Bourj Hammoud, the little Armenia in the heart of Beirut

Food tasting is featured in authentic bakeries and restaurants, such as the Tahinov Hatz, a sweet pastry offered for breakfast and lahmajoon, the Armenian meat pie.
Saturday 14/09/2019
A view of the St Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral. (Living Lebanon)
A view of the St Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral. (Living Lebanon)

BEIRUT - Walking through the modest alleyways of Bourj Hammoud takes visitors to a small replica of Armenia in the heart of Beirut. The language, the names of streets and the smells of spices and street food that emanate from bakeries and restaurants are all reminiscent of their country of origin, which Armenians were forced to leave fleeing genocide by the Ottomans.

“Armenians arrived in Lebanon in 1917. They walked from Turkey to Syria and Lebanon and settled in refugee camps in the outskirts of Beirut. The area has since developed into a neighbourhood Bourj Hammoud and has become an Armenian hub in the city,” explained Yerevant Shallagian, founder of the “Bourj Hammoud — Walking Tour with Street Food.”

Shallagian was born and raised in Bourj Hammoud. His love for his neighbourhood and his passion for the Armenian culture inspired him to work on this project to promote his culture and background.

“Since I work in Living Lebanon (a platform on travel and tourism in Lebanon), I have a lot of foreign friends coming here who wanted to know about Bourj Hammoud. I was taking them around and offering them Armenian dishes and one German friend told me I should do that as an official tour. So I said why not?” Shallagian said.

“I never studied to be a tour guide. I am a local guy who likes to share what he loves about his city. I did as much as I can to share knowledge that I know and care about.”

Roaming the streets of Bourj Hammoud and interacting with residents offer visitors an insight into Armenian culture and traditions that Lebanon’s Armenian community of some 50,000 have maintained and preserved for more than a century.

The tour begins at the main Rue d’Armenie (Armenia Street), which is lined with jewellry and gold shops. Armenians are famous for their craftsmanship and have established a reputation as Lebanon’s jewellers.

“When they arrived here, our ancestors learned new skills and made a living by working in gold. They also worked with leather, making shoes and bags and the women did embroidery, anything to bring food to the table,” Shallagian said.

The tour includes churches and workshops famous for producing shoes, bags and ready-to-wear clothes.

“We can make any bag design,” boasted Coco as he put the finishing touches on a silver, beaded clutch at his small workshop along a narrow pedestrian alley. “We also design and produce bags for a local brand ‘la Rose de Sym,’ all handmade.”

St Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral is the biggest of some ten churches in Bourj Hammoud. It was named after an Armenian leader who fought against the Persians in the fifth century. “Thanks to him we remained Christians; otherwise we would have been forced to convert to Islam. The architecture of the church, which was renovated in 2006, is very similar to churches in Armenia,” Shallagian said.

Some of the narrow streets where flags of the Armenian revolutionary party, Tashnak, hang next to Armenian and Lebanese flags, have been renovated with donations from wealthy Armenians and foreign governments.

A memorial to the Armenian genocide, a small replica of a memorial stone in Yerevan, Armenia, stands in the heart of Bourj Hammoud. Each April, Armenians commemorate the genocide by marching from Bourj Hammoud to the Armenian patriarchate in Antelias, north of Beirut. “The 2-hour march is meant to mark how our ancestors walked from Turkey to Lebanon fleeing the genocide,” Shallagian explained.

Food tasting is also featured in authentic bakeries and restaurants, such as the Tahinov Hatz, a sweet pastry offered for breakfast; lahmajoon, the Armenian meat pie; and the famous Armenian sausage sujuk.

With a population of 15,000 Armenians, Bourj Hammoud is viewed as a little Armenia in the heart of the Lebanese capital. While first-generation Armenians could hardly speak any Arabic, young Armenians learn Arabic at school in addition to Armenian, French and English.

Gary Walsh, an Australian participant, commented on the tour: “I did not know what to expect but I really came away with lots of appreciation and knowledge of what it means to be Armenian in Lebanon.”

“I do feel it is something I would not have found for myself. It gave me a real taste of Armenian culture,” he said.

“Bourj Hammoud — Walking Tour with Street Food” takes place every Tuesday. It began in June and Shallagian said he hopes it will gain popularity soon.

He said that, in addition to introducing Armenian culture, “the tour aims to change the perspective of Bourj Hammoud, which is regarded as a low-income suburb, while it is actually a place where Armenians have built a civilisation.”