Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.
The forced flight from Kassab has deep meaning for many Armenians, because it is one of the last areas tracing back to the eleventh-century from the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, said professor Geukjian.
Other areas in modern-day Syria once had ancient Armenian villages, but residents left to join larger communities in cities like Aleppo, or assimilated into the wider Christian minority, or emigrated, said Geuikjian. Only Kassab “kept its identity and language,” he said.
“When you say Kassab, you understand you are referring to the Armenians,” said Arpi Mangassarian of Badguer, a Beirut-based Armenian cultural organization. “It symbolizes Armenian culture.”
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said ethnic Armenians accounted for about 70 percent of Kassab’s population.
Before the Syrian uprising, there were some 70,000 ethnic Armenians in Syria, particularly concentrated in the northern city of Aleppo and the area around Kassab. They were already a tiny minority among 23 million citizens, but part of Syria’s rich mosaic of tiny, ancient Christian and Muslim sects.
As the war grinds on, Armenians have been leaving to Lebanon, Armenia, Canada and the U.S.
The war has grown increasingly sectarian, as hardline Sunni rebel groups play a prominent role in the uprising, and Syrian minorities huddle behind Assad, fearing for their fate should extremists come to power.
There are no statistics of how many Armenians remain, but Geukjian estimated some 15,000 Armenians remained of a pre-war population of 40,000 in Aleppo. Others had drifted toward Latakia and yet others had remained in Kassab, he said.
“What will happen to us? We don’t know,” said the woman from Kassab, speaking to Syrian television.
The ancient area’s loss to ultra-conservative Muslim rebels suggests an uncertain future.
“We are afraid, if you want the truth. Of what is happening now, the future. The future is not clear,” Geukjian said.
Hadid reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.