Over the last 200 years the territory of modernday Armenia has shifted from encompassing a Muslim majority to an almost monoethnically Armenian population. Indeed, the official motto of modern Armenia is ‘One Nation, One Culture’. In 1828 Armenians made up perhaps 30% of the population, outnumbered by Azeris, Turks and Kurds. Waves of immigration after the Russian conquest pushed this up to about 70% by 1918, when the first republic was declared. More immigrants arrived after WWII, but as recently as 1988 there were Azeri-majority regions on the eastern shore of Lake Sevan and in the corner of Shirak marz (region) around Lake Arpi, plus scattered villages across the country. The mutual ethnic cleansing by Armenia and Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1994 removed pretty much all of the 300,000-odd Muslims, and many place names changed from Turkic to Armenian. Other minorities, including Russians and other Soviet nationalities, also departed.
Today non-Armenians make up less than 5% of the total. There are Assyrian Christians in and around Yerevan, members of an Oriental Orthodox Church like the Armenian Church. The half-Assyrian village of Arzni is just north of Yerevan. The 80,000 or so Yezidi Kurds have their own distinct culture and religious beliefs, following an ancient Gnostic faith, a living link to Zoroastrianism. A company of Yezidi cavalry fought alongside the Armenians at the battle of Sardarapat in 1918. In the last 100 years most of their villages have been emptied across Turkey and Iraq. Some Kurds, in the Ararat Valley especially, are Christian and becoming assimilated – Kurdish women wearing traditional floral headscarves and bright layers of skirts aren’t such a common sight these days. Yerevan is home to the world’s oldest Kurdish newspaper, Rza Taza. Yezidi herders on the Aragats highlands around Aparan and Talin still graze sheep and goats on the high summer meadows, but these traditions are under threat as the old rangelands are sold up and fenced off.
The Molokans (Milk Drinkers) are a sect of Russian Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 16th century, a bit like Russian Protestants. They’re well regarded for their honesty, piety and excellent farm produce. They number about 5000, down from 50,000 20 years ago – many left for Russia and Canada.
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