We don’t know if we’ll make it to Armenia later this year, but it’s been fascinating to see how far and wide outside of Armenia Armenians have settled. Stuck in a corner of the world among greater powers (Iran, Russia and Turkey), Armenians have by choice and by force scattered widely across the world. Despite their turbulent history, many of these Armenian communities have survived, and the extent to which they have preserved their culture and prospered is truly impressive (the Jews are the only other people I can compare them to).


In their easternmost reaches, Armenian communities represented the success of Armenians in the business of trade. Armenians were among the first (though possibly not the very first–see my post of 3.5) Christians to settle in India, wher they took an active role in international comerce. One of the British Hong Kong’s foremost residents, Sir Paul Chater, for whom is still named so many things in Hong Kong, was an Armenian of Indian birth. Few Armenians remain in India today.

Madras, India, has several Armenian sites, including 18th century St. Mary’s Church (building closed when we visited). Armenians were some of the first Christians in India

Armenian gravestone, Luz Church (itself originally Portuguese), Madras


Outside Vank Cathedral, Esfahan

The Armenians of the city of Jolfa on what is now Iran’s border with Azerbaijan were forced to move to Esfahan in 1603 during the reign of Safavid Shah Abbas the Great, who wanted to enhance his new capital with the Armenians’ talents and commercial skills. While the move itself was forced, the Armenians were granted substantial land in Esfahan (in a neighborhood named New Jolfa, or now just Jolfa) and enjoyed certain freedoms and autonomy, protected by the power of the Shahs. These protections were not always continued by later rulers.

Vank Cathedral, Esfahan (note the use of Iranian architectural styles)

Brick and tilework detail

Inside Vank Cathedral

Like many Armenian communities around the world, the Armenians of Iran have been quite successful, now based largely in Tehran and Esfahan. In Tehran tourists are welcome to dine at the peaceful Armenian Club, located near the French and Italian Embassies, where non-Muslim women need not follow the hejab (Islamic dress code). The Armenian population increased during World War I as Armenians fled now Turkey (see also below, under “Syria”), but has steadily decreased since then as Armenians have left Iran for Armenia, the U.S. and Europe. There are some 20,000 Armenians left in Iran, about a tenth of the historical population.

Armenian church service

Recording of music from mass

In Jolfa, Esfahan, there are twelve Armenian churches, but there are only enough worshippers and clergy to celebrate mass in one or two, the churches rotating on a weekly basis. Following the historical precedent of Islam, the Iranian government seems to let Christians worship freely, at least within their churches. However, an Armenian that I spoke to said that the situation was peaceful “especially under [former president] Khatami,” implying that conditions for the Armenians have deteriorated under Ahmedinejad. Asked further, the Armenian mentioned that the greatest problems were judicial (presumably meaning that Armenians have limited access to justice in the courts) and discrimination for government posts.

Inside Bethlehem Church


Marco Polo noted that now Turkey was populated by three peoples: Turks (“a rude people with an uncouth language of their own” [!]), and Armenians and Greeks (“who live mixt with the former in the towns and villages, occupying themselves with trade and handicrafts”). During what is now called the Armenian Genocide around the time of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died and were killed in now Turkey with survivors fleeing to areas outside now Turkey, including Iran but especially Syria.

In Syria, Armenians were first taken to the middle of the desert, at Deir ez-Zur near Dura Europos (cf. post of 4.24), and then joined other Christians already settled in Syria, including in the Christian district of Aleppo. Currently Armenians make up a substantial portion of the population of central Aleppo, where they are prosperous and live among Arab Christians. We were told that flights between Aleppo and Yerevan are always full, reflecting the strong link between the Armenian communities in Syria and Armenia.

Street in Christian district of Aleppo, Armenian orphanage on right

Syrian-style inlay in Armenian, Armenian church, Aleppo

Armenian mass, Aleppo

Personality Cults

In the most common pose, outside Hamidiyya Souk in Old Damascus

More full post to come, time permitting, but I thought I would share with you some of the many portraits of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad (respectively, the current present and his deceased father and predecessor) that are all over Syria. Some of these, in public places, are clearly put there by the administration, but many (such as Bashar portraits in many shops and one Bashar family portrait we saw in a car) seem spontaneous and personal. One cynic told us that Syrians would wear underwear with Assad on it. All of the Syrians we spoke with on the subject seemed genuinely to like the Assads, even if they did not have warm feelings for the Syrian government overall. And, if you think about Syria as a monarchy, somehow it’s less strange that so many pictures of the leader would be plastered all over the place.

I think there is a focus on the persons of the Assads in Syria in large part because Syria as a state, like most others in the Middle East, is a creation of the West (in Syria’s case, Britain and France drew its boundaries). Without a discrete, unifying history or culture to distinguish itself from its neighbors, a country needs to define itself in other ways, and one of those is by a strong leader.

Father, in sight of the historic Hejaz railway station, Damascus

Son, at Lattakia railway station

At the Lebanese border

With Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Ahmedinejad of Iran, advertising a fast food shop in Old Damascus

Golan Heights

Another interesting thing about traveling is seeing places, right before you in person, that you’ve heard about, either in books or on the news. Today, we went to the Roman-era ruin of Umm Qais/Gerada. The ruins themselves are not particularly compelling relative to other sites in the region and unlikely to impress, but the hill in Jordan on which they are located has a good view of Golan Heights, rising over the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee (of biblical fame) is located entirely in Israel, but the Golan Heights rising above it on the east is technically a part of Syria, although it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. In 1981, it was formally annexed by Israel, and the disputed territory would be a key point in any peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. There isn’t much in the Golan Heights, but Israel considers them a high ground over its own territory that is important to its security. [We recall having a conversation with a Chinese woman who argued that Tibet was essential to China for the same reason–topography still matters.]

A Syria Itinerary

We love Syria. There is so much to see, the people are incredibly friendly, food is good, it is safe and everything is quite affordable. In all, we would say it is one of our favorite travel destinations so far. So let’s say you’re coming to Syria for a couple weeks (and you should). Here’s how you could spend your time.

1 – Damascus
2 – Damascus
3 – Damascus
4 – daytrip to Baalbek, Lebanon (not Syria, I know–be sure to have a re-entry visa)
5 – get an early start and travel to Apamea; sleep at Krak des Chevaliers (Hotel Baibars–what a view!)
6 – tour Krak; travel to Aleppo (a few hours)
7 – Aleppo
8 – choose: 1) Dead Cities (Jeradeh, Dana, Bara and Serjilla) or 2) St. Simeon and Deir Samaan
9 – Aleppo
10 – travel to Palmyra (much of day), catch sunset
11 – Palmyra
12 – travel to Damascus (a few hours)
13 – daytrip to Shahba and Bosra
14 – Damascus

Roman Ruins

More full post to come, time permitting, but the most interesting thing to me, perhaps, about the greatest Roman-era ruins that we visited in Syria and Lebanon, Apamea, Palmyra, Baalbek and Bosra, aside perhaps from the sheer impressiveness of Baalbek, is how, while the structures date primarily from Roman imperial times, the cities represent so many different ethnicities and cultures, not only in the people who must have lived or worshipped there but in the traditions that are represented in the art and architecture. These places are Roman, yes, in that they were from the Roman period and primarily in the Roman style, but certainly not Roman in many other senses.


Apamea was founded by the Seleucids (heirs to Alexander the Great) in the 3rd century BC. The Romans conquered in 64 BC and the city was largely rebuilt after an earthquake in 115. Apamea remained an important city in Byzantine times, until it was sacked by the Persians in the sixth and seventh centuries, and then taken by the Arabs.

Unusual columns, reminiscent of baroque! Note the pedestals for the placement of statues, an unclassical feature.

Syrian Roman-era cities are noted for their long collonaded streets, of which Apamea’s is perhaps the most impressive.

Inscription in Greek, the primary language of the eastern Roman Empire.

Mosaic from Apamea, showing Socrates

Going back to my Scams post of 3.13, a favorite around ruins all over the world–a man who sells “ancient” coins

Note the ruts in the Roman street


Palmyra was an important oasis as long ago as the third millennium BC, and was partially integrated into the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Rising to great prosperity as a stop in the trade between the Mediterranean and the East (India, China, etc.), Palmyra played a role in Rome’s campaigns against Sassanian Persia in the 3rd century AD. Recognizing Palmyra’s importance, and with newfound strength, then Queen Zenobia began to challenge the Roman Empire itself and was defeated in 274, when she was taken to Rome. Palmyra was won by the Arabs in the seventh century.

Overview of the site, from nearby Arab-era castle. Note the collonaded streets. The Temple of Bel is in the upper left corner.

Temple of Bel. Bel is a Semitic god, and the temple structure is similar to Semitic traditions going back to the temple at Amrit (cf. post of 4.15).

Inside the cella, or central shrine, at the Temple of Bel

Funerary towers, also within the Semitic tradition

Typical Palmyrene funerary busts. The style derives from the Hellenistic, following the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

Bilingual inscription in Palmyrene (related to Aramaic) and Greek. Most inscriptions in Palmyra are bilingual or in Palmyrene only.

Baalbek (Heliopolis)

Baalbek was the site of a Phoenician temple to Baal, the Sun God, as early as 2000 BC. In Roman times, Baal was worshipped at Baalbek/Heliopolis as Heliopolitan Jupiter, and great constructions were added in the first century by the Roman Emperors.

The great court, in the tradition of other Semitic temples

Note on lower right the Latin inscription to Heliopolitan Jupiter

Look at the size of those stones!

The astonishing Temple of Bacchus

Temple of Bacchus detail, looking up

Inside the cella of the Temple of Bacchus

Snows of Lebanon


Bosra, a city occupied since ancient times, was in the latter part of the first century AD the capital of the Nabataean kingdom (most famous for Petra), until ruled directly by Rome beginning in the second century. It is most famous for its second century theater, but also is said by legend to have been traveled by Mohammed, who met with a Nestorian Christian monk who educated Mohammed on Christianity and recognized Mohammed as a prophet.

Bosra’s Nabatean Arch

No camels in Italy!

Theater in full