by Shahid Hussain
The Blue Mosque is situated in the old city, flanked by a towering minaret and adorned with a large blue dome that sits above its central prayer hall. However, this Blue Mosque isn’t in Turkey. In fact, it isn’t even in a Muslim country. Unlike its more famous namesake in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan receives little attention. Despite this, the building stands as a testament to Armenia’s complex relationship with the Muslim world. Built in the 18th century by the Iranian Huseyin Ali Khan, it reminds us of the profound cultural connections between Armenia and the Muslim world. This fact is often forgotten and less than 1% of Armenian’s today identify as Muslim. Only by making sense of the wider historical connections between Armenia and Islam, can we begin to understand Armenia’s diplomatic relationship with the wider Muslim world today.
One of the earliest accounts of the Muslim prophet Muhammad was written by the Armenian historian Sebos in the 7th century. In his chronicle, he mentions a ‘son of Ishmael’ ‘whose name was Mahmet. ’Furthermore, many notable Armenian’s occupied positions of power in early Islamic Empires, including Badr al-Jamali, a prominent Statesman and Vizier (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) in the powerful Shi’ite Fatamid Caliphate (who ruled much of modern-day Egypt and North Africa). Moreover, the territory of modern-day Armenia, situated in the heart of the Caucuses, was conquered by a number of Muslim empires, dynasties and polities, including the Iranian Safavid, Turkish Ottoman and Central Asian Timurid’s. These past experiences illustrate not only the depth, but also the geographical breadth of Armenia’s relationship with Islam.
Despite this, Armenia’s ties with Muslim countries in the 20th century has been characterised by frequent conflicts, disputes and distrust. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Armenia became embroiled in a long-standing conflict with its Muslim majority neighbour, Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nargono-Karabkh. Armenia also makes frequent references to Mount Ararat (currently in Turkey), seeing it as a symbolic monument for the Armenian people. While Armenia hasn’t officially laid claim to mountain, believed by some to be the site of the biblical Noah’s ark, its romantic view of Ararat as a homeland for the Armenian people does little to improve its relationship with Ankara. In addition, aside from Syria, very few Muslim countries have recognised the Armenian genocide, which remains a significant bone of contention between Armenia and the Muslim world. Given these recent events, it would be tempting to view Armenia’s relationship with Muslim states negatively. However, the truth may be slightly more complex, just like Armenia’s own history with Islam.
This week, Iranian officials spoke about the ‘positive diplomatic relationship’ between Tehran and Yerevan. These comments follow Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Armenia last year, where he attended a meeting of the Eurasian Union, an economic block whose members include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The block is seen by some as a Russian attempt to curtail Chinese economic influence in Central and Western Asia. Iran and the Union signed a free trade agreement late last year, bolstering Iran’s trade with member states, including Armenia.It is estimated Iran’s trading volume with the block has exceeded $1.39 billion since the agreement was implemented. Furthermore, Iran’s relationship with Russia is well documented and Tehran’s close ties to Armenia continues to strengthen the Iran-Armenia-Russia axis.
Whilst Iran remains one of Armenia’s closest allies in the Muslim world, there are also other Muslim majority states Armenia can turn to. Late last year, the Libyan Provisional Government (who control much of the Libya’s territory outside the coastal cities of Tripoli and Misrata) recognised the Armenian Genocide. Furthermore, Armenia’s traditional adversary, Turkey, also reached out to Yerevan recently. In yet another example of ‘health diplomacy,’ Turkey sent aid to Armenia, to help the central Caucasian republic control the spread of Covid-19. Whilst the gesture may have been small, we should still see this as a tentative step towards improving relations between the two neighbours.
Nonetheless, it would be over simplistic to use Iran’s relationship with Armenia and Turkey’s recent tentative steps as a blueprint for Yerevan’s ties with the wider Islamic world. For one, even the Iran-Armenia relationship faces a number of hurdles. Last year, Armenia announced it was opening an embassy in Israel and this is unlikely to please President Rouhani or the religious leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei. The Iran-Armenia relationship also hampers Iran’s standing in the Muslim world. Whilst Iran has significant influence in states with a significant Shi’ite population (including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon), its close relationship with Armenia, a country that is embroiled in a two-decade conflict with Shi’ite majority Azerbaijan, does little to boost Iran’s image amongst its co-religionists.
No discussion of Armenia’s relationship with the Muslim countries would be complete without further comment on Nagorno Karabakh. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry announced it is entitled to use force to reclaim the disputed region. Last month, both countries were also involved in another diplomatic spat, with each accusing the other of collaborating with the Nazi’s during World War Two. Moreover, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s continued visits to the disputed territory are doing little to alleviate tensions between Baku and Yerevan.
It would be tempting to discount Armenia’s historic relationship with the Muslim world, which dates back to the 7th century, particularly given Armenia’s fraught relationship with Muslim majority Azerbaijan. However, Armenia’s centuries old relationship with Iran has been deeply influenced by its cultural, geographic and historical ties to numerous Iranian and Islamic dynasties. Perhaps both Armenia and muslim majority states should do more to recall this past and use it to shape their future. If they do, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan will no longer remain a relic to a bygone era of co-operation between Armenia and Islam.