Ode to Armenian Street

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Anyone who knows their Asian heritage has heard of Penang’s Eastern & Oriental Hotel situated by the waterfront on Farquhar Street. They also may know that the founders of the hotel were the Sarkies Brothers who were also responsible for establishing the equally famous hotels of Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar).

The Sarkies are rarely mentioned without some qualifying statement that they were Armenian as if that were a prerequisite in operating a great hotel. Now, Armenia is not near the top of my “must visit” list so it has always intrigued me how these brothers ended up in Asia and established three of the region’s most noted heritage hotels.

Armenia is a small landlocked and mountainous nation of just three million people (some eight million live abroad which says a lot about what living in Armenia must be like) and it is surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. It was once part of the Soviet Union but attained independence in 1991.

Armenian traders have been in Asia for centuries and it’s not surprising some, like the Sarkies, ended up in Penang. Armenians migrated to Persia (now Iran) and then onto India from where they started trading with the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. Being mostly Christians (Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity in the 4th century) they established their churches of worship in Penang but there seems no evidence of Armenian activity in the street now named after them, Lebuh Armenian (Armenian Street) in historic downtown George Town.

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