They Kept Their Armenian Identity in A Far-Flung Town In Jordan

Levon and Rafi— the two cousins at Photo Hacop
Levon and Rafi— the two cousins at Photo Hacop

Levon and Rafi— the two cousins at Photo Hacop

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

They say, “Every dark cloud carries a silver lining.” The following story that I’m going to tell you, was the silver lining of a dark cloud.

On November 10 our cruise ship docked at the resort town of Aqaba, on the Red Sea at the southern tip of Jordan. Arriving in Jordan, to visit the fascinating ancient city of Petra, carved into hillsides, was the highlight of our trip.

However, as we were getting ready to leave the ship, it was announced that due to heavy rains, the grounds of Petra were flooded and access to visit the area was closed.

We had booked a hotel in Petra. Our plan was that after debarking the ship, we would take a taxi from Aqaba to the hotel in Petra, (about two hours’ drive) where we would deposit our luggage, and then would drive to the site to visit Petra. However, the very astonishing flooding in the middle of the desert changed our plans.

Since no longer we were able to visit Petra, we decided to spend the night in Aqaba and the next day, fly to Amman, the Capital of Jordan.

There was a souvenir shop at our hotel in Aqaba. My husband and I stepped inside the store to check some items. As we were talking to each other, the owner asked us in what language we were speaking.

The store selling Christmas decorations in Amman

The store selling Christmas decorations in Amman

We said, “We are Armenian.” He got very excited. He told us that in Aqaba, there is a well-known Armenian family, who own a photography shop. He insisted that we should go to their store and meet them. It was around 9 p.m., and I thought it might be too late. But without any hesitation, he said, “I’m going to call a taxi to take you there.”

I had a good reason to be thrilled, because wherever I travel, I look around to find Armenians to write about them. And now this had fallen into my lap. The taxi driver arrived in no time. 10 minutes later we were at the Photo Hagop store.

We walked into the store. The driver introduced us to the owners, Rafi and Levon, who welcomed us with big smiles. They were two cousins, whose grandfather Hagop had opened this very store, at this very location in 1950.

Even at that late closing time, there were still customers schmoozing at the counter. First, we started the conversation with Rafi, the younger cousin, then the older cousin, Levon joined us.

By now you may have guessed that this photography business has been around for a long time and it must be very well-known in Aqaba.

The story goes: The grandfather, Hagop Toros Giragossian was born in 1915 in Turkey, during the Armenian Genocide. At a very young age he somehow, ends up in an orphanage in Lebanon. At age 15 he leaves the orphanage and for a while works as an apprentice at a Kodak shop in Beirut, where he slowly learns the ins and outs of the business and fell in love with shooting black and white photos of landscapes, which eventually led to him becoming a talented photographer.

At the church backyard with reverent Avedis

At the church backyard with reverent Avedis

Later, he decides to leave Lebanon for new adventures and maybe a better future. From Lebanon, through Syria he travels to Iraq and then to Iran and finally he ends up in Jordan.

At that time there were British Army troops stationed in Aqaba. So he applied to become the army photographer. That’s how in the 1940s, he finally settled in Aqaba which at the time it was a small town and there were hardly a few dozen families living there.

In 1948, the grandfather marries a young Armenian woman, Arshalous, whose parents had fled the Genocide and had settled in Amman, Jordan. Hagop and Arshalous started their young family in Aqaba. They had four kids; two sons and two daughters.

Since then until now they’ve been the only Armenian family in Aqaba. However, they have kept their Armenian traditions and the language.

Rafi and Levon both spoke perfect Armenian. Rafi, 27, said, “Although there was no Armenian school nor a church in Aqaba, our families made sure that we spoke Armenian at home and would learn Armenian history and culture to keep our identity. Cousin Levon is engaged to an Armenian girl from Jerusalem, who is currently studying pharmaceuticals at Amman University.

Rafi continued, “My father was the eldest son, Toros Hagop Giragossian Jr., who, along with my uncle Levon Hagop Giragossian, worked alongside of their father and helped him to grow the business to become the best (and the only) photographer in Aqaba.”

Today Rafi, his older brother Hagop, and their cousin Levon, manage the business. Their dads have retired, but they visit the store every day and spend a few hours to check on the business.

The grandfather, Hagop became the personal photographer of the late King of Jordan, King Hussein Bin Talal, the father of the present King. Although today they are no longer the personal photographer of the king, they’re still certified to photograph him when he’s in Aqaba.

he St. Thaddeus Church in Amman

The St. Thaddeus Church in Amman

They are also the only photographers who have the permission to take aerial photos in Aqaba—same as taking pictures of hotels, resorts, ports and factories.

Before I finish this story, I must tell you that people know the street that the business is on, as Photo Hacop street. The real name of the street is Al Zaharan, but nobody knows that. Not even the taxi drivers nor the police.

Here’s the kicker: As a curiosity I did a search over Internet on Photo Hagop and, lo and behold, a link popped up, which said, “Hotels near Photo Hagop.” So I can say with absolute certainty that this store has become a landmark in Aqaba.

Before outlining our further adventures, it bears mentioning that the resort town of Aqaba, on the Red Sea at the southern end of Jordan, boasts some of the best coral reefs in the world. It has become a bustling destination for divers and it’s a desirable spot for snorkeling and other popular water sports.

These days we don’t hear much about Jordan in the news. It may seem like the forgotten country in the Arab world. However, Jordan is very alive and doing much better than its Arab neighbors that are very affected and are now falling apart due to the disruption of the Arab Spring.

King Abdullah II of Jordan is considered a popular leader both locally and Internationally. He’s respected for his role of maintaining stability in Jordan and promoting interfaith dialogue. Even though Jordan is a Muslim country, due to King Abdullah’s views, the Islamic rules are very relaxed. For example, alcoholic beverages are readily available in restaurants and hotels.

He is a progressive leader. His father, King Abdullah I, many years ago, during his tenure, set the tone for peace and interfaith unity.

Throughout my trip in Jordan, I was fascinated to see pictures, hung nearly in every public place, of either the royal family, or the portraits of the present king, his father and the teenage prince who will one day rule the country.

I was truly impressed by what I saw in Jordan. I found the country safe and the people very open, friendly, hospitable and helpful.

The day after our wonderful visit with Rafi and Levon, on Sunday November 11, we flew from Aqaba to Amman. A short one-hour flight. From Amman’s airport we took a taxi to our hotel.

Since it was a Sunday, we assumed there would be a mass at the Armenian church. We asked the taxi driver if he knew the address of the Armenian church in Amman. He said that first he will take us to the hotel and as soon as we get settled there, his brother would take us to the Armenian church.

The brother met us around 11 a.m. He didn’t have the exact address for the church, however, he knew the Armenian neighborhood (more or less), where the church was located.

Amman is surrounded by rolling hills and buildings are built on the slopes of the hillsides. The Armenian neighborhood is in Jabal Al-Ashrafieh. (Jabal in Arabic means mountain.) Most Armenian homes, businesses, and organizations, are located in those quarters.

Driving towards Al-Ashrafieh, our driver noticed a store selling all kinds of Christmas decorations. So he stopped the car and went inside the store to inquire about the exact address of the church. Though neither the owner of the store nor the worker were Armenian, they could tell us the address of the church.

We drove up and down around Al-Ashrafieh on its twisted and sloped streets to reach the St. Thaddeus church, tucked on a relatively small lot on the top of a steep street. Next to the church, was the Gulbenkian and Yuzbashian school.

By the time we arrived there it was 12 noon. The Sunday Mass had been conducted at 9:30 in the morning. However, the Very Reverent Father Avedis was at hand to answer a few questions.

The architecture of the church followed the simple but distinctive features of Armenian churches—pointed domes, octagonal belfry, tall narrow windows and high vaulted ceilings inside of the church with plenty of paintings. The church, built in white stone, sparkled and stood in a commanding fashion as a landmark, majestically overlooking Amman’s skyline. The sight of the church raised my heart.

There are two other Armenian churches in Amman, but we didn’t get the chance to visit them. There’s St. Garabed church by the Jordan River and St Sahag-St Mesrob Armenian Catholic Church.

St. Thaddeus church and Yuzbashian Gulbenkian Armenian Orthodox School were built in 1962 by funds received from Gulbenkian foundation as well as the Yuzbashian family.

Recently, by a mere chance, at a gathering in my hometown Glendale, I met a woman, whose baby boy was the first kid to be baptized at St. Thaddeus church.

The Very Reverent Father Avedis, who is from Jerusalem and has been in Amman for two and a half years, said, “In 1931 the school was called Hetumian, adapted from the name of the benefactor who had donated the funds to build it.” He continued, “In Amman before the Hetumian school was built, the Armenian kids learned how to read and write at homes.

He gave us more information about the school. The school is from kindergarten to 6th grade. It has 85 students. Out of 19 teachers and staff, three teachers are Armenian. The tuition is 800 Jordanian Dinar which is about $1,000, more or less. The school is closed on Fridays and Sundays.

Father Avedis was very proud to tell us that the school had gained the rank of number 15 in a citywide evaluation of the 372 schools in Amman.

The majority of Armenians in Jordan are descended from the survivors of the Genocide, who were deported from the Ottoman Empire, fled to Syria and from there, some reached Jordan.

During the period of 1930 to 1946 about 6,000 Armenians were living in Jordan. After the 1948 Arab-Israel War, a new wave of immigrants came from Palestine to Jordan increasing the number of Armenians to about 10,000. However, starting in the 1950s, and particularly after the 1967 Arab-Israel Six-Day War, Jordan witnessed the emigration of a large number of Armenians to Australia, Canada, and the United States, a trend that continued in the 1970s, reducing the numbers of Jordanian Armenians.

Today an estimated 5,000 Armenians live in Jordan, of which 2,000 are recent Armenian refugees from Syria.

We had a wonderful time in Amman. The sunny weather in the mid-70s added to our enjoyment. I’m not sure, if it was the white-washed city, built on the hillside, the friendly people or the visit to the Armenian quarters, but I quickly fell in love with Amman. I’m already planning to go back to that city, which is nicknamed “City of Stairs” and hopefully this time I’ll be able to visit Petra.

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10 Comments

  1. HERAYER said:

    PLEASE TELL ME WHICH CRUISE SHIP DID YOU TAKE AND FROM WHERE? MY GRAND PARENTS USED TO LIVE IN AMMAN I USED TO VISIT THEM FROM JERUSALEM IN THE SUMMER WHEN I WAS YOUNG, BY THE WAY KING ABDALLAH’S FATHER WAS KING HUSSIEN HIS GRANDFATHER WAS KING ABDALLAH

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      You are right. I’m from Iran and we were calling him Malek Hussein. However that’s what I found on Internet. I was thinking about it.

      The cruise ship was Princess cruise. It started from London, went across the channel to Normandy, then South on the coast to Lisbon, then to Gibraltar, Barcelona, South of France, then Italy 3 cities, then Island of Malta, Athens and Rodes, then to Jordan. Thanks for reading my story.

      • HERAYER said:

        CATHERINE,THANK YOU FOR THE INFO I WANT TO KNOW DID YOU FLY FROM THE U.S.A. AND ALSO NEVART IS RIGHT, WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN AMMAN I REMMEBER SEEING SOME BEDOUINS THAT LOOKED VERY ARMENIAN OBVIOUSLY THEY HAD ARMENIAN BLOOD!!

        • Catherine Yesayan said:

          Yes, we flew to London. And from London, took the cruise. The route of the ship was going to end in Dubai, but we disembarked in Jordan didn’t continue to Dubai.

  2. Mihran Farajian said:

    Also there’s other Armenians living in aqaba even they have Armenian citizenship like me and my family even I have Armenian wife from Armenia home land…. I born in aqaba proud to be Armenian also proud to be born in this town and have citizenship of this country also Jordan beside of my Armenian

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Mihran,
      Sorry, I didn’t know that other families lived in Aqaba. But I’m glad to hear. My information source was Rafi and Levon from photo Hacop store. They may not know either. Thanks for contacting me.
      Best Regards,

  3. NEVART NORA DERBEDROSSIAN said:

    Catherine, you certainly gave the best account on your trip to Amman and the city of Aqaba in Jordan. My grandparents went to Jordan after the genocide. I was born and raised in Amman until I came to Canada in 1970. However, there is also a sad part of our history in that region. During the genocide, the Turks transported many Armenian young women by train and were supposed to go to Saudi Arabia. Somehow they changed their mind and threw them right in this region. Many of the local folks offered their help to the young women in return of converting to Islam and under the conditions, the young women did convert to Islam and they continued to live there. Not all Armenians were fortunate as the family you met.

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Nora,
      Thanks for your comment. You mentioned a very sad page of our history. Thanks for bringing to our attention about those women.
      Best Regards,
      Catherine

  4. abraham bedevian said:

    One correction to this story the SCHOOL NAMED HETUMIAN IN AMMAN TILL the 1960s was named after KING HETUM OF CILICIA it was in a rented building which was also used as a church

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Abraham, thanks for the comment. Sorry to have given a wrong information. I appreciate your comment.
      Best,
      Catherine

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