Bourj Hammoud: An Armenian City in Exile

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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. 

Bourj Hammoud (Photo: Rita Avedanian)

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. 

Bourj Hammoud (Photo: Charlene Woolley)

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.

A panorama of Bourj Hammoud in the 1950s, featuring Nor Sis neighborhood and sections of Nor Adana and Nor Marash. Photo courtesy of the Garo Derounian collection

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 Armenianfrom the signage to the spice shops and the overwhelming display of tricolor flags of red, blue and orangeit 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 (Photo: Charlene Woolley)

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.

The author leading a walking tour of Beirut, Lebanon (Photo: Rita Avedanian)

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

Arax Street

Arax Street (Photo: Simon McNorton)

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 presents tablecloth with origins from Van. (Photo: Simon McNorton)

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.

The Armenian Artisanat aims to preserve the traditional art of Armenian embroidery. (Photo: Mgrditch Avedanian)

Marash Street 

(Photo: Charlene Woolley)

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 

(Photo: Mgrditch Avedanian)

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 

(Photo: Lara El Hajj)

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

(Photo: Rita Avedanian)

The khachkar (cross stone) being a defining feature of Armenian monumental art,…

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