Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Commemorating the Genocide

The centennial of the Armenian Genocide was marked with a special ceremony in Egypt this week, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

Every year on 24 April, Armenians around the world commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide, when thousands of Armenian community leaders and members in Constantinople in Turkey, now Istanbul, were deported and executed in 1915, followed by many thousands of others elsewhere in the former Ottoman Empire.

However, this year the commemoration, marking the centennial of these events, had a special flavour in Egypt.

To the beat of kamancha, ashoughs and duduk (double-reeded woodwind instruments made of apricot wood) the Armenian community in Egypt along with many other Egyptians gathered at the Housaper Club in Heliopolis where a gala ceremony and exhibition were held.

The exhibition put on display the handicrafts, cuisine and traditional costumes of four Armenian provinces in Anatolia that were subjected to the Genocide, namely Ourfa, Van, Antep and Caesarea.

The commemoration not only aims at remembering the 1915 Genocide, but also intends to help acquaint people with Armenian heritage and traditions.

A veiled girl in traditional Armenian garb stood at the entrance of the Karakashian Hall of the Housaper welcoming visitors with glasses of pomegranate juice while another served the traditional thin Armenian bread called lavash with salt. Bread and salt is a symbol of friendship in Armenia, as it is in Egypt.

For Armenians, pomegranates are one of the most recognisable symbols of their country as according to Armenian mythology it symbolises fertility and good fortune. Pomegranates are a guardian against the evil eye, and in wedding ceremonies in Western Armenia a bride should throw a pomegranate and break it into pieces as its scattered seeds will ensure the bride will bear children.

In the province of Van, Armenian women who wanted to have a son would eat bread made from dough mixed with pomegranate seeds. The importance of pomegranates is also attested in historical Armenian manuscripts and stone carvings, where it was used as a popular ornament.

Pomegranates are still commonly used in Armenian art and culture, as well as in Armenian cuisine. Any Armenian art exhibition will include at least a few paintings in which pomegranates are depicted.

After the 1915 Genocide, many Armenian artists used pomegranates as a theme in their songs and poems to describe emotions from suffering to hope, rebirth and the survival of their nation. In the Heliopolis exhibition, visitors also see a large coloured image of Mount Ararat from the Turkish side with different Armenian kings and queens standing in its foothills.

Mount Ararat is a snow-capped dormant volcano in Agri in Eastern Turkey overlooking the point at which the frontiers of Turkey, Iran and Armenia meet. Its summit is 5,165 metres above sea level.

“I took this photograph from a book and enlarged it in order to give the impression to visitors that they are entering the ancient provinces of Armenia before the genocide occured,” Armenian artist Vahan Telpian told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Before the 1915 Genocide, he said, Mount Ararat was inside Armenian borders, but now it is within Turkish borders and Armenians are only able to admire it from afar.

The photograph in the exhibition shows the front of Mount Ararat, Telpian said, where ancient Armenian kings and queens used to live.

“It was hard for me properly to design an exhibition on such an important event,” Telpian said, adding that after searching miniatures books he decided to create a design for the exhibition that would reflect the spirit and appearance of the four ancient Armenian provinces with their urban settlements, streets and alleys.

During his search in the books, Telpian found that the buildings and walls of these settlements were built in a kind of stone called “doof,” similar in colour to sandstone and outlined with reddish decorative motifs. He decorated the different sections of the exhibition with these motifs in order to give visitors the impression that they were roaming the streets of the provinces.

A large painting depicting a pomegranate tree decorates one of the exhibition’s walls, while another is covered with a map of Armenia dotted with red spots to show the provinces that were subjected to the genocide. Black-and-white photographs featuring Armenians after the genocide and the crimes committed against them are also on display on a third wall of the exhibition.

The first province represented in the exhibition is Ourfa, also known as Edessa. This is located in a province that was called Armenian Mesopotamia and was the place where Saint Mesrob Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 CE. Ourfa is also known for its delicious cuisine, such as chikeofteh, and kebab ourfaly, made of kebabs with aubergines.

A dessert called zarda made of molasses, rice, spices and walnuts was also on display. “It is a special dessert for Christmas, and it used to be cooked with raisin juice but as this is not available I cooked it with molasses instead,” Ani, told the Weekly.

Ourfa’s traditional embroidery has also been internationally acknowledged.

Van was the second stop in the exhibition, and it is considered to be one of the world’s ancient cities. Situated on Lake Van in eastern Anatolia, it was the first capital of Armenia during the reign of king Sartour I, but it took the name of Samiramople after queen Semiramis of Assyria.

Sonia Bayramian, a member of the Housaper committee to commemorate the centennial in Egypt, told the Weekly that Van’s Armenian population was known for vine culture, fishing, carpet weaving, gold and silver work, armaments, blacksmithing, tailoring, pottery and spinning.

People from Van were well known for gold and silver products, which they used to export to Europe. Lace goods were also well known. Sweet dough called cheoreg was a well-known recipe in Van, as was as keshkek made of wheat, chicken and cumin.

The Caesarea province was built by Armenian king Aram’s governor Mshag and was previously part of the Byzantine Empire. In the 17th century it was named Caesarea after the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar. It was famous for its pemmican making (preserved meat), such as sujuk (sausages) and basturma, a form of dried beef wrapped in a thin layer of dough with cumin and spices.

Mante was another dish on display, consisting of small dough dumplings filled with spiced meat and dipped in chicken soup, yoghurt, garlic and sumac above. Carpet weaving, gold working, leather and linen manufacturing were also found in Caesarea.

Antep was the last province in the exhibition, and is a city in southeast Turkey that is among the oldest and longest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  

Many Armenians lived in Antep, and in 1266 CE Hetum I, the first king of Kilikia, tried to liberate Antep but failed to do so. During the 13th and 14th centuries Antep was ruled by the Egyptian sultanate, which was conquered by Ottoman Turkey in 1516. Antep was famous for its embroidery and is well-known for lahmajun, a kind of Armenian pizza covered with a thin layer of spicy meat, and baklava dessert.

Bayramian told the Weekly that all the objects on display were collected from the homes of some Armenians families in Egypt who had inherited them from their ancestors.

“The traditional costumes of Armenians vary from one province to another depending on the climate,” Bayramian said, adding that fur had been common in provinces with cold climates.

She said that Armenians used to make the fabrics used in their clothes and embroidery with silk threads that was important in decorating women’s clothes.

Before marriage, Bayramian said, the women in a family would work hard to weave the personal clothes of the bride, all of which should be embroidered with silk thread and lace. Handkerchiefs and comb covers were also made of lace.

“This event is to say to all the world that despite the genocide we are still surviving,” Bayramian said. Shaké Hovaghimian, also involved in the exhibition, said it was a way for young Armenians to learn more about the history and heritage of their country.

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