BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
“You have your Lebanon with her problems, and I have my Lebanon with her beauty.” — Khalil Gibran 1883-1931
For the last several years I have been staying in Yerevan for extended periods of time.
In 2019, before the Coronavirus pandemic, I was in Yerevan and while I was watching Armenian TV, I came upon an interesting travel show by a young man named Vardan Sargsyan who, in his late 30s, visited less-travelled countries and reported about their culture. The name of the show was “Away From Home.”
The show got my attention. I watched a few episodes, and I realized that Vardan’s travel agency was a stone’s throw away from my apartment. So, one day I decided to walk to his office to meet that talented guy whom I call the “Armenian Anthony Bourdain.”
At the office, I didn’t meet him because he was away on another adventure. His staff told me that he organizes group trips to different countries such as India, Tanzania, Egypt, etc. The idea of traveling to those places was thrilling. However, it was time for me to return home.
I told them, “Next year, in the summer of 2020, I will return to Armenia, and I will join a few tours.” But, as you know, the pandemic hit, and the world shut down and everybody stayed home.
This year, after I got vaccinated and countries started to open up, I arrived in Armenia. I called Vardan’s office and found out that they offered several group tours from which I chose, to travel to Dubai and Lebanon.
Lebanon was a destination I always longed to travel to… However, this visit was not timely, because the country was reeling over severe, prolonged political and financial crisis, followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic and, lastly, the explosion on August 4, 2020, at the Port of Beirut, which left the country in shambles.
Today Beirut, with its lovely beaches and mountain resorts, which was once dubbed a “party-town,” or “the Paris of the Middle East,” is suffering from a sad economic situation made worse by political unrest and protests.
The national currency is devaluating hour by hour. There are long lines to purchase gas. All these elements have radically changed and gutted the country. Beirut is no longer a destination for nightlife, city tourism, shopping or any of the other things that tourists wanted to visit and enjoy.
Economic deterioration has forced the high-end malls to close. We visited a few but they were hardly any open shops. More than half the country’s population is living below the poverty line. The increasing economic hardship has created a shortage of basic necessities.
A higher share of households are facing challenges in accessing food, healthcare, and essential services such as getting municipal water, electricity or gas. I met some Lebanese who said that, in their opinion, these are the worst times.
A few times while we were on the road, we witnessed protests such as the closing of freeways by burning tires and rubbish. Once when we were traveling from the south towards the once legendary beaches, we had to re-route our trip and take the back roads. This sounds very grim, but it’s all true.
Our tour guide, Vardan, had been to Beirut several times. He told us that the critical economic situation in Lebanon was to our advantage because our money had more purchasing power. Indeed, we could buy a lot of nice things with little money. I bought a wooden backgammon board with Mother-of-Pearl inlays for only $12.
Our sightseeing started with two tour buses—25 people in each bus—as a COVID restriction.
We learned that Beirut has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest cities. However, the first historical mention of Beirut is found in the Amarna letters which date to the 15th century B.C.
The first site we visited was the famous landmark of Pigeon Rocks, at the seaside of Beirut. This natural formation is composed of two weathered arch-shaped rocks protruding from the sea. It is said that the origin of the name is because pigeons often hit the rocks and fall off them.
Then we drove to Antelias, a city just outside of Beirut, to visit the Armenian Catholicosate (Armenian: Կաթողիկոսութիւն Հայոց Մեծի Տանն Կիլիկիոյ). This is the worship center of the Armenian Church, somewhat analogous to the Vatican in Rome. The heads of the Armenian Church are called Catholicos. This rich religious tradition has been in place since the 4th century. The seat has moved several times, most recently in 1930, when it was transferred from Cilicia in Turkey to Antelias, in the aftermath of the Genocide.
We had the opportunity to visit a multi-level museum, next to the church, which showcased the history of the Catholicosate in Cilicia as early as the fourth century. The museum is a living testimony of the millennial history of the Catholicosate from Cilicia to today.
In the summer of 1915, under threats from the Ottoman Empire, the Catholicosate made an Odyssean journey from Sis to Aleppo, and then fifteen years later, in 1930, they were brought to Antelias. Today the new premises of the Holy See of Cilicia holds very significant collections. Most of the precious relics and samples of religious art were rescued from the upheaval of the genocide.
Our next visit was to the malls in Beirut. In the Arabic language “souk” means a shopping center or a bazaar. Since I’m very interested in the etymology of the words, I’d like to bring your attention to the word of “souk.” In Armenian we say “shouka.” I think you can easily tell that shouka is a derivation from the word souk.
The shopping centers, from the old pedestrian streets to newer malls, were all interconnected. However, they were all deserted. Around that part of the town, while we were strolling on the side streets, several miles away from the August 4 explosion, we saw the shards of shattered windows from the shops that were still laying there. I’d be lying if I don’t admit that those scenes got me emotional. According to Lebanese sources, 13 Armenians were among the approximately 200 killed at the explosion in the city’s port on August 4, 2020.
While we were at the complex of souks, an unfinished building with unique architecture grabbed my attention. It had a futuristic extraordinary design, a rounded block with a lace-like finish. As I approached, I noticed it said “Zaha Hadid Architects, Beirut Souks Department Store.” I’m passionate about today’s architecture with curved facades. It was a great surprise, for me, to actually see a Zaha Hadid work. I’m familiar with her designs only from reading and watching them on the Internet.
On the second day of our stay in Beirut, I had arranged ahead of time to meet with Garo Derounian, who is the media coordinator and a researcher at KOHAR library in Beirut. Garo Derounian invited me and a few friends from our group to visit the KOHAR Library and learn about their activities.
At 10 a.m., Garo picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the library, which occupies a whole floor in a seven-story office building, situated close to Burj Hammoud—the predominantly Armenian neighborhood in Beirut.
Before touring the library, Garo had arranged a little reception where we were served coffee and pastries, at which time Mr. Harout Khachadourian, the main patron of the library, joined us.
We learned that the KOHAR music library was founded in 2012 as a research library for music. It contains more than 2,400 new and old Armenian song books, about 650 old dictionaries, antique history books from Cilicia in Turkey, and also books based on the testimonials of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. It also contains thousands of cassettes, CDs, and DVDs.
KOHAR library also has its own bookbindery, which specializes in binding & restoring old and new books, as well as magazines. I must say that we were pretty impressed to be guests of the library and learn about all that. KOHAR library has become an important cornerstone in the Armenian music and culture. It’s a key institution for preserving Armenian heritage for future generations.
Before I go further with my report, let me give you a little insight about KOHAR Symphony Orchestra and its choir, which was the impetus for creating the library.
KOHAR Symphony Orchestra and the choir are the all-time favorites of Armenians around the world. It was founded in 1997 by Harout Khatchadourian who, along with his brothers Shahe and Nar, have entirely sustained the operational costs.
Let’s take a look back and see how it all started. “Right after the disastrous earthquake of Gyumri in December of 1988, Mr. Khatchadourian’s mother was very saddened by the debilitating situation of the earthquake’s aftermath. She asked her sons to come up with an idea to provide some kind of assistance to Gyumri and its people,” said our host, Garo.
Her sons, after some brainstorming, decided to start a symphony orchestra, which also included a dance group. They named the group in honor of their mother— KOHAR, which means “jewel.”
After spending an hour at the library, Garo suggested that we walk together to Bourj Hammoud, which is a neighborhood heavily populated by Armenians. It was an easy walk, and it took us five or 10 minutes at most.
Having many friends from Lebanon, I had heard a lot about Bourj Hammoud and I had seen many pictures of its narrow streets with exposed electrical wires and balconies draped with canvas to prevent exposure to the harsh sun.
Bourj Hammoud is a mixed residential, and commercial area and is one of the most densely populated districts in the Middle East. It’s a jumble of narrow streets, lined with small shops and living quarters on top of the shops.
The Armenians of Turkey, fleeing massacres by the Ottomans, arrived in Lebanon around 1917. They had walked from Turkey to Syria and then to Lebanon and had settled in refugee camps under tents on the outskirts of Beirut.
In later years, the area evolved into Armenian’s living quarters, and it was named Bourj Hammoud, because in the nearby area where the Armenian refugees huddled under the tents, there was a two-story building which belonged to an Arab named Hammoud. That two-story building in the eyes of the refugees looked like a tower or in Arabic “Bourj.” So, they started to call the area Bourj Hammoud—Tower of Hammoud.
With a population of 15,000 Armenians, Bourj Hammoud is viewed as a little Armenia in the heart of the Lebanese capital. In that small neighborhood, there are a few Armenian churches and schools that we passed by on our walk, but we didn’t have time to stop.
On our walk we had the chance to visit the office of “Aztag” the Armenian newspaper in Bourj Hammoud. Aztag is a daily newspaper and the official newspaper of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) in Lebanon. Aztag was started in 1927. The paper is distributed door-to-door daily to its subscribers.
Before the pandemic, the paper was 10 pages long. But during the Covid lockdown, the editorial staff decided to reduce the number of pages to four. The disappointed subscribers demanded more pages, so now the paper is published on eight pages. Hallelujah to our people who are eager to read more.
I’d like to share a story with you. Aztag paper had a loyal delivery guy named Apollo who delivered the paper every day, rain or shine— war or peace to the subscribers, until the day he died. To memorialize his work, the management of the paper commissioned his statue, which stands in Bourj Hammoud. We visited the statue, and I took a picture with it.
We wanted to buy a few things but owing to the bad economy, some of the shops were closed. Garo took us around to the shops where he knew the shopkeepers. We realized the prices were very affordable. We bought dried fruit, spices, a few outfits, and a few accessories.
After we did our shopping at Bouj Hammoud, Garo took us back to the hotel. In the evening he picked us up again, because Harout Khachadourian had invited us for dinner at a high-end restaurant near the scenic view at Pigeon Rocks.
Although I didn’t get a chance to visit any Armenian institutions in Beirut, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the Armenian community. An estimated 150,000 Armenians live in Lebanon, mainly in Beirut. There are a total of 18 Armenian schools in Lebanon.
The Armenian Evangelical Central High School is the oldest and most well-established Armenian school in the country. It was founded in 1922 in a refugee camp. Ten years later, it was moved to its present location in Ashrafieh— eastern Beirut.
Another Armenian institution that I’d like to mention is the Haigazian University which was established in 1955 in Beirut by the joint endeavors of the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East. It is a liberal arts university which emphasizes a challenging curriculum.
Now I’d like to take you to Bird’s Nest Orphanage in Byblos, about two hours away from Beirut. If you’ve ever followed the history behind the Armenian Genocide, you should be aware of two outstanding Danish missionaries who saved the lives of thousands of orphans and women. One is Karen Jeppe, who became a schoolteacher in Urfa before (1903) starting her life’s work of helping Armenian refugees, and the other Maria Jacobsen.
Maria Jacobsen was a 24-year-old Danish missionary when she arrived in Kharberd in eastern Turkey in 1906. She was a trained nurse and she immediately started to work at the American Hospital of Kharberd.
While in Kharberd, Maria saw first-hand the miseries of the Armenians, and she started to write daily journals. Her 600-page diary from between 1907 to 1919, gives eyewitness accounts of the harsh treatment of the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Her diary played a huge part in bringing out the truth about the sufferings of Armenians during the Genocide.
Jacobsen took thousands of children under her care and saved them. In one of her stories, she writes: “I thought I should never be able to smile again.” This was a story when she turned away a boy who was later found dead in front of her door from starvation.
In the past century, the Bird’s Nest in Byblos was an orphanage run by “Near East Relief,” an American humanitarian program. Later the orphanage was taken over by Maria Jacobsen, who ran it as an orphanage from 1928 until her death in 1960.
At Birds’ Nest, the Armenian orphans referred to Maria Jacobsen as “Mama Jacobsen,” and they were educated in their own Armenian culture and language.
Let me step back and tell you a story. In 2019 I was visiting Denmark, and I met two Armenian women in their 70s who, as children, were enrolled at the Bird’s Nest orphanage in Lebanon. Both of them told me many stories about Maria Jacobsen, how their “Mama” was so kind and how she provided love and emotional support to all the kids and how the kids loved her as their own mother.
Hearing their stories. I longed to see the Orphanage which still exists. Fortunately, that wish came true and during our trip we visited the Bird’s Nest and I could see it with my own eyes.
Another historical place that I wanted to visit, was a house in Anjar, Lebanon, where a white flag emblazoned with a Red Cross was kept as a memory of the Armenians who had fled to the mountains during the genocide in Turkey and who had resisted the Turkish Army for 53 days until they were rescued by French war ships in the Mediterranean Sea.
When, in April of 1915, the Armenians across the Ottoman Empire were ordered to evacuate their villages, the Armenians around Musa-Dagh Mountain (Moses’s Mountain) organized a defense against the deportation edicts. They decided to retreat up the mountain and defy the evacuation order.
Against incredible odds and with diminishing provisions, they held off the Turkish army for 53 days, ultimately being rescued by French war ships which were patrolling nearby in the Mediterranean Sea and saw the banner asking for help.
To attract the attention of the vessels, the Armenians came up with an ingenious idea of making a flag out of white bed sheets, marked by a red cross which was made out of pieces of the boys’ choir robes.
You may ask, how could they have white bed sheets and church choir robes in their possession while in the mountains? The answer is that during the night, people sneaked into their homes in the villages and brought back things they would need.
During the day, the flag was displayed on the mountain slope and at night they lit a fire for passing ships to grab their attention.Their strategic plan worked and after resisting for more than a month, a French warship landed and evacuated the survivors. About 4,000 Armenians were taken to Port Said in Egypt.
For many years, the real flag was stored in a small home in Anjar, Lebanon. However, when we arrived in Anjar we learned that since the flag was deteriorating, it was removed from that home. Now the replica of the flag, alongside other relics, was displayed in a two-room museum. I’m glad that we could visit that museum, though we couldn’t see the original flag with patches of the boys’ red outfits.
Here I must mention that the Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel, who in 1933 published his novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” was inspired by the experience of the successful defense of Armenians against the Ottoman forces in Musa Dagh.
I cannot finish my report of Lebanon, until I tell you about the fabulous ruins in Baalbek, which was built by the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. This is the largest collection of classical temples ever built.
The temple dedicated to Bacchus, the God of wine, is the best preserved and largest monument in the world with mind-boggling fine ornamentations and details. There are also three other temples after the Roman Gods. The area is the largest and best preserved from Roman antiquity.
I’d like to finish my report by saying that Lebanon is a nation branded by upheaval and crises, however it is said that today Lebanon is in its worst period over the past 100 years. Bear in mind that Lebanon had a civil war from 1975 to 1990.
I’d like to quote Anthony Bourdain, who once said, “There’s no place else, even remotely, like Beirut.” Now I understand this quote and I know why people rave about its uniqueness. I left Beirut with a heavy heart…