“ Address: RA / Armenia / Yerevan 0028 „
When I first visited Yerevan twenty-three years ago as an impressionable Armenian American teenager, much of the experience passed me by. As upper middle class kids we were guilty of creating a little bubble around ourselves characterised by surf T-shirts, sunglasses, Levi jeans and Sony Walkman's. We strolled around the ancient churches, temples and monasteries with a detached and uninvolved air, much more concerned with getting our hands on illicit booze, dodging chaperones and sneaking out to nightclubs than we were about absorbing the culture and history of our homeland.
However, fast forward almost a quarter century and, even after all this time, our visit to Dzidzernagapert (Armenian for "Fortress of Swallows") - a hill on the outskirts of the city that houses the Armenian Genocide Memorial - clearly sticks in the mind as the one truly emotional experience of the visit. On my return to Armenia's capital a few months ago for my sister's wedding, it was the one site I was determined to make time to see again, especially as a new Museum had been built alongside the austere memorial.
A SHORT HISTORY
I won't rehash the whole history of the Genocide, save to say that the Armenian side of the story, which is generally accepted as fact by the academic community, is that between 1915 and 1918, the "Young Turk" regime of Ottoman Turkey used the cover of World War One to instigate a deliberate and calculated programme of deportation and extermination against its native Armenian population, resulting in the deaths of 1.5 million people.
Turkey denies genocide to this day, and the lack of recognition, apology and reparation is the source of deep-seated mistrust (and some would say hatred) between Turks and Armenians. The issue continues to taint and undermine what little diplomatic relations exist between the two countries. My paternal grandparents were both orphans of the Genocide. They met in a Syrian orphanage as teenagers, married, and set up a new life for themselves in Lebanon. As such, my father was determined to honour their resilience and sacrifice by ensuring that his children - my sister and I - understood and appreciated our language, culture, history and tradition. It now falls on me to do the same for my children.
I set off after breakfast from our Yerevan apartment with my father, hailing a taxi for the short drive from the centre of the city. Few taxi drivers speak decent English, so foreign visitors should ask for the complex by its Armenian name (phonetically - "Dzee-dzehr-nahg-ah-paired" or "hoosh-ahr-tzan", meaning "memorial").
The journey was relatively uneventful, with the only sour note being the convoluted route our driver chose to take, ostensibly to "avoid roadworks" but in reality a thinly disguised ploy to separate a few more measly Armenian Dram (AMD) from what he perceived to be our rich Diasporan Armenian wallets. The journey should take ten or fifteen minutes, and cost no more than 600 or 700 AMD (about £1.25). Ours lasted almost 25 minutes and we were charged 1000 AMD. Had the difference not been a pithy 40p, I might have been inclined to argue, if only on principle. Minor acts of extortion aside, taxi is the only reasonable way to get to there. I would not advise walking - it's not well sign-posted and the routes to the complex are not particularly pedestrian friendly.
For aesthetic reasons and to reduce the amount of noise on-site, there is no direct vehicular approach to the memorial complex. Although there are closer access points, our taxi dropped us off outside the large sports and concert arena which shares the hill with the memorial. You walk up either side of a long set of broad stone steps - one on the left and one on the right. The right side afforded us some great views of Mt Ararat, which for the first time since my arrival, eight days previous, was clearly visible against a clear blue cloudless sky.
To get to the memorial site, we walked around the impressive arena and through a neglected plaza overgrown with weeds. The tall, basalt spire of the memorial was just visible through the trees ahead, but we were stopped in our tracks by the arresting statue of a terrified, fleeing woman holding her child. The fear and anguish were perfectly and disturbingly captured by the sculptor. It was something of a travesty to find such an evocative work of art in this seemingly forgotten corner.
AN EMOTIONAL TIDAL WAVE
As you approach the complex, you begin to hear the atmospheric strains of Armenian church music - loud enough to be heard, but subtle enough to be unobtrusive. I recognised the haunting melody of "Der Voghormya" ("Lord, have Mercy") from the Divine Liturgy, which my mother used to sing in our local church choir - almost at the same time as the stark, grey monument hove into full view.
I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact. Engulfed in a tidal wave of sadness, my eyes welled up with tears, my hand reflexively covering my mouth. The tall, austere basalt stele tapered to a point, seemingly piercing the azure blue sky and my heart at the same time. What I felt was indescribable - beyond words - and for a few moments, I was rooted to the spot. It simply took my breath way.
Once I recovered, I realised that we had approached the complex through a memorial garden of evergreen trees, each of which was accompanied by a simple silver plaque from a visiting dignitary, delegation or head of state. The several rows of trees, of differing height and stature (depending on when they were planted) featured a very wide and disparate group of donors, with official state representation from the United States and the United Kingdom conspicuous by its absence (various Senators, Congressmen, and the Baroness Cox had planted trees in a private capacity). The inconspicuous entrance to the Museum was off to the right, beautifully framed by the twin peaks of Ararat. The Museum is built underground to ensure uninterrupted views of the monument and to keep the focus of attention on it alone.
A MEMORIAL IN THREE PARTS
A paved path leads through the memorial garden directly to the base of the main monument, bisecting a wide green lawn. The structure consists of three parts. Immediately to the left is a long, 100 metre (330ft) grey wall with the names of each of the cities and towns of Western Armenia affected by the Genocide carved into its face in Armenian script. My father paused, and pointed out the name of the town where my mother was born - Gürün (in the Sivas province of Eastern Turkey). Her family had managed to return to the village after the Genocide, but were forced to flee to Lebanon in the late 1940's after two of her older sisters were threatened with forced marriage to local Turkish officials.
It was only a name, a simple inscription in stone, but they reminded me of the stories my mother had told me as a child of the horrific circumstances in which my great-grandparents had died. Seeing the familiar Armenian script etched in front of me somehow made this conceptual connection with my martyred ancestors palpably physical and real.
The impressive 44 metre (145ft) arrow-shaped basalt stele is the most visible part of the monument, and can be seen from around Yerevan. It was built to symbolise survival and spiritual rebirth, but also features a deep channel, almost splitting the stele in two, which represents the violent division and scattering of the Armenian people.
On a clear day, the view from the monument across the Ararat valley to the symbolic mountain is exceptional, but in a spectacular example of typically unsympathetic Armenian planning (or not, as it happens), a new American-style shopping complex is springing up at the base of the hill, and an emerging apartment block threatens to spoil the uninterrupted views toward the mountain.
Off to the left is a ring of twelve monolithic inward leaning basalt slabs which form a circle, sheltering the Eternal Flame set at its centre. This uncovered memorial "hall" (called the Sanctuary of Eternity) is the focal point of the complex. The floor is set a meter and a half below ground level, with a short set of steep steps allowing access to the Eternal Flame from between the twelve slabs, each of which represents one of the lost provinces of Western Armenia.
Having reached this part of the monument, I let my father go down to the Eternal Flame by himself and watched from between the slabs as he bowed his head in silent contemplation. After a few moments, my father turned around, eyes brimming with tears, and beckoned me to join him. Apart from the ever-present music, which echoed mournfully around the memorial hall, we were surprisingly alone. Arms around each others shoulders, we stared into the flickering orange flame for what seemed an eternity, each lost in our own thoughts, before finally embracing - a fierce, tight and primal embrace that represented much more than words between us could ever convey. I felt like I was being passed a generational mantle. My father had completed his duty. He had raised a son who understood and appreciated the significance of the burning flame in front of him. Now it was my turn to do the same with my own son.
Despite feeling a bit emotionally battered and raw, we still had the small matter of the Museum to visit. Reluctantly, we left the sunlight behind and descended the discreet set of stairs down into the Museum complex, which was built in 1995 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Genocide. The foyer is surprising light and airy, mainly due to the large glass window overlooking a small semi-circular external courtyard which features quotes, carved in stone, from international diplomats, scientists, writers and other luminaries, including Albert Einstein, condemning the Genocide.
The Museum itself is split into three discreet exhibition halls arranged in a rough circle. The first hall features a bas-relief map of Turkey and Armenia carved into the wall, showing Armenian populations across the region before the massacres began in 1915. The exhibits describe the role and contribution of Armenians in Turkish society and provides some context on the cultural and political factors that led to the Genocide. The main hall, and easily the most atmospheric, difficult and horrific, sets out the photographic, eyewitness and written evidence for Genocide. The exhibits and cases are clearly labelled in English, Russian and Armenian. Guided tours are also available in these languages, as well as French and German.
There are several multi-media exhibits providing background and film clips from the era that complement the static exhibits very well. The material is compelling and repulsive at the same time - part of me wanted to stay and read it all, but another part, still reeling from earlier experience, wanted to get back out to the sunlight and, seemingly, sanity. Even without my Armenian background, which clearly intensified the experience (and makes it impossible to be truly objective) it seemed inconceivable that man could inflict such pain, suffering, horror and ultimately, inhumanity on his fellow man.
The final hall poignantly provides the book end to the first. This time, Armenian populations after the Genocide are compared to the previously presented pre-1915 figures. The numbers make stark and uncomfortable reading. Each of the statistics from the twelve lost provinces is mounted above a sealed clear capsule of earth, taken from the land which is now lost. On a more positive and hopeful note, figures are given for the now thriving Armenian Diaspora spread around the world in such far flung and diverse places as Australia, Argentina, France, Lebanon and the United States. Just behind the reception area is a small room housing temporary exhibitions. When I visited, it featured the front pages, editorials and political cartoons from the international press during the time of the Genocide, giving a good snapshot of how the world viewed the tragedy unfolding in Anatolia.
While waiting for my father to complete his tour, I flicked through the guest book left by the front entrance. As Armenians, we often lead ourselves to believe that no one cares about our forgotten Genocide any more, however, the pages upon pages of non-Armenian names who had left their thoughts etched on its pages gives me hope that the Museum and the memorial are serving their intended purpose. The memorial was completed in 1967 following mass public demonstrations in Yerevan in 1965 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Genocide. This sort of ethnic awakening was unheard of in the USSR at the time, and it was quite remarkable that the Politburo allowed the memorial to be built. It has since served as a pilgrimage site for all Armenians visiting the homeland.
As we emerged into the bright sunlight after our museum tour, we noticed that a work crew had arrived and were busy weeding, cutting and tidying the grounds. They were preparing for the visit of Hilary Rodham Clinton the following day, who was to lay a wreath in remembrance of its victims in her "personal capacity" - and pointedly not as the US Foreign Secretary. The failure of the US to "recognise" the events of 1915 to 1918 as genocide for political reasons (President Obama reneged on a campaign pledge to push for recognition due to sustained Turkish pressure) remains a major disappointment, but perhaps a perfect example of realpolitik.
On April 24th each year, Yerevan comes to a standstill, as hundreds of thousands of Armenians patiently wait, sometimes for hours, to climb Dzidzernapert to lay a solitary rose at the base of the Eternal Flame. It is an event that unites, and perhaps even defines Armenians, with memorial services, marches and vigils kept in Diasporan communities around the world. The monument provides a focal point for grief, commemoration and remembrance, but is also constant reminder that justice has not yet been achieved for its 1.5 million victims. No visit to Yerevan or Armenia would be complete without it, but given the upsetting and graphic nature of some of the exhibits in the Museum, I would strongly advise against taking younger children.
Practically mandatory viewing and highly recommended.
The Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute
Dzidzernagapert (Fortress of Swallows)
Admission free (but donations welcome)
Open Tuesday to Sunday 11:00 to 17:00
Closed on Monday & Public Holidays
© Hishyeness 2010
Although they can be very jovial indeed when it comes to a party, the Armenians are by and large a fairly melancholy people. There are two main reasons behind this melancholy. The first is that their sacred Mount Ararat, the mountain that symbolises so much of the nation's history, now lies in Turkey and they can only see its magnificent snow-capped peak from behind a closed border. The fact that the border is closed brings me to the second reason for the pervading sadness of Armenians: the tense relationship with Turkey is due to a massive event that few people are aware of. In 1915 over one and a half million Armenians were murdered in a genocide that took place within the Ottoman Empire at hands of the Turkish government. It is often referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.
Fifty years after it happened, one million Armenians held a twenty-four hour period of demonstrations calling for a memorial to be built to remember the dead. The following year construction of a memorial commenced and the memorial - known in Armenian as 'Tsiternakaberd' - was completed. Each year on 24 April Armenians visit the memorial to lay flowers and remember the dead.
To this day the Republic of Turkey does not recognise the event as a genocide. The Turkish government has always maintained that Armenians were killed but that 'genocide' is not the correct description because the deaths were not planned as a programme of extermination of an entire race. Within Turkey it is a criminal offence to acknowledge the genocide though prosecution is not common - I expect the imagined outcome of such an act is probably enough to stop anyone from doing it. Even now there is a considerable movement within the European Union to withhold Turkish entry while the government continues to deny the genocide.
For many centuries sizeable numbers of Armenians lived peacefully within the Ottoman Empire; however, while they were afforded to freedom to follow their own religion they were second class citizens in most other ways. However, by the nineteenth century there was a considerable movement for Armenian autonomy which was backed to some extent by the Russians and the British. They tried to use diplomatic means to have reforms imposed but in actual fact the treatment of the Armenian population deteriorated. At the same time, the power-mad Ottomans wanted to increase their Empire yet further, right across to central Asia where some Turkic tribes already lived. In the territory in between, however, were the Armenians and the Ottomans knew that they'd be unable to carry out their aims unless they dealt with the Armenians. In the final years of the nineteenth century thousands of Armenians were killed in the 'Hamidian Massacres' ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II but this was just the beginning
In 1908, there was a rebellion by the Young Turks, a strongly nationalist group who wanted to see the Ottoman Empire become more modern along the lines of a European country. At first the Armenians welcomed this but reforms failed to follow and in the ensuing upheaval, a group of three ultra-nationals took power of the Young Turks and World War One gave them an opportunity to advance their nationalistic aims. On 24 April 1915 hundreds of influential Armenian community leaders and academics were arrested and murdered in Istanbul. This was done first so that the Armenians would have no leader and be less likely to resist the next step which was to force Armenians out to the far east of the Ottoman territories to concentration camps. People were forced to leave with whatever they could grab and were marched towards the east very often with no food and water. Many died along the way, while others were tortured and raped. In the same way that most Jews cheerfully smiled and waved holding their suitcases as they boarded trains in 1940s Germany in the early days of the transports, most Armenians went willingly because they really believed they were simply being relocated. Men of a certain age were told they were being drafted but were executed by death squads, people were told to hand in hunting weapons for the 'war effort' thus rendering them helpless if they chose to resist although many felt proud to be 'helping'. Most of the people who ended up being marched to the camps were women, children and the elderly, those least likely to be able to resist.
They were marched to the Syrian Desert where most of them died; there were over twenty concentration camps and mass graves have been found in many locations. Some were even witnessed by British, American and Russian officers and diplomats who reported what they saw back to their governments. By the time the war ended the three nationalist Young Turks who had led the massacres had fled but they were found guilty in their absence in a massive trial and were subsequently located and shot by Armenians. With the agreement of the government, the American government redrew the borders thus the Republic Of Armenia was created.
THE MONUMENT AND MUSEUM OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
The memorial to the Armenian genocide was designed by architects Artur Tarkhanyan and Sashur Kalashyan and artist Ovannes Khachatryan.and is situated in Tsitsernakaberd (Swallow's Fortress) Park which is a heavily wooded area that was until the 1950s waste ground on the edge of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. On the summit of the hill is the striking memorial and beside it a museum and visitors centre.
The monument is not easy to describe but I shall try. It is in two main sections: the first is a series of basalt slabs arranged in a circle that lean inwards at the top around an eternal flame and they are meant to symbolise figures bent over in mourning. This is known as the 'Temple of Commemoration'. The floor of this part is one and a half metres below the walkway. The steps that lead to the eternal flame are very steep so that visitors have to bow their heads as they approach it.
Beside it is a tall basalt needle that symbolises the rebirth of the Armenian people. This has a cleft in the middle of it to represent the dispersion of the Armenia population.
Alongside the monument is a one hundred metre long low wall, also made of basalt, on which when it is completed will be engraved the names of all the villages where the Armenian population was killed. In the late 1980s cross stones were added to commemorate Armenians killed in several towns in Azerbaijan.
It is a very simple but striking sight, made even more poignant by the backdrop for the viewing platform also looks onto the breathtaking view of Mount Ararat making the contrast between the natural world and the austere manmade memorial even more striking.
The museum, opened in 1995, is partly beneath the monument as it is built into the hill so that it wouldn't draw any attention from the memorial. Inside the museum is an exhibition that outlines what happened, using for the most part primary sources. There are some very moving photographs and exhibits such as a handkerchief containing two sugar-cubes - miraculously still preserved - which was the only thing one fleeing young person could find to grab in the chaos.
The first of three sections looks at the geographical and topographical position of Armenia and sets the scene with information showing how Armenians were scattered around the Ottoman Empire. The next shows extracts from eyewitness reports and documents from the time interspersed with short film clips. The final section deals with the aftermath and the international reaction. Here you can see signed documents in which international organisations and national governments have publicly acknowledged the genocide.
It's possible to navigate the exhibits independently because all captions are in English and Armenian. Group tours can be taken in English, Armenian, Russian, French and German. Admission is free but donations are welcomed.
The complex is open Tuesday-Sunday: 11.00-16.00 and is closed on Mondays
The Museum is closed on official holidays (December 30, 31, January 1, 2, 3, January 6, March 8, May 1, 9, 28, July 5, September 21)
HOW TO GET THERE
My best advice is to take a taxi or be prepared for a long and almost un-signposted walk - which is mostly uphill and not to be recommended in the middle of a June day. Find the Hradzan football stadium and follow the vague signs or ask someone.
The Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum was another highlight of my Black Sea odyssey in 2006 and an experience I will never forget. From a historical point of view I found it fascinating and gave me an insight into something I previously knew very little about. Set against the splendour of Mount Ararat this dramatic and moving monument certainly reveals much about the Armenian people and is a must for anybody visiting Armenia to get a better understanding of the history and culture of this amazing country.