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Ararat-Eskijian Museum: A Treasure of the Armenian Diaspora in Los Angeles

03/23/2015 08:11 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015
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A hidden gem in Mission Hills, the Ararat-Eskijian Museum is tucked away in the San Fernando Valley, almost 20 miles from Glendale, which reportedly has the highest concentration of people of Armenian descent outside of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

The museum lies even further from the enclave known as Little Armenia in Hollywood.

If it is a bit out of the way, it is well worth a visit.

Located on a sprawling campus, which includes the Ararat Home, a retirement community, an assisted living facility, a church and even a banquet hall, the museum has a fine collection of artifacts not only of the Armenian genocide but also of the history of the Armenian people.

When you approach the entrance of the museum, the first thing you see is a bronze sculpture of a mother, her hair tousled and rippling in the wind, as she clasps her son, while they flee the genocide.

The sculpture evokes the harrowing and tragic history of the Armenians, an ancient people who go back at least 5,000 years, according to a timeline engraved on a sidewalk outside of the museum.

When you walk inside the museum, you are greeted by an inspirational quote from William Saroyan, a playwright who lived in Fresno and who wrote eloquently about the resilience of Armenians:

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy that race. Destroy Armenia, see if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.

April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. From 1915 to 1923, roughly 1.5 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.) has introduced a bipartisan resolution, which calls upon President Obama to "work toward constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relations" and to seek Turkey's "full acknowledgment of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian genocide, and a fair, just and comprehensive international resolution of this crime against humanity."

The Obama administration has been reluctant to take up this issue, dear to anyone who cares about justice, for strategic reasons, most notably because Turkey is a nominal ally in the fight against ISIS.

And the resolution, which is nonbinding, has reportedly been held up by Speaker John Boehner.

President Obama and Speaker Boehner, who have failed the test of leadership here, would benefit from visiting the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, where they would learn that in some respects this is not the 100th anniversary at all. Armenians had been massacred by the Turks many times before 1915, including in Hadjin, a town located in what was then part of Armenia, in 1909.

"You can find everything in Wikipedia," said Edouard Selian, 77, the curator, when I checked out the museum on Sunday, March 22.

Selian, who has a shock of white hair, wore corduroy pants; a white, buttoned-down shirt, open at the collar; and a patchwork sweater on March 22. It was a day or so after Nowruz, which marks the Persian New Year but also has significance to Armenians.

Selian was sweeping the grounds outside the museum when I first arrived.

An extremely modest man, Selian is a linguist who speaks at least five languages and understands many more. He is a distinguished scholar of the Armenian Diaspora. Like any true scholar, he carefully documents his research with extensive footnotes on sources.

His son, Sahak, a structural engineer, recently sent me one of his father's articles on the linguistic history of the Paulicians and Pomaks, people who migrated from Armenia to the Balkans, and whose language still contains many words that have roots in Armenian.

Selian, who has a PhD from Yerevan State University, was raised in Bulgaria. At the time that he studied in Yerevan, he was the "first foreign student" to do so, according to Sahak, who on the day of my visit spoke occasionally in Armenian with his father, for whom English is not always the easiest language.

As we strolled around the museum, a one-room space, which occupies the basement of a church and includes two small libraries, Selian pointed out various artifacts, including maps of the genocide and of historic Armenia, which for thousands of years ranged far beyond the boundaries of the modern-day country; images of gods in Armenian mythology, which hung from the ceiling and on the walls; glass cases of Armenian dresses, some of which looked like kimonos; books compiling all of the newspaper articles on the genocide, which was known to Americans in 1915; and a replica of the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, built in the 5th century and still standing in Vagharshapat, Armenia.

Armenians, as is well-known, became some of the first Christians and built the first churches.

When you look at the replica of the cathedral, you can see that the domes are not really domes. As is typical of Armenian churches, the spires are conical, not circular, which means that the acoustics inside are unusual. When the choir plays music, the sounds "bounce off many more walls" than they do in other houses of worship, said Sahak, who, as a structural engineer, is fascinated with architecture. He noted the intricate details in the cathedral's design, which had to be chiseled and carved by a crew of men over many years.

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Selian, whose wife, Vartouhi (Rose in English), works at the retirement home and joined us on the tour, said that his best friends in Bulgaria were Jews. That included the best man at his wedding, Azaria Polikarov, a Bulgarian philosopher.

Although he is not young, Selian remains active. He hopes to write about the lost city of Atlantis, which he believes is not far from Israel. He also said that he is working on a paper on the name of God in Armenian.

While Selian did not want to reveal the holy name to me, he did indicate that the name of his son, Sahak, derives from the Hebrew word, Yitzhak.

The connection between Armenians and Jews extends far beyond personal anecdotes.

Selian pointed out that the Turks, who were allies with the Germans in World War I, employed many of the same sinister techniques in carrying out the genocide, the first one of the 20th century, that were later used by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

For instance, the Turks separated the Armenian men from the women and children, just as the Nazis split up families. Selian's grandfather and grandmother were separated from each other.

The Turks also forced Armenians to trek for days on death marches, just as the Nazis did to the Jews and others in the Holocaust. According to Selian, some Turkish doctors conducted experiments on Armenians, injecting them with viruses, just as the Nazis did to the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps. The Turks, like the Nazis, also used gas chambers.

The similar history of the Jews and Armenians goes even deeper.

From 1948 until 1967, Jews were typically barred from visiting Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It was only after Israel defeated the Arabs in the Six-Day War that Jews were once again able to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, which is beneath Mount Moriah, where the First and Second Temple stood.

Similarly, Mt. Ararat, the cradle of Armenian civilization, and, according to legend, the home of Noah's Ark, is visible from Yerevan, but it has been part of Turkish territory for years.

The two peaks of Mt. Ararat have become a symbol not only of Armenia's ancient heritage but also of the painful ironies of its more recent history.

When you step outside of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, you can see two mountain ranges, the Verdugos and the Santa Monicas. These two ranges should not be confused with the two peaks of Mt. Ararat, but they do provide hope that one day Ararat will again be within reach for an ancient people, who have never given up and who will always create a New Armenia wherever they live.

The Ararat-Eskijian Museum is located at 15105 Mission Hills Rd., Mission Hills, Calif. It is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., except holidays. For more information, call (818) 838-4862. Admission is free, and donations are encouraged.