Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Opening of the Genocide Memorial in Bikfaya (April 24, 1970)

Before 1965, there were only three memorials dedicated to the genocide of 1915 worldwide: the Martyrs’ Chapel in the monastery of Antelias (1938), the stele at the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate in Beirut (1939), and the memorial at the courtyard of the San Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Buenos Aires (1961). Starting in 1965, there would be a true explosion in the construction of memorials, both in Armenia and in the Diaspora.

Inauguration of the Bikfaya memorial. This picture appeared on the cover of the special issue of the daily Aztag (May 9, 1970) and was taken by AP late photographer (and later New Yorker) Harry Koundakjian.
The commemoration of 1965 in Lebanon acquired a particular resonance. Even though the government yielded to Turkish pressure and did not authorize a projected march, the gathering of 85,000-90,000 Armenians in the sports complex of Bourj Hammoud became proof that from here on the commemorations would take a different direction.
As the end of the fiftieth anniversary, in April 1966, the Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, Khoren I announced that a monument would be built at the St. Mary’s Monastery in Bikfaya, which belongs to the Catholicosate. The “Monument to the Fiftieth Anniversary” would be located on a rock near the chapel of St. Mary and the Seminary. It was commissioned to sculptor Zaven Khedeshian (1932-2018), already a noted name in Lebanese art.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 23, 1967, by the three Armenian spiritual leaders, Catholicos Khoren I, Patriarch Ignatius Peter XVI Batanian of the Armenian Catholic Church, and Rev. Hovhannes Aharonian. Bishop Karekin Sarkissian (future Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia and I of All Armenians), the dean of the seminary, read a message on behalf of the memorial committee. He said:
“I want that the eyes of soul see with equal truth and joy the bronze statue of more than twelve meters of height elevating to the sky, which, through the image of the restoration of a human body, symbolizes the triumphant restoration of an entire people, from the terrorizing world of sand and ruins, rags and wounds, suffering and torture towards the world of healthy revival, febrile creation, and insatiable construction.”
A popular fundraiser was held to finance the construction of the memorial, a bronze abstract figure of a woman standing with hands toward the sky. The figure is mounted on a clef-like rock of five meters high, beyond which is located the public space for public assembly. The inauguration was anticipated for April 24, 1969, but recurrent political crisis in Lebanon prevented the public commemoration of the genocide that year.

The inauguration was postponed for April 24, 1970, when it became one of the main features of the 55 th anniversary of the genocide. The huge multitude, which by some estimates surpassed the number of 20,000, went from the ceremony held at the monastery of Antelias to Bikfaya for the inauguration. At one point, the traffic flow forced the mass to leave their cars on the road ascending to the Armenian monastery and reach the place by foot. People flooded the courtyard of the monastery around the memorial. After a stirring “hokehankisd” ceremony, the first speaker was Boghos Douzjian, representing the Memorial Committee, followed by Rev. Aharonian, Bishop Mesrob Terzian (in representation of Patriarch Batanian), and Catholicos Khoren. The keynote speaker was Khachig Babikian, Minister of Tourism, on behalf of the President of Lebanon, Charles Helou, who sponsored the inauguration.

During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, the memorial underwent a sabotage bombing by the Phalange, a Christian militant party, and the lower portion of the monument was heavily damaged. The monument was heavily damaged but it did not fall. It was later repaired.

On the centennial of the genocide, the memorial was renovated and an altar dedicated to the martyrs was built nearby. The rocks and walls leading to the memorial were ornamented with symbols related to Armenian history, the Armenian Church, and the genocide, and a map of the Armenian Genocide was added near the monument.