Exploration of the vast frontiers of the world has temporarily halted during this COVID-19 period. But there are still treasures to be discovered–right in your backyard. During this difficult time, I have deepened my connection to the places that I perhaps took for granted growing up. The oldest Christian Church in Singapore is the Armenian Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Located at Hill Street, I often frequented the church as a child to pray… and play.
It is quite the experience; to look at old childhood haunts with adult eyes as I deepen my understanding of the places that are weaved into my childhood and the soul of the land.
The church, which was commissioned by the first twelve Armenian families that settled in Singapore, was completed in 1835 and consecrated the following year. The Armenians were among the earliest merchants and traders to arrive in Singapore after Sir Stamford Raffles established it as a trading port in 1819.
The Armenian Church was designed by George Drumgoole Coleman, a trained architect who was the son of merchant; part of whose business was dealing with building materials.
Coleman’s appointment as the first Government Superintendent of Public Works began in 1833. He planned, surveyed and designed much of early Singapore thereby shaping the course of Singapore’s early urbanisation. Coleman oversaw the construction of many main roads as well as prominent public and private buildings. Singapore’s Coleman Street and Bridge pay homage to the architect who left his mark on the history of the city.
The Armenians of Singapore
Armenians call their homeland of Armenia Hayastan–the land of the Hayk. Hayk was the great-grandson of Noah who grounded the ark on Mount Ararat in the Book of Genesis. The history of Armenia, however, has been characterised by unceasing wars and occupation by foreign powers.
While Armenians have established communities in many regions throughout the world since antiquity, the modern Armenian diaspora is largely a result of World War I. The Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire forced Armenians to flee or risk being killed.
Both temporary travellers and regular residents of the cosmopolitan Singapore may not be aware of the significant contributions that Armenians have made to this city-state. In the early years of Singapore, Armenians were one of its smallest minorities with statistics indicating that there were fewer than 700 Armenians who resided in the country between 1820 and 2000.
Although their time in Singapore was transient–with only 12 families residing for three generations–they have left behind a rich legacy that is incommensurate with their numbers. In addition to the Armenian Church; there is the Raffles Hotel, The Straits Times newspaper, and Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim amongst others.
Discover the Armenian Heritage of Singapore
The Armenian Heritage Gallery, which opened in May 2018, features rare artefacts, books, photos and other historical and contemporary items collected from the various community archives in Singapore, Asia, Armenia and worldwide.
The Memorial Garden, where I used to play innocently as a child, is a collection of tombstones marking the life of Armenians who made a significant contribution to Singapore. Little did I know that early Armenian settlers were buried in the old Fort Canning, Bukit Timah and Bidadari cemeteries. In the early 1970s, when these areas were rezoned to become parkland, Mr. Levon Palian rescued and transported twenty-four Armenian tombstones to the grounds of the Armenian Church. In 1988, the tombstones were assembled to form the Memorial Garden by Mr. Art Ramian, who also donated to the cost of the project.
Visitors can view the tombstones of Agnes Joaquim, who hybridised Singapore’s national flower, Catchick Moses, the founder of Singapore’s national newspaper The Straits Times, and other renowned Singapore Armenians including family members of the Sarkies Brothers who established the exquisite Raffles Hotel.
The Memorial Garden also includes a traditional Khachkar cross-stone erected in 2015 in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.