My honorable birthplace.
My eyes opened and I saw you, I knew there was no other city.
My second fatherland,
With your Syrian people.
You became the good protector to the Armenian You gave us bread and shelter.
We have lived always together, As brothers Armenian to Arab. We have worked always together, As a Syria without guile.
The day of our separation is near,
O altar of the light of my childhood. We shall ever remember you,
O altar of the hope of my childhood.
Etchmiadzin’s* carillon rang out, Calling her children to her.
* Etchmiadzin is reference to the famed cathedral located in the historic Armenian city of Vagharshapat
Aleppo’s Armenian population swelled in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, prompted by failed crops in the eastern Ottoman provinces, greater economic opportunities abroad, and the catastrophic destruction of the Armenian trading city of Julfa by Safavid Shah Abbas during a war with the Ottomans. To service the expanding Christian community, Muslim and Christian donors supported the renovation of the Byzantine-era district that would become Aleppo’s Christian quarter, Judayda, where the Forty Martyrs Church is located. At the turn of the 17th century—referred to as the “Armenian Golden Age”-- Armenians held extraordinary political and economic power in the city. A donation by Khoja Sanos of Julfa, a prosperous merchant and head of the Aleppo customs house, financed the first major renovation of Forty Martyrs Church in 1616.
Situated next to Forty Martyrs is the Armenian church of the Holy Mother of God (Surb Astuatsatsin), which was converted into the Zarehian Museum in 1991. Historians believe the church was originally built as a prayer hall during the 12th century Crusades. The space was formally renovated into a church in 1455 with a donation by Khoja Maqsud, another wealthy Armenian merchant from Julfa. The Forty Martyrs Church, which today shares a common courtyard with the Zarehian Museum, is located across the street from the Armenian prelacy, which serves as the central institution for Syria’s Armenian community. Along the same alley in Judayda are churches representing the Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Catholic Christians of Aleppo.
Aleppo's Armenian population was in decline even as the Hamidye Massacres (1894-1896) brought more Armenians from the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire seeking refuge. Later, during the Armenian Genocide (1915), the Ottoman government began deporting the Greek population and subsequently launched a campaign of genocide against the Armenian inhabitants in the eastern provinces. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deported to Aleppo before being pushed to the killing fields east in Der Zor. The Ottoman ethnic cleansing campaign expanded to include other Christian groups, including 275,000 Syriac Christians who perished, in an event remembered as the “Sayfo (“the sword”).”
Syria's current civil war has endangered all of its Christian communities and made large parts of the city uninhabitable and unsafe for all Aleppans, regardless of creed. Before the war, Syria’s Armenian population was approximately 50,000; within three years, the population was roughly halved. In October 2012, St. Kevork church, a structure that dates back to 1937, was burned in the Armenian neighborhood of Nor Kyugh (Maydan). 2015 was ushered with the bombing of St. Rita Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Tillel, just a hundred feet from the Armenian Prelacy in Judayda. What remains of Aleppo's historic Armenian community is likely to be a shadow of its pre-war size when the war subsides.
The dialect of Western Armenian—spoken by the Armenians of Aleppo—has been designated an endangered language by UNESCO, and is expected to go extinct in the next 100 years. These chants are the sounds of the disappearing Armenian community in Syria, making this pre-war recording even more valuable as it documents the songs of a vanishing culture.
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The Forty Martyrs Church is named after 40 Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity only to be punished by Roman authorities in 320 A.D. According to legend, he authorities forced the soldiers to strip naked and stand in a freezing lake overnight. The next morning, the soldiers— barely alive after enduring the bitter cold— were burned alive. Early Christians memorialized these soldiers for their bravery in the face of persecution, making it an especially apt metaphor for the current violence in Syria.
By Elyse Semerdjian, Associate Professor of Middle East History, Whitman College