Virtually unknown are two documented and compelling events that are a significant part of the genocide story. Even Armenians are not aware of them. These will be displayed together for the first time since they were issued digitally, and will be exhibited during the Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemoration to be held in Washington, D.C., from May 7 through May 9. They are being released by the Armenian National Institute (ANI), the Armenian Genocide Museum of America (AGMA), and the Armenian Assembly of America.
Dr. Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute, in a telephone conversation explained the important role of the exhibit entitled, “The First Refuge and the Last Defense: The Armenian Church, Etchmiadzin, and the Armenian Genocide.” This undertaking started 25 years ago through an investigation of the U.S. National Archives. “We began to collect together this photographic evidence to tell the story,” he related.
With 20 panels and over 150 historic photographs, the exhibit details the role of Etchmiadzin during the Armenian Genocide, especially that of Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg Sureniants who alerted world leaders in an “early warning” of the coming Catastrophe.
First humanitarian response to Armenian Genocide
In the Van province, after 55,000 Armenians had been slaughtered in April 1915 alone, the more than 100,000 survivors in Van city attempted to flee after Russian forces, who had crossed the border to rescue them, retreated, Dr. Adalian explained. With Turkish and Kurdish killer bands pursuing and killing a number of these helpless Armenians over mountains, rivers, and gorges, many of the thousands that finally reached Etchmiadzin died of exhaustion, fear, starvation, and disease. One third to one half perished, he revealed.
The diminished resources in Eastern Armenia, which became a huge, reeking refugee camp, were speedily overcome with this onslaught of human desperation. Helping to galvanize the relief work were the courageous Armenians across the Russian-Turkish border who welcomed these thousands of refugees into their homes, schools, and hospitals, and fed, housed, and cared for them.
These Armenian volunteers were the first to aid their people. With the Sovietization of Armenia, the story was virtually closed and forgotten, said the scholar.
The exhibit highlights the crucial role of Catholicoses of All Armenians Mkrtich I Khrimian, Gevorg V Sureniantz, Khoren I Muratbekian—all three of Etchmiadzin—and Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Garegin I Hovsepiants. Also playing an important role in assisting Etchmiadzin during this pivotal time were Eastern Armenian intellectuals, including legendary writer Hovhannes Tumanian and acclaimed artist Mardiros Sarian.
New digital exhibit: the first deportation
Dr. Adalian revealed that a new exhibit, “The First Deportation: The German Railroad, the American Hospital, and the Armenian Genocide,” has also been released by ANI, AGMA, and the Armenian Assembly. Based on U.S. National Archives photographs, with 128 images, 24 panels, and 7 maps, it focuses on the localities of the self-sustaining Armenian city of Zeytun in the Taurus Mountains, and Konya, a central Anatolian Turkish city.
Zeytun, the Armenian scholar noted, was the “first Armenian community in Ottoman Turkey to be deported en masse in April 1915. To deprive the Zeytun Armenians of any capacity to defy the deportation edicts, the Young Turk government divided its population, sending one part east toward the Syrian desert, and another part west to the barren flats of the Konya Plain.”
Forced out of their mountain homes, the Zeytun Armenians, famed for their resistance, and who were the first Armenians to be deported almost a month before April 24, were sent west to Konya, while a short time later, Armenians from western Anatolia were shipped by train east to Konya, the main terminus. Women, children, the crippled, blind, and elderly were then made to walk down mountain passes.
An American hospital and school in Konya soon were surrounded and became witness to the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of Armenian deportees, and became the nucleus of a huge concentration camp, Dr. Adalian related. “Konya was never intended to exist as a destination camp and was evacuated within a short time. It has been forgotten as a major site in the trail of deportation.”
Dr. Wilfred Post became aware of both groups because they converged in the Konya Plain. The Armenians were all subsequently deported to the Syrian desert. Dr. Post, along with German railroad engineers, documented this horrific reality with archival photographs. These courageous missionaries also included Dr. William Dodd and Emma Cushman, who gave testimony about the rail line’s deteriorating conditions and the “start of the process of extinguishing Armenian life across the region.”
A noted scholar with a stellar record, Dr. Rouben Adalian received his Ph.D. in Armenian history from UCLA, and has taught at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of many scientific works and articles, was editor of the Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh Facebook, and associate editor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Genocide.
The nation’s capital, he said, is the appropriate venue for the genocide commemoration, and for the world to recognize this crime against humanity. “Though the Armenian community is small, it has galvanized and pulled together for this unique anniversary. It speaks volumes about a people who did not want to die. We survived, endured, and flourished. We must speak on behalf of humanity to see that its repetition is prevented.”