Burj Hammoud: Little Armenia

I approached this mapping project with the firm belief that my expectations would be fully met, that I would march into Burj Hammoud and find the data that supported the widely-popularised claim that the area is a smaller Armenia. My next step was to go further to understand how Armenian culture was maintained through Burj Hammoud’s linguistic landscape. But what I discovered was a lot different than what I initially set out to prove.

I had decided to go to Burj Hammoud expecting to find Armenian-only signs, or dominantly Armenian signage, but of the 50 (71 total, with the rest being records in Hamra and Dawra) records I collected in Burj Hammoud (via data sharing app, Fulcrum), the black points in the map below are the purely-Armenian signs/records. There are only five of them.

It is surprising to see that in an area that is historically dominated by Armenians, there were barely any Armenian-only signs. Even if that isn’t the case now and the area has more ethnic diversity, one would expect to find the residues of said signs. For example, Lebanon was under the French Mandate between the two World Wars, and yet some French signs still exist in the area and in Lebanon in general. 

The presence of these other languages is justifiable, but their domination over Armenian or the extent to which they co-exist is what sparked my curiosity. Taking a look at my map of Burj Hammoud, one can see that bilingual and trilingual signs are much more prevalent in the secondary streets of the area than in the main streets. The map below shows the unilingual records in the map. Interestingly, they are all found closer to the main highway where most passers bys will more likely be English or Arabic speakers. The specific road they are found on is also parallel to the highway and later intersects with it.

My data translates the ethnic diversity in Burj Hammoud. Since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Burj Hammoud has stopped beying a dominantly Armenian neighbourhood, and yet the area is still dubbed Little Armenia, and not anything else. So, the question of how remains unanswered. How is it that the Armenian identity is so prevalent in this area specifically? My answer to this question came in two forms.

While I was collecting my data, I noticed an abundance of Armenian schools and bookstores, which led me to think about whether the distribution of Armenian print media played a role in preserving the Armenian identity in BH. To pursue this thread, I decided to conduct interviews with some of the owners of the most prominent Armenian bookstores in the country (all of which are in BH). I found that a lot of them sold Armenian books to schools around the neighbourhood. Hamazkayin, the only Armenian publishing house in the country, often imports, exports, and publishes Armenian-language novels. The fact that Hamazkayin and all these bookstores are situated in BH is a major factor in preserving Armenian readership and therefore identity. From my own family and friends, I know that the older generation strives to keep the newer generation connected to its culture and language. And being a diaspora only adds to the need and pressure to do so. Below is a map (courtesy of Nicole Massoud’s work on Armenian Print Media) that juxtaposes Armenian print media with all other print media languages. The direct relationship between the heavy population of Armenians and print media publication is thus highlighted.

The most important thing I noticed, the thing that eventually led me to the answer to my question, was the sheer absence of signs in Burj Hammoud to direct people. Most if not all the Armenian records I found were of shops and services. This being one of the very few times I’d been to Burj Hammoud, I wondered how people found their way around the area. A few interviews with residents of the area validated a hypothesis I had in mind. I asked three residents how to get to the city stadium in Burj Hammoud from three different locations. In their explanation of the directions, all three individuals (two Arabs, one Armenian) used the same reference points: Basterma Mano, Armenian Red Cross Relief, “Abou Artine” gas station, Vartanants Church (also known as the Red Church), and Capitol Bookstore, all of which happen to be Armenian.

These reference points in Burj Hammoud act as signs, and because they are all Armenian and are so deeply embedded in colloquial speech, the area becomes part and parcel of the Armenian geographic narrative in Lebanon, regardless of whether Armenians are the residing majority or not. This can be seen specifically in “Abou Artine” gas station. I had a conversation with the manager and learned that a man named Artine owned the gas station two decades ago, and that management had changed twice since then. It is now a regular Total station, and yet people still refer to it as “Abou Artine” gas station. In fact, “if you called it by it’s actual name, people wouldn’t know which station you were talking about” joked the current manager.

In conclusion, it is interesting to see that Burj Hammoud’s sign language is its landmarks. The area is so twisted and tangled that these reference points, which happen to be Armenian, guide people. That, in addition to the area being the hub of Armenian print media, help Burj Hammoud preserve its ‘Armenianness.’