The Curse of Anahit

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.
Currently, the head of the bronze gilded statue of the goddess dwells in a glass box in the British Museum in London.

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. 

Sources

Hacikyan, A. J., Gabriel Basmajian, Edward S. Franchuk, and Nourhan Ouzounian. The Heritage of Armenian Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2002.

See http://greengopost.com/aphrodite-statue-british-museum/

See http://www.change.org/petitions/uk-secretary-of-culture-return-the-fragments-of-armenian-pagan-goddess-anahit-s-statue-to-armenia

See http://www.alva.org.uk/details.cfm?p=423

See http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/b/bronze_head_of_a_goddess.aspx

 

 

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Mano Sakayan

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.
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21 Comments

  1. I live in London and visited the British Museum just a few weeks ago. The description for the head of the Anahit statue actually states: “Head from a bronze cult statue of Anahita, a local goddess shown here in the guise of Aphrodite, 200-100 BC, Found at Stala in NE Asia Minor (Armenia Minor).”

    I don’t know if the Museum recently revised the description to include a reference to Anahit and Armenia, but I wanted to clarify that this is what the description currently states.

  2. It is a rather correct and impartial description, if you look at it with “international eyes”. But if you look at it with Armenian eyes and soul, at least the Armenian reference should be more clear, e.g “goddess Anahit” or “Armenian goddess” or “Armenian goddess Anahit” or something like that. About the restitution, the article’s writer is correct, there is no legal claim for it, as much as we wish…

  3. In Paris at the Louvre museum there is a statue of king Trdat in the
    basement in one of the rooms not open to the public. Someone should go and check it out.In french its writen Tiridate Roi D Armenie.

  4. Wait:

    “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.”

    So there is uncertainty about the Armenian origin of this statue? Shouldn’t that be cleared up with research first? And this is coming from Armenian academics in Armenia.

  5. I wish people would stop trying to make unjustifiable propaganda about this statue. If the British Museum sees a lack of serious academic output from Armenia concerning the statue, why should it agree to display the artefact there? It is a cast bronze statue made in the style and technical tradition of classical Greek and Roman castings, so it would have been almost certainly made in the Mediterranean area and – much later – exported to the remote garrison fortress at Satala. The find context in Satala is not known, but given that Satala was an imperial legionary base, and one deliberately positioned to be distant from the existing Armenian population centre to the south (in the Erzinjan valley), I think it unlikely it would have been inside a temple dedicated to a local goddess like Anahit. But Satala has not been properly excavated – so maybe it did have a native (i.e., Armenian) settlement attached to the garrison fortress.

  6. The British Museum website states, with the phrase of the article as its title:
    “(…) The statue has been identified as a nude Aphrodite, her left hand pulling drapery from a support at her side, like the famous statue of Aphrodite at Knidos by the fourth-century sculptor Praxiteles. It has also been suggested that the statue represents the Iranian goddess Anahita, who was later assimilated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena.
    The size of the head suggests that it came from a cult statue, though excavations made at Satala in 1874 by Sir Alfred Biliotti, the British vice-consul at Trebizond, failed to discover a temple there. The statue may date to the reign of Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia (97-56 BC), whose rule saw prosperity throughout the region. The thin-walled casting of the bronze head suggests a late Hellenistic date.”
    Let’s also consider that during the Artashesian (Artaxiad) dynasty (to which Tigranes the Great belonged), there was a process of syncretism when the cult of gods from different mythologies was blended, particularly Armenian and Greeks (Movses Khorenatsi also speaks about king Artashes bringing statues of Greek gods to Armenia). Whether the statue represented the Armenian Anahit or the the Greek Aphrodite (or even the Iranian Anahita?), that’s up to the experts to determine. Perhaps we will never know whether the Satala bust was a statue of Aphrodite which was identified also as Anahit, or a statue of Anahit that was identified also as Aphrodite.

    • As Wikipedia itself says, that was the previous location. The convent was profanated during the French Revolution and, once the tombstone was recovered, it was moved to the Basilica of St. Denis, where a new cenotaph was built. But I think that the remains may have been lost during the Revolution.

    • Van,

      Do you have examples of these other Armenian artifacts being misrepresented? While I believe that we need to be sure that this statue is indeed Armenian before claiming it as such, I’m not 100% confident about the British either. There may be other legitimate and easier to prove items which the Armenian community can pay attention to.

      And again, having correctly identified Armenian artifacts at the british museum has it’s benefits.

    • RandomArmenian all I was saying was that if I recall correctly the British Museum has a (huge) section called Ancient Turkey, and that is where you will find any ancient Armenian relics… For me it is very hard to swallow and it is very unsensitive on the part of the BM… Imagine placing ancient Jewish relics in a section called the 3rd Reich…. Just a though

  7. I fail to understand the title of this article. What curse? I think it better to remain in British Museum than to be displayed in a museum in Armenia. Our own National Gallery, which has masterpieces of European and Russian painting, does not have a proper air conditioning system and … don’t be amazed, the workers open the windows in 40 degrees summer heat, because its unbearable to sit in the halls. So fragile paintings are gradually destroyed, and the excuse the administration of the museum gives is that they dont have money to install adequate humidity and air conditioning control systems. Meanwhile Pharaon Mirzoyan (the director of the National Gallery), builds himself a summer house in Garni, using stones from a natural reserve of Khosrov forest. I would not trust him with my garbage, let alone head of Anahid.

  8. This is very interesting. I recently viewed the Elgin Marbles in London, and I have to say they are probably in better hands in the BM than they would be in today’s Greece.
    I would happily contribute to a fund for casting a new statue of Anahit. After all, sentimentality and emotion and patriotism aside, she IS just a statue–just fragments of one at that. Educational—I had never heard of her before, unless she really is Aphrodite.

  9. I suppose on the bright side Anahit being in England is a lot better than her being in some museum in Turkey, where her statue would be presented as a Turkish artifact, something I’m sure has already happened to a lot of Armenian artifacts from Western Armenia.

    • I believe the BM is also presenting all Armenian artifacts as part of Ancient Turkey. Armenian or Armenia is rarely mentioned in the museum. And what are Armenians doing about this? Nothing!

  10. Just I checked the number of people signed the petition reached…12,361…
    Please who did not sign let him/her sign…I just forwarded to many…through the face book…
    Thank you
    Sylva

    • First of all we need to be able to show good evidence that this is Armenian to begin with. What evidence is there that it is? If someone asks how we know it’s Armenian, what evidence can we show?

      On top of that, as it’s been mentioned here, having this at the British museum would be better from a practical point of view. More people would see it, and be very well taken care of, if it turns out to be Armenian.

  11. I agree with Suren. And the problem for armenians is not who have the artifacts, but to be defined as armenians if they are.

  12. As someone who was named after this Goddess, I would like to remove the “curse” from the title of this article. Why curse?!
    If it was discovered in Southeastern Turkey, which used to be Armenian homeland as we all know….It is better to do more research and find out if this is really the Armenian Anahid or not, and then no matter where it is, it would be listed as the Armenian Goddess.

  13. Small correction: “…Satagh or Satala in southeastern Turkey…” it is not! It is easy to look it up on a map. It is just 50 kms north of Terjan (Tercan on today’s maps). That is definitely not southeastern Turkey.:-)

  14. You talking about my sister, y’all?

    There is a “Historic Atlas of Armenia” by American historian Robert Hewsen here in the Glendale Public Library, where Mr. Hewsen too suspects that the statute was Roman and had nothing to do with the Armenian art at the time, which, according to him, had more Eastern/Iranian features. And some say (including Armenian author Armen Ayvazyan) that Hewsen is of Armenian descent.

    Here is the deal. We may never know for sure. However, this does not mean that we should not try to get it. While we may not have legal claim, our request should be based on good will. The statute matters way more to Armenians than it matters to the British, and ever since its revelation, Armenians have considered it Armenian. The principle of good will should be “if it matters to us than to you, don’t be a douche and let us have it. Pretty please.”

    And this is where Armenia being a democratic state will help. The British may be more willing to do this favor to a fellow democracy than the current corrupt regime. Yes, we know, oil and everything else factors into foreign politics, but this is not foreign politics, it’s about art, where good will may have a greater say.

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