Once considered the “glory of our nation” by King Trdat III, the Armenian goddess Anahit has recently been revived through the continuing struggle to “bring her back home” to Armenia. Historians and scribes have identified her with her Greek counterparts, Aphrodite or Artemis. She was the vivifier of the Armenian nation, as well as the symbol of chastity, motherhood, and wisdom. According to tradition, St. Gregory the Illuminator was sent to a pit on the Ararat plain by King Trdat III for refusing to place a wreath before her golden statue. As the nation was Christianized, many of the pre-Christian deities and festivals became a thing of the past, and the church became a vital part of the national identity.
Currently, the head of the bronze gilded statue of the goddess dwells in a glass box in the British Museum in London. Her description reads: “Bronze head of a goddess, probably Aphrodite.” To the museum, she is another head in a sea of statues and busts of ancient deities from all around the globe. To Armenians, she is Anahit, a symbol of a nation and its long-lost traditions. The bust is featured on Armenian banknotes, stamps, and coins. A television opinion poll claims that she is better known than the country’s state emblem. If asked, many Armenians most likely assume that the head, and a companion hand, are in Armenia.
Last year, Gevorg Martirosyan, a student at the University of California, Irvine launched a petition asking the British Museum to return the fragments of Anahit’s statue to Armenia. In his petition, he wrote that according to the British Museum’s website, the fragments (head and hand) of Anahit’s bronze statue were accidently discovered in 1872 by a farmer digging the land in Satagh or Satala in southeastern Turkey. The head made its way via Constantinople and Italy to the dealer Alessandro Castellani, who eventually sold it to the British Museum. The hand was given to the museum years later.
Martirosyan’s petition has garnered more than 2,000 signatures and the support of members of the diaspora and citizens of Armenia. On March 7, 2012, a mass of young people gathered in front of the British Embassy in Yerevan and held posters of the goddess chanting, “Anahit, come home!” The protesters also presented Ambassador Katherine Leach with a petition of 20,000 signatures and a letter of gratitude to the United Kingdom for keeping an eye on the goddess; yet, the letter also asserted that “historical justice requires [that the statue’s head and hand] be repatriated and find refuge in the country of their origin.”
The British Museum has agreed to a temporary exhibition of Anahit in Armenia, as stated by the British Embassy. When this was first announced, Armenian Education Minister Armen Ashotyan called the exhibition a “first step” in what he predicted would be “years of consistent work and efforts [that] will result in the permanent return of this highly important relic of ours.” A year later, however, no details of the exhibition have been released. Many experts in Armenia, such as Zhores Khachatryan, the head of the ancient archeology department at the Archeology and Ethnography Institute of the Academy of Sciences, have cautioned that the Armenian origin of the statue has yet to be proven. The figurine was unearthed near the location of a Roman camp that was populated during the same era as the creation of the statue.
It is important to note that the British Museum, which attracts around six million visitors per year, is highly accessible to tourists and visitors who want to see the goddess. And, more importantly, entry to the museum is still free. The statue’s display in the British Museum puts it in a European artistic milieu and perspective, along with several other works of art from that region and era in human history. This allows parallels to be drawn with the art of other cultures. Hence, the British Museum brings the goddess’s head and hand far more potential attention and care than any museum in Yerevan could.
On the other hand, supporters of the campaign, and particularly Martirosyan, state that presenting the remnants of Anahit in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their fuller understanding and interpretation. Still, the Republic of Armenia does not possess any legal claim on the relic, as it was not discovered in Armenia nor was it illegally exported from our lands. Proving the bust’s Armenian origin once and for all is what matters for many at the moment; then, the campaign to return the goddess can resume. Conversely, it is no secret that museums are acquisitive and meeting all restitution claims would render the majority of them void of the artifacts they proudly display. Thus, it is improbable that the British Museum will return the goddess to Armenia. After all, the Greeks have had their share of feuds with the same museum over the return of the Elgin Marbles, which were removed from the Acropolis in Athens by the British in 18th-century Ottoman Greece, back to Athens.
Mano Sakayan is from Beirut, Lebanon, and is studying economics and international relations at Boston University (BU). He is active in the BU Armenian Students’ Association (ASA) and BU International Affairs Association. He is fluent in Arabic, Armenian, English, French, and Turkish.
Hacikyan, A. J., Gabriel Basmajian, Edward S. Franchuk, and Nourhan Ouzounian. The Heritage of Armenian Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2002.