Armenians of Transylvania

The small town of Gergosentmiklosh, which a hundred years ago was part of Hungary and is known today as Romanian Georgien, resembles many settlements in Armenia.

Drowning in green hilly terrain similar to Lori Province, small stone houses with red roofs, narrow streets, sounds of liturgy that occasionally include Armenian words—this is how the town was portrayed in the documentary film “Ayr Mer” (“Our Father”), directed by young Hungarian filmmaker Kinga Kali.

The film, which recently enjoyed success at the VI Yerevan International Film Festival “Kin,” is dedicated to the revival of national consciousness among the descendants of the Armenians of Transylvania, to whom Kinga herself belongs.

A graduate of Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest), Kinga chose for her doctoral dissertation a topic on etiology “Armenian Identity of the Inhabitants of Transylvania.”

As a result of years of research, she has gathered a huge amount of material, part of which has been published in the press, and another part forms the basis of the film “Our Father” (1999).

Today, Kinga Kali continues her research in another of Transylvania’s Armenian centers, the town of Samosuyvar (Romanian name Gerla), formerly Armenopolis, one of the largest centers of Transylvanian Armenians. Kinga Kali herself talks about her work as follows:

Armenians of Transylvania. I became interested in the Armenians of Transylvania during my university years. Being Armenian on my mother’s side, I was keen to understand who we are and how we ended up being detached from our homeland.

In our family, four families have been preserved with Armenian roots. My mom’s uncle, a priest of the Armenian Catholic Church in Gergosentmiklosh, Father Miklos Fogoyan, helped me with my doctoral dissertation, part of which became the film “Our Father.”

According to some studies, not only recently emigrated Armenians but also those who have settled here in the past and have externally lost their identity remember their national identity in Transylvania. I started gathering information from them.

During my first meetings, I encountered an interesting fact: the information that people gave in the presence of Father Fogoyan and without him was quite different. This meant that there were two perspectives on the origin of Armenians in Transylvania—official and colloquial. Then I decided to conduct research on my own to gather more detailed information on the topic.

The life of Armenians in this small town is what I tried to unveil in the film through the family of the main character, János Bushliga. The old man, like his neighbors, only clearly remembered that his ancestors moved here from Ani after the Seljuk Turks looted the city in 1064.

According to stories, around 3,000 Armenian families relocated to Transylvania at that time, although statistics show there were only 240-260 families. It’s easy to understand that by quoting such a large number, the Armenian immigrants wanted to present themselves as strong and protected in their new homeland.

From the Armenian traditions, only the preparation of certain national dishes like gurut, agandzhapur, and meat pilaf, as well as church customs—participation in liturgy, singing hymns in Armenian, etc., have survived in their families.

Armenians of Transylvania. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Armenians in Gergosentmiklosh do not understand their native language—the hymn texts are memorized by heart. Calling themselves “Armenians on weekends and holidays” and “Hungarians on weekdays,” they nevertheless strive to maintain their national identity, or rather the memory of it, carrying nostalgia for their historical roots in their hearts.

Armenians first settled in Transylvania in the 10th-11th centuries, leaving Ani, and then began to settle there in different historical periods. Besides Gergosentmiklosh and Samosuyvar, they now live in Erzhebetvarosh (Romanian name Elisabetupolis) and Chikzhepvitse (Frumoasa).

The largest community has formed in Samosuyvar, formerly Armenopolis. This highland area has long been considered the coldest point in the country, inhabited by ancient Hungarian tribes with a pronounced national identity—Székelys.

Due to its climate, Samosuyvar was isolated from other settlements in the country and therefore was more conservative in terms of migratory changes. The arrival of Armenians in the 16th century, fleeing from Ani to Crimea, then Moldova, and then to Transylvania, was met with suspicion by the Székelys.

For several decades, the Armenians remained foreigners to them, evidenced by the large number of Armenian graves in the so-called cemetery of immigrants. For the descendants of Transylvanian Armenians, this cemetery became their Armenia—a small corner of a country they had never seen.

However, as a diligent people, they managed to obtain a certificate with a Papal Bull in the 17th century, granting them legal trade rights in Transylvania, and initially became active as horse breeders and leather craftsmen.

Moreover, many Armenians participated in the struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule during this period, some playing key roles at decisive moments in the history of the Hungarian people.

Transylvanian Armenians: By the end of the 17th century, the Armenian population had increased so much that construction of a city began in 1700, initiated by Bishop Vrzeran of the Armenian Catholic Church, on land purchased from King Leopold I of Austria for 12,000 florins.

The town, which had two Armenian Catholic churches, was named Armenopolis. Armenians living in this and several other cities received internal autonomy; the mayors and judges were Armenians.

The largest merchants expanded trade not only in Armenopolis but also in neighboring cities, where they began to form secondary Armenian communities. Due to constant relocations, the traders were multilingual—fluent in Hungarian, Romanian, German, and even Latin, which they used to communicate with clients and among themselves in the presence of family members, not wishing to disclose trade secrets.

Over time, these languages began to dominate in Armenian families, while the native language started to fall out of use. Armenians acquired new professions, and their high social standing in Hungarian society, as well as their adopted Catholicism, contributed to the gradual loss of their national identity.

Over the years, Armenian surnames increasingly acquired a Hungarian ring to them, some families adopted new surnames given by the Székelys, and mixed marriages among Armenians became more frequent.

Transylvanian Armenians: These and other social factors led to the decline of the Armenian community. The active participation of Armenians in the Hungarian national liberation struggle against Austria in 1848-49, in some sense, became the death knell for their attempts to preserve their national identity.

The Austrian government closed Armenian schools in Transylvania, allowing the Armenian language to be taught only in the first two grades of some schools. Between 1867-1880, even these classes were closed.

By the way, one of the Armenian heroes of the 1848-49 revolution, military leader Janos Tsets (Tsetyan), escaped from custody and fled to Argentina. There, he founded not only a military academy but also an Armenian community.

In 1920, Transylvania was transferred to Romania, which also led to the development of new ethnic processes.

Transylvanian Armenians: A new wave of immigration following the Genocide brought a certain number of Armenian refugees here, particularly to the former Armenopolis. These refugees quickly assimilated. Today, in this city, one can find perhaps about 20 Armenians who speak the native language.

In my family, apart from priests Miklos Fogoyan and Janos Fogoyan, who received their education at the Murad-Raphaelian School on the island of St. Lazarus in Venice, I speak a little Armenian. For two years, I have been going to Venice for three-week Armenian language courses during the summer. However, a serious process of the awakening of Armenian self-awareness is unfolding in the region today.

Upon returning home from Yerevan, I will continue my research on a more detailed basis and perhaps start work on a new film about the Armenians of Samoshuivar.

Transylvanian Armenians: I also want to publish a book by my Armenian grandmother, who has been collecting Hungarian Armenian culinary recipes for many years and writing humorous stories about her compatriots. And I will continue my independent study of the Armenian language; after all, the restoration of this knowledge is one of the main steps in preserving national identity.

The conversation was conducted by Magdalina ZATIKYAN.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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