Growing up, I have always been an avid visitor of museums, especially internationally ones. From archaeological and historical museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Modern Museum of Art, and fun and engaging museum such as SpySpace, the type of institutions gives excellent educational references and guidance. When I conducted field work in Lebanon, there was one that caught my eye. This one was Armenian Genocide Orphans Museum in Byblos, Lebanon, which surprisingly, it is not well known outside of the Armenian community.
On August 20th, 2021, I had the honor of visiting the Armenian Genocide Orphans Museum in Byblos. Before visiting, I had knowledge of the Armenian Genocide and how Lebanon took in many Armenian refugees, but not at the magnitude that I was taught at the museum. The Orphanage has the nickname ‘Bird’s Nest,’ and it sits the archaeological site of the ancient Phoenician Byblos Castle. Named after Aram Bezikian, the museum tells the stories and plights of hundreds of thousands of Armenian Genocide survivors and their history in Lebanon after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. My guide for the tour is Krikor Alozian, who is a plethora of knowledge. In the beginning of the tour, there was information of the earliest stages of the pogroms and persecutions of the Armenians before the genocide, such as the Hamidian Massacres. These massacres were a series of pogroms meant to take out anger against Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians for the military setbacks of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and Kurdish collaborating chieftains. The massacres took place in the late 1890s, a period when many Armenians already enduring over eight hundred years of Turkish rule and persecution yet continued to thrive under them.
Later in the gallery, I was showed Sultan Abdul Hamid was later overthrown by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), also infamously known as the Young Turks. At first they made promises of reform and new constitutional changes that would help ease tensions for the empire’s second-class citizens, such as the Armenians, Greeks, Maronites, and Assyrians; but there was also a darker side to them. Pre-Great War, there was a growing sense of nationalism around the world, and a hardline one took place in Asia Minor. Though Armenians and other Christians were relegated to second class citizens, they were the backbone of the Ottoman Empire. While most Turkish citizens served in the military and high administration, Armenians were the more educated and higher paid doctors, bankers, historians, archaeologists, and merchant traders. Many European aristocrats and nations did business and trading directly with the Armenians and Greeks of the empire, instead of the Turkish administration. This would later become a disdain for them, even though they lived side by side with Turks for hundreds of years. The second cause for disdain was the ever-increasing Russian presence on the Ottoman borders, with many Armenians being incorporated into the Russian Empire and later fighting alongside them. This along with a mass influx of Turkish, Carcassian, and Kurdish refugees from military setbacks gave the Young Turks the pretext they were looking for to enact their ultimate plan: a genocide.
The genocide took place in 1915, with the arrests and execution of many Armenian intellectuals on April 24th. Though it is widely known as the Armenian Genocide, it also coincided with the genocide of Greeks, Assyrians, and many Lebanese, particularly Maronites of Mount Lebanon, making it a Christian Genocide as a whole. Armenians were death marched to the brutal deserts of Syria, starved, bayoneted, and burn alive in their own churches. There were hundreds of thousands of orphans from the genocide, as the parents were primarily killed with the children left to fend for themselves. The next exhibit showed the network of those orphans and surviving adults, from Cilicia, Aleppo, and Beirut. Beirut would become a home to hundreds of thousands of Armenian orphans. In dire need of food, shelter, clothing and warmth, the people of the modern state of Lebanon opened their arms and incorporated these Armenians into their society. Many of these Armenians would help govern key cities such as Anjar and Bourj Hammoud.
The last part of the exhibit showed the grown of Armenians of Lebanon, the foundations of the orphanages and various aid groups which helped them, such as the Near East Relief. The last part of my tour was when Krikor allowed me to write a message for any future visitor and a massage of faith and hope for Armenians and descendants in a sacred book at the museum. I have been to various museums around the world, such as the Met Museum in NY and other historical museums in Japan and Greece, but nothing has moved me more than the Armenian Genocide Orphans Aram Bezikian Museum and Bird’s Nest Orphanage. This is a museum I would recommend to anyone who wants to be informed in one of the world’s most brutal genocides and the heartbreaking plight of the survivors, who to this day has not received just, acknowledgement, or reparations from the Turkish Republic. In an era of economic hardships and difficulties, the museum could use the visitors or donations to help continue ruining it thoroughly and to support orphans, who to this day, are being helped at the Bird’s Nest Orphanage. I consider August 20th, 2021, one of the most memorable days of my life, and this event was a major reason.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist.