Category Archives: Armenian Churches in Asia

Bangladesh’s Last Armenian Prays For Unlikely Future

Bangladesh’s Last Armenian Prays For Unlikely Future
By Shafiq Alam, AFP

Michael Joseph Martin is guarded about his exact age and reluctant to accept he will be the last in a long line of Armenians to make a major contribution to the history of Bangladesh.

Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, was once home to thousands of migrants from the former Soviet republic who grew to dominate the city’s trade and business life. But Martin, aged in his 70s, is now the only one left.

“When I die, maybe one of my three daughters will fly in from Canada to keep our presence here alive,” Martin said hopefully, speaking broken Bengali with a thick accent.. “Or perhaps other Armenians will come from somewhere else.”

Martin came to Dhaka in 1942 during World War II, following in the footsteps of his father who had settled in the region decades earlier. They joined an Armenian community in Bangladesh dating back to the 16th century, but now Martin worries about who will look after the large Armenian church in the city’s old quarter.

“This is a blessed place and God won’t leave it unprotected and uncared for,” he said of the Church of Holy Resurrection, which was built in 1781 in the Armanitola, or Armenian district.

Martin — whose full name is Mikel Housep Martirossian — looks after the church and its graveyard where 400 of his countrymen are buried, including his wife who died three years ago. When their children, all Bangladeshi passport-holders, left the country along, Martin became the sole remaining Armenian here. He now lives alone in an enormous mansion in the church grounds.

“When I walk, sometimes I feel spirits moving around. These are the spirits of my ancestors. They were noble men and women, now resting in peace,” said Martin, who is stooped and frail but retains a detailed knowledge of the Armenian history in Dhaka.

Marble tombstones display family names such as Sarkies, Manook and Aratoon from a time when Armenians were Dhaka’s wealthiest merchants with palatial homes who traded jute, spices, indigo and leather. Among the dead are M. David Alexander, the biggest jute trader of the late 19th century, and Nicholas Peter Poghose who set up Bangladesh’s first private school in the 1830s and died in 1876.

Martin, himself a former trader, said the Armenians, persecuted by Turks and Persians, were embraced in what is now Bangladesh first by the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries and then by the British colonial empire. Fluent in Persian — the court language of the Mughals and the first half of the British empire in India — Armenians were commonly lawyers, merchants and officials holding senior public positions.

They were also devout Christians who built some of the most beautiful churches in the Indian subcontinent. “Their numbers fluctuated with the prospects in trading in Dhaka,” said Muntasir Mamun, a historian at Dhaka University.

“Sometimes there were several thousand Armenians trading in the Bengal region. They were always an important community in Dhaka and dominated the country’s trading. They were the who’s who in town. They celebrated all their religious festivals with pomp and style.”

The decline came gradually after the British left India and the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 with Dhaka becoming the capital of East Pakistan and then of Bangladesh after it gained independence in 1971.

These days, the Armenian Church holds only occasional services on important dates in the Orthodox Christian calendar, with a Catholic priest from a nearby seminary coming in to lead prayers at Christmas. Martin said the once-busy social scene came to a halt after the last Orthodox priest left in the late 1960s, but he is determined to ensure the church’s legacy endures.

“Every Sunday was a day of festival for us. Almost every Armenian would attend the service, no matter how big he was in social position. The church was the centre of all activities,” he said.

“I’ve seen bad days before, but we always bounced back. I am sure Armenians will come back here for trade and business. I will then rest in peace beside my wife.”

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Singapore Community Photos

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The Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator (Penang)

As yet no evidence of Armenian activity has been found in connection with Armenian Street. The Armenians in fact worshipped at St. Gregory’s at Bishop Street, formerly located between King Street and Penang Street.

The Armenian Church of Penang was founded in 1822, more than a decade before the one in Singapore. In 1937, the church land was sold and the graves were transferred to a mass grave in the Western Road cemetery.

A prominent Armenian clan was the family of Arratoon Anthony. The Anthonys were among the Armenian diaspora that settled in Shiraz in Persia, and then in Bombay and Calcutta before coming to Penang.

But by far the most famous Armenians in the region were the Sarkies brothers who made their mark as hoteliers of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang and of the Raffles in Singapore.

Old shophouses along the street

By the 1920s, most of the Penang Armenians had emigrated, largely to Singapore, and from there on to Hong Kong and Sydney where there are significant Armenian minorities.

A map of the early 1800s shows that Armenian Street was formerly called Malay Lane, due to the Malay Kampong settlement there.

A mid-19th century braziery run by Mohamed Tahir, where all sorts of brass and copper wares were sold, gave Armenian Streets its Chinese name, Pak Thang-Ah Kay (Copper Worker’s Street).

In 1840, the death of Tengku Syed Hussain, founder of the Acheen Street Mosque, left a vacuum in Acheen Street community leadership. Much of his family properties was left to religious charity or was bought over by Hokkien traders.

The five great Hokkien-Clans (Goh Tai Seng) – namely, the Cheah, the Khoo, the Yeoh, the Tan and the Lim – were led by the prominent Straits Chinese. In the mid-19th century, they gradually established their clan houses in this area, with entrances along the trading streets.

Old shophouses along the street

At the same time, the Hokkien-dominated secret society called Khian Teik set up its base at the Tua Pek Kong Temple in Armenian Street.

The Khian Teik allied itself with the Red Flag secret society – two chief of the latter were Syed Mohamed Alatas and Che Long who lived in Armenian Street. The whole area intensively built with institutional bases surrounded by the member’s houses, was turn into Khian Teik Red Flag Stronghold.

During the Penang Riots of 1867, the Khian Teik Red-Flag alliance fought with the Ghee Hin – White Flag alliance for control of Georgetown.

Armenian Street was one of the centres of fighting, where Europeans volunteer police and their sepoys had to erect stockades. The entire town was laid siege for ten days, while reinforcements for both sides came from as far as Province Wellesley and Phuket.

Over the next few decades, smaller clashes continued to occur, until secret societies were finally suppressed in 1890. By that time, the Khian Teik had asserted their control, which allowed the Hokkien traders to emerge as the dominent force in Penang.

Row house along Armenian Street

Row house along Armenian Street

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India

History

Armenians had trading relations with several parts of India, and by the 7th century a few Armenian settlements had appeared in Kerala, an Indian state located on the Malabar Coast. Armenians controlled a large part of the international trade of the area, particularly in precious stones and quality fabrics.

An archive directory (published 1956) in Delhi, India states that an Armenian merchant-cum-diplomat, named Thomas Cana, had reached the Malabar Coast in 780 using the overland route. Seven hundred years thereafter, in the year 1498, Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar Coast. Thomas Cana was an affluent merchant dealing chiefly in spices and muslins. He was also instrumental in obtaining a decree, inscribed on a copperplate, from the rulers of Malabar, which conferred several commercial, social and religious privileges for the Christians of that region. In current local references, Thomas Cana is known as “Knayi Thomman” or “Kanaj Tomma”, meaning Thomas the merchant.

The Armenians in India can justly be proud of a glorious past but their present and future are not at all bright. They have greatly decreased in number. Now there are hardly 100 Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata, where the Armenian College still functions.

Settlements

Several centuries of presence of Armenians, described as “The Merchant Princes of India”, resulted in the emergence of a number of several large and small Armenian settlements in several places in India, including Agra, Surat, Mumbai, Chinsurah, Candernagore, Calcutta, Saidabad, Chennai, Gwalior, Lucknow, and several other locations currently in the Republic of India. Lahore and Dhaka – currently respectively in Pakistan and Bangladesh, – but, earlier part of Undivided India, and Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, also had an Armenian population. There were also many Armenians in Burma and Southeast Asia.

  • Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughal emperor, invited Armenians to settle in Agra in the 16th century, and by the middle of the 19th century, Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited. In 1562, an Armenian Church was constructed in Agra.
  • During the 16th century onwards, the Armenians (mostly from Persia) formed an important trading community in Surat, the most active Indian port of that period, located on the western coast of India. The port city of Surat used to have regular sea borne to and fro traffic of merchant vessels from Basra and Bandar Abbas. Armenians of Surat built two Churches and a cemetery there, and a tombstone (of 1579) in Surat bears Armenian inscriptions. The second Church was built in 1778 and was dedicated to Virgin Mary. A manuscript written in Armenian language in 1678 (currently preserved in Saltikov-Shchedrin Library, St. Petersburg) has an account of a permanent colony of Armenians in Surat.
  • The Armenians settled in Chinsurah, near Calcutta, West Bengal, and in 1697 built a Church there. This is the second oldest Church in Bengal and is still in well preserved on account of the care of the Calcutta Armenian Church Committee.
  • During the period of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a decree was issued which allowed Armenians to form a settlement in Saidabad, a suburb of Murshidabad, then the capital of Mughal suba (province) of Bengal. The imperial decree had also reduced the tax from 5% to 3.5% on two major items traded by them, namely piece goods and raw silk. The decree further stipulated that the estate of deceased Armenians would pass on to the Armenian community. By the middle of 18th century, Armenians had become very active merchant community of Bengal. In 1758, Armenians had built a Church of the virgin Mary in Saidabad’s Khan market.

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Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist

Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist

Within the Persian Empire, Armenians were deported in large numbers to New Julfa, on the outskirts of Isfahan, early in the seventeenth century. Many pushed on to India and Southeast Asia in the eighteenth century, as conditions turned against them. Found chiefly in Burma, the Malay peninsula (particularly Penang and Malacca), and Java, Armenians were usually accepted as ‘European’ or ‘White’. They tended to emigrate further from around World War I, notably to Australia.

Armenians in Burma suffered over time from their close association with the independent Burmese rulers. Major Armenian traders were employed as officials, especially in charge of customs and relations with foreigners. They survived the First Burmese War in 1826, when the British annexed the fringe provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim. However, the British conquest of Lower Burma, the commercial heart of the country, in 1852, led to renewed accusations that Armenian merchants were anti-British, and even pro-Russian. Nevertheless, the Armenians of Yangon built their church in 1862, on land presented to them by the King of Burma.

The 1871-1872 Census of British India revealed that there were 1,250 Armenians, chiefly in Kolkata, Dhaka and Yangon. The 1881 Census stated the figure to be 1,308; 737 in Bengal and 466 in Burma. By 1891, the total figure was 1,295.

The Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist still stands at No. 66, 40th Street (now Bo Aung Kyaw Street) in Yangon. According to its records, 76 Armenians were baptised in Burma between 1851-1915 (Yangon, Mandalay and Maymyo (now Pyin U Lwin)), 237 Armenians were married between 1855-1941 and over 300 Armenians died between 1811-1921.

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Church of the Holy Resurrection

Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection

The last of the Armenians in Dhaka, Bangladesh

[September 01, 2008]

Dyuti Monishita follows the trail of Dhaka’s Armenian Church and unravels the history of the community of Armenian traders who settled on the banks of the Buriganga before the rise of British India.

Michael Joseph Martin (Mikel Housep Martirossian) is possibly the last Armenian living in Dhaka. As the custodian of the Church of the Holy Resurrection and the cemetery within the church compound, popularly known as the Armenian Church, he has jealously guarded the church like a living sphinx.

He had been fighting off intruders and facing challenges for more than two decades now, the perfectly preserved condition of the Church building is his doing.

“People don’t look back,” says the eccentric toothless old man. “Times have changed,” he sighs, “all they want are high-rise buildings and financial gain. People couldn’t care less about the past and the marks left by it.”

“Things were different back then”, says the old and wrinkly Motaleb Ali, who has been living in Armanitola and have witnessed multitude of changes. “When we were young, the church was an open place. It was open to everyone, and I remember I would go there with my friends and sit in the cemetery and for hours and talk. But then, those were the times when you could sleep with your doors open at night, and there would be no intruders.”

Armanitola, so named after the large Armenian community of traders who settled there in Mughal times, is symbolised by the Armenian Church which still stands proudly among all the weathering buildings and sickly sweet smelling chemical factories. The church bell stopped ringing a long time ago, though once, the chime of the bell was characteristic of the locality.  Not much has changed within the walls of the Church, since its establishment in 1781. The cemetery still bears tombstones from the 18th century and the Church is still very serene inside.

“You see, there was no church before. There was only a small chapel for praying. But with growing congregations, it was not possible to accommodate so many people in the chapel,” Michael explains, “that is why a church was built in 1781.” The grounds inside the walls of the church are dotted with countless tombstones and epitaphs. The eccentrics are extended beyond Michael, the custodian. “I sleep on the graves at night, and not even a single mosquito bites me,” the guard happily informs and points at his favourite grave to sleep on. The grave is allotted to one William Harney, a military veteran who was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1830 and died at the age of 71 in 1901 in Dhaka. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “It was hard to part with you grandpa. No eyes can see me weep. But ever in my aching heart your beautiful memory keep.” The oldest grave is dated 1762, “there were older graves. But many of the gravestones were stolen during the 1971 war. So that’s the oldest for the time being,” Michael says.

Armenians were traders, who first came to Bengal following the footsteps of Persian adventurers, and in the course established their own trading community there, recognised as such by the Mughal government since late 17th century.

Armenians were mostly engaged in export trade paying a duty of 3.5 per cent to the government. The Nawabs are known to have engaged them to transact their personal businesses openly or clandestinely, and the European maritime companies engaged them as local representatives and their vakils (spokesperson) to the royal courts. Their economic and political influence was illustrious, with their dominance in jute and silk industries. Professor Sharifuddin Ahmed of history department, Dhaka University, says, “The Armenians excelled in trades such as textiles, jute, indigo, salt, zamindari, etc.” However, the exact time of their arrival in Bengal is not known to this day. But a considerable number of Armenians arrived in the region during the Mughal period, in order to embark on profitable businesses.

Armenia is a landlocked mountainous country in Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the Southern Caucasus. It borders Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan to the south. A transcontinental country at the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Armenia has had and continues to have extensive socio-political and cultural connections with Europe.  Naturally, with its prime location, Armenia is full of history and has been closely linked with trading for time inestimable. Mohammed Rokibuddin, another local says, “I have heard from my grandfather that the Armenians had contributed a lot to our economy. I heard about their wealth and their lavish houses. The stories sounded like a fairy tale when I was little.”

The most influential Armenians of that time were Pogoses, Agacy, Michael, Stephen, Joakim, Sarkies, Arathon (also spelled as Aratun), Coja (also spelled Khojah) and Manook (also spelled as Manuk) families.

According to a book called ‘Smriti Bismritir Dhaka’ in Bengali language, written by a very celebrated historian Muntasir Mamoon, Khwaja Hafizullah, a merchant prince, laid the foundations for the Dhaka Nawab Family by accumulating wealth by doing business with Greek and Armenian merchants. This trend was followed by his nephew and the first Nawab of the family Khwaja Alimullah. Parts of the gardens of Shahbag, Ruplal House, a major landmark in the old part of Dhaka, and the land where Bangabhaban stands belonged to Armenian zamindars. There is still a Manuk House inside Bangabhaban, bearing the name of the original owner’s family. Although, Armanitola was where a lot of Armenians had settled, a number of them lived in the neighbourhood as well. The Armenians had built lavish homes around the city for comfortable living. Many of those structures still remain to this very day and hold their places as landmarks.

They also played a major role as patrons of education and urban development in Dhaka. The Pogose School, the first private school in the country, was founded by JG Nicholas Pogose, a merchant and a zamindar. P Arathon was the headmaster of the Normal School. According to the Dhaka Prakash, a newspaper of his time, students in his school scored better in examinations than students of other schools in Bengal, including the one in Hoogli, now in India’s West Bengal state.

Being traders for hundreds of years, the Armenians had keen eyes for what business or trade would be lucrative, and that is why they were dominant in the jute and indigo industries. The noted jute traders included Abraham Pogose, M David, C Sarkies, M Catchhatoor, A Thomas, J G N Pogose and Michael Sarkies. Among them, the most distinguished was M David, he used to be called ?The Merchant Prince of East Bengal?. Horse carriages as a mode of transportation were introduced by C M Sarkies in 1856. At that time, the number of carriages was only 60, but by 1889 the number had increased to 600. This is how lucrative the business turned out to be. There were evidences of shops owned by G M Sarkies and C J Manook in different parts of old town. In fact, a very well known liquor store of that time was owned by an Armenian. ?During the British period, the Armenians maintained close contact with the British and they also had shops where they sold all sorts of European goods?, says Sharifuddin.

During the mid 1800s the number of Armenians in Dhaka started to migrate to West Bengal with the coming of British Raj. “Due to their close contact with the British, the Armenians started to act according to the activities of the British. Some went away to Britain and other European countries”, Sharifuddin says. “The Armenians never saw themselves as a part of this country or culture. They have always distinguished themselves from people of this region. That is why they moved on with the rise and fall of the economy of Bengal”, he concludes. And the population of the Armenian community had dropped to 121, and the economy had started wane as time went by and slowly the Armenians started to fade away until no one was left, and only the church stood in confirmation of their glorious existence.

As Michael paces among the tombstones and inspects the church, it is mournfully apparent that he is advancing in his years, and the future of the church which still stands strong, looks bleak. For Dhaka’s sake, it will be a tragedy if the last Armenian takes with him the history of the Armenians who settled in Bengal.

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Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator Singapore

Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator Singapore The History
The Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator is the first Christian church built in Singapore in 1835.  Designed by Irish architect, George D. Coleman, it is considered as one of his masterpieces.

As the number of Armenian families was growing in the early 1830s due to business prospects in Southeast Asia, a place of worship was deemed necessary.  In 1833, the land was acquired from the government of the time.  Majority of the funds needed for construction was raised by Singapore  Armenians, as well as, Armenians of Calcutta and Java.

On 26 March 1836, the church was consecrated and dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, a patron saint and the first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  In 1973, the building was gazetted as a national monument by the National Preservation Board.

The year 2011 marks a special milestone in the Church’s history. On 26 & 26 March 2011, over 160 Armenians (Archbishops, Government Officials, Dignitaries, friends) from 19 countries joined the local Armenian community in Singapore in celebrating the Church’s 175th Anniversary. This spiritual place serves as a tribute to the once influential Armenian community of Singapore.  They were  lawyers, merchants, and entrepreneurs.  Famous among them were the Sarkies Brothers who built and managed the Raffles Hotel, Agnes Joaquim who hybridised the orchid Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’ (named as Singapore’s national flower), and Catchick Moses who co-founded the Strait Times.

The Church
The interior of the church, namely the vaulted ceiling and cupola, is based on traditional Armenian Church architecture.  The painting above the altar is of Christ and his Apostles at the Last Supper.

Interior of Singapore Church

As for the exterior, a tall spire tops the building, while Doric columns, bordered by balustrades on both sides, sustain the white portico.  The original design, a domed roof and bell turret (also another feature of the Armenian Church architecture), had to be altered because of safety reasons.

Writing on the occasion of the consecration in 1836, the newspaper THE FREE PRESS commented « …this small but elegant building does great credit to the public spirit and religious feeling of the Armenians of this Settlement ; for we believe that few instances could be shown where so small a community have contributed funds sufficient for the erection of a similar edifice…which is …one of the most ornate and best furnished pieces of architecture… ».

The Garden
Within the tranquility of the tropical landscape lies the Memorial Garden with the tomb markings of Armenians who died in Singapore.  The tombstones were transported here in the early 1970’s from the Bukit Timah Cemetery by an American-Armenian, Mr. Leon Palian, residing in Singapore at the time. The stones were assembled to form the Memorial Garden, a sanctuary to a small community with a strong heritage and ties to the socio-economic development of this country.

memorial-garden

The Parsonage
The parsonage house dates back to 1905 and was built for the living accommodations of the residing priest.  Today, it serves as the administrative offices of the Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. A group of dedicated volunteers manage all the administrative aspects of the Church – The Church operates without any overhead expenses and 100% of all donations are directed toward the maintenance and upkeep of the property.

Parsonage

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