Lebanon, the Safe Haven – for Armenians too

This month marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire initiated systematic massacres of the Armenians in its midst.

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Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Source: Wikipedia

I don’t remember ever hearing of the Armenian Genocide before moving to Lebanon. It was all over the news, however, when I was in Italy last week. Pope Francis referred to the tragedy as a genocide during a special mass of remembrance. His pronouncement was all the news could talk about for the remainder of the afternoon, bringing the history of the Armenians back to my attention.

My lack of knowledge about the genocide prior to living in Lebanon turns out to have been no accident. The massacres are now widely recognized internationally – and even by some within Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) – as a genocide by historians and scholars. But Turkey has always denied that the targeting and killings were systematic, and take umbrage at the term genocide. The Turkish government has run an effective and proactive campaign to keep it from being officially recognized by the US national government (despite its recognition by 43 of our 50 states), discussed at the UN, taught in Canadian schools or acknowledged in London museums (see this piece from the Los Angeles Times for a more detailed discussion).

For a quick history lesson (in case you, like me, missed it): the traditional Armenian homeland was once split between Eastern and Western Armenia – the former conquered by Russia, the latter under Ottoman rule. Armenians were also concentrated in Cilicia, an Armenian Kingdom in the Middle Ages, and a region of modern-day Turkey which borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 1915 and 1922, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire.

According to Wikipedia, “The genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.”

Survivors fled. The Armenian diaspora is now estimated at 8 to 10 million people (triple that of modern-day Armenia’s population). Many of the diaspora are direct descendants of genocide victims.

And the reason I started hearing about the genocide after arriving to Lebanon? As it has done for Syrians over the past few years, Lebanon opened its borders and provided refuge to countless Armenians. There are an estimated 230,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. Uniquely, they were granted Lebanese nationality in 1924 by the French mandate, and became a vibrant part of the fabric of Lebanese society. They are renowned in particular for their craftsmanship. Lebanon today is home to the only Armenian university outside of Armenia, and to the Catholicosate (Holy See) of Cilicia. The Catholicos (head of church) fled Cilicia in 1921.

When my parents visited me in 2013, we took headed just north of Beirut to Antelias, to visit the Catholicosate, which we knew had a museum.

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The main church (right) is surprisingly small. (c) Amy E. Robertson

A young woman in her twenties greeted us, told us the museum was free of charge, and accompanied us to unlock the rooms housing the Armenian treasures. The three of us were the only visitors that morning. We asked a couple of questions as we entered, and she offered a guided tour. We jumped at the opportunity.

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the Cilicia Museum (c) Amy E. Robertson

Room after room housed beautifully displayed artifacts from Cilicia, primarily relics and religious art of its churches. Richly woven tapestries, liturgical garments threaded with gold, delicately illustrated Bibles, silver wrought into chalices and crosses, and more. Some had been smuggled out as refugees fled the genocide; more has been recovered by devout Armenians who travel to Turkey to track down their historical treasures from antiquarians and collectors. The third floor of the museum houses its painting and sculpture collection, described on the museum website as follows: “Primarily as a post-Genocide phenomenon, the collection stands as a witness to the special circumstances and experiences of Armenians in exile.”

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the seminary (c) Amy E. Robertson 

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priests (c) Amy E. Robertson

Pictures were not allowed inside of the museum, so I cannot share with you the treasures. I can only urge you, if ever in Beirut, to find a few hours to visit the museum.

And you may be well-versed in Armenian history, but if, like me, you are not – I would also like to urge you, whether you are in Beirut or anywhere else around the globe, to find a few minutes this week, as we mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn more about the history of the Armenians.

Official Observation of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015.

Museum Information  and official website of the Cilicia Museum

For a taste of Armenia when in Beirut, here are my favorites:

Mayrig – Traditional Armenian cooking. Cozy restaurant with stone walls, stained glass lamps and impeccable service. Now with a branch also in Dubai,

Batchig – Mayrig’s more stylish younger sister, with twists on tradition and a more casual atmosphere. Located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh.

Badguer – homey restaurant and cultural center with homestyle cooking, located in the Armenian quarter of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud.