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Aleppo No Longer A Safe Haven For Syrian-Born Armenians

Gevorg Payasian's father, Asatur, was just 15 years old when he was forced to flee his home in the ancient city of Ayntap in what is now southeastern Turkey.

His entire family had been killed by Ottoman troops in what many historians now term the Armenian genocide, the mass slaughter and deportation of Anatolia's ethnic Armenians between 1915 and 1922.

Alone, he set out on foot, walking about 130 kilometers before reaching a haven in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Unbeknownst to him, his 9-year-old sister, Nektar, had somehow survived the massacre and was making the same journey.

Asatur went on to reunite with his sister in Aleppo. He went to school, started a family, and built a successful horse-breeding business from scratch.

But his son Gevorg, now a 69-year-old businessman specializing in radio equipment, believes even as he praised Syria's "merciful embrace" of his people, his father never recovered from the trauma of seeing his home and family destroyed:

"My father always remembered his ancestral home in Ayntap," he says. "He would tell me about how he fled from the Turks and reached Syria. The Turks had killed his parents and relatives. My father and his sister were the only survivors in their family."

Nearly a century later, it is the son who is fleeing -- leaving the city that offered his father safe harbor as the bloody 17-month battle between government loyalists and opposition rebels settles over Aleppo.

Rich History, Uncertain Future

Hundreds of Aleppans have been injured and dozens killed in the recent weeks of fighting in Syria's largest city, with government jets bombarding residential buildings and rebels waging a street-level war for control.

Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated the city in a desperate bid to escape the violence, including up to 3,000 Armenians, who have decamped for Lebanon and Armenia, leaving behind a rich history and a highly uncertain future.

Even before the World War One-era massacres, Armenians had made a home in Aleppo for centuries. The Forty Martyrs Cathedral, a 15th-century Apostolic church, is one of the oldest functioning churches in the Armenian diaspora, and the Armenian presence in the city is believed to reach back as far as the 1st century B.C.

But it was the Turkish slaughter and deportation of Armenians in the early 20th century that laid the foundation for the city's contemporary Armenian community.

PHOTO GALLERY: Aleppo's Armenian Community

Thousands of Armenians poured into Aleppo, desperate to escape the wrath of the Ottoman troops.

Settling in orphanages or large refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, the Armenians battled starvation and disease early on.

But according to Keith David Watenpaugh, a Middle East historian at the University of California at Davis, the population steadily rallied. Within the course of a generation, it had launched businesses and opened hospitals, libraries, and cultural centers,

"Over that period of time, the Armenians went from being penniless refugees, a population made up mostly of women and children survivors, to very much a middle class," he says. "[They were] involved in all sorts of forms of trade, education, medicine, dentistry, and also more traditional Armenian professions like carpets and jewelry making and so on. So they've transformed Aleppo, and they've been transformed by Aleppo."

Integrated And Prosperous

At its peak, Aleppo's Armenian population was believed to comprise as many as 220,000 people.

The community enjoyed broad cultural autonomy, with organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation supporting Armenian-language schools, theaters, and sports clubs.

Even as a Christian minority in a Muslim-dominated city, Armenians have become an essential part of Aleppo's multicultural and commercially minded population, which includes Kurds, Circassians, and Arab Christians, as well as the country's majority Sunni Muslims.

"Part of what has made Aleppo prosperous is the diversity of its communities," Watenpaugh says. "Aleppans have an incredible sense of openness to the rest of the world."

And although Syrian Armenians have been forbidden from forming political parties or reaching the upper echelons of government, they are far from a ghetto community -- not assimilated, perhaps, but definitely integrated. Nearly all young Armenians speak fluent Arabic; many study in Arabic-language universities or serve in the Syrian military.

Since the 1970s, Aleppo Armenians have also enjoyed benevolent ties with the ruling regime. As members of the minority Alawite sect, both Hafez al-Assad and his son, current President Bashar al-Assad, actively courted the country's ethnic minorities to shore up their support base in the face of Sunni opposition.

That partnership resulted in years of relative security for Syrian Armenians. But Simon Payaslian, an Aleppo-born professor of Armenian history and literature at Boston University, suggests the association may prove toxic if and when the Assad regime falls.

"The Armenian community became very closely identified with the Assad government, just like a number of other minority groups [who] were cooperating with Assad's regime," he says. "Now the problem is once the Assad regime falls apart, and the opposition begins to consolidate power, they may begin to physically attack the Armenian community, just as a revenge factor."

Intensifying Violence

Aleppo's Armenian districts remain, for now, largely unaffected by the fighting in the city. Armenia's diaspora minister, Hranush Hakobian this week said neighborhoods such as Azize and Suleimanyeh remained under government control after briefly being seized by Syrian rebels on August 20.

But the intensifying violence has alarmed many Armenians, many of whom had already begun to feel unnerved by the slow drain of Egyptian Copts and other fellow Christian minorities away from the Middle East as the region comes under a growing Islamist influence.

A lot of Aleppan Armenians still remember the fallout of the 1982 Hama massacre, when members of the Muslim Brotherhood, incensed by the mass slaughter of Sunni Muslims at the order of Hafez al-Assad, randomly attacked Armenian schoolchildren on the street.

Watching the steady advance of the current conflict, Payasian was fearful that Armenians would once again be the target of a Sunni backlash.

"Bashar al-Assad is friendly," he says. "It was thanks to him that we were free and had a good life among various ethnic and religious groups. If it weren't for Assad, the Muslim [Islamists] would have treated Armenians badly. That's why many Armenians have left Aleppo."

In April, Payasian and his wife, Helen, locked the door to their comfortable, two-room apartment in the Nor Geghi district and left for Armenia with their daughter. Their two sons had already preceded them.

The Payasians are now settled in a well-lit but spartan apartment in central Yerevan. The transition has been rocky -- Gevorg has been unable to find work and the family is living off the earnings of one of their sons, who has found work in a pizzeria. The situation has gotten so dire that 61-year-old Helen, who suffers from diabetes, has even considered looking for work after years as a homemaker back in Syria.

Culturally, there are differences as well. Syrian Armenians speak Western Armenian, a dialect distinct from the Eastern Armenian spoken by people raised in Armenia proper. Their customary Middle Eastern cuisine has been replaced by more Russian-accented local fare.

Steady Exodus

The Payasians took only the barest essentials when they left Aleppo, a sign they hoped to soon return. But four months after their escape, they say they are likely to remain in Armenia for good, even though it means leaving behind the graves of Asatur, Nektar, and other family members who owed their survival to the city.

"We were happy there," Payasian says. "But the situation has changed."

Watenpaugh, who lived and studied in Aleppo in the 1990s, doubts even the ravages of the current conflict will be enough to persuade the Armenian community to abandon the city anytime soon. But over the next quarter-century, he predicts the population will slowly evaporate, driven away by an atmosphere that is no longer so welcoming to minorities or Christians.

In a war that has already left some 20,000 dead and send hundreds of thousands more fleeing Syria's borders to safety, the demise of Aleppo's historic Armenian community may seem a minor consequence.

But looking at the steady exodus of minorities from neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq, Watenpaugh maintains that the trend has the power to shape regional politics for generations to come -- just as the Armenian genocide did before it.

"If Aleppo loses its Armenians, if it loses its Arabic-speaking Christians," he says. "Aleppo will lose its vibrancy, and will also lose a lot of its ability to interact on a commercial basis with the rest of the world. If Aleppo can't survive as a multicultural city, I really worry about the rest of the region, in terms of issues of tolerance, human rights, and the ability of different kinds of people to live side by side and prosper."

* This story has been changed to clarify a reference to the mass killings of Armenians.

Written and reported in Prague by Daisy Sindelar with additional reporting by Naira Bulghadaryan in Yerevan

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