The mysterious origin of the name of Armenia city in Colombia

Armenia, Quindio, Colombia. Photo by Luis Alveart/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Throughout the Americas, it is common to find cities with European names, but one, in particular, has generated controversy: Armenia in Colombia. Colombia has 43 geographical locations called Armenia. However, it is the capital of the Department of Quindío that sparked a debate about the reasons behind its name.

In the national collective imagination, there is the idea that the name Armenia commemorates the Armenian victims of the Ottoman Empire. When a foreigner learns about a city called Armenia in Colombia, he may assume that its name is due to the presence of diaspora or the origin of its colonizers. But scholars say none of these theories are true.

The Armenia at the center of this misunderstanding is located near the central mountain range of the Colombian Andes, about 290 kilometers west of Bogotá. It has about 300,000 inhabitants and a pleasant 20°C temperature throughout the year. Before the Spanish colonization, it was the main city of the extinct Quimbaya civilization. After its Spanish founding, the city was at the epicenter of the Colombian coffee bonanza, which lasted until the end of the 20th century.

Transportation by donkey. Courtesy of Carlos Alberto Castrillón

This Armenia has a very different history from that of the country of Armenia in the South Caucasus. This country is located in the mountain range between Europe and Asia. For centuries, Armenians were under the rule of different empires (Ottoman, Persian, and Russian), but they managed to maintain an identity with their millennial language, the early adoption of the Christian religion, and, more recently, the struggle for the recognition of the genocide of which they were victims.

The Armenian genocide refers to the killing and expulsion of about one million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. More than 30 countries acknowledge the genocide, but Turkey, the country currently located in the former territory of the Ottoman Empire, never admitted the systematic annihilation of the Armenian people. It argued that the relocation of Armenians was a legitimate state action in response to the Armenian revolutionary movement that threatened the empire during the war. Although Colombia does not recognize the genocide either, the city of Armenia approved a decree commemorating the centenary of the genocide in 2017.

Armenian historians and the media did not miss the opportunity to attribute the existence of this Colombian city to Armenian compatriots. For example, Armenian historian Hovhannes Babesian had initially written that “the city was founded by a group of Armenian immigrants in the 19th century.”

This theory by the Armenians was further promoted by Zavén Sabundjián, another historian, who, in 1983, commented that a monument had been erected “in memory of the founders of the city and its compatriot martyrs.” Later, the Yerevan Magazine even stated that “it is a symbolic monument that evokes the Armenian victims of 1896.” This is a reference to the emblematic Monument to the Founders (located in the park with the same name) which consists of an ax, a symbol of the work by the Antiochians who built the city by cutting down the thick jungle.

Monument to the Founders in Armenia, Colombia. Public domain photo.

The origin of the name

It is understandable to assume there is an Armenian diaspora in Colombia. The violent expulsion or death of almost all Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire created the second-largest diaspora in the world, after the Jewish people. It is estimated that about three million Armenians live in the current Republic of Armenia and the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, while other ten million are spread around the world.

Various waves of Armenian migration have been recorded in Latin America since the 19th century, and the vast majority have escaped the genocide. The largest diaspora is in Argentina, where there are approximately 150,000 Armenians, but the most noteworthy relationship is with Uruguay, which is the first state to recognize the Armenian genocide. No Armenian diasporas settled in Colombia. On the contrary, by the decree of 1937, this country banned the entry of several immigrants carrying Egyptian, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, Syrian and Turkish passports. Later, in 1954, the Armenian bishop Cirilo Zohrabián visited Colombia and observed that “in all of Colombia there is not even the shadow of an Armenian.”

The origin of the name of the Colombian city of Armenia is not due to the origin of its founders. What is known as a true fact is that the city of Armenia was founded on October 14, 1889, by settlers from the older state of Antioquia, who established hamlets at this intermediate point between eastern and western Colombia in search of fertile land, opportunities for the extraction of rubber, and the need to move away from the battlefield of the civil wars from 1876 to 1899.

A tribute to the Armenian people or a religious reference?

In 1896, the massacre of more than 300,000 Armenians shocked the world at a time when the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, commonly known as Dashnaktsutyun, was advocating for a free, independent, and unified Armenia, or at least greater autonomy and protection of their rights as a minority in the Ottoman Empire. However, the city of Armenia in Colombia was founded almost a decade before these events, and twenty years before the genocide.

In support of this theory, historian Miguel Ángel Rojas Arias from Quindío argues that “it is very likely that the priests in their pulpits mentioned Armenia, the first nation to adopt Christianity as the official religion, and a place known as the Paradise on Earth or as the landing port for Noah's Ark. This name would remain in the minds of the first settlers.

But there is not consensus on the origin of this name attributed to the church, either. In his article, Notes for a toponymy of Quindío,” Professor Carlos Alberto Castrillón from the Spanish and Literature Program at the University of Quindío explains that the use of foreign names in the department is due to the mystery and allure surrounding foreign place names, as well as the opportunities for a new life for the settlers in these lands.

View of the mountain range near Armenia, Colombia. Photo by McKay Savage/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

In an interview with Global Voices, Castrillón said: “None of the well-known texts from that time mention anything related to religious traditions. When analyzing the main toponymy of the region, no religious names are found, unlike other places in Colombia. The founding settlers defined themselves as freethinkers and educated men, which explains the abundance of names taken from universal history or literature.”

There is even a city in the Department named in reference to another Caucasian nation. One of its founders, a renowned freemason, proposed changing the ordinary name of the land “La Plancha” to a more exotic one: Circassia.

But more importantly, by the time the city was founded, the name was already used in the region. The sales contract for the settlers’ estates mentions the property as located in the village of Armenia. Consequently, Carlos Alberto concludes: “Relating, as some do, this name to the story of Noah seems pure historical imagination or post-toponymic explanation; if there was a religious motivation, it was for naming the village.”

Little has been said about the origin of the name of the hamlet where the city was later founded, which at some point it was attributed to settlers from the city of Armenia in Antioquia.

With no consensus, the motivations for the city's name remain a mystery.

Editor's note: The Armenian genocide, or “Great Catastrophe” (“Meds Yeghern”), describes the killing and deportation of about 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians in 1915. While most historians recognize it as a genocide, it is still a highly contested term, particularly in Turkey. Other than the reticence of Turkey and others to recognize the massacre as a genocide, renowned expert Tom de Waal explains that the term “genocide” is sometimes used for political purposes. Global Voices uses the word “genocide” as most historians agree upon its term — the Armenian Genocide.

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