There are approximately 11 million Armenians worldwide, but only 3 million live in Armenia itself. Since antiquity, Armenians have established many communities overseas. Many of them fled Armenia to escape persecution from the old Ottoman Empire, and sought refuge elsewhere. Singapore is no exception – the Armenian community here is nearly as old as Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding of Singapore. Not long after he landed on our shores in 1819, Singapore’s oldest church, the Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, was built in 1835. GoBeyond.SG spoke with the church’s trustees, Gevorg Sargsyan, Pierre Hennes, and Pavel Karapetyan, to learn more about their upcoming Armenian heritage centre.
Gevorg Sargsyan (left), Pierre Hennes (middle) and Pavel Karapetyan (right), standing before paper displays of the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian script, stone imprint and the Armenian alphabet.
Singapore’s new Armenian Heritage Centre
The Armenian community in Singapore has plans to set up a heritage centre in the parsonage building, which is adjacent to the Armenian Church.
Gevorg Sargsyan, artistic director at Artistventure Pte Ltd, says that the centre will open for the public to learn about the Armenian community’s presence in Singapore. The community, which has been active since the British colonial period, has made many contributions and left a legacy in both Singapore and the Straits region.
“There are so many things we think the public needs to know about us,” Sargsyan said. “We had talks about building the heritage centre since a few years ago. Now, we’re working with the heritage board to inform the general public about our heritage and contributions.”
Singapore’s share of Armenian contributors include Catchick Moses (co-founder of the Straits Times), the Sarkies Brothers (founders of the Raffles Hotel), and Agnes Joaquim (breeder of Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim).
The new parsonage building was rebuilt in 1905 as a memorial by Nanajan Sarkies to her husband, John Shanazar Sarkies, who was a distinguished scholar and merchant. Today, the parsonage serves as the administrative office of the Armenian Church.
The heritage centre is scheduled to open its doors in October, 2016, after the parsonage undergoes necessary renovations and maintenance works. The opening ceremony will also commemorate the 180th anniversary of the church’s consecration.
The heritage gallery will occupy the inner two rooms of the parsonage’s first floor. Visitors can expect a range of displays ranging from replicas, books, to donated artifacts such as paintings, heirlooms, stone carvings, and Armenian prayer texts. Most of these displays will be related to the Armenian community in Singapore, while some of the other exhibits come from the Armenian diaspora and from Armenia itself.
There are also plans to create a timeline documenting the Armenian community’s history in Singapore, and its chronology to present day. The trustees are still in the process of collecting the exhibits, and many more artefacts will be ready for display by the time the museum opens.
“The exhibits will be displayed for an indefinite amount of time,” says Sargsyan. “The more artifacts we collect, the more items will be exhibited in the future.”
A Brief History of Armenia
One of the exhibits on display, this basin was used to store holy water, which is used frequently in blessing, baptism and exorcism rites.
Armenian has a long history, which started even before the time of Christ (its capital, Yerevan, dates back to 800 BCE). Armenians begin studying Armenian history at the age of seven.
There are numerous churches in Armenia dating back more than a thousand years, such as Etchmiadzin Cathedral and Saint Hripsime Church, both of which are UNESCO heritage sites. The Armenian alphabet itself is 1600 years old.
“Anything less than 500 years is considered young from Armenian perspective,” Karapetyan said with a laugh.
Areni-1 Shoe, the 5500 year old shoe, was found in 2008 in Armenia’s “Areni-1” cave.
Photo credit: dianepernet.typepad.com
Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, with Saint Gregory the Illuminator becoming the first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Mount Ararat, a national symbol of Armenia, is believed by most Christians to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark. It is also known as the ‘Holy Mountain’ of the Armenian people. The importance of Christianity to Armenians is reinforced by the depiction of Mt. Ararat in Armenia’s Coat of Arms, despite the mountain being ceded to Turkey in 1915 during World War I.
“This is why Armenians build a church wherever they go in the world,” said Sargsyan. “The Armenian Church here was built by only 5 families – just 16 years after Raffles came to Singapore. This is how much Christianity is important to us.”
The stone tablet above is a remnant from the Armenian Church of Saint Gregory, Penang, which was demolished in 1937.
Armenians live all over the world as people of different nationalities but connected by the same ethnicity and shared culture. There are many famous Armenian people and inventions throughout the course of history. Armenians invented head scans, motorized wheelchairs and gas masks. Famous Armenians include Alice Panikian (Miss Universe Canada 2006), Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings), and Kim Kardashian (celebrity)!
Singapore’s Armenian Community
Fun fact: The first buildings in Singapore to have electric lights and fans installed are the Armenian Church (1909) and Raffles Hotel (1899).
The Armenian community in Singapore has a population of less than a hundred. They include Armenian expatriates, Armenians from other parts of the diaspora, and Armenians born and bred locally.
The community holds spontaneous gatherings at least once a month. Some of the important dates they commemorate are Orthodox Christmas (6th January), Easter, and the Armenian National Day. Some would also like to remember the Spitak earthquake, which took place in Armenia on 7th December, 1988.
The Armenian Church lends its premises to events such as Coptic Church service, weddings, and photo shoots. The funds incurred from these events are then used for the maintenance of the church.
“We were always a minor community, and yet we say ‘we’re proud to be small in numbers, but big in impact,’” said Sargsyan.
The Armenian Church and the Parsonage building will close their premises in January for maintenance. The church will resume its premises in March, but the parsonage building will only reopen in September, due to construction works for the purpose of accommodating the heritage centre.
The Armenian Church is open daily from 9am to 6pm. If you would like to contact or visit the church, please refer to the following;
Address: Armenian Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator Singapore, 60 Hill Street, Singapore 179366