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May 23, 2024

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The Armenian Connection

The Armenians and the Poles — one might wonder what these two nations could possibly have in common, separated by almost a thousand miles geographically. However, despite distinct differences in ethnic, cultural and geographic areas, the Poles and the Armenians have had centuries of mutually friendly cooperation and spiritual kinship. Both nations faced similar national liberation struggles, both have a freedom loving spirit and both have reflected an enormous energy of human passion.

When did this relationship begin? Well, in Armenian manuscripts the connection goes as far back as the 7th century when there is mention of Slavonic tribes — the forefathers of the Poles. Then, in the mid-10th century, the Turks established control over Persia and within two decades gained control over Armenia. The Armenians, in turn, emigrated to Europe first settling in the Crimea (Russia), with some eventually moving into the Polish regions of Lwow, Cracow and Warsaw. The majority settled in an area called Ruthenia on the Polish borderline. But in 1349 Poland’s king Casimir the Great incorporated Ruthenia into his Polish territories and the preponderance of emigrated Armenians found themselves within the borders of the Polish state. This emigration was really a planned affair because they were so severely oppressed. In 1475, the Turks were responsible for a mounting slaughter of the Armenians.

The Armenians repaid their second fatherland, Poland, in a variety of ways. There are records of Armenian armed units fighting in the battle of Grunwald, the battle of Varna and Chocim and 5000 Armenian soldiers fought at Vienna under the command of King John III Sobieski of Poland. Later they were incorporated into the Polish armed forces. The large number of noble titles and decorations they received for their prowess in the field testifies to their valor. They also fought bravely, together with local burghers, in the sieges of Lwow and Kamieniec Podolski in 1648, 1658 and 1689. As a reward they received grants and charters from King John Casimir and in 1665 equal rights with Poles and Ruthenians. Their Armenian weapons: the kalhan (an Oriental shield), light armor, and a caparison (an ornamental covering for their horses) made them somewhat fearsome.

The Armenians lived a long time in Poland. They established ties with traders and through them soon became the agents acting as merchants, interpreters and armed guides who protected caravans from robbers. Their journeys took them through the Balkans and Asia Minor to Persia and even as far as India. Finally, the Great Mogul Akhbar (1556-1605) invited them to settle in India where a flourishing Armenian colony was established. Returning from the East to Europe, the merchants brought back with them a large assortment of goods: weapons, harness, rugs and tapestries, silks, morocco and Cordovan leather, pearls, precious stones and jewelry, bowls and chalices, spices and wines, scented oils and soap, pigment and medicines. The old terminal, Lwow, became a junction from which goods were transported via Cracow and Wroclaw to Nuremberg and Bruges, Lwow and all the towns on the route grew rich under the reign of Casimir the Great, the Polish king who worked to rebuild the country after the devastations of the Tartar invasions and long years of war.

The King granted the Armenians privileges and guaranteed freedom of religion and self-government according to their own law and customs. The rulers who succeeded him confirmed these privileges and even extended them at times. Polish magnates followed the example of their kings and looked upon the Armenians with favor. Jan Zamoyski, for example, brought them to Zamosc in the 16th century and in the 17th century the Potockis settled them in Stanislawow and a few other localities.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and Kaffa in 1475, trade came to a standstill. The Armenians then assumed complete monopoly of trade with the East, not by sea, but by land. With the enormous demand in Poland for weapons, rugs, tapestries and other articles, shops, large trading houses and money exchanges were set up, trade fairs were organized. On the other hand, beef, fish, wax and honey, vodka, linen and flax, amber (which later returned in the form of pipe bowls and other accessories) were exported to Moldavia, Wallachia, the Crimea and even as far away as Istanbul. Polish citizens and merchants took example from the Armenians, who, thanks to their industry and knowledge of the situation, often amassed large fortunes.

The wealthy Armenians did not evade paying their share of contributions demanded by enemies who besieged the cities, or from granting even very large loans to Polish kings when necessary. They also made generous grants and established foundations for the benefit of their fellow countrymen. They even ransomed Polish captives from Tartar and Turkish prisons without stinting money while Armenian bishops set aside separate funds for that purpose. Armenian women were also known for their charitable deeds during the years of the pestilence in the 18th century.

Loyal to Poland, the Armenians also remained attache for several centuries to the distinct elements of their ethnic group — culture, customs, religion and language. The first bridge to Polish culture was the Union with the Roman Catholic Church of 1630 concluded by the Armenian Bishop Mikolaj Torosowicz. Although they kept their ritual, a cross between the Byzantine and the Roman, and although they retained the Old Armenian language instead of accepting the Latin of the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenians opened the gates and removed the civil barriers that had restricted their community.

Armenians made their appearance in Warsaw and Cracow as councillors and even mayors. Many Armenians were raised to the Polish gentry and in time were completely assimilated, although they retained the memory of their ancestry and pride in their progenitors even after changing their original names to Polish. For example, Aswadur became Bogdanowicz because Aswadur in Armenian is the equivalent to the first name Bogdan. Some retained their first names, i.e. Boloz which ios Pawel, with their new Polish last names, i.e. Antoniewicz. Many Armenian women entered Polish homes through marriage, at first the homes of the Polish gentry and then the intelligentsia.

As the years went by, the descendants of Armenian emigrants put down strong roots in Polish society and today, we no longer refer to Armenian Poles but rather Poles of Armenian ancestry.

. . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .