Although the history of Armenia and Persia has been entwined for over twenty-five centuries, studies about Armenians in Iran are relatively rare in the West. This stimulating and thorough study issued from a PhD defended in the New Sorbonne University of Paris, and based on a large set of archival and press sources in Persian, Armenian, Russian, English, and French languages, contributes greatly to fill the void. It covers one century of relations but focus on the events of WWI. If Persia remained neutral during the conflict, the country was not spared by the impact of this total war which has been defined as the matrix of the century of extreme violence as the twentieth century is often characterised. Twice invaded by Turkish troops (in the winter 1914-15 and in 1918), the province of Azerbaijan in Northern Persia was the theatre of a major human catastrophe: the genocide of the Armenians and Assyro-Chaldeans carried on outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire by the Young Turks, who aimed at creating an alliance with local Azerbaijani leaders, and used Kurdish bands for the “Turkification” of this corridor on the route to Central Asia.
The first part of the book is devoted to the ancient presence of Armenians in this region and the main evolutions in the nineteenth century. Numbering around 30,000 in 1914, their role in the province and in Iran as a whole goes much beyond these modest figures, as shown by the description of the community life, by the existence of numerous churches, schools and newspapers, by the important participation to political life of the country, especially during the revolutionary period of 1906-12. Persia was also a shelter for Armenian refugees flying from the first wave of mass massacres under sultan Abdülhamid II in the Ottoman Empire in 1894-96, and sometimes a revolutionary base for freedom fighters. In the second part, the author deals with the deterioration of Armenian and other Christian minorities’ position in the new context of great powers rivalries. After French Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and German or British Protestant peaceful contingents of missionaries, soon arrived the soldiers of the empires at war. If the civilians as a whole were caught in between, Christian minorities paid a special high price in the conflicts, especially in the renewed old confrontation between Ottomans and Persians. Targeted by the Ottomans with the support of a part of Muslim population of Persian Azerbaijan, they could not but tried to seek for help among the nearest ‘protecting’ power, viz. Russia or later Great Britain. If the Persian Empire which, as all empires ― may be even more than some others ― was but a conglomerate of integrated minorities (up to 1979, as Professor Yann Richard recalls in his preface, the sovereign was called Shahinshah: ‘King of the Kings’), the emergence of modern nationalism started in the nineteenth century and was fuelled during the war when the country became a battlefield for concurrent imperialisms. Having served, willingly of not, as a pretext for foreign intervention, Armenians started to be considered an alien part of the population in a region which was referred to in the fourth century ce as ‘Persarmenia’. Thus the road was open to their subsequent disappearance from this area, although the book recalls of many instances of protection by Persian individuals and authorities, especially when threatened by the danger of pan-Turanism.
Beyond its importance for Armenian historiography, this case study of the fate of transnational minorities in modern empires at war is enlightening for all those interested in the roots of the contemporary geopolitics of the region.