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Little Armenia

Armenians preserve their identity in Lebanon.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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There is a little bit of Armenia in Lebanon. Armenians, an Indo-European people historically centered in northeastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, began to settle in present-day Lebanon almost a thousand years ago. What led them there, however, has never been forgotten.

In the 11th century, a Turkish tribe invaded Armenia, a kingdom sandwiched between the Christian West and Muslim East. Many Armenians, including the catholicos, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, fled to Cilicia – in southeastern Asia Minor – where some Armenian colonies already existed. Members of the nobility, with the support of the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, eventually formed an independent Kingdom of Cilicia, better known as Little Armenia. Little Armenia developed into a center of culture and learning, where the Christian East mingled with the Christian West.

Though this kingdom too was destroyed in the 14th century, Armenians in Asia Minor and the Middle East rallied around their ancient church, which preserved Armenian language and culture.

After the near annihilation of the Armenian community by the Turks between 1895 and 1915 (an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished), survivors found refuge in French-protected Lebanon and Syria. Most of these refugees settled in Beirut, particularly in the suburb of Bourj Hammoud. Those who settled in rural Lebanon, notably in the village of Anjar in the Bekaa valley, arrived more than two decades later.

Determined to preserve their cultural identity, religion, language and traditions, these Armenian refugees established clubs, schools, churches, hospitals and dispensaries. Today they attend Armenian churches and schools, eat Armenian food, speak Armenian and read Armenian periodicals. Whether members of the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic or Evangelical churches, Lebanon’s Armenians live in harmony. Although tight-knit, they too are affected by the specters of unemployment, emigration and cultural disintegration haunting all Lebanese.

Roughly 100,000 people – 80 percent of the population of Bourj Hammoud – are Armenian. One of the most densely populated areas in the country, Bourj Hammoud has become one of the largest manufacturing hubs in Lebanon, a center for jewelry, shoes and clothing, all crafted by Armenians. And while Armenians prefer to work with fellow Armenians, their clients are usually fashion-conscious Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druze. Yet inflation and regional economic challenges have affected even this affluent quarter:

“I have difficulty earning a living today; there is no work here,” says Armenak Kaiserian, who has run a shoe repair shop in Bourj Hammoud for 40 years.

In the narrow streets of Bourj Hammoud, traffic is so dense even the most intrepid drivers hesitate to venture there. Casting a rather somber pall on the area, five-story buildings border the narrow streets; drying clothes, hanging on lines along balconies, compete with webs of electric and telephone cable. Although it is hard to imagine, everyone in Bourj Hammoud can distinguish his or her own wires among the mess.

“Within five years,” says one resident of the quarter, Andranik Messerlian, “the problem of wires and cables, of drainage and pipes and other problems related to the infrastructure of Bourj Hammoud will be settled.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Emigration