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  5. The Muslim Heritage of Yerevan: Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

The Muslim Heritage of Yerevan: Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

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The Firdusi Neighborhood: A Forgotten ‘Eminent Domain’
Behind the Soviet blocks and newly built concrete skyscrapers in the city center, there lies another Yerevan – older, more simple and real, colorful and quiet, isolated but central. Inside these patches of another Yerevan, smaller houses of rough stone and bricks in black, red, and orange snuggle up to each other. They were built by people that are forgotten about, in times that are not remembered. They hide the memories of these people, their lifestyles, and beliefs.

With active urbanization and on-going construction at every corner, Yerevan rapidly changes its style, inhabitants, narrative, and a part of its history. The wide streets, main avenues, and splashy new constructions won’t tell you anymore of who lived here a century or two ago. But the narrow passages and archways will lead you to people who remember.

The orange façade of a brick building in Hanrapetutsyan street not far from Republic Square, tells you the place has more to tell than it shows at first sight. In Summer 2017 this district, together with the so-called Firdusi neighborhood, was disturbed. Years ago, the neighborhood was recognized as “eminent domain” by the government, a justifying mechanism that is used to seize private property in the name of efficiency and convenience for the public. The neighborhood did indeed become an eminent domain in Summer 2017, albeit of public discussions. (June 2018 update: As of Summer 2018, the neighborhood is back to its routine life again.)

The Repeating Stories of the Firdusi Neighborhood
This area, that was once a medieval market and has been a lively trade center from the 16th century to our days, will most likely be demolished soon. Together with the small shacks and metal stands, the memory of the place, of the people that used to live here, and of Yerevan as an eastern city will also be demolished.

When we talk to the traders of the Firdusi market or the locals who live behind the stands, history seems to be repeating itself in their stories. The endless loop brings memories of people that have been constantly forced to move and start lives from scratch. It has been a while that the market traders were forced to close their little shops and stop the business. For many, this was the only source of income, and now they’re again back every day strolling among the deserted stands, trying to ease the desperation by complaining to each other, and searching for a solution. (June 2018 update: Now, after the revolution, the change of the government and the positive mood in the city, they’re again back every day slowly trying to recover the deserted stands and restart the businesses.)

The inhabitants of the area don’t have contracts yet. Rumors spread faster than government bureaucracy, telling they will be given houses in the “elite” apartments in the city center. The hopes of others don’t go beyond the suburbs where other people were given homes before. (June 2018 update: Some others cherish another hidden wish, a silenced hope that the new government will appreciate the historic value of the neighborhood, and the new concrete project will stay on paper.)

The stories of the Firdusi dwellers are as diverse as the dwellers themselves. Some of them are the refugees who exchanged houses with Azerbaijanis when tensions became more frequent in the 1980s; others are newcomers that bought the shacks from Armenians who themselves had bought it from the “Turks” – a colloquial reference to Azerbaijanis. There are residents that have come here a century ago, others that don’t remembered when their ancestors settled in the area. An interesting pattern to observe is that the old settlers complain that the newcomers do not care about the historical value of the district.

Anahit, a resident of the Firdusi neighborhood, owns a small business in the land that her grandfather bought from a “Turk”. Where once there were barns and a flourishing farm, today stands a living space for rent. Anahit has renovated the barns and gives the space to tenants. Every morning, her tenants start with a cup of coffee, discussing the future of the Firdusi district, which is indeed their own one.

“My house is a mini city. I don’t need to go out to see what is happening in Yerevan. I have all the layers of Yerevan renting this space; there are artists, parents, refugees, – anyone you can find in the outer world”. Anahit still keeps the paper which states that his grandfather bought this area of 6000 square meters from a “Turk”. Only a third of the property is preserved close to its original form. Anahit has transformed the eastern shack and the yard to an apple, plum, pear, and apricot-tree garden filled with the cock-a-doodle-doo of the rooster every morning.

The Bygone Diversity of Yerevan
Despite their diverse backgrounds and stories, the residents of Firdusi agree on the events that happened not long ago; they reminisce of the diversity of this place several decades ago. They proudly talk about their bonding and warm relations with their Azerbaijani neighbors who spoke Armenian, grew the best greens, helped one another. They point out the “Turkish houses” and tell how they were used to living together.

Historically, the 14-15th centuries mark a landmark period for Yerevan. It is from this period on, that along with its Armenian and Christian population, Yerevan also had a greater population of predominantly Muslim peoples – Persians, Kurds, Turks, and Tatars. Before the migration of Armenians from the Ottoman and Persian Empires, after 1828, the Kurds and the Caucasus Tatars – a group that since the early 20th century is referred to as Azerbaijanis – were the first and third biggest groups living in the Yerevan Khanate[1]. In the city of Yerevan, they often lived mixed with other groups, but the majority was concentrated in the eastern part of the city which also includes the Firdusi area. Here was one of the markets where individuals from different ethnic groups coexisting in the city would engage in trade.

Another Market, Another Cycle of Repeating History
A few dozen meters south of Firdusi, there used to be another market – the shookah-bazaar bearing the name “Black”. In its place now stands one of the Soviet modernistic structures – the building of Cinema Rossia. In 1974 when the Soviet Armenian government opened the doors of the cinema, their wish to convert the “dirty” and “uncivilized” bazaar came true and remained around for several decades. In 2004 after some years of being closed, the building of Cinema Rossia opened its doors to the public once again – this time to host traders and regain its commercial past.

A Forgotten Past and A Different Future?
Wondering around in the hidden streets of Yerevan, it is sometimes regret one feels for those historical buildings that are scattered hopelessly waiting for their turn to be torn down. While most of the locals might convince you that the place has no more future in its current state, that it is doomed, and the newly designed skyscrapers and the square are the best salvation from despair, architects still see a hope to recover the historical layer and mention about the economic advantages that the preservation could give.

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall
The Muslim population of Yerevan lived in the central parts of the city, and their different layers are encountered in the memories of people and single walls of bygone structures dispersed in the city and waiting for their turn to be demolished.

In one of the central archways in Yerevan, a hidden house that hosts different families now – Russian workers, Syrian refuges, and local Armenians – turns out to have been the palace of the Persian Pana-Khan. The residents know of the historic past of their house, but timeframes get confused here. The current inhabitants of the place forget the year it was built in and when it functioned as a palace or when their ancestors took over the palace and turned it into their homes. The family who lives where the kitchen used to be, proudly tells the story how their great-great-grandfather used to be the cook of the Khan and was given it as a gift when the tsarists came. The walls are 60 cm wide, and the dwellers joke saying it’s the best central heating that the “palace” lacks. The feeling of living in a palace where once the people who could decide the fate of Yerevan used to live, is satisfying, despite all the inconveniences the old house has.

The Soviet government brought a new narrative about Yerevan, its style, texture, smell, and colors. The adjective “tufa-built[2]” came to replace the rough-stone shacks and brick-built houses, therefore changing the brick-built Yerevan into a new, more successful tufa-built city. Now walking in Yerevan, you find the poorest social layers living in medieval huts, built with light orange bricks and cemented in gray. Only a wall here and there with cement falling off uncovers some bricks and with it the city’s silenced past. Only a few window shapes resembling a pointed arch sometimes echo the past – the history of pre-Soviet Yerevan, one that was home to diversity.

[1] Hakobyan, Tatul. 2016. “Kurds and Armenians Constituted Majority on the Territory of the Yerevan Khanate in 1827.” (Երևանի խանության տարածքում 1827-ին քրդերը և հայերը կազմել են մեծամասնություն). December 19. Accessed October 15, 2017. http://www.aniarc.am/2016/12/19/armenians-kurds-tatars-pesians-erevan-khante-1827-1828/.

[2] Tufa is a type of stone of which many of Yerevan’s structures are built.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos and videos of this story were made by Lilit Gizhlaryan.

*** This story is part of a series on the heritage of minority populations in the countries of the South Caucasus.

Lilit Gizhlaryan

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