Special for the Armenian Weekly
In a conversation with His Eminence Archbishop Nareg Alemazian at the beginning of May, I expressed my wish to visit Antelias in Lebanon, the current Seat of the See of Cilicia. I was in luck, the septennial Blessing of the Holy Muron was to be held in July. Thus, my little group of pilgrims were able to attend three significant events: the opening of the new Museum of the Orphanage at Jbeil in Byblos, the Blessing of the Holy Muron at Bikfaya, and the Holy Liturgy and Blessing of Water at Antelias.
After a couple of days of sight-seeing in this fascinating country of contrasts—very rural antiquities-strewn interior, crowded old-fashioned towns and villages, and super-modern Downtown Beirut—we drove on Saturday morning, July 18, north from Beirut to Byblos for the opening of the Aram Bezikian Museum, dedicated to the orphans of the Armenian Genocide. After about an hour we arrived and sat in a tight traffic jam in the narrow lanes near the building. We made good time, however, and found seats from which we would get a good view of the proceedings. Large calico parasols had been placed over the seating area, which was nice, as the day was already warm and the glare from the sun intense.
After a little while, the Girl and Boy Scouts lined up on both sides of the path to the podium. To great fanfare, we stood to welcome His Holiness Aram I followed by a steady stream of dignitaries—local and foreign, ecumenical and civilian—and many visiting Armenian archbishops.
The museum has taken three years to bring to life. An emotional Alecco Bezikian, the benefactor of the museum, explained how his father Aram Bezikian had been one of the thousands of orphans raised at the Bird’s Nest Orphanage, and that he had felt it his duty to the memory of his father and the victims of the genocide to fund the making of the museum.
There were speeches, among others by the mayor of Jbeil and the Maronite patriarch who described the orphanage as an integral part of Lebanese community life. Patriarch Rai mentioned that Lebanon, too, had suffered under the Ottomans, and that history was now repeating itself in Syria.
Catholicos Aram I, as ever impressive, gave a stirring speech in which he said that it was his wish that the museum should become a center of genocide research, that it would be a constant reminder of the assistance given to the Armenians by American, Swiss, and Danish humanitarian organizations. That whereas in Turkey, Armenians faced hatred and death, in Lebanon they received love and life, from Muslims and Christians alike. That Bird’s Nest Orphanage enabled the rebirth of the Armenian nation.
The orphanage, which still functions as such, was founded in 1922 by Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, in response to the thousands of orphaned children of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, of which she was a significant witness. Maria Jacobsen, known simply as “Mama” by the orphans, died in 1960 and is buried on the grounds of Bird’s Nest in accordance with her wishes.
The museum is housed on 2 floors of a 200-year-old villa in the grounds of the orphanage. Along one side of the entrance portico—a very modern structure in contrast to the museum building itself—are sculptures depicting begging children, thin, disheveled and in rags, bare footed, each with a begging bowl. The approach has children’s footprints in the ground, as if the ghosts of those who had lined up there to receive their daily bread had just walked through, leaving behind the imprints of their little feet. There is the sound of a crowd of chattering and excited children. It is remarkably poignant.
The museum has state-of-the-art audio visual displays, many spoken testimonies, and rare film footage and pictures of the massacres and aftermath. A very touching display is the row upon row of registration forms with pictures of orphans received at Bird’s Nest when it opened in the early 1920’s with notes as to their eventual placement. Other pictures show orphans hard at work learning trades; a particularly affecting one is the cobbler’s apprentices making shoes, but having bare feet themselves.
The importance of the information preserved in this museum cannot be overestimated, for research purposes and for strengthening our collective knowledge of the terrible things that resulted in so many orphaned children. Their resilience, rehabilitation, and resolve to go on to achieve great things, is witnessed here. Bezikian and His Holiness Aram I and the team who conceived and brought this project into being cannot be praised enough.
That same evening we drove up into the hills through thick traffic to the Monastery of Sourp Asdvadzadzin at Bikfaya where the Blessing of the Holy Muron took place. We joined several thousand people to sit in the open air in the surrounds of the Theological Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia.
It was an experience indeed to see the full splendor of our church. Everything was covered in bright and colorful silks and velvets, all sorts of gems and gold and silver. Two archbishops carried the reliquary containing the right arm of St. Gregory the Illuminator in an ancient silver box which looked very heavy—the arm being encased in gold, the hand with its own ring on the third finger. They were followed by the Catholicos, resplendent in purple, jeweled robes, walking under a matching canopy held aloft by brightly robed deacons. Other deacons carried lamps and cushots and banners depicting Jesus Christ and the Mother of God. The Catholicos was followed by a large number of his archbishops and bishops all in sumptuous colorful robes and jeweled mitres, holding their staffs and hand-crosses. The choir sang, the procession arrived at the open air altar, everyone took his place.
The receptacle in which the Holy Muron is mixed and blessed is an enormous, magnificent container with a sculpted lid depicting the Cathedral of Sis in Cilicia. When the time came, the archbishops brought balsam oil and rose oil to be mixed with oil already infused with more than 40 flowers, herbs, and spices. After this, the representing archbishop from Holy Etchmiadzin presented his vial of Muron from Etchmiadzin, which was also poured in, followed by the remaining old Muron from Antelias. His Holiness then stirred the Muron with the reliquary containing the right arm of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Three times he immersed the golden hand and three times wiped it on a white towel. All the time the choir sang and the bishops sparkled. It was splendid.
His Holiness Aram I gave the sermon, in his booming voice, in which he reminded us of the importance of the Holy Muron in the symbolism of our religion, of its symbolism that we are of one church, of its importance in our rites of baptism and consecration. He also said that this year, the Blessing of the Holy Muron symbolized the anointment of the one and a half million martyrs of the genocide. The church bells rang out, their sound intermingling with that of the loud bangs of fireworks. For, outside the monastery grounds, the end of Ramadan was being celebrated. After we had sung the Lord’s Prayer, we sang Giligia.
Sunday morning saw us bright and early at Sourp Krikor Lousavorich Cathedral at Antelias for Holy Liturgy. When I got candles to light, I was given a little sachet containing incense, and another containing cotton wool which had been rubbed on the receptacle containing the Holy Muron. A bishop in very beautiful robes conducted the liturgy and the choir sang, the soprano being particularly lovely. Shortly before Holy Communion, His Holiness and his guests arrived and took their places. There were patriarchs, metropolitans, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, clergy, and laity representing global Christianity. The sermon was delivered by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
After Communion, His Holiness blessed the water, in yet another ornate container, by pouring in some of the new Holy Muron, and intoning in his basso profundo. Many visiting clergy said prayers in their own languages; some made a short speech to express solidarity with the Armenian cause.
Finally we filed out and followed the Catholicos and his guests to the Memorial to the Armenian Genocide, where each one of them laid a red rose in remembrance. The Scouts beat their drums and played a rousing anthem or two including, of course, “Giligia.”