This act provoked huge indignation among the Bulgarian public. Bulgarians and Armenians together held protest rallies in defence of the Christian population. Yavorov, the poet, wrote his famous poem "Armenians". Nearly 20 000 persons took refuge in Bulgaria. Although the Bulgarian authorities formed special committees to handle their arrival and accommodation, and the local Armenian population gave shelter to many of their compatriots, misery and diseases accompanied this immigrant flow. Bulgaria once more became a haven for Armenian refugees during the first decades of the 20th century. In the wake of the large immigrant wave from the end of the 19th century, the Armenians already had their own operative organizations - the Armenian Red Cross,  women's charity societies, etc. In 1935 and later in 1946, groups of Armenian population emigrated back to Armenia, then a constituent republic in the USSR.

From the beginning of the 20th century up to the mid 1940's, over 50 Armenian newspapers and magazines were being published in Bulgaria; divisions of the traditional Armenian parties were set up among the ethnic community, Armenian organizations became active, a system of contacts with the Armenian Diaspora in other nations was established. Insofar as the Bulgarian society showed continued interest in Armenian culture, works by Armenian authors were published in Bulgarian as well.

The policy of the communist regime towards ethnic Armenians was inconsistent and contradictory, as was their attitude toward all minority groups. At first, the Armenian schools were funded by the government, but the language taught there was not the West Armenian tongue spoken by Armenians on the Balkans, but East Armenian - the idiom of Soviet Armenia. In 1961 these schools were closed, together with all other schools of minority groups.  As a result of an antireligious line, some of the Armenian churches were destroyed, although they were part of a cultural heritage. All Armenian organizations were disbanded, the newspapers and magazines suspended; instead, the state-controlled Cultural Educational Organization of the Armenians in Bulgaria named Yerevan and the newspaper by the same name were created (1944). The role of this newspaper  should not be interpreted one-sidedly, from a single perspective. Like any other publication in the Bulgarian context during that period, it was an instrument of government propaganda. At the same time, however, it was the only viable field of expression for people promoting the Armenian identity. Although it was quite difficult to leave Bulgaria in those years, some 5 thousand ethnic Armenians succeeded in emigrating to the USA.

After the political change in 1990, a good number of Armenian organizations were restored - the Armenian General Benevolent Union "Parekordzagan", the Armenian Relief Society HOM, the Youth Boy-scout Organization "Homenatmen", the "Hamazkain" Armenian Cultural Association, as well as choirs, theatrical groups, etc.  The Yerevan Organization, thoroughly transformed, has continued to function. At some schools (in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna) Armenian language classes have been introduced; in places where Armenian communities are smaller, Saturday schools have been opened. The traditional Armenian holidays, both religious and historical,  began to be celebrated. As a rule, the commemoration of the 1915 genocide is covered by the Bulgarian central news media.

The Armenians in Bulgaria are, on the one hand, an extremely sturdy community which has preserved its identity even in the years when doing it was not easy; on the other hand, they are completely integrated into the Bulgarian society and participate in all public spheres of life. Historically, they have been known as skilled artisans in trades traditional for their community such as jewellery,  watchmaking, etc. Nowadays, quite a few of ethnic Armenians are active in the field of information technologies. Many are the Armenian names related with the spheres of art and science in Bulgaria (listing them would take too much space). The outstanding presence of Armenian family names among the authors in the fields of Bulgarian art and science, in turn, has stimulated a reverse process - interest on the part of the Bulgarian public in Armenian culture and history.

The People of Bulgaria

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