The Armenians of Avignon
In the heart of Provence
The Vaucluse is one of the most beautiful French departments. It extends from the Rhone Valley to the Verdon Natural Regional Park and benefits from more than 300 days of sunshine a year. The variety of its landscapes is also particularly unique within the same department.
The Luberon is a massif known for its abbeys, wines and charming villages. One of them, Gordes, is one of the most beautiful villages in France. Mount Ventoux rises to 1,912 meters above sea level. It is known as the most difficult stage of the Tour de France. Not to mention Carpentras, the third city in the department with its heart-shaped downtown, at the foot of Mont Ventoux.
The prefecture of Vaucluse is Avignon, on the banks of the Rhone. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is nicknamed the "City of the Popes" for temporarily replacing Rome as a place of papal residence in the 14th century. His “Palace of the Popes” is the largest gothic building of the Middle Ages in Europe.
Jean Althen, an agronomist from Armenia
The Vaucluse of the Armenians starts with Avignon. As you walk behind the palace, on the “Rocher des Doms” overlooking the city, look for the statue of a certain Jean Althen. His real name was Hovhannes Althounian and this Armenian agronomist was born in the Persian province of Nakhichevan around 1710. His father was a diplomat of the Persian Empire. Following the death of his father, he left his homeland but was taken prisoner on the shores of the Black Sea. He was sold as a slave and spent fifteen years in madder (Rubia tinctorum) plantations, a plant then unknown in Western Europe. Later, he managed to escape and embarked on a boat from Smyrna to Marseille.
In France, he used his agronomic skills to get lands, granted by King Louis XV to try to grow cotton in the south of France. For several reasons, he abandoned the cotton and it is the culture of the madder in the Vaucluse that made his fame. The madder quickly became essential, widely used to dye clothing, including uniforms of the French army until the First World War. He died in 1774.
In 1821, a plaque was erected in his name: "To Jean Althen, Persian, introducer and first farmer of the madder in the territory of Avignon". The village of Althen-des-Paluds, near Avignon, which was the center of the culture of the madder, bears since 1845 the name of the agronomist. His statue is on the square of the Town Hall.
The Armenians of Avignon today
A few hundred Armenian refugees who landed in Marseille in the 1920s settled in Avignon. It is estimated that about 3,000 Armenians still live in Vaucluse and some neighboring municipalities. Community events are organized by the Franco-Armenian Association of Avignon and its Region (AFAAR), created in 1979.
In 2007, a khachkar was inaugurated in the presence of the Armenian Ambassador Edward Nalbandian and the rector of the Armenian Cathedral of Marseille, the Reverend Father Zadig Avedikian. It is located in the square Agricol Perdiguier, in the city center of Avignon, just behind the Saint-Martial protestant temple.
Going up the “rue de la République”, you can stop by Snack Avedis for some Armenian fast food, but the best is to go further in the old town until you reach the “Place des Carmes”. The small shaded terrace of Taverne Avedis is the ideal place to enjoy the sweets of summer.
To continue your tour of Armenian Vaucluse, head to Carpentras. The city famous for its truffle market and its local products. Enjoy a glass of Armenian wine (even apricot!) in the best restaurant of the city, Chez Serge, selection of the 2018 Michelin Guide. Traditional French cuisine.
More than a hundred Armenians also live further east, in the Luberon Natural Regional Park. In 2012, a khachkar was inaugurated in the pleasant village of La Tour d'Aigues, near the campsite. Then, make a stop at Pertuis, along the Durance, to taste the Armenian specialties of La Cuisine de Suzanne. Opened in 2018, this is Suzanne's second establishment, following the success of its first restaurant in the Marseille area.