Mike Joseph examines the wide-eyed love of a Welsh pilgrim for Armenia
On 28 August 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz addressed a huge civil rights demonstration in the heart of Washington: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbour. Neighbour is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity”. Stirring as his speech was, Prinz had the misfortune to be instantly upstaged by the next speaker at the podium – the Reverend Martin Luther King, who delivered one of the century’s great moments of oratory: “I have a dream”.
But Rabbi Prinz had spoken on his theme for many years. Nearly thirty years earlier, as a Rabbi in Berlin before a hasty emigration to the USA, he had addressed a Jewish community meeting in Leipzig. Germany wanted the Jews out, and those who had thought themselves German were now forced to realise that they were Jews. In ten years, he said prophetically, Germany would have very few Jews. “To live, one needs food and water, but also neighbours”.
The exhortation to love thy neighbour is universal in human religion and culture. The ideal of empathy between the dissimilar has been exemplified, interpreted and parabled in endless ways. This is less a matter of credit than shame to humanity. The exhortation is universal because at all times and in all places, human empathy has been severely lacking. In his Welsh discovery of Armenia Canon Patrick Thomas gives us just such a parable of empathy between “two small mountainous countries at either end of what was once regarded as Christendom”. Bishop Hovhanessian, Armenian Primate of Britain and Ireland in his introduction praises “a harmonious tale of two thousand years of Christian testimony and witnessing of these two nations”. Rowan Williams writes of this “love affair with Armenia”.
That such a modest and quietly written book attracts forewords by an Archbishop and a Primate suggests there is perhaps more here than meets the eye. The result of six years of repeated visits – Thomas calls them pilgrimages – to Armenia and the neighbouring Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh, From Carmarthen to Karabagh delivers in under 200 pages a survey and introduction to Armenian pre-history and history, myth and legend, religion, spirituality and culture, and inevitably and unavoidably, the genocide of 1915 whose traumatic consequences echo to this day.
That might be thought sufficient for one slim volume, but Thomas does more. As his subtitle announces, this is specifically a Welsh discovery of Armenia. In that, Thomas follows a well-worn Welsh path.
In a quiet corner of Cathays Park, protected by trees and shrubs from the traffic of North Road, stands one of the most eloquent memorials to genocide you will find. It is a khatchkar, an Armenian stone cross, incorporating elements of the Celtic cross. Patrick Thomas describes how in 2007, “it was dedicated with prayers in Armenian and Welsh. A requiem for the souls of the victims of the Genocide was chanted… In the background the Turkish genocide-deniers attempted to drown the beautiful singing by monotonously (and shamelessly) shouting ‘Shame on you!’”
A year later on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, the khatchkar was attacked and shattered. What you see today is a newly-made khatchkar on the original design, and also – and this is the memorial’s unique testimony – pieces of the first shattered khatchkar are set in concrete in the ground, witness to the genocide-deniers’ aim to destroy memory.
How this century-old memory war has come to occupy a corner of the Welsh capital is a story that even pre-dates the Armenian Genocide. Thomas relates how Armenia, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, has been on the receiving end of invasions and occupation from every direction. In 1878, war between the Russian and Ottoman empires had resulted in Armenians finding themselves under Russian protective occupation.
Britain under Disraeli objected to Russian expansion, and secretly negotiated with Constantinople to secure Russian withdrawal from western Armenia in return for taking control of Cyprus (and hence the Suez Canal) from the Ottoman Empire. Armenia would now be at the mercy of Ottoman rule, and the Sultan was
“…free to act towards his Armenian subjects in whatever way took his fancy… he instigated the systematic slaughter of Armenians… estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000. Gladstone, Disraeli’s old opponent, was horrified. The 86-year-old former Prime Minister gave his last great speech in September 1896 eloquently condemning the savagery of the ‘Red Sultan’. When Gladstone died two years later, grateful Armenian merchants from Manchester paid for his tomb and a stained-glass memorial window in St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden.”
So began Wales’ active engagement with the politics of Anatolia. Nineteen years later, it was a Welsh MP, Aneurin Williams (great-grandson of Iolo Morgannwg) who brought concern about new massacres to parliament:
“We are in the presence of the greatest massacre probably that the world has ever known. Therefore it behoves us… to make every sacrifice and put forward every effort to relieve… suffering, and to save some thousands from death that must still occur…”
Williams brought news and evidence of the genocide to parliament as it was being perpetrated, and secured formal Ministerial recognition of the Ottoman’s “long-considered, deliberate policy to destroy and wipe out of existence the Armenians in Turkey”.
Nearly a century later, the official institution of Holocaust Memorial Day, and the British Government’s simultaneous refusal to admit the Armenian Genocide to officially-sanctioned memory, crystallised Welsh responses in a series of acts of recognition: by Members of the Assembly, by First Minister Rhodri Morgan and by the khatchkar on Assembly-owned public land at the Temple of Peace. Thomas writes:
“There are many things that make a person proud to be Welsh… The Armenian Genocide happened. Even if the British Government is still too obsessed by fear of upsetting Turkey to recognise this truth, we in Wales have not shied away from it.”
The political agenda that has linked Wales and Armenia for over a century is well-established, but this book is not a political tract. Rather, Thomas gives us a reflective interweaving of spiritual and cultural themes that link the two nations. He shares moments from his travels in Armenia when, far from home, he suddenly finds himself feeling powerfully reminded of home. He draws parallels but he also highlights contrasts. Yr Wyddfa is a symbol of Wales, as Ararat is of Armenia. But although the Welsh mountain can be a place of hiraeth, it is not a sacred icon of global significance, as Ararat is to Armenia.
Like Armenia, Wales has survived against the odds; but the odds against Armenian survival have been on a different scale of human suffering. Yma o hyd. In the excitement of discovery, it can be challenging to strike the right note. Canon Patrick Thomas largely succeeds. This is an account of the love of a Welsh pilgrim for Armenia, a love which is wide-eyed, rather than blind.