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  • Jerome Kocher

81. The Unspeakable

There’s an elephant in the room whenever one mentions Armenia. What about the genocide? Of Turkey against Western Armenia? I’ve put this off until the end not because it’s less important, but as an exclamation to one of the most critical events that define Armenia’s history.

As a Soviet Republic, Armenians could not openly speak about this until the year 1966. Turkey denied it happened. Russia did not want to fan the flames of discord. The USSR finally agreed to a Memorial on a hill in Yerevan overlooking the city. But with its 1967 opening, it insisted that this commemorated the victims of WWI, not genocide. To speak otherwise was “verboten.” It would take another 24 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union and Independence in 1991 that Armenians could finally utter its true name of Genocide Memorial.

I do not wish to lay out a summary of all that happened. Suffice it to say that the Ottoman Empire in Turkey had a hatred for the Christian population further east in Armenia. And when the Ottoman Empire began to collapse it sought out internal excuses for its failures. They targeted Christians in Western Armenia as it was then split into two parts with East Armenia being more under the Russian Empire.

In 1918 near the end of WWI Turkey unleashed a genocide on Armenians. They will deny it and say it was part of war, and "war is hell.” But it was more than hell.

Rather than give a history lesson, let me take you to the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan and give you an emotional feel by walking through it.

As you approach the monument there are evergreen trees planted along the walkway, some more mature than others. Each one has a plaque next to it documenting it as a gift to the Armenian people from visiting prime ministers and presidents, for example from Iraq, France, Dubai, Switzerland and so on. The trees get larger the closer you get since they were planted first.

Emerging out of this grove of trees, the promise of a renewal in life, you come out into the open. To the right a spire extends skyward, split into two, a smaller and larger fractured unity. This is Armenia, a tragic history of east and west separation.

Walking further you approach twelve stone like slabs leaning inward. This represents the twelve lost provinces in present day Turkey. There are narrow openings between them where you descend down steps towards a central eternal flame.

The inner circular ground floor is not level. It continues to slope towards the fire as if gravity itself is drawing you near. There is no level comfort zone. Like a spatial vortex you are drawn down towards the fire ring.

Around this inner sanctum lay roses, some singular, some in groups. Individuals would come and take a rose from a grouping and then lay the rose on the edge of the fire ring as a tribute. Someone, maybe everyday, supplied these roses, which like votive candles in a church were taken and placed with personal prayer and devotion. As you left this interior space and walked back up the stairs to the outside surface you could see the split spire once again, a testament to the unity of what was once violently fractured.

A museum lies beyond that point that walks you through the history with photo documentation and archives from other nations as to the history of this dark time. I include only one photo of a group of living refugees who survived as a reminder that this is not just a Memorial but is a collection of human faces.

Like Jewish Holocaust Memorials that have powerful symbolism in form and sculpture, this memorial to the Armenian People is dramatic and moving in its emotional design. 

I won’t say anything else. If you wish to know more you can. If you prefer to contemplate on the sacred ritual of symbolism embedded in this memorial, you may reflect on that. 

Regardless of your choice, here in the heart of Armenia, lies a tragic truth, embedded in a spirit of rebirth, that finally can be spoken about.

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