Little and lesser known facts about Franco-Armenian relations through the ages
By Jirair Tutunjian
While most Armenians believe that the first French and Armenian encounter was during the Crusades, the contacts actually began as early as the 6th century. This revelation and other eye-opening points of fact and curiosities weave an intricate fabric of alliances, affinities and influences that have bound the two nationalities over time, each enriching the culture of the other in the process.
In 591, an Armenian bishop named Simon visited France and met the famed Gregory of Tours. The second encounter was in the 9th century when Armenian architect Odo of Metz (né Matsaetsi) is believed to have built the Germigny-des-Prés church near Orleans.
Francophone Armenian Historian
13th Century Armenian historian Hetum Patmich of Korykos (Cilicia) wrote his La Flor des Espores de la Terre d’Orient in Old French. It was the language of Northern France from the 8th to 14th century.
Armenian Gingerbread Man
Gingerbread was introduced to France in 992 by an Armenian hermit-monk named St. Gregory Makar, who had fled the Persian invasion of Armenia. According to historian Liana Aghajanian, “He lived for seven years in Bondarry, France, near the town of Pithiviers where he taught gingerbread cooking to priests and other Christians.” He said that he had brought the recipe from Armenia. After his death, the townspeople shared the recipe with neighboring towns. Soon the gingerbread cookie became popular across Europe. St. Gregory Markar’s contribution to France is commemorated by the du Pain d’Epices (spice bread) brotherhood in Pithiviers.
The First Coffee Shop in Paris
In the 15th century some Armenians began to immigrate to France. In 1672 an Armenian named Pascal (Haroutiun) opened the first coffee house in Paris.
Borrowed Alphabet Letters
The Armenian alphabet is inscribed at the Tarascon’s Eglise Sainte- Marthe. Since it has only thirty-six letters, it’s assumed to predate the Crusades. The last two letters of the alphabet—“o” and “f”—were borrowed from the Crusaders.
King Levon V was French
King Levon was the last king of Cilician Armenia. After the fall of Sis (1375) to the Egyptian Memluks, the king, his French wife (Margaret of Soissons), and two daughters were taken as captives to Egypt. He was allowed to live freely until he raised the ransom for his release seven years later. He traveled alone to Spain because his wife and daughters had died during captivity. The queen and one of her daughters were buried in the Sts. James Armenian Cathedral of Jerusalem. King Levon soon moved to Paris where he lived in King Charles VI’s palace until his death in 1393. He is buried in the St. Denis Basilica outside Paris along with French royalty.
Armenian Publisher in Marseille
In 1672, Vazken Yerevantsi established a publishing house in Marseille.
Armenian Gothic in France
In History of Armenia: The Origin of Gothic Architecture Hovik Torkomyan writes: “The Cathedral of Ani was built in 980-1012 in Gothic style…that architectural style was carried to Marseille, France and to different parts of Europe.”
France Converts Armenians
The French Crusaders backed the Catholic Church’s campaign to persuade Armenians to recognize the pope as the head of the Armenian Church. A number of Armenians joined the Roman Catholic Church forming the nucleus of the contemporary Armenian Catholic community.
Napolean’s Bodyguard was Armenian
Roustam Raza (1783-1845) was a Tiflis-born Armenian who was kidnapped at the age of thirteen and sold into slavery in Egypt. Sheikh Al-Bakri, Cairo’s commander-in-chief, presented Roustam to Napoleon. He served Napoleon as a bodyguard and valet until 1814. His posthumously published memoirs (1888) chronicled his years with Napoleon.
French Explorers Discover Armenia
French scholarly interest in Armenia started in earnest in the 18th century when orientalist Maturinus V. Croze (1661-1739) wrote Histoire du Christianisme d’Ethiopie et d’Arménie. Croze was followed by linguist Antoine-Jean Saint-Martin (1791-1832) who sent Friedrich E. Schulz to the Lake Van region (1827) to explore the area. The following year Schulz published a book where he reported on the hitherto unknown Urartian civilization. Five other works about Armenia and Armenians by Schulz followed. French orientalist Marie-Felicité Brosset (1802-1880) wrote 250 works on Armenia and Georgia. Victor Langlois (1829-1869) wrote more than thirty books on Armenian history. He published a book about the massacres of Armenians and wrote on Armenian archeology, the Rupinian dynasty, historian Movses of Khorene, and Armenian coins. Armenologist and linguist Paul Jules Meillet (1865-1936) took etymologist-lexicographer Hrachia Ajarian under his wing.
Armenians and French Literature
The 19th century was the glory era of French literature. Western Armenians were enamored with the works of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas père, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, Gustave Flaubert, Lamartine, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, and Emile Zola. Armenians were fascinated by D’Artagnan, Jean Valjean, Cosette, Captain Nemo, Edmond Dantes, and proto-James Bond named Judex. French novels were translated and appeared as serials in Constantinople Armenian newspapers. Armenians in Europe and the Near East admired France, and, like much of the world, were drawn to the City of Lights. Thus after the Genocide some Armenian writers headed to France. As a result, there was a mini-renaissance of Armenian literature in France.
French Armenian Legion
During the Genocide, the French Navy famously helped evacuate Armenians from Musa Dagh in Cilicia, and in 1917 France and the Armenian National Delegation established the Eastern Legion. Soon Armenians from every corner of the diaspora joined what became the 5,000-strong Armenian Legion. The legion’s goal was to establish Cilician Armenia under a French Mandate. The Armenian Legion showed its mettle at the Battle of Arara in northern Palestine where it helped dislodge German and Turkish forces. When France took Cilicia after WWI, Legion members were given the job of protecting Armenians who had returned to Cilicia following the French and British victory over the Turks.
Armenian Oil Tycoon Builds Church in France
Early in the 20th century, an Armenian newspaper in Constantinople rued that Armenians didn’t have a church in Paris. Hearing about the omission, Baku-based oil tycoon Alexander Mantashiants spent 1.54 million francs to build St. John the Baptist Cathedral (1904) at 15 Rue Jean-Goujon. Mantashiants joked that he chose Paris for the cathedral’s locale because it was the city where he had sinned the most. For building the cathedral, he received Order of the Legion of Honor.
France Recognizes Armenian Genocide
During the Soviet era, Franco-Armenian relations were limited. After Armenia’s independence in 1991, Armenia and France established diplomatic relations, and France was the first European country to recognize (2001) the Genocide despite strong Turkish objections.
Papier d’Armenie Popular in France
In the 1880s, Auguste Ponsot began to manufacture Papier d’Arménie, a deodorizing paper. He had discovered that Armenians used benzoin resin and plant sap to disinfect their homes and churches. Papier d’Armenie became a popular household item in France.
While famed singer Charles Aznavour and Missak Manouchian are the French-Armenians best known by the French, there are hundreds of prominent French-Armenians in various fields, such as: fashion designer Alain Manoukian; composers Michel Legrand and Georges Garavarents; perfumer Francis Kurkjian; historians Clair Mouradian and Armen Claude Mutafian; writer Sophie Audoain-Mamikonian; nuclear physicist Michel M. Ter Pogossian; high-end eye-glass designer Alain Mikli; racing-car driver Alain Prost; Journalist and Elle magazine luminary Valerie Toranian; astronomer Agop Terzan; physicist Roger Balian; oceanographer Anita Conti; painters Jean Carzou and Jensem; ethnologist Alexander Varbedian; philologist Charles Dedeyan; philosopher Sarene Alexandrian;community leader Hilda Tchoboian; directors Henri Verneuil and Robert Guedigian; former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur; and the current Mayor of Lyon Georges Kepenekian. In addition, there are scores of singers, actors, and musicians of Armenian origin.
France Honors General Antranik
A year after his death (1927) in California, plans were made to bury Gen. Antranik Ozanian (1865-1927) in Armenia. However, Moscow refused to grant permission. Instead, he was reburied at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In 2000, the Armenian and French governments arranged to transfer Antranik’s body to Armenia where he was buried at the Yerablur military cemetery. In 2012 a town southwest of Paris named a square in honor of the Armenian national hero.