Introduction: Religion and Diasporas
The word ‘diaspora’ etymologically derives from the Greek verb ‘dias- peiro’, which means ‘to sow’ or ‘to scatter from one end to another’. The term has been associated with the Jewish experience of deportation and exile, and hence it carries implicit connotations of a common religious and cultural heritage that is shared by a dispersed people and keeps a national consciousness alive. The ‘classic’ diasporas traditionally studied by social scientists have been the Jewish, the Armenian and the Greek. However, new mobilities and increased global interconnectedness over the past three decades have resulted in the diversification of the meaning of the term ‘diaspora’. The term has become a tool in cultural politics often associated with notions of hybridity, multiple affiliations and postmodern resistance against the hegemonic nation-state (Tololyan 1996; Cohen 1997). Yet at the heart of the multifaceted usage of the term today remains the core dilemma that displaced populations face: what it means to self-identify as a group and survive within a foreign context. Part I of this collection explores the role religion has played and continues to play in the construction of diasporic identity and its current refigurations through two case studies: the Armenian community in Thessaloniki and the ethnic-Greek Georgians from Tsalka.
Historically, the study of the ‘classic’ Jewish, Armenian and Greek dias- poras played a salient role in the comprehension and definition of the concept of ‘diaspora’. These groups’ experiences of dispersion were tied to the trauma of exile from an original homeland. Exile was believed to generate a feeling of longing for return (Nostos). Exile and this longing for return became crucial elements for various definitions of diasporas that marked the rise in interest in diaspora discourse during the late 1990s. However, approaches to diaspora as a concept soon became more historically nuanced and contextualized, shedding light to the importance of a global flow of images, cultural objects and meanings, and the multiplicity and interconnectedness of roots and routes. The two chapters that follow explore the themes of dispersion, exile and an awareness of identities spanning ‘here and there’ through the case of two groups traditionally considered ‘classic dia- sporas’: the Armenians and the Greeks. The critical approaches employed, however, are wary of the contemporary complexities that challenge and fragment social, political and economic relationships in diaspora.
Robin Cohen (1997, 42-54) has argued that the Armenians fit the description of a ‘diasporic people’ in multiple ways. First of all, they share the same myth of origin from the legendary hero Hayk that territorially links them to the wider area of the mountain Ararat. The Armenians also share a common religion, which contributed to the preservation of their language and other cultural characteristics despite their different places of settlement. Significantly, the Armenian Church contributed to the Armenian nation-building in the nineteenth century. Even though, historically, dispersed Armenian communities were founded in different parts of the ancient world—from the old Mediterranean and the Black Sea city-ports to India—the major traumatic event that has shaped modern Armenian identity is the 1915 Armenian genocide.
More precisely, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the geopolitical turmoil in the area of the Black Sea that resulted in the gradual weakening of the Ottoman and Russian Empire and the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia also gave rise to an Armenian nationalist movement that propagated the foundation of an Armenian national state in the historical land of Armenia. The massacre of 300,000 Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1894-1896 had already led to the formation of new Armenian diasporas and the strengthening of old ones. The Ottoman persecution of the Armenians culminated during World War I with the genocide. The result was a further strengthening of the Armenian diasporas and the creation of new communities of dispersion. While the tragedy also pre?cipitated the formation of Soviet Armenia, the latter was not recognized as a homeland by many Armenian diasporas due to Cold War polarities. Instead, the formation of the political party Dashnak which originated from the Menshevik Party of the Revolutionary years (1918-1920) became an important political agent for the Armenians diasporas. The party intensified the opposition to the Soviet republic, especially with the division of the Armenian Church in 1933.
Dashnak played an important role in the politicisation and mobilisation of Armenian diasporas, as well as in homeland politics when the Independent Republic of Armenia was founded in1991. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh further exacerbated the economic condition of the republic and led many Armenians to emigrate. Niki Papageorgiou explores the creation of the Armenian community of Thessaloniki after the trauma of the genocide, and the subsequent strengthening of the Armenian population of the city as a result of the arrival of many Armenian labour immigrants in the 1990s. The encounter between the old Armenian diaspora and its established community in Thessaloniki and the new labour immigrants is examined as a formative force in the history of the community.
Eleni Sideri’s chapter also approaches a historical diasporic community— that of Pontic Greek diaspora—by tracing the intersection of old roots and new routes. As Efthihia Voutira (2011, 3-4) has underlined, the Pontic- Greeks are the ‘most resilient refugee group of the Ottoman Empire’ which until today bares refugeeness as ‘a term of honour’. The Pontic-Greeks are one of the ethnic Greek groups living in former Soviet territory. Their roots can be traced back to the Black Sea coast of the Ottoman Empire (Pontos). The Greek communities in Pontos shared a common identity in terms of religion and ethnicity with Greek communities elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Pontic Greek language originated from ancient Greek, and Pontic Greeks referred to themselves as ‘Romioi’, something that reflected their belief that they descended from the Eastern Roman Empire. In some cases, such as the case of the Greeks of Tsalka studied by Eleni Sideri in this section, certain groups of villages especially in Eastern Pontos adopted a Turkish dialect (Urum) while preserving their religious affiliation.
The Pontic migrations towards the Russian Empire differed as to their causes, their time-frame and their form. Living in a region of great geopolitical significance, the Pontic Greeks suffered from the irredentism of the Greek nation-state and from Turkish nationalism during the nineteenth century, but also from Russian colonial politics. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Russia made consistent attempts to attract friendly Christian popula?tions to her southern borders. During the Soviet period, the Pontic Greeks were targeted in many cases as a diaspora nationality within Soviet Russia, and thus a non-indigenous people of the USSR. They suffered deportation and exile during Stalinism, yet in certain cases, like the one studied by Sideri, they benefited by the affirmative policies of Soviet federalism. In the 1990s, the various Greeks from the former uSSR started to repatriate to Greece, their historical homeland as they considered it. This movement provoked further internal reckoning of the claims of diasporic identity, roots and routes and resulted in new refigurations of group affiliation and belonging.
Cohen, Robin. 1997. GlobalDiasporas. London: uCL Press.
Tololyan, Kachig. 1996. Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment. Diaspora 5(1): 3-36.
Voutira, Eftyhia. 2011. The ‘Right to Return’ and the Meaning of Home: A PostSoviet Diaspora Becoming European? Munster: Lit Verlag.