This week I attended a service at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Not a sentence I thought I would ever write, and not one I shall write again, presumably. Armenia was ruled, at the time of the First World War, by the Russians and the Ottoman Turks. It is now an independent nation, one of those to emerge from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, though it was semi-autonomous before then. In that anywhere was.
In and about 1915, a million and a half or more Armenians died in what is described, perhaps accurately, as the first genocide of the 20th century. At the hands of the Turks, who have so far avoided any admission of guilt.
The service in Westminster Abbey came after the decision by the Armenian Church, earlier this year, to deem all those who died then as martyrs, a little like beatification under the Catholic Church. (Forgive me for any theological solecisms, I am a member of neither church.)
It was performed by CofE worthies such as Richard Chartres, Bishop of London (good sermon, Richard), and the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of the Armenian Church, among others from that church as well. The equivalent of the Pope, I was told by an Armenian next to me who was helpful enough to interpret events. I felt truly privileged to be a part of it, though regular readers will know my own spiritual views are a little unorthodox.
No pun intended, though the church of Armenia is Orthodox, akin to but independent of the Russian and Greek faiths.
There were 2,200 people present in the Abbey, the majority, I must guess, of Armenian descent. This was, I imagine, the biggest event for them for a generation. Two things struck me.
One, how remarkably smart, well turned out and prosperous they looked. There is what statisticians call a pre-selection bias here, because those who attend such events tend to be among the more prosperous of their community.
Still, I know nothing of the Armenian diaspora but I imagine it followed the usual pattern. First generation poor, second more prosperous, middle class, so onwards, upwards. The Armenians have a reputation for being clever, industrious and mercantile. Such people are not always loved by those less gifted who live among them, or rule over them.
Ah, yes. That second perception. This is where I get into trouble, but I could not help but be reminded of the Jewish diaspora. The Armenians, and the Jews who arrived here at the turn of the last century and in the 1930s, seem to share the enviable ability of being able to ride two horses at once, to retain their cultural roots while assimilating into whatever society they adopted, be it Britain, France (many Armenians went there) or the US.
The Armenians had certain advantages over the Jews, also known for their industriousness and mercantile abilities, I would suggest. The Jewish racial genotype is a recognisable one, always the recipient over the past century of discrimination as a consequence. (Interestingly, less so today. I was brought up with Jewish friends and often had no idea they were such. My parents, and their generation, always knew. Somehow.)
Few, I imagine, over the past century discriminated against an Armenian for being so. Still, it was clear from the service that though you would have no idea of their religious or ethnic background if you met them in your everyday life, they retained an identity entirely their own, and an awareness of that background that ran in parallel with their identity as British.
I think I could spot an Armenian, though to be fair I have known three in my life, one quite well. Blue eyes and dark hair, often, and any name ending in “–ian”.
An extraordinary experience, then. I hope I have not been patronising to my hosts in giving my untutored response to the ceremony, and a subject I know little about. It has taken me several days to order my thoughts.
I wonder if that ability to ride two horses that way might have lessons elsewhere? No more said.
“Mer Hayrenik’, azat ankakh/ Vor aprel e dare dar/ Yur vordik’e ard kanch’ um e/ Azat, ankakh Hayastan.”