The First Refuge and the Last Defense: The Armenian Church, Etchmiadzin, and the Armenian Genocide, an online exhibit with more than 150 historic photographs, was recently released by the Armenian National Institute (ANI), Armenian Genocide Museum of America (AGMA) and Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) jointly, in cooperation with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, and the Republic of Armenia National Archives.
The 20 sections and texts alongside the photographs document the role of the Armenian Church during the Armenian Genocide. The exhibit examines the vital leadership role played by the clergy during the genocide. Thousands, among them several primates in Western Armenia and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, were also martyred for their faith.
The epicenter of Armenian aid to refugees was Etchmiadzin, the primary destination of Armenians fleeing the massacres along the border regions of the Ottoman Empire, especially as a result of the great exodus of the Armenian population of Van.
With testimony from survivors and witnesses, this historical research projects presents facts often overlooked in the context of the mass deportations of Armenians to the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished from hunger, thirst, and slaughter. The episode in Van was no less tragic as the death toll was no less ferocious even after thousands seemingly reached safety only to die of exhaustion, fright, starvation, and raging epidemics.
With 3 maps, 12 historic documents and news clippings, and 16 survivor testimonies, the exhibit focuses on a single region of historic Armenia and reveals how the people of Eastern Armenia became aware of the policies of the Young Turks during World War I. The narratives highlight the role of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin during the critical years of 1915 and 1916, and explores the role of the laity in responding to appeals of the Armenian Church.
The central role of Near East Relief, the American philanthropic organization constituted in response to the spreading news of the desperate state of the Armenians during World War I, is a subject that has been widely explored due to the availability of extensive documentation and testimony. In comparison, because of the subsequent disasters that struck Eastern Armenia, the role of local Armenian philanthropic organizations that operated in the Caucasus has been previously overlooked by historians.
A variety of benevolent groups, local Red Cross committees, and, in particular, the Fraternal Aid Committee, authorized by the Catholicos Gevorg V Sureniants, led the initial responses to the Armenian Genocide. Months before any relief was delivered from overseas, fellow Armenians, medics, nurses, clergymen, and countless volunteers hastened to Etchmiadzin and nearby towns to assist the refugees. This heroic response within a matter of days to the crushing reality of tens of thousands of Armenians made homeless remains a much neglected episode in Armenian history deserving of greater attention. The photographic evidence gathered in this exhibit attests to the scale of the response and dedication of the Armenian volunteer aid organizations. They were the Transcaucasian counterpart to the Armenian General Benevolent Union operating out of Egypt at the time that reached out to fellow Armenians wherever it could deliver assistance in the Middle East.
The effort to reconstruct this history relied upon historic sites that served as markers, such as the monastery and school of Varag near Van; the American missionary station in Van, where Dr. Ussher and his family ministered to the educational, spiritual, and medical needs of Armenians and others who sought their services; the compound of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, at the time still a medieval fortress surrounded by bastions to protect Armenia’s most sacred site from marauders; and the Gevorgian Academy at Etchmiadzin, Armenia’s premier educational institution soon converted into a hospital by Tumanian.
The evidence was collected from multiple sources including the United States National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Republic of Armenia National Archives, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin Archives, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Nubarian Library, Research on Armenian Architecture, and from many other helpful individuals and institutions in Armenia and in the Diaspora. A catalog identifying all the contents of the exhibit is in preparation.
In December 1912, Catholicos Gevorg V Sureniants wrote: “The Armenian Question, which 34 years ago was raised in front of European diplomacy, remains unanswered to this day. If the Armenians are once again ignored, it would amount to delivering an entire people to final annihilation.” It indeed remained for him to issue to the world the first ever genocide alert, in April 1915. With Armenian communities across Ottoman Turkey devastated and survivors dispersed across the barren landscape of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and other places where they were left to die, as the Turkish armies advanced upon Eastern Armenia, the great weight of the moment once again fell upon the shoulders of Catholicos Gevorg V Sureniants, whose defiance in May 1918 inspired the remaining Armenians to rally for a last stand at Sardarapat.
With the authorization of the Catholicos, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople Zaven Der-Yeghiayan established April 24 as a memorial day. The exhibit reproduces in translation the encyclical communicating the heartfelt blessings of this great churchman who witnessed so much destruction and continued to stand in defense of humanity and civilization.
This is the second exhibit released jointly by ANI (available on this webpage), AGMA, and the Assembly in digital format for worldwide distribution free of charge as downloadable posters suitable for printing and display. For those wishing to look at the exhibit in hard copy, the minimum of 11×17 inches page size is required and poster size at 2×3 feet is recommended. The exhibit may be printed as large as 4×6 feet.
As the project neared completion, the specific fate of the Van Armenians was cited by Vazgen Manukian, the former prime minister of Armenia, who, in a meeting with the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, related the following: “I told him the story of our family as an example. My grandfather had five sons when they fled the southern shores of Lake Van. Only one of them, my father, was alive by the time they reached modern-day Armenia…Many other Armenian families can tell similar stories.”
Founded in 1997, the Armenian National Institute (ANI) is a 501(c)(3) educational charity based in Washington, DC, and is dedicated to the study, research, and affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.