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The Armenians in California

A tour of one of the 200 different ethnic groups who live & contribute to our California

While exploring Los Angeles one weekend during the summer, I stumbled upon the district of Little Armenia. The community intrigued me, so I dove deeper, traveled further and found a large, diverse Armenian culture in our California midst.

Approximately 3 million Armenians live within the boundaries of their own country, while another 7 million live in the diaspora. That means one-third of Armenians shape their culture from abroad. The single most prominent feature of Armenian enclaves are the many churches that have very specific types of architecture (the dome) and impressive art inside. I counted 53 Armenian churches in California and although all are Christian, their affiliations vary between Protestant and Catholic sects.

Christianity is likely the most important cultural glue of the Armenians for two reasons. First, according to the Bible, Mount Ararat is where Noah’s Ark rested after the flood waters receded. Therefore, Ararat is the center of historic Armenia. Second, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity in 301 A.D.

Here, my mission is to provide a small tour of the Armenian enclaves I found within California.

Little Armenia in Los Angeles

Little Armenia is perhaps fittingly in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles and its website sells Kim Kardashian gear, likely the most famous Armenian in America. Armenian businesses have clustered in this area since around the early 1970’s. The Department of Public Works recognized the enclave on September 29, 2000 when it officially designated the area “Little Armenia.”

The center of this district is the St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church, an architecturally impressive structure with beautiful stained glass (built in 1978). Across the street, the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School was founded in 1969 and teaches the Armenian language, history and religion alongside English language classes.

Everywhere within Armenian communities, you’ll notice their unique writing script. Armenian has its own alphabet with close associations to the Balkan languages. The oldest surviving text in the Armenian language is a 5th century Bible translation. The translation provides evidence that the written language dates back to what one might consider ‘ancient times’.

In Little Armenia, you’ll hear residents speak the language along the sidewalks. Also, visitors are welcome to shop at the Armenian markets or have a bite at the Armenian restaurants. The district, interestingly, blends into Thai Town, which has the largest community of Thai who live outside of Thailand.

The Armenians of Glendale

The largest population of Armenians currently reside in Glendale, where vast stretches of Armenian shops cluster close to their churches. The St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church is mammoth with beautiful art inside. The church was established in 1975 and boasts two khachkars (Cross Rocks) made of touf stone imported from Armenia.

A few blocks from here, you can visit the Glendale Armenian Church of the Nazarene with a market and restaurant across the street. There is also the St. Peter Armenian Apostolic Church, which emphasizes youth programs.

The Armenians of Fresno

While Glendale is an active Armenian community, the Armenians in Fresno have a longer and, I might even argue richer, diaspora history. The Armenian community in Fresno dates back to the late 1800’s when they became raisin growers within the Central Valley. They were farmers, but also contributed to the entire economy of the region. A discerning eye will notice that Fresno is peppered with commemorations and trinkets of local Armenian-American author, William Saroyan, the first American playwright to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award in the same year for “The Time of Your Life” (1940).

The Fresno County Public Library houses the largest collection of Saroyan works, although you have to ask the librarians to get what you’re looking for because there’s no exhibition space dedicated to him specifically. The William Saroyan Society also has a wonderful website, but the address leads to a suburban house with no specific museum to visit.

What you can do is eat in the same way that William Saroyan once did. Valley Lahvosh Bakery advertises fresh Peda bread and crackers. One block away, the Hye Quality Bakery sells exotic food such as “Cocktail Lahmajoon.” Close to these bakeries is the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church originally built in 1900 and was the first Armenian Apostolic Church in California. The church is listed as a historic site.

A few miles away, the Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church is a building shaped like Noah’s ark. It also has a wonderful plaque that explains why the Armenians are divided into so many diverse Christian sects. A split happened in the early part of the 19th century when the Peshtimaljian Seminary opened in Istanbul, Turkey, with the objective of creating reform within the church. At that time American Congregational missionaries arrived in Istanbul and they were welcomed by the Armenian Patriarch. The Patriarch, however, soon changed his mind and drove out the missionaries. Thereafter, any reform minded believers were persecuted. But the persecuted found a way to start a church of their own and this was the beginning of the Armenian Evangelical Church, which began in 1846 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Right next door to Pilgrim is the St. Paul Apostolic Church, and a few blocks away is the First Armenian Presbyterian Church. Armenian religious affiliations have split even further since then, but their signature architecture of the “dome” still remains, regardless of denomination.

Fresno Armenians also have their own Ararat Cemetery (1925 W. Belmont Ave.). Here, you can find the tombstone of William Saroyan.

The most moving tribute to Armenians is located in the park outside the Fresno Courthouse. Donated to the County of Fresno by the people of Armenian descent of the San Joaquin Valley, the statue was dedicated on August 11, 1970 and was created by sculptor Varaz Samuelian. The plaque reads:

“David of Sassoon is the legendary folk-hero of the Armenians who rid their land of foreign conquerors single-handedly. It is an epic based on historical events dating back to the seventh century A.D. Troubadours, poets and sculptors have immortalized him for it gives eloquent expression to man’s undying love of freedom and justice for all. This statue, by Varaz Samuelian of Fresno, represents a thousand Davids in a thousand lands where throughout all of history man has sought to sustain his freedom against overwhelming odds.

The base of which the statue stands has been designed to tell the story of the Armenian lands and people. It depicts their alphabet, their churches, their art and culture, and their history which dates back to 782 B.C. when the capitol city of Yerevan was founded.

This gift from the Armenians to the county of Frenso is made with their profound gratitude to this land, which received them in their darkest hours, and provided them with the opportunity to be reborn.

David of Sassoon Association.”

The Genocide of Armenians by Turkey

The first genocide in the 20th century took place during WWI when the Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. The total number of Armenians killed was estimated between 1-1.5 million. A wave of immigration led Armenians to settle, among other places, here in California. One of the khachkars at St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale commemorates the genocide.

Every year on April 24, protestors of the genocide gather in Little Armenia. The California legislature also annually recognizes and remembers the genocide.

William Saroyan had this to say:

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy the race. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

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