Posted on November 17, 2016
The Armenian community of Poland has had an important contribution in the life of Poland through history, says Dr. Krzysztof Stopka, Professor of History at Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Poland) in the interview to Scholarm.com. Dr. Stopka has been studying Armenian issues for over 30 years by now, and is the author of many academic books on this topic, among them The Armenian Warsaw album which describes in detail the contributions of Polish Armenians in the history of Warsaw.
“The Armenians played from the 14th century a very important role in the history of Poland. They played an important role in the diplomatic relations between the Polish state and the Ottoman Empire as they were mostly translators of the Polish envoys to Constantinople, as well as with Persia since 17th century. The Armenians also contributed to the orientalization of the Polish culture by importing large quantities of oriental goods into the Polish market as merchants… From the 18th century the Armenians played a role in the Polish high culture, for example they worked at our [Jagiellonian] University... [W]e have had a few Armenian professors here at our University. The founder of Chemistry at our University was also an Armenian from Lvov”, – says Dr. Stopka, naming Ian Yashkevich who was also the co-founder of the Botanical garden in the University.
He then tells the story of the Polish king Kazimir the Great who was also the founder of the Jagiellonian University in 1364. The King was a benefactor of Armenians – he invited the Armenians to Lvov (today’s Ukraine, but at that time part of Polish Kingdom) and gave them privileges by issuing an Armenian Law in the city from 1356. This mainly had an economic reason – the king wanted to develop oriental trade in Lvov, which was located between the East and the West, and invited Armenians (as well as Germans, Jews and other nationalities) because they were good at trade and had very good economic background in the East.
Speaking about the Armenian cultural trace in Poland Dr. Stopka among other things highlights the Cathedral in Lvov, founded in 1963 which was built in typical Armenian style. Also in Zamość there was an Armenian quarter in one part of the city. Polish great Chancellor Jan Zamoyski, the founder of Zamość, also invited Armenians from Ottoman and Persian Empires, as well as from Yerevan. He gave them also the part of the city where they built Armenian Apostolic church. The church has been destroyed but the Armenian buildings in the city have survived till today, and there is still an Armenian street in this city.
The Armenian community in Poland is comprised of the Armenians who came from Lvov and the Armenians who actually lived in Poland. The first wave of the Armenians came from Crimea to Lvov (which was the integral part of Polish Kingdom at that time) as well as in Kamianets-Podilskyi. These Armenians spoke Kipchak language and they wrote in that language using the Armenian alphabet, which is quite an interesting linguistic phenomenon. Dr. Stopka has a book devoted to this subject.
In the 17th century the union of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Poland with Catholic Rome took place, which marked a major shift for the Armenian Church and contributed to the assimilation of the Armenians. In the 17th century Turkey captured one part of Poland, which included Podole, as a result of which the Armenians fled Kamianets-Podilskyi. They settled in Warsaw, in Poznan and in other cities in Poland. This also led to fast assimilation of the Armenians in Poland, as they didn’t have self-governance in these cities. They nevertheless managed to obtain the most prestigious positions in these cities.
Dr. Stopka has authored a book titled Ormiańska Warszawa (Armenian Warsaw) which presents a large collection of facts about the contribution of the Armenians in cultural, economic, political and other spheres of life in Warsaw through history.
He says that when they started collecting materials for the Armenian Warsaw, it was a big surprise and discovery for them because a lot was not known on this topic.
“We had only three months to prepare this book but we found a lot about the Armenians who played a very important role in the economy of the capital of Poland from the middle of the 17th and especially 18th century. The Armenians were a small group in the capital, but they were very important… for the government of the whole city. It was surprising for us to find this out. They imported oriental goods to Warsaw, but also they founded the manufactures of the oriental textiles. Near Warsaw they founded a factory of Polish belts (very typical for Polish national style) and during the 18th century this manufacture was very popular… In the 19th century the Armenians played a very important role in the Polish struggle for independence. They took part in Polish revolution against Russia in the 18th century and they supported the Polish case… For the Polish people the Russians were oppressors. The Armenians also took part in the Polish military during the World War II fighting against [Nazi] Germany. This is a reason for pride for the descendents of Armenians”, – says Dr. Stopka.
Because in the 18th century the economic routes changed, the influx of the Armenians from the East stopped. This marked the beginning of polonization of the Armenians in Poland. They lived among the Polish and later among the Ukrainians. They could speak very good Ruthinian and Polish (Polish was the language of the higher culture). In the 19th century they remembered their Armenian identity but they also felt as Polish – they had a dual identity.
Speaking about how he started studying the Armenian issues, Dr. Stopka says that he has always been interested in Oriental Churches and that he learned about the Armenians first time when his professor (who had lived in the territory where previously the Armenians resided) suggested that he wrote a thesis about the Armenian Church. He subsequently wrote his Master’s thesis on the history of the Armenian colonies in Old Poland. This is how he started his “adventure in the Armenian history and culture”, as he puts it, and for about 30 years since then he has been developing his knowledge about the Armenian history which has never stopped being interesting for him.
“This should be very interesting also for the Armenians today because this Diaspora [in Poland] in the past was very important among the Armenian Diasporas in the world. This Diaspora was very small – there were only three or four thousand Armenians in Poland. But it was a very rich and influential community and played an important role between the East and the West. This community was very interesting also because of the languages, because it was not only Armenian language, they started Kipchak speaking and then also Armenian, and there were the cities where Armenians and Kipchak were spoken together – for philologists this should be interesting. I think also that for Armenians could be interesting the political influence of this small community for the Armenian question in the 17-18th centuries”, – says the Polish professor.
Other publications by Dr. Stopka on the Armenian issues include Journal of History of Polish Armenians called Lehahayer and Armenia Christiana – book on the history of the Armenian Church between Constantinople and Rome.
As for his future plans, Dr. Stopka says he is interested in writing a book about the Armenian Apostolic Church in Poland – from the beginning up until the union with Rome. He has already collected a lot of new materials about Armenians from the archives of Ukraine and he believes this is an interesting discovery. Also, together with his former student from Armenia Dr. Piruza Mnatsakanyan they are thinking of preparing a dictionary about the people who played the main role in the Polish culture – copyists, priests, monks and others.
Another book called Armenian Krakow is now being prepared by Dr. Stopka’s colleague Dr. Andrzej Zieba, who is also a professor at the Jagiellonian University.
Dr. Krzysztof Stopka is a professor of history at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland; he is also the Director of the Jagiellonian University Museum and the author of many books and publications.
In 2016 Dr. Stopka was awarded with the honorary Professor title from the President of Poland - the most prestigious award for academicians which is recognized all over Poland.
Interview by Nvard Chalikyan