Beirut occupies a special place in the Armenian imagination. In the twentieth century, the Lebanese capital incubated a post-genocide Armenian national revival. Lebanon’s political structure, which grants communal autonomy, provided fertile ground for the rehabilitation of Armenian society. Under these circumstances, Beirut became the national, religious and cultural epicenter of the Armenian diaspora. This euphoric period was shattered by the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War. And since then, Lebanon has faced a perpetual string of crises, including the current financial cum political turmoil. While the Lebanese Armenian community never regained its prewar status, it can claim its singular reputation as a treasured home to the Armenian Nation.
While the Lebanese Armenian community never regained its prewar status, it can claim its singular reputation as a treasured home to the Armenian Nation.
The Early Days
The Armenian presence in Lebanon stretches to the reign of Tigran the Great, while the contemporary Lebanese Armenian community traces its roots to waves of Armenian Catholic emigration in the late seventeenth century. Armenian Catholics, escaping sectarian violence in Anatolia, sought refuge among Maronite Catholic co-religionists in Mount Lebanon. As Beirut developed into a bustling entrepôt in the late eighteenth century, Armenians continued trickling into the Mediterranean port city. Merchants descended to conduct commerce, while students flocked to the esteemed Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut). The local Armenian population further swelled in the wake of the 1894-97 Hamidian massacres.
While Armenians viewed them-selves as a nation in exile, in subsequent decades, the community would become firmly ensconced in the Lebanese socio-political fabric.
On the eve of Lebanese independence in 1943, the Armenian community was part and parcel of the country’s sectarian mosaic. By then, Armenians had established themselves in towns and cities across Lebanon: Tripoli, Byblos, Zahle and the now fabled Anjar. (The latter, situated in the Bekaa Valley, was resettled in 1939 with Armenians displaced from the province of Alexandretta.) Beirut and its environs became host to the headquarters of the Armenian Catholic Church and Catholicosate of Cilicia, marking the city as an Armenian ecclesiastical hub. The three traditional political parties of the Diaspora (Tashnag, Hunchag and Ramgavar) and their respective organs (Aztag, Ararad and Zartonk) also settled in the Lebanese capital.
The Armenian Cold War
Lebanese Armenian communal consolidation was marked by escalating intra-communal polarization and strife. These tensions mirrored the partisan rifts of the broader diaspora, which centered on whether to engage with Soviet Armenia. But these internecine squabbles were also precipitated by local dynamics. Armenian political parties, transplants from Ottoman Anatolia, jostled fiercely for influence over Lebanon’s burgeoning Armenian community. This protracted, multifaceted political row animated three seminal episodes of Lebanese Armenian history: the 1946-8 repatriation initiative to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), the 1956 Catholicos election and the 1958 Civil War.
These events ushered in a period of community-wide polarization, a tinderbox of tensions that have resulted in politically homogenized residential districts—a legacy that endures to the present day.
An Armenian Renaissance
Starting in the 1960s, Lebanon entered a period of ostensible political stability and economic prosperity. The service sector—underpinned by banking, real estate and tourism—blossomed. And the country flourished. This era, considered by some as Lebanon’s golden age, marked the pinnacle of the Armenian communal resurgence and Beirut’s transformation into the cultural nerve center of the Diaspora.
During these bright years, Lebanon’s Armenian society was rapidly evolving. The local Armenian population, boosted by influxes from Syria, Turkey and Palestine, boomed. A growing Armenian middle class expanded its business ventures and established communities in Beirut’s budding suburbs. And the Armenian community was reveling in the benefits of a burgeoning renaissance.
The Beirut of the 1960s and early 1970s was the catalyst of an Armenian cultural eruption, which reverberated across the Diaspora.
This resounding revival was under-pinned by Beirut’s premier Armenian educational institutions. These schools helped burnish Beirut’s status as an Armenian cultural capital—and a safe haven for Western Armenians. The era saw the number of Armenian schools skyrocket. By 1974, the Armenian community operated a sprawling network of 56 primary and secondary schools, accommodating nearly 21,000 students, while Haigazian University, the first institution of higher education in the Diaspora, catered to Armenians and non-Armenians alike. The university, founded in 1955 by Beirut’s Armenian Evangelical community, became a magnet for Armenians across the Levant. These centers of excellence fostered a new generation of Armenian intellectuals, cultural figures and leaders, many of whom helm Diaspora institutions today.
In this heyday, the Armenian community left an indelible mark on its adopted homeland, with contributions to various sectors.
In the field of medicine, trails were blazed by Dr. Yervant Jidejian, a distinguished surgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, and Dr. Antranik Manugian, the director of the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders. The Lebanese Rocket Society, composed of mainly Armenian students from Haigazian University, under the stewardship of Dr. Manoug Manougian, launched the first rockets in Lebanon—and the Arab World. Armenians were particularly active in Lebanon’s flourishing cultural scene.
The Civil War Era
The Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975-90, exacted a heavy toll on Lebanon and its Armenians. The 15-year conflict—which featured a cast of rapidly evolving actors and alliances—unleashed bouts of sustained sectarian fighting, poisoning the Lebanese social fabric. Beirut was particularly beset by clashes. (The city became a byword for violence.) And the once magnificent Lebanese capital was split into a predominately Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut.
Afraid of being drawn into the armed chaos—and mindful of the carnage of 1958, the three Armenian political parties closed ranks and adopted a policy of positive neutrality in 1975. Armenians also raised self-defense units to guard Beirut’s Armenian quarters. While insulating the Armenian community, this impartial posture did not spare Lebanon’s Armenians from the ravages of war. Like their fellow Lebanese, Armenians contended with a host of wartime deprivations: school closures, blackouts and shortages of basic goods. And sporadic shelling disrupted daily routines, stealing livelihoods—and lives. As the war dragged on, with no sign of abating, a growing stream of Armenians opted to emigrate.
The Future of the Lebanese Armenian Community
Over the last three decades, the community has struggled to regain its prewar footing and self-esteem. A barrage of crises—animated by political strife, war and economic slumps—has hampered this precarious rehabilitation. Despite these challenges, Lebanese Armenians were resolute and rebuilt. In doing so, Beirut, while lacking its former clout, remained host to a vibrant Armenian community. Thousands of Armenian youth continued to receive an education in their mother tongue. Local publishers and media outlets churned out troves of Armenian literary content. And perhaps most critically, the Lebanese Armenian community retained its propensity for fostering trailblazers, many of whom have launched exciting initiatives.
At the moment, Lebanon’s future is uncertain. The country is facing a downward spiral, propelled by a series of cascading crises. A collapsing economy has plunged large swathes of the population into poverty. Shortages of fuel and other necessities are chronic. Last summer’s Beirut blast exacerbated this miserable state of affairs. Many ponder whether the chaos may sound the death knell for Lebanon’s Armenian community. While Armenians once benefited from Lebanon’s confessional system, it has placed the country and community in grave jeopardy. One can only hope that national interests will prevail and the spirit of the Lebanese Armenians will soar to greater heights.