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To Fresno for Armenian bread, restaurants, and a big show of antique carpets.

To Fresno for Armenian bread, restaurants, and a big show of antique carpets

Handwoven rugs to delight your eyes, words to challenge your tongue, and foods to surprise your palate are part of the rich heritage of the Armenian people. Preserving that heritage has not been easy for a people facing such oppression in their homeland that they have sought refuge halfway around the world. Since the 1880s, thousands of Armenian immigrants have settled in California's San Joaquin Valley, especially around Fresno, where their culture has taken root.

Today, you're as likely to find lavash as French bread in Fresno markets. Starting this month, the only Western U.S. showing of 64 rare carpets is a good occasion to discover Hye (Armenian) culture.

Titled "Weavers, Merchants, and Kings: the Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,' the exhibit will be at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum from February 16 through April 15. During the show, you can attend Sunday programs of Armenian art, dance, and cooking at the museum. Anytime you visit, Fresno bakeries and restaurants offer a taste of Armenia.

Threads woven into history

Armenia--which once stretched from the Mediterranean to the Black and Caspian seas--was, in A.D. 301, the first nation to make Christianity its religion. A century later, scholar-priest Mesrob Mashdotz began developing the Armenian alphabet. Rugs in the show are inscribed with letters he invented and Armenian religious emblems, such as the two-headed eagle.

In the 13th century, Marco Polo noted: "Armenians weave the choicest and most beautiful carpets in the world.' According to the show's catalog, the Armenian term kapert could be the source of our word carpet.

All but one of the rugs in the exhibit are dyed, hand-loomed wool (the exception is silk). They range in width from 1 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet, in length from 4 to 16 feet. To form the pile, weavers twisted or "knotted' yarn symmetrically around the warp, using as many as 121 knots per square inch. The show's oldest carpet, dating from 1700, bears the inscription: "I, Gohar, full of sin and weak of soul, with my newly learned hands wove (this rug).'

The exhibit was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Armenian Rugs Society. With it will be replicas of historic costumes loaned by the Armenian Relief Society.

Museum hours are 11 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 weekends. Admission costs $1.50 for adults, $1 for seniors and students, and 75 cents for children under 12.

At 2:30 on Sunday, February 16, there will be an illustrated lecture on Armenian rug weaving by Dr. Lucy Der Manuelian. At 7:30, she will lecture on "Lost Treasure: The Story of Armenian Art.' For a schedule of other cultural events planned during the exhibit, write to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, 1515 Van Ness Ave., Fresno, Calif. 93721; or call (209) 441-1444.

Favorite bakeries and restaurants

Downtown, a block south of Ventura Avenue, two bakeries are fixtures in Fresno's oldest Armenian neighborhood.

Hye Quality Bakery, 2222 Santa Clara Street. Sammy Ganimian bakes a variety of lavash. He also makes lahmejun (lah-ma-joon), an Armenian pizza topped with ground lamb, and other delicacies to reheat at home. Hours: 8:30 to 5:30 Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 to 4:30 Saturdays.

Valley Bakery, 502 M Street. Since 1922, the Saghatelian family has been baking peda: yeast bread topped with sesame seeds. Lahvosh (the bakery's brand of cracker bread) is sold in many sizes and shapes, from rounds to hearts. Hours: 7 to 5:30 weekdays, 7 to 4 Saturdays.

When we asked several Fresnans to name their favorite Armenian restaurants, two kept popping up: George's and Sassoon. After eating at both of them--twice--and trying others, we second their recommendations.

Photo: Rounds of lavash (cracker bread) make light stacks in the arms of Sammy Ganimian, owner of Hye Quality Bakery. Trays hold honeyed nut baskets and sugary almond cookies

Photo: Winged angels and diving double-headed eagle adorn Karabagh rug (above), woven in 1912. At left, inscription in Armenian gives rug's date and weaver: 1850, Ter Mik'ael Saribekov
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Title Annotation:Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Fresno, California
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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