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Visitors to Armenia are confronted by the country's history everywhere they look and not just in the prehistoric sites or splendid medieval monasteries that are a major attraction of Armenia for most visitors. Interestingly, the oldest surviving building in the country, at Garni, looks Greek rather than Armenian and quite different from any other; that there are no Roman remains; that the old churches and monasteries were built within certain very restricted time periods interspersed with long periods from which nothing seems to have survived; that different foreign influences seem to have been significant at different epochs. Visitors will also see everywhere signs written in a distinctive and unique alphabet, the use of which is a large factor in determining what it means to be Armenian. Beginning to make sense of all this jumble of impressions necessitates gaining some understanding of Armenia's long and varied history.

During this history there were periods of independence as an Armenian nation, though often with the nation divided into separate kingdoms because of internal struggles for supremacy by individual families. These periods were separated by much longer spells of foreign rule, by a whole host of different peoples at different times. The 20th-century regaining of independence after centuries of foreign rule, briefly at first from 1918 to 1920 but then lastingly since 1991.

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Armenia was split nearly in half when Russia stopped conquering the region to turn its attentions toward Europe. The western half remained under Turkish control. However, the part that was under Russian control looked as though it would prosper under czarist Russia. This new Armenia was inhabited by a large number of people with Russian roots and allegiances so Russia gave it a favored status. Industry was brought in and people were educated. In large part, Russia turned to Armenia as the leader and central figure of its lands south of the Caucasus Mountains. This became a double-edged sword for both Russia and Armenia. On one hand, Russia was creating a more literate Armenia with loyalties to Russo-European culture. On the other hand, as Armenians became more literate, they started to conceive of themselves as separate from Russia. Add to this a concern among the Turks that Armenians were disregarding their Muslim roots. “The Armenians themselves changed dramatically in the mid-nineteenth century.

An intellectual awakening influenced by Western and Russian ideas, a new interest in Armenian history, and an increase in social interaction created a sense of secular nationality among many Armenians. Instead of conceiving of themselves solely as a religious community, Armenians—especially the urban middle class—began to feel closer kinship with Christian Europe and greater alienation from the Muslim peoples among whom they lived.” Armenian leaders began to wonder if reform would come to the Russian Empire. As a result, in 1878, Armenian delegates appeared at the Congress of Berlin, where the European powers were negotiating the disposition of Ottoman territories after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish war. Armenian requests for European protection at this event were unrewarded, but the delegates did plant the seed for discussions about “the Armenian question” in later diplomatic events between Russia and Europe. By the end of the 19th century, “the Armenians’ tendency toward Europeanization antagonized Turkish officials and encouraged their view that Armenians were a foreign, subversive element in the sultan’s realm.” Armenians attempted a revolution between 1894 and 1897 to gain independence from Ottoman rule. Russians also were becoming suspect of Armenians. In 1903, Armenian churches and schools were closed and church property was confiscated. Armenians were massacred in several towns and cities in 1905, and 52 Armenian nationalist leaders in Russia were tried en masse for underground activities in 1912.

The Armenian population that remained in the Ottoman Empire after the 1895–97 massacres supported the 1908 revolution of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, who promised liberal treatment of ethnic minorities. However, after its revolution succeeded, the Young Turk government plotted elimination of the Armenians, who were a significant obstacle to the regime’s evolving nationalist agenda. By 1917, fewer than 200,000 Armenians remained in Turkey. Although Armenians claim this was an act of attempted genocide, the Turks blame the deaths on famine and problems related to World War I. Whatever the reason, this loss of population shifted the center of the Armenian population from the heartland of historical Armenia to the relatively safer eastern regions held by the Russians. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Caucasus with the retreating Russian armies after World War I, and the cities of Baku and Tbilisi filled with Armenians from Turkey. Between 1915 and 1917, Russia occupied virtually the entire Armenian part of the Ottoman Empire.