Lviv’s Armenian Heritage

  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
  • Lviv’s Armenian Heritage
Issue 61, October 2013.

Lviv’s Armenian Heritage

The annual holiday dedicated to one of the oldest streets in Lviv – Virmenska – was held over the September 13-15 weekend. The year’s celebration was dedicated to the 650th anniversary of the Armenian Cathedral – the oldest in Lviv and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leopolitans, tourists, and distinguished guests had the wonderful opportunity to discover many historical facts about prominent Halychynan Armenians, the Armenian Quarter through different historical periods, and the role of Armenians in the history of the city. The Armenian community has had an undeniable impact on the historical development of Lviv, as well as on its culture and traditions, and the holiday was designed to celebrate this unique aspect of the city’s heritage.

Armenians Arrive in Halychyna

During the Middle Ages, Armenia was the scene of bloody wars and devastating invasions that led to the massive resettlement of Armenians throughout southern Russia, the Crimea, Ukraine, and especially Halychyna. The flow of immigrants increased considerably following the 8th Century Mongol invasion and 9th Century wars among Turkish tribes. During this period, more than 30 Armenian settlements appeared in Western Ukraine. The bulk of immigrants were merchants and craftsmen that settled in Lviv, Kamyanets-Podolski, Vladimir and Galich, Jaroslaw and other trade and craft centres. Each of these cities saw Armenian communities established and they were given the right to self-governance by Polish kings that were interested in developing trade and industry. The Armenian community in Lviv was large and wealthy as it lay at the crossroads of important trade routes that linked East and West.

It is believed that Armenians started to appear in Halychyna in the 10th-11th Centuries, although according to at least one account, they were invited by Halychynan King Danylo Romanovich in the mid-13th Century. It is more likely that Armenian settlements in Halychyna began appearing in the 10th Century and King Danylo invited skilled builders and craftsmen to participate in the foundation of a new city. Leopolitan Armenians lived in a separate quarter in the northeastern part of the city where they built numerous churches, monasteries, hospitals, and schools, as well as a library and printing house. Many Armenian scientists, writers, painters, and musicians were born right here in Lviv’s Armenian quarter.

By the 11th-13th Centuries, Halychynan dukes had already provided Armenians with the privileged right to settle in Halychyna, to form autonomous national communities, and to have their own faith. Yet the Polish crown pursued a policy of “Polish-ization” of the Halychynan people. They added the suffices –vich or –ovich to Lviv’s Armenian names to make them sound Polish. For example, Torosyan became Torosovich or Torosevich, Simonyan – Simonovic, Stepanosyan – Stefanovic, Abgarian – Abgarovich, etc. The Halychynan name Avgustinovich was formed in this way too, as it initially belonged to the descendants of the Armenian royal and princely family of Atabekovs (Atabekians).

Written sources have preserved a variety of information regarding the Armenian settlement in Lviv. The oldest settlement was located in Podzamche and can still be seen in such names as Armenian St., Armenian Bridge, etc. The Podzamche community became a suburb after 1360 when a new city was founded to the south. Podzamche Armenians had three churches, a monastery, and a bathhouse. It is estimated that the oldest of these, St. Anna church, was founded in the 13th-14th Centuries. Lviv’s Armenian quarter was inhabited mainly by the more prosperous Armenians and new Armenian settlers from the Orient. By the early 15th Century there were over sixty houses in this quarter alone. The famed Armenian Cathedral was erected here in 1363-1370 and in 1365 a special bishopric was established. King Casimir recognized Armenian religious freedom in 1367 when Gregory (Krikor) became the first Armenian bishop of Lviv. The community continued to grow and by 1407 the city tax roll listed eighty names of the heads of Armenian families. Polish Armenians would retain close ties with their metropolitanate in Eschmiadzin until 1630.

Armenian Contributions to Lviv

Armenians played an important role in the economic life of Lviv as many were talented in such skilled crafts as tanning, leather-dying, saddle-making, shoe-making, metal, goldsmith, and embroidery. From the 14th Century, Armenians also found employment in coin-striking. Generally speaking, the Armenians were the most commercially-oriented nationality of the medieval ages and settled predominantly in the major trading centres. At the time, Lviv was one of the three main Armenian centres of Europe, along with Venice and Amsterdam. Armenians helped make Lviv a desirable centre of international trade as they had no equals among traders with the Orient, particularly throughout Crimea. They primarily used the Tatar route to Kaffa (modern Feodosia) and in the 15th Century they utilized the Moldavian route. Armenians had a monopoly on the organization of trade caravans and their services were much sought-after as they had extensive knowledge of the Orient, its customs, and its languages. Each caravan was headed by an Armenian, known as a ‘karavanbasha’, and exercised absolute power during a trip. Each caravan had the right of extra-territoriality and was protected by the trade treaties between Poland and Turkey. Armenian trade was entirely oriented toward the East. In the 16th-17th Centuries, they dealt with luxury products, known as “Armenian goods”, that included carpets, arms adorned with precious stones, jewelry, raw silk, and various Oriental spices such as pepper, ginger, saffron, and nutmeg. Armenian merchants owned many large stores in central Lviv’s Market Square that were so opulent they were known as “rich shops”. By 1588, Armenians owned 22 of the 38 “rich shops”, while Catholic merchants owned nine and Ruthenian merchants had seven.

Poles would often employ Armenians as diplomatic interpreters or customs officials and the following story shows just how influential the Armenian community was in the life and fate of Lviv. In 1672, the Turks conquered the city. As was customary, a delegation was sent to negotiate a truce. This delegation necessarily included Armenians as they were not only foreign language experts, but masters of diplomacy also. The delegation managed to convince the Turks not to seize the city by force in exchange for 80,000 gold ducats and nine hostages from the city’s most affluent citizens. In a display of the highest patriotism, responsibility, and high moral principles, Armenians Rafael Bernatowicz and Gakob (Jacob) Yaskevich voluntarily agreed to become hostages. History tells us that in the end, Mr. Bernatowicz returned from Turkish captivity in poor health and died in Lviv in 1677.

There were many other prominent Armenian figures that contributed to the development of Lviv. These include famous politicians such as: Lviv Mayors Bartholomew Zimorovich (1597-1677), Joseph Yaskevich (1719-1794), Jacob Theodore Bernatowicz (1713-1789), Godzimir Malakhovsky-Nalevich (1852-1908); academics, including the discoverer of many Carpathian mineral springs Theodore Torosevich (1789-1876), the founder of the “Shklo” resort Marian Florian Ogonchik-Zakshevski, M.D. (1803-1831), and many others. There were prominent architects, like Julian Aktavian Zakherevich (1837-1898), who designed the main building of Lviv Polytechnic Institute and many other Lviv buildings that are now considered to be the pride of the city. There were inventors too, like Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882), who invented the kerosene lamp and who has museums, monuments, and commemorative plaques, medals and books across Poland dedicated to his memory. Armenians made important contributions to the arts as well, including co-founder of the Galich Music Society and the conservatory, Karol Mikul (Michaelian) (1819-1897), and Ludwik Tirovich Jr. (1901-1958), who founded the “Union of Lviv Graphic Arts” in 1932, and was a pioneer of Lviv’s avant-garde artists “Artes”. Works of many talented Armenian artists can still be found at the Lviv Art Gallery. Other Leopolitan Armenians of note include: famous surgeon Roman Baronch (1856-1930), historian Piotr Baronch (1814-1892), Armenian language professor Karapet Keuprilyan (20th Century), and Marian Tirovich (1901-1990), a 19th Century Halychynan historian and author of nearly 4,000 celebrity biographies. Armenians have touched every aspect of life in our great city.

The Decline of Leopolitan Armenians

While many Armenians proved to live very successful lives in Lviv, it wasn’t always so easy. Leopolitan Armenians were often treated as second-class citizens; they had no political rights, elders were forced to take an annual oath of loyalty to the city council, and their residency was restricted until 1630. Yet regardless of these issues, the community has contributed a great deal to the development of Lviv. Despite their relatively small numbers, Armenians have constituted the second most important group of people in Lviv after Catholics. Protected by the policy of Polish kings, Armenians were an isolated ethnic group in 16th Century Lviv. By the end of the century, Armenians had lost their dominant position in international trade to Jewish merchants and the latter became more prevalent in Lviv’s Oriental commerce. Following the Armenian Church’s union with Rome in the 17th Century, the Armenian people quickly become “Polan-ized” and assimilated. Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral continued to operate until World War II. Following the Soviet Union’s annexation of Lviv, many Armenians fled to Poland. The cathedral was shuttered and used for storage, and its last administrator was executed in a Soviet gulag. Today Virmenska St. is a reminder of Lviv’s rich cultural heritage in general and the contributions of the Armenian population in particular. The house at #19 is one of Lviv’s most popular coffee houses, while Ararat restaurant, named after a mountain that Armenians regard as a symbol of their nation and their global community, is another Armenian quarter mainstay. The main attraction, of course, is the 650-year old Armenian Cathedral. Today the building is being restored through a joint Polish-Ukrainian restoration project and is used by both the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. So if you happen to be wandering through Old Town along Virmenska St., be sure to stop in at one of the Armenian quarter’s nostalgic attractions and reflect on Lviv’s wonderful multi-ethnic heritage.