BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
I have almost completed my journey in chronicling my travels to Armenian enclaves around the world. It’s been a long road which I’ve traveled with joy. During my journey, I’ve visited many Armenian communities and I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of how we Armenians have preserved our identity in the diaspora.
I started to write my columns in Asbarez newspaper in July of 2011, under the “Community Links” heading. My first report was about a picnic at Verdugo park in Glendale, California, which was organized by Armenians from the city of Urmia, in Iran, who had moved to Glendale. The picnic was to commemorate our tradition of the feast of Vardavar, which entails dousing each other with water.
Today, I’m writing from Cologne, Germany. I chose the city of Cologne to write about Armenians in Germany, because a friend who lived here suggested that the city has a sizable Armenian community, and because Cologne might be the most enchanting of all cities in Germany.
Prior to arriving in this historic city, I had contacted Bishop Serovpé Isakhanyan from the Armenian diocese to get information about the Armenians in Germany, and specifically in Cologne.
Before I start my report on Armenians in Germany, I would like briefly to tell you about Cologne, a city with a 2,000-year-old history. Today Cologne is the fourth most populous city in Germany, with one million inhabitants. It stretches over the west bank of the River Rhine.
Please sit back and relax. I’d like to give you a taste of the city of Cologne, which was founded and established in Germanic territory in the 1st century AD as a Roman Colony, hence, in Italian its name became “Colonia” and later developed into modern German as “Köln.” The name Cologne is the French version of the city’s name, which has become standard in the English language.
I was most fortunate to have made a reservation at an Airbnb with an easy walk to the historic Old Town of Cologne, where most of the attractions are, where the river Rhine flows, and where the magnificent Gothic Cathedral, which is the main attraction in Cologne, is nestled.
The proximity to the city center and being able to walk to the river and enjoy the spectacular views gave me an exceptional feeling. The Old Town is situated right next to the river Rhine. That made it easy to stroll down the narrow cobblestone streets and window-shop the array of trendy and high-end boutiques.
I’d like to share a personal experience. During my three-day stay in Cologne I had a problem with my Apple laptop. While I was visiting the Old Town, when I saw the cluster of luxury brand stores, I thought there must be an Apple store nearby. And indeed, there was.
The next day, in the early morning as the store opened, I was at the Apple store with my computer in hand. Fortunately, the issue was easily solved at the genius bar. That made me very happy.
The thing I most enjoyed about Cologne was the fact that everything was within walking distance and its ambiance was so quaint.
I would also like to tell you another interesting aspect of the city of Cologne, which is how its name “Cologne” has become a generic term for men’s fragrance. The story goes as follows.
In 1709, an Italian pharmacist in Cologne, produced a fragrance by mixing some citrus oils with alcohol and tree blossoms. The mixture became so popular that the pharmacist, in honor of his adopted city, named it “Water of Cologne,” or, in French, “Eau de Cologne,” which sounds like “O de Cologne.”
That particular “Eau de Cologne” was named after the building number where it was manufactured. It was called “4711.” At the beginning, the fragrance was used as medicinally.
Now, this history is nostalgic for me, because in the 1960s, when I was growing up in Tehran, the “4711” cologne was very popular, and each household had at least one bottle. I remember they said it was therapeutic and relieved headaches.
To honor my own memories of my youth, I decided to walk to the original building where the cologne was manufactured, which has become like a museum now. I bought a few small vials as souvenirs.
Here are a few more interesting facts about the 4711 cologne. In the early days, the cologne was offered only to royal houses. The cost of a vial was equal to half of one year’s salary of a civil servant. The 4711 is considered to be one of the oldest perfumes of all time.
On my last day in Cologne, I had an appointment to see our Armenian Bishop at the prelacy. So, from the museum, I walked a short distance to the train station to attend my meeting.
The train took about half an hour to arrive at the outskirts of the city, where the Armenian Church is nestled among mature trees in a middle-class neighborhood. It took me another half an hour to walk to the prelacy and meet the bishop. I made it on time.
The following is what I gathered from meeting with the Bishop Serovpé Isakhanyan.
The seat of the Diocese of the Armenian Church in Germany is in Cologne, under the auspices of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. The church is named after our two saints: “St. Sahag—St. Mesrob.” In addition to the diocese church, there’s also an Armenian parish in Cologne, called “Armenian Community of Cologne.”
Before WWII there were a small number of Armenians in Germany. Some great Armenians like Levon Shant, Avetik Isahakyan, artists Hakob Kojoyan, Vardges Surenyants, and others have studied at German educational institutions.
After WWII some Armenians arrived in Germany from Turkey as guest workers. Then, around the early 1960s, many young Armenians arrived from Iran and Arab countries to receive their higher education. The biggest surge of Armenians was after the Independence of Armenia from Soviet Union in the 1990s, continuing until today.
Today, there are an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Armenians living in Germany. There are 16 parishes, 25 cultural centers, and 40 Armenian organizations.
Bishop Isakhanyan believes that there isn’t a village or a city in Germany that you cannot find at least one Armenian. He said there should be around 6,000 to 8,000 Armenians in Cologne.
The “St. Sahag-St. Mesrob” church is housed in a German church which was initially built in 1954 for German families who worked at Ford in Cologne. However when the Ford factory closed its doors, the families dispersed from the area and the church lost its parish.
In 1989, after some negotiations, the German church was handed to the Armenian Diocese as a gift. Today, the Diocese church has around 2,500 members.
The church conducts liturgy on every 2nd and 4th Sunday. On the other Sundays, the reverent father travels to other cities to conduct liturgies there.
Usually, around 70 to 80 people attend the mass on Sundays. However, during holidays there are more people and it’s standing-room-only. After the liturgy, food is served to the parishioners. The members of the church that participate in the “Komitas” choir sing during the mass.
The original altar of the German church was facing West, so the diocese created a new altar on the other side of the church which faces to the East.
On Saturdays, the church conducts Eastern and Western Armenian language and history classes for kids from seven to 14-years-old. They have five classrooms and 60 kids participating. They also have a kindergarten class for younger kids.
The Saturday school also offers group singing and dancing for kids. Sometimes they also perform stories by Hovhannes Tumanian.
The Church’s youth group meets once a month, where they exchange views on Armenia and discuss the current geopolitical situations in Armenia an Artsakh. They organize social events, such as the celebration of Dyarn-Darach at Sourp Sarkis feast.
On November 4 of this year, Harout Pamboukjian is going to perform a concert in Cologne.
My talk with Bishop Isakhanyan lasted a little over an hour. What I learned: it was another testament of how Armenian communities preserve their identities in the Diaspora.