WASHINGTON – A lobbying campaign led in part by California lawmakers has borne fruit, with a White House agreement to allow display of the politically controversial artifact known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, though where has not yet been determined.
Lawmakers with large Armenian-American constituencies pressed administration officials to liberate the 89-year-old rug from storage. Their success marks the latest turn in the conflict over remembering an Armenian catastrophe.
“We’ve been in a constant course of discussion,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Wednesday. “It’s been a long process.”
That’s because the rug surpasses mere decoration.
Measuring about 11 feet by 18 feet, the rug contains more than 4 million hand-tied knots. Armenian girls in the Ghazir Orphanage of the Near East Relief Society, located in what is now Lebanon, took 10 months to complete it before it was presented in 1925 to President Calvin Coolidge.
The rug was meant to thank the United States for relief provided to victims of what President Obama last week called the Meds Yeghern, which is Armenian for “great calamity.”
By some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died at the end of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923. Historians and governmental bodies have characterized the catastrophe as genocide.
Diplomatically and militarily, the term is loaded.
Turkey, a key NATO ally, vigorously disputes the accuracy of the genocide term and pays lobbyists a lot of money to fight what have been perennial congressional efforts to pass an Armenian genocide resolution.
Pentagon and State Department officials likewise have raised concerns about antagonizing Turkey.
Last fall, the conflict seemed to stain the rug, after the Washington Post reported that the White House would not allow it to be displayed at the Smithsonian Castle for the launch of a 75-page book titled “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.” At the time, a White House spokeswoman said it would be “inappropriate” to bring out the rug for a private book event, but many saw other influences at work.
“I was concerned that the holdup was related to Turkish concerns,” Schiff said.
Like his White House predecessors, Obama has steered clear of the term “genocide” in the annual commemorative statements issued each April. In light of all this history, Armenian-Americans consider the decision to display the rug, with its vivid associations, as an important step.
“The display of this tangible expression of gratitude for America’s humanitarian intervention to save the survivors of the Armenian genocide is a positive development,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.