Bourj Hammoud: An Armenian City in Exile

Located on the eastern banks of the Beirut River, Bourj Hammoud is one of Lebanon’s most dynamic cities with its multifaceted residential, industrial and commercial dimensions, which connect the capital Beirut to the Mount Lebanon governorate. 

Above and beyond the 2.5 square kilometers of gridiron plans, architectural features overseeing the Mediterranean and infrastructural facilities of a city, Bourj Hammoud is the manifestation of the collective memory of a people uprooted from its ancestral homeland. It is a yearning for home, away from home. It is a place of memory. The product of refugees. A city in exile. 

While the land on which the city stands existed for centuries as small and disbursed settlements, swamps, marshlands and as agricultural fields, the city of Bourj Hammoud, as we know it today, was founded in the early 1930s by survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian refugees who fled the Ottoman massacres initially found refuge in tent settlements in the adjacent areas of Karantina and Mar Mikhael in the 1920s. However, after consistently facing pressure from the landowners to evacuate the area and multiple cases of arson, Armenian organizations sought the purchasing of land in Bourj Hammoud and planned the construction of a new home for these people. What was supposed to be a ‘temporary exile’ was soon to be a lasting one with hopes of reconstituting lives they left behind. 

Father Boghos Ariss, a visionary Catholic priest, played an instrumental role in planning and overseeing the founding of a city which would become the religious, cultural, social, educational and political center for the post-genocide Armenian communities of Lebanon. 

The etymology of Bourj Hammoud is debated. The literal meaning is “The Tower of Hammoud.” It is believed that Hammoud designates Mr. Hammoud Arlsan who, a few centuries ago, lived in a two-story stone structure which enabled him to oversee the agricultural lands and monitor the work of the peasants. For the peasants, who often lived in shacks, that structure was considered a tower. The area soon became known as the land of Bourj Hammoud. It is believed that the structure persists to this day and is in the premises of the Mar Doumit non-Armenian church. 

Bourj Hammoud is a story worth telling.

Bourj Hammoud became an independent municipality in 1952 with Father Ariss as its first mayor. The city was divided into quarters. Quarters were organized by and named after the ancestral villages of Western Armenia (modern-day Turkey) where these communities came from. The quarters of “Nor Adana,” “Nor Marash,” “Nor Sis,” “Nor Giligia” are some manifestations of that, with the word ‘nor’ meaning ‘new.’ In other instances, cities of modern-day Armenia are chosen to name segments such as the residential quarter of ‘Arakadz,’ the ‘Yerevan’ flyover bridge and the major commercial street of ‘Arax.’ In many ways, Bourj Hammoud is the reconstruction of the diasporic version of the Armenian nation.

The community organized and founded the institutions and structures it deemed necessary to advance and prosper as a people. All three denominations – Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical – established their churches and schools. The traditional political parties delved into work and mobilized masses. They established newspapers, radio stations, scouts and athletic movements. The cultural scene was transformed with the creation of cultural organizations, theaters, cinemas and record stores.

Bourj Hammoud became a city of craftsmanship with shoppers from around the country targeting it to get their hands on the products of skilled shoemakers, talented goldsmiths, meticulous tailors and the like. 

While everything in Bourj Hammoud shouts Armenian—from the signage to the spice shops and the overwhelming display of tricolor flags of red, blue and orange—it is worth noting that despite popular belief, Armenians are not the only inhabitants of Bourj Hammoud. It is also home to a large number of non-Armenian Christian and Shiite communities, Kurds, Syrian refugees and a significant community of migrant workers, enriching its social fabric. With a heterogeneous population of 150,000, Bourj Hammoud is a true example of inter-faith and inter-racial coexistence. 

Bourj Hammoud is indeed a one-of-a-kind city. It is the result of imagining and re-imagining of ‘Armenianness’ at the intersection of nostalgia and the start of a new home on no-longer foreign lands. It is a case so niche and particular to the Ottoman Armenians who survived the pre-planned systematic annihilation of their people, but also so significant and international for all forcefully displaced people and refugees. This is why, in mid-2019, I established my walking tours of the city to introduce strangers, visitors and locals to my people’s history of genocide, survival and revival. Bourj Hammoud is a story worth telling.

This is a photo tour of Bourj Hammoud. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite spots.

Arax Street

Arax Street is one of Bourj Hammoud’s main shopping spots where you can find just about anything. Literally, anything. Known for always being busy, the street is named after the one-thousand kilometer long river that passes via Turkey, Armenia and Iran. 

Embroidery 

The Armenian Artisanat is a social enterprise founded by the Armenian Relief Cross of Lebanon (ARCL) in 1977. It is completely run by women and aims to preserve the traditional art of Armenian embroidery. The ARCL periodically conducts embroidery workshops to teach different stitches, motifs and techniques for all those who are interested. Every embroidery piece bought comes with a leaflet that explains its Western Armenian origins. The profit generated by the Artisanat is used by the ARCL to pay the women for their work and re-invest the rest in the different humanitarian projects that the ARCL is engaged in.

Marash Street 

Marash Street is known to be one of the oldest streets of Bourj Hammoud. It is a narrow street, less fancy than Arax, and a favorite of the locals. It is known for its spice shops, but the reality is that anything could be found there. Shop signs are also often in Armenian. 

Spice Shops 

Fifty shades of chili! The spice shops on Marash Street are known for their dried fruits and vegetables, herbs and chili. Lots and lots of chili. These spice shops, the most famous of which are Café Garo, Tenbelian’s Spices & Co. as well as Nerses Halabi, also sell sweets. Their specialty grape molasses stuffed with walnuts is highly demanded.

Music 

In the sixties and seventies, Bourj Hammoud also became the birthplace of a new-post genocide Armenian music genre, known as ‘estradayin.’ The likes of Adiss Harmandian started singing pop music in the Armenian language, a first of its kind. This ‘hybrid’ music was influenced by international and European jazz and pop, but sung in Western Armenian.

They were also defined by what they were not; they did not have Ottoman/Turkish or Soviet influences. Record stores in Bourj Hammoud popped up growingly to cater for the increased demand for Armenian music. Levon Katerjian, Manuel Menengichian and George Tutunjian were also popular performers of the time.

For many, a guilty pleasure was Paul Baghdadlian, who initially sang in Turkish-inspired music and eventually became one of the most popular love song singers. The city’s Armenian radio station Vana Tsayn (Voice of Van), which is operated by the ARF to this day, played an instrumental role in preserving the Armenian language through music and being cautious and intentional about its on-air playlist for Armenian households.

Khachkar

The khachkar (cross stone) being a defining feature of Armenian monumental art, makes an appearance in different spots throughout Bourj Hammoud. One of the most famous and apparent ones is the memorial monument erected by the municipality for the centenary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015 on one of Bourj Hammoud’s main streets. The khachkar is carved in Armenian tuff (or doof) stone. 

Forty Martyrs Church 

As the Armenians from Marash were organizing themselves in the Nor Marash district of Bourj Hammoud, they felt the imminent need to construct a church. Oral testimonies narrate that Der Hagop, the priest of Marash, led a crowdfunding campaign.

He laid down his cassock on the floor and asked his fellow Marashtsis to donate what they could to realize the erection of their place of worship. Some donated money, others their jewelry. Those who were not able to donate anything, offered their free labor. 

In that time, a group of Nor Marashtsi men who were working in the construction of a palace for the Bsat family in Ras Beirut noticed that the molds for the pillars resembled those of their church in Ottoman Marash.

They were given permission to take the molds with them after work. The second time they requested to borrow them, their employer, the owner of the palace, was intrigued to know what they were working on.

He accompanied them to Nor Marash. Mr. Bsat, a Sunni Muslim, was overwhelmed with the scene of a community collectively building a church, including children who were transporting sand with their school bags. He donated the metal windows and large metal doors of the church as a token of appreciation for the hardworking people. 

The church was built in stages and completed in 1931, becoming the first Armenian church in Bourj Hammoud. A school gradually was added adjacent to the church. They named the church (and the school) ‘Karasnits Mangants’ (Forty Martyrs) as per the name of their church in Ottoman Marash. Der Hagop, who was born in Marash, was laid to rest in Nor Marash next to the church. 

Graffiti 

Graffiti in Bourj Hammoud is very political. “Turkey Guilty of Genocide,” “Stop Aliyev,” “Eastern Turkey is Western Armenia” are just some of the many inscriptions you can find spray-painted on walls throughout the city. Graffiti in Armenian is also quite common. Graffiti is not a new phenomenon for Bourj Hammoud.

Decades ago when Turkish was commonly spoken in the neighborhood and as the community was reconfiguring its Armenian identity with an emphasis on language, graffiti bearing the common slogan: “Turkeren khosogheen, hayeren badaskhaneh” (“To those who speak Turkish, answer in Armenian”) was hard to miss. 

Apollo 

Statues often depict heroes, military commanders, political leaders or religious figures. But not this one. Meet Apollo. Apollo’s real name is Sarkis Doudakian. At a seasoned age, until his last day alive, Apollo distributed the daily Armenian newspaper Aztag to its loyal readers. In 2017, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Aztag’s establishment, a statue of Apollo was erected in front of Center Arin to immortalize the memory of a humble, hardworking and patriotic man. The statue was masterfully executed by renowned sculptor Vartan Avessian.

Food 

Bourj Hammoud has a vibrant culinary scene that offers anything from affordable street food like soujoukh, shawarma or falafel sandwiches to fine dining of traditional Armenian cuisine with dishes like mantefishneh kebabsoubereg, among others, adapted from Ottoman Armenian kitchens. Restaurant Varouj, a small family business, was one of the first to commercialize Armenian food in Lebanon.

Anyone from infamous warlords to your average Joe could be seen indulging in the unique food experience. For those who don’t know, there’s an ongoing battle over basterma between ‘Mano’ and ‘Bedo.’ Ghazar Bakery’s lahmajuns are to die for.

Badguer—known as the Pink House of Bourj Hammoud—offers a second-to-none cultural and culinary experience for its guests. With its ever-changing exhibition floor, dining hall and rooftop terrace, it has become a much celebrated touristic destination for the city. Resto-Foul offers a twist with influences from Aleppo Armenian taste buds. Kebab Apo is a landmark station specializing in different kebabs like the ourfa and the khashkhash – arguably one of the best in the country. 

Exhibition center 

The Hamazkayin “Lucy Tutunjian” Art Gallery opened in 2009 to serve as a platform for artists and art lovers alike. Centered in the middle of Bourj Hammoud, it aims to present art to all of Lebanon and beyond. For more than a decade, the gallery has exhibited the works of local and international artists – both Armenian and non-Armenian. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, weavings and creations from other art forms have all been housed in the gallery. 

The Shikhani Building 

The Shikhani Building is one of the oldest surviving structures in Bourj Hammoud. The Shikhanis were a well-off Christian family that owned a considerable amount of land in Bourj Hammoud. They, along with other families like the Kahwajis, sold much of their land to the Armenians for the construction of their new city. The building was first registered in the municipality records in 1935, but popular knowledge and oral testimonies claim it to be much older.

The building was made of sand and sea stones from the nearby shore rather than concrete. When another floor was added, concrete was used to enhance the firmness of the structure. The building has previously served as a police station and now a residential unit. The building along with the adjacent areas have been purchased by an investor. The fate of the building is unclear.

Beirut Blast

While Bourj Hammoud was founded from the ashes of sorrow, it also witnessed its fair share of misfortunes. A year ago, the Beirut blast of August 4th had a devastating impact on the city, which was already suffering from the dire economic and financial situation of Lebanon. Scenes from the explosion in Bourj Hammoud and the resulting destruction haunt the entire country. A year later, Bourj Hammoud is alive and full of life, but struggling. The future does not seem so optimistic. But, struggle is the bread and butter of every Armenian.

by Hrag Avedanian armenianweekly.com

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