Monday, February 20, 2012

The Armenian Genocide Memorial

Day 2 in Armenia began slowly. After a good dose of coffee and journaling, I decided I really needed a day to myself to do some exploring and reflect. That morning EB and Alyson left to return to Georgia, but we wanted to visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial. During the highly controversial French law debate, the Armenians were celebrating and the Turks were up in arms. The night before we visited the memorial, I had stayed up late in the hostel sending emails in the downstairs lobby. With me were a few other Armenian guys, watching the French Parliament vote on the law to make the denial of the Armenian genocide illegal. I joined them in watching this decision, and when the vote passed, the men literally threw piles of candy in the air and danced around hugging each other! It was a moment I felt grateful to be a part of. That day was a highly meaningful day for the Armenian people. Many of my Turkish friends, though not all, were outraged at the French decision. My students denounced France and were livid at the French government, to say the least. So imagine our surprise finding ourselves in Armenia on the night the resolution passed, and being lucky enough to visit the memorial the next day. We headed to the Armenian Genocide Memorial which sits on top of a huge hill overlooking the city.  It is dedicated to the victims killed by the Young Turks party in 1918. [For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, it is a hotly contested issue- the Armenians claim genocide of hundreds of thousands while the Turks strongly deny its occurrence.] The memorial was made entirely of metal and stone, and reminded me of several of the memorials in the Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad VaShem. The museum was closed, (apparently it closes for 2 months during the winter) much to our dismay, but the memorial was profound. It was comprised of a circle of steel columns leaning inward, protecting a single flame in the center. The symbolism I found was two-fold. First, the standing pillars must always protect the flame, fighting to burn continuously- a symbol of the struggle of international recognition of the genocide. Second, the monument is always partially in shadow: that the genocide was and continues to be partially covered, shrouded. I later learned the true intent behind the structure, related to me by my tour guide. The tower symbolizes the birth of the nation and the twelve pillars surrounding the flame represent the twelve regions of Armenia they lost to other countries. There were gardens of trees surrounding the monuments planted in memory of many Armenians. We saw a tree planted by Bob Dole, who I didn’t know was a strong supporter of the recognition of the genocide. After spending several minutes in silence and reflection, we headed to eat- and after I visited the National Gallery, which had another section on the genocide with some very interesting quotations. (See below)
Before parting our separate ways, John, Ramsey and I headed toa café near the national gallery where I met a really amazing woman from Holland. She and two friends were biking from Holland to China. The whole way! She regaled us with some exciting adventures. (I am trying to find her blog for all of you to follow!)

So off I went to the National Gallery, which is split into two parts, the Art Museum and the National History Museum, where I chose to spend the afternoon. What I learned that may be of some interest to my fellow nerds:
1.     The region Armenia rests in was once ancient Assyria!
2.     Warrior costumes here were reminiscent of what my mind always imaged the great warriors of old would look like; gold plated armor, pointy hats of bronze and thick shields.
3.     No matter how far back you go in history, in every museum there are collections of ancient jewelry. Really, women haven’t changed all that much!
4.     From the 7-13th centuries, the governments used coins in numerous languages and all were accepted. But how did they make change? They literally cut up the coins into smaller fragments for small change.
5.     And now to the controversial. Readers beware. People get pretty heated over the following comments.
a.     The quotes below are taken word for word from the National History Museum’s section on the genocide.
b.     “Today, all reputable specialists in Genocide Studies, who have firm scientific principles and don’t yield to political considerations, consider the Armenian genocide as the first genocide of the 20th century.”(1915)
c.     They [Young Turks- the Union and Progress political party] advanced a racial thesis of forced conversion of all non-Turkic peoples, a thesis based on the idea of Turks supremacy. One and a half million Armenians were killed who refused to become Turks. One million were deported and exiled into the Arabian deserts. The solution of the Armenian question was left to the Ottoman Empire exclusively, who settled the matter in a Turkish manner, i.e. with a sword.” 

Hearing both extremely passionate perspectives has been an eye-opening experience for me this year. I make no claims, and I am most certainly not an expert. But I encourage you to research yourself. Knowledge is everything. 

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