When the British diplomat Robert Ker Porter arrived in the Persian city of Ispahan, having ventured there from St. Petersburg in 1817 to explore the vestiges of ancient Babylonia, and then to follow the route of Xenophon’s Katabasis, he could not help but marvel at the “sylvan pre-eminence” of the region. So well-tended were the green spaces that “if an old tree chance to fall from age or accident, the governor instantly has its place filled up with a new plant.” Yet not every district was so thriving. Upon entering Julfa, the historically Armenian suburb founded in 1606 by Shah Abbas, Porter found that “its ten thousand inhabitants have diminished to three hundred wretched families; dwindling every year, both in respectability and numbers.” The 13 Armenian Orthodox churches that spiritually nourished the community had “excited the envy, and thence, the destroying arm of their Mahomedan neighbors,” resulting in the destruction of 11 of them. A “general air of squalid misery” prevailed over the once-proud colony. Hard-pressed under the Persian thumb, the Armenians of Julfa seemed to be destined for extinction:
The persons of the present Armenians of Persia, neither in male nor female possess any thing of the dignity, or sweetness, which marks their Persian neighbours. Neither do they show the open brightness of countenance, which attracts in the Circassian; nor the brave, thoughtful air, that interests in the Georgian. So lamentably has neglect quenched their spirit, and their consequent self-debasement degraded the aspect of their forms and features, they could not be known for the same race whose ancestors sat at the same board with Shah Abbas.
Amidst all of the degradation Porter witnessed, however, the attire of the women of the quarter still managed to stand out. The silken handkerchiefs, the head-mantles, and the velvet trousers all impressed, but nothing could have been finer than the “ancient national girdle” that the British diplomat saw around the waists of Armenian women of all ages, that “broad belt ornamented with knobs and buttons, and clasped in front by an oval piece of silver, of great size and weight, and heavily embossed.” The silver belt had, from time immemorial, played a prominent role in Armenian costume. Portable, and of immense monetary and aesthetic value, it was afforded talismanic properties and believed capable of warding off illness and harm. Engraved in minute detail, coated in sawat (a mixture of silver, copper, tin, and sulfur), and carefully polished, these belts represented the pinnacle of the ancient art of silver-craft, thought to date back to the Iron Age Urartu period, when the enigmatic Kingdom of Van dominated the Armenian highlands.
These were the types of belts encountered roughly a century later by Dr. Mabel Evelyn Elliott, a physician with the American Women’s Hospitals who served with the Near East Relief organization between 1919 and 1923, in the immediate aftermath of the Medz Yeghern, the “great crime” that was the Armenian Genocide. During her stint she witnessed enormities on an apocalyptic scale, like the humanitarian disaster that befell the Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, and Turkish refugees besieged by the nationalists in Marash, as well as more intimate tragedies, like the young girl who visited her clinic, her “eyeball swung outward in its socket so grotesquely that one thought of a gargoyle.” The patient informed Dr. Elliott, “My eyes were perfectly straight then, but they [the Turks] took me to a hospital and had this done to me.” Upon further examination, the girl’s story checked out, given that “the microscopic scars were there, in the minute muscles of the eye. Some finely trained and skilful Turkish surgeon had used his training at the operating table to make this girl hideous. He had done this, while hundreds of Turkish soldiers, wounded in fighting for their country, were dying for lack of surgical help.” Later Dr. Elliott would encounter another Armenian woman, this time “hale and hearty”; her “bright eyes looked humorously at us from beneath her black kerchief.” Most remarkable, though, was her silver belt, “the most beautifully wrought one that we had seen.” An offer was made to buy it, one which was quickly rejected. “We women are not like you,” the woman responded, for “we work hard. We bring all our water from the spring down there,” gesturing over the edge of a cliff. “We bring it up in jars on our backs, and often we are very tired. But we have silver belts. When you make the spring run up the cliffs into our fort-world, then I will sell my belt.” Many women, alas, had evidently done so, for as Dr. Elliott noted, “the Near East Relief has chests upon chests of them, taken in pledge for loans of food and seeds.”
This was the very sort of silver belt described by the journalist Christopher de Bellaigue in the haunting anecdote which concludes his masterful 2009 account Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town. While interviewing an Armenian philologist in Yerevan, de Bellaigue is told of an encounter the scholar previously had with a Kurd in a German tea café: “There was a big Kurdish fellow sitting there; he was wearing a belt, and it glinted like silver,” so eventually the Armenian “summoned up the courage to ask to see the man’s belt. He took it off and handed it over. It was composed of embossed detachable sections and had leather on the back. It was inscribed in Armenian, and there was a date, 1902. I was sweating and trembling, but, in the end, I managed to buy the belt from the Kurd.” Such items, de Bellaigue’s interlocutor explained, “were given to Armenian girls when they got married. They were meant to last their whole married life; that’s why they were made up of removable sections. During pregnancy, they added sections. After giving birth, when they were getting slim again, they took the sections away.” Months later, de Bellaigue still found himself obsessing over this silver belt, imagining it
[b]eing wrenched from its owner, who has been destroyed along with her family — a woman of substance turned casually into a lump. I imagine it held aloft as a trophy, and then corrupted, a woman’s belt around the waist of a man. I imagine it passing, along with the dogs and a horse, from father to son, re-entering the moral economy. And I wonder how many generations must elapse before we judge this belt no longer to be stolen property, evidence in a case of murder, but to belong rightfully to the man who holds it.
The question de Bellaigue posed is a thorny one. It is certainly tempting to answer it along the lines of Y. L. Peretz, who in his 1905 poem “Don’t Think” assured his readers that “all will be measured, all will be weighed,” and that “no tear, no drop of blood ever vanishes” — “Oh, don’t think, that there is no Judge and no Judgement!” But such a judgment may not take place in this life, and earthly statutes of limitations are designed to run out. What are we to make of all the land taken by right of conquest, all of the lives snuffed out, all of the artworks plundered? What of the principle of uti possidetis, and of the presumption that “possession is eleven points in the law, and they say there are but twelve”? Is it even possible, as Shakespeare’s Don John wondered, “to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief”?
We know, at the very least, that the first step in recovery is recognizing that we have a problem. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, recognition has always been something of an issue. It was Hitler who in 1939 notoriously asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (He did ban Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh just to be sure, of course.) Even after the jurist Raphael Lemkin invented the word “genocide” and applied it to two specific cases — the Shoah and the Medz Yeghern — formal acceptance of the facts on the ground proceeded at a glacial pace. The British government, for all its resources, had apparently been unable to unearth historical evidence “sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorised as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, a convention which is, in any event, not retrospective in application.” (Most all genocides, it bears noting, are dealt with retroactively.) The United States, under administrations as dissimilar as those of presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, has taken care to use the phrase “mass atrocities” rather than “genocide” in Armenian Remembrance Day statements and the like, in a bid to avoid alienating the Turks. Congressional attempts to force the issue in October and December 2019 have come to naught, with the State Department reiterating on December 17, 2019, that “the position of the administration has not changed.” Meanwhile in Israel, the Knesset’s Education, Culture, and Sports Committee managed to recognize the Armenian Genocide in 2016, but the Netanyahu administration has studiously ignored the resolution, again in order to keep Turkey and to a somewhat lesser extent Azerbaijan on-side. (Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair did write in a private capacity in 2018 that Turkey was “responsible for incredible atrocities and sufferings in Cyprus, actions against Greeks and Kurds, as well as the Armenian Genocide,” while suggesting that the Turks were illegally occupying Anatolia, making him a rare voice for Byzantine revanchism.) The incomparable tile-work of the Armenian refugee David Ohannessian may grace the streets and structures of Jerusalem, but recognition of the true nature of the massacres he barely escaped has been quashed by sitting Israeli governments on an annual basis for the last 30 years.
There is a certain grim logic to this approach. Realpolitik invariably outweighs gesture-based Symbolpolitik. Sen. Ted Cruz may proudly proclaim that the U.S. Senate at last “spoke the truth to darkness, spoke truth to evil, spoke truth to murder, spoke truth to genocide — and finally honored the 1.5 million innocent lives lost,” but Foggy Bottom has precious little interest in historical truths. There have been consequences to this reluctance. Azerbaijan felt emboldened enough to engage in what Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman have called the “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century,” the systematic destruction of Armenian cultural heritage, much of it UNESCO-protected, in Nakhichevan and elsewhere. It seems that although the supply of human victims was exhausted long ago, the remaining necropolises, khachkars, and churches have been obliged to stand in their stead. When the Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli protested against his nation’s campaign of cultural cleansing, warning that “such senseless action will be perceived by the world community as a manifestation of disrespect for religious and moral values,” he was doubly punished, first by being placed under house arrest and then by being proven wrong. Aside from the occasional report in Hyperallergic, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, few in the international community have been able to work up any interest in the fact that, a century on, the Armenian Genocide was still in a very real sense being perpetrated. This should not be surprising, particularly in a world where one may have a Sirius radio show called “The Young Turks.” (Try calling your program “The Cheka,” or “The Squadristi,” and see how far that takes you.)
Thirty-odd countries have managed to recognize the Medz Yeghern, and it is not clear what price they paid. After the Holy See’s 2016 formal recognition, the Turkish government feebly accused Pope Francis of having a “crusader mentality,” as if acknowledging a historical truth is equivalent to strapping on the chain mail and setting off to cross swords with the Sultan of Rûm. When it seemed as if the United States might recognize the Armenian Genocide in December 2019, the Turkish government threatened to “recognize the killings of Native Americans as genocide,” a menace, even if carried out, that one imagines few Americans would even have heard about, and about which even fewer would have been overly exercised. It would be a rather small price to pay, in any event, for a proper acknowledgment of what might be considered the ur-genocide that paved the way for a century of untold horrors.
“I must tell you what I saw, so people will understand the crimes men do to men,” wrote the poet Atom Yarjanian, better known as Siamanto, in his poem “The Dance.” But after witnessing the stabbings, the beatings, the burning of corpses, the German narrator despairs: “How can I dig out my eyes?” The survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and the Armenian diaspora, did not themselves dig out their own eyes. We were the ones who did so. No doubt there will be future opportunities to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough, and I live in hope that such an opportunity will eventually be grasped, however little store I set by the moral economy of our age.