Remember and Reflect - Lest We Forget
Genocide Memorial and Museum (Yerevan, Armenia)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Genocide Memorial and Museum (Yerevan, Armenia)
Advantages: Evocative, atmospheric, well researched and beautifully presented
Disadvantages: Disturbing - not suitable for young children and sensitive souls
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
Summary: The evocative national memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide