It’s not often that Calvin Coolidge’s name is invoked these days in Washington. But the long-dead 30th president is figuring in a controversy involving several Armenian-American organizations, the Smithsonian Institution and the White House.
At the center of the controversy is an intricate and colorful carpet depicting the Garden of Eden, woven by orphaned Armenian girls and presented to then-president Coolidge in the late 1920s. It is known as the Ghazir Rug, named after the Lebanese city where it was made by 400 orphans who lost their families during the mass slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces starting in 1915.
The gift to Coolidge was a gesture of gratitude to the United States, specifically for the relief efforts mounted by the Near East Foundation, an American philanthropic organization founded in response to the Armenian mass slaughter in Ottoman Turkey. The foundation’s programs were credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
For close to a century, the Ghazir Rug has remained largely hidden in White House storage. But a similar carpet, known as the “Armenian Orphan Sister Rug” will be on display December 5 in Boston, as part of a holiday event sponsored by the Armenian Assembly of America, a prominent Diaspora group. Martin Deranian, author of a book on the Ghazir Rug’s history, titled President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug, will be a featured speaker at that event. The sister carpet to be displayed in Boston is part of Deranian’s personal collection.
The Boston holiday gala, however, has not quelled a controversy that began in the autumn, when the White House abruptly decided not to lend the Ghazir Rug to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, for an event to mark the publication of Deranian’s book.
In a September letter, Paul Michael Taylor, director of the Asian cultural history program at the Smithsonian, wrote to organizers -- Ara Ghazarians, curator at the Massachusetts-based Armenian Cultural Foundation and Levon Der Bedrossian at the Armenian Rugs Society – expressing regret that the White House had, without reason or explanation, decided not to lend the rug for the Smithsonian event. As a result, the event, which had been scheduled for December 16, was canceled.
“Needless to say this was a great surprise and disappointment … because White House staff had previously offered considerable assistance or the use of the rug,” Taylor wrote in the September letter. The letter also mentioned that the US Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, made inquiries on his own, but determined that the loan of the Ghazir rug would not be possible.
The White House issued a statement last month: “The Ghazir Rug is a reminder of the close relationship between the peoples of Armenia and the United States. We regret that it is not possible to loan it out at this time.”
Thirty-one members of Congress, including Adam Schiff, whose district includes a large number of Armenian-Americans, signed a letter in mid-November urging the Obama administration to let the rug be displayed. The White House has remained firm on not lending out the carpet.
The Smithsonian or Taylor did not respond to requests from EurasiaNet for comment. The U.S. Department of State referred a request to the White House. Officials at the White House did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org query.
Without an explanation from the White House, representatives of Disaspora groups, including the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), believe the Smithsonian cancellation was prompted by pressure from the Turkish government, which denies that the 1915 events constitute Genocide. Turkey has been known to exert diplomatic pressure on the United States on matters relating to the recognition of the 1915 events.
“I see this to be a clear cut example of an administration playing unfairly and unjustly to a people who deserve so much better,” said Stephen Kurkjian, a former journalist for the Boston Globe and member of NAASR.
Levon Der Bedrossian of the Armenian Rugs Society, a California-based organization, suspects the same political motives. “We've seen this time and again, after so many years it is the strength of the Turkish lobby, there is no other explanation,” Der Bedrossian said.
Anthony Barsamian -- who headed the group “Armenian-Americans for Obama” in 2008 and 2008 and 2012, and a board member of the Armenian Assembly of America -- characterized the decision to not loan Ghazir Rug as unacceptable – especially as the centennial of the mass slaughter approaches in 2015. “Why should the White House deny the Armenian Community their artifact?” he asked.
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.