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Armenian Orphan Rug Lives up to Its Name

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WASHINGTON—Somewhere inside the White House, stashed away inside an obscure storage room, lays an historic rug.

A close-up of the Armenian Orphan Rug with its intricate detail bearing colorful images of animals akin to the Garden of Eden. The rug was woven in 1924-25 and presented to President Calvin Coolidge. It now lies in storage inside the White House.

Not just any rug, but one created by 400 Armenian orphans from 1924-25 in a town called Ghazir, about 40 miles north of Beirut.

This colorful piece of tapestry, which measures 18 feet by 12 feet, lives up to its name: It has remained an “orphan” rug since it passed through the hands of President Calvin Coolidge in 1926.

The intricacy is woven with a passion unlike others of its kind, containing some 4 million knots made to characterize the biblical Garden of Eden with its collection of animals and other symbolic features.

The big loom was set up for an “Isfahan.” The 400 orphaned girls worked in shifts and spent 18 months on its completion. It was then sent to Washington and presented at a special ceremony to the White House in recognition of the help rendered by the American people to Armenian orphans.

Armenian historians and archivists are looking for a more permanent home, one that will avail itself to tourists and public acclaim. They’d like nothing better than to see this rug on permanent display in the White House, with credit given to Armenian Genocide survivors or, at the very least, have it showcased inside the Genocide Museum, or perhaps the Smithsonian.

They seem to think there are political ramifications preventing this rug from enjoying the life of nobility, for which it was intended.

“If you bring out the story of this rug, you’re talking genocide, and this country doesn’t recognize the Armenian Genocide,” laments Dr. H. Martin Deranian, a prominent Worcester historian and dentist who has documented every facet of this jewel. “It’ll open up the story of the orphans. I’ve taken responsibility to see this story brought to the surface and its meaning appreciated.”

The Armenian Orphan Rug is viewed inside the White House in September 1984 by activists looking to preserve its identity. (L-R) U. S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Dr. H. Martin Deranian, Worcester historian, and Set Momjian, a former ambassador to the United Nations.

Deranian has turned himself into a self-imposed rug ambassador in seeking the cause of justice. By unraveling this mystery, he’s hoping to bring greater credence to the Near East Relief and the scores of orphans saved during the genocide years of 1915-23.

He continues to pay homage to Dr. Jacob Kuenzler, or “Papa” Kuenzler as he was affectionately called, for evacuating thousands of Armenian orphans from Turkey to the relative security of Syria while working for the Near East Relief.

Kuenzler had the idea of starting a rug factory in Ghazir. He thought the girls would learn to weave rugs and go on earning a living this way.

It seemed to him that even on so small an outlay, much good could be achieved for these orphans. With only two looms, he started this rug factory in Ghazir, high up in the mountains.

President Coolidge was more than grateful for the rug. In a letter he wrote to Dr. John Finley, vice-president of the Near East Relief, Coolidge was overwhelmed by the gift.

“This beautiful rug woven by children in Lebanon has been received. This, their expression of gratitude for what we’ve been able to do for this country for their aid, is accepted by me as a token of their goodwill to the people of the United States who have assisted in the work of the Near East Relief. Please extend to these orphans my thanks and the thanks of the vast number of our citizens whose generosity this labor of love is intended to acknowledge. The rug has a place of honor in the White House where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth.”

A “Golden Rule” Sunday had been instituted in the United States. Each year, on the first Sunday in December, people were asked to eat only a one-course meal and contribute the money they had saved to the Near East Relief. Some $2 million was collected annually.

An overall view of the Armenian Orphan Rug, which measures 18'x12'. Armenian activists are trying to have it removed from storage inside the White House and have it showcased.

The presentation of the Ghazir rug to the White House in 1925 was given such widespread publicity that contributions from Golden Rule Sunday doubled. The factory received numerous orders for special carpets and many of the girls ultimately found homes and became brides.

The event was covered in the New York Times, which carried the headline, “President receives rug woven by orphans of Near East and praises work on relief.”

Coolidge displayed the rug in the Blue Room under his administration. It remained there until 1928 when he took it to his residence in Northampton, Mass.

The orphan rug graced his living room at a place called the Beeches until his death in 1933. From there, Mrs. Coolidge kept the rug inside her home in Northampton until she died in 1957, eventually landing with a son John until he sold his Connecticut home in 1974.

The rug wound up in storage at the Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth, Vt., when it was returned to the White House and added to the collection in 1983. It was placed in storage and not on public view, and has remained there for the past 27 years.

Deranian was invited to the White House to view the rug with U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Asbed Set Momjian, a former ambassador to the United Nations.

“The curator of the White House collection has indicated that it is highly unlikely the rug would be on exhibit in an official capacity,” said Deranian.

“It was an emotional feeling to touch this very rug. These girls with their nimble fingers wove their gratitude to America into every stitch. My interest dates back to my mother. During the deportation, she went through every indignity before ending up in Urfa.”

Call it fate but in 1995, Charlotte Movsesian of North Andover, Mass. observed a color photo in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune of Hillary Clinton showing off the Blue Room during her husband’s administration. And there was the rug, bright and bold as ever.

She recognized that rug because her own mother Vartouhi (Hovsepian) Gulezian was one of those orphaned girls who helped weave it. Mrs. Gulezian was 14 years old and brought to America from Ghazir in 1926 to work at a loom as a demonstration during the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration of the founding of the United States. She was joined by another orphan, 15-year-old Gulunia Kehyaian.

Movsesian wrote to Clinton and inquired about the rug, never expecting a response. A month later, she received a letter from the White House curator, inviting the entire family to Washington.

Together with her husband Albert S., brother Martin, and mother, off they went by train to meet the appointment. They were welcomed not by Hillary Clinton but the White House curator and her assistant. And there was the rug Mrs. Gulezian had made with the others orphans. She recognized it.

“A rush of emotion came over me, not so much for the beauty but what it represented,” said Albert Movsesian, who promotes genocide education in local schools with stories of the rug.

“The fact the Near East Relief was responsible for helping so many orphans, including my mother-in-law, deserves our utmost appreciation,” he added. “I got down on my hands and knees and touched every part of the rug. I saw the Golden Rule Gratitude inscription in one of the corners.”

The Movsesians wound up spending 90 minutes at the White House that day, had photos taken by the rug, and off they went, laden with memories of a lifetime. No sign of any president, however.

“Very few people know the significance of this rug,” Movsesian brought out. “The story about it has been a well-kept secret in the Armenian community because these orphans didn’t talk about it. After we saw the rug, back into storage it went. It’s been there ever since, simply forsaken. We’re hoping to resurrect it into a place of honor where it belongs.”

If and when that might occur, the rug will represent a memorial to those orphans whose sad fingers wove into its warp and weft a permanent remembrance of the depths of Armenia’s blackest hour.

If it could only talk, it would speak volumes.

30 Comments on Armenian Orphan Rug Lives up to Its Name

  1. avatar Vanessa Kachadurian // July 21, 2010 at 5:02 am // Reply

    This Orphan Rug has symbolic meaning to the thousands of us who had ancestors that were Armenian orphans.  Lets hope we can get the property back and display it with the respect that it deserves. 
    Today in the state run orphanages in Armenia, the art of rug weaving is still taught.  Mostly to the young ladies, they do a fantastic job. 

  2. Thanks for the article, TOm. The rug is simply beautiful and it must be incredible to see it in person… perhaps a great home for this lovely work of art, a gift received by President Coolidge, would be: Library of Congress – Near East Collections…a perfect and honorable home. 

  3. avatar Nareg Seferian // July 21, 2010 at 3:59 pm // Reply

    What a beautiful, fascinating story! Thank you so much.

    Is there indeed anything concrete that can be done with regards to this rug? Does the White House have a public exhibition hall or something? Petitions? Website? Facebook group?

  4. avatar Nareg Seferian // July 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm // Reply

    What a beautiful, fascinating story! Thank you so much.

    Is there indeed anything concrete that can be done with regards to this rug? Does the White House have a public exhibition hall or something? Petitions? Website? Facebook group?

  5. This story brought tears to my eyes…

    I just hope that this Rug will be displayed for all to see.. to honor those orphans who survived the GEnocide and wove this rub from their dispair and pain but yet with such passion…

    Shame on US Govt for keeping this rug locked away in the storage when theh could display it proudly to show how much ARmenians appreciated and showed gratitude for the help they received during those ugly and painful times.. The US Govt actions are definintely not of a govt who represent democracy and advocate of human rights…

    May God work with alongside of those who want to bring this rug to light and show the world that ARmenians did suffer Genocide and this is just a small piece of evidence…

    Thank you for sharing this article…

    God Bless…

    Gayane

  6. avatar sylva-md-poetry // July 22, 2010 at 2:04 am // Reply

    The article is very nice with soulful phrases.
    “If it could only talk, it would speak volumes.”
    All the Armenians Love rugs or better to use word carpets.
    For my opinion this is not a rug it is a carpet with nice pictures on and is a large size.
    The heading made me confused.I think Americans use word rug for the carpet and British use word carpet. Rugs are cheap while carpets expensive.
    As I understand the type or brand of the carptet is ISFAHAN because it has Animals on.
    Please correct.

    The heading if possible should glitter, it is better to say,

    “A Carpet from Armenian Orphans( 1923-1925) to President C. Coolidge 

  7. avatar silva katchiguian // July 23, 2010 at 11:28 am // Reply

    I am certain we have many treasures that depict our history through art and especially through the art of carpet weaving.  It is sad that we live in a country that prides itself in pioneering aid and humanitarian assistance to those who face misfortunes either of natural disasters or of atrocities committed by human hand, and yet officials of the country don’t have the “khutspa”, as they say, to own up to their mistakes and publicly aknowledge truth.  It seems “the truth continues to be swept under the rug.”
    Silva

  8. My grandmother talked (bragged) about this rug as a gift from Armenians to the White House, quite often and with alot of pride, though until this article, I never realized it to be a true story!  Very nice to see it!

  9. avatar Kevork Nazarian // July 24, 2010 at 10:50 am // Reply

    My late grand mother Dikranouhi Safarian from Yozghat, God bless her soul she was  one of this girls from Ghazir orphanage.  She had mentioned to us weaving rugs at the orphanage.  But never one that was sent to the US, maybe she was very young at that time to know all details.  After she got married to my Grand father Toros Torossian, Real name (Simon Anaian) found out after 45 years who really he was.

  10. We should definitely start a wave of protest about this… send webfaxes to Congress, to President to everyone ..to get this carpet (Sylva jan.. thank you for clarification because I agree with you.. it should be called carpet and not a rug)… and display it with pride for everyone to see…

    ANCA should have a SPECIAL ALERT started for this as I would love to send a webfax to everyone …..

    This is unacceptable and not appreciated… US Govt should be ashamed of itself for this act of denial….

    Gayane

  11. avatar Jack Tcherkezian // July 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm // Reply

    Any carpet or rug has a history behind it, family, person, history, event or a nation. These type of carpets or rugs should be in places where general public would have access and appreciate the value and history behind it. I would choose a prominent ART GALLERY in the U.S.A AND DISPLAY IT THERE BEHIND SECURED DISPLAY BOX AND
    PROTECTED WITH SECURITY BARS SO THE GENERAL PUBLIC CANNOT COME CLOSE.
    Jack Tcherkezian

  12. If the Armenian genocide museum ever opens in DC, then this rug should become a showpiece and have a room or wall dedicated to it and all those who survived to weave it. This is a monmument of traditional Armenian creativity and survival, and should be on display in DC, as it was gifted to the White House. Perhaps the White House would consider gifting it back to the Armenian people if we had a proper venue to display it and explain its origin.  

  13. I really like this idea Karekin.  I had the same thought about the rug, but hadn’t thought about the possibility of featuring the stories of the lives of the survivors involved in making the rug.  It would be so meaningful.

  14. Hye, what is happening to the Armenian Genocide Museum, Mr. Hovnanian et al?  What is delaying the progression of this museum.  Why are not R/E taxes paid for this edifice?  What is happening to the funds raised to accomplish this museum.  Dare we expect monies being diverted from this project?  How many years more to await the pursuit of the museum – or is it to be?  Manooshag

    • If im not mistaken, the sheer incompetence of the parties in charge of this Museum have led to nothing and i believe the original owner of the building has since sold it..I don’t see a Museum any time soon.

      The very parties should be ashamed for their petty squabbling. They ruined a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY..

  15. Great idea Karekin.. excellent idea of having this carpet displayed in the museum when it opens up.

    Gayane

  16. avatar Michael Mirakian // July 27, 2010 at 2:57 pm // Reply

    Wouldn’t it be great if someone like Tufenkian could reproduce this rug and sell it with the proceeds going to Armenian relief in say Karabagh? I’d buy one and I’m sure so will many others once they know the story behind it.

  17. THe Armenian community should negotiate quietly to purchase the carpet or have it donated for safekeeping in an Armenian library or museum here in the US. I suspect the White House wouldn’t want us to have it because then they know we will share the story with the world, causing headaches for the American politicians who don’t want to upset their Turkish donors.

    Maybe another reader was right- have copies of the carpet made and launch a huge press campaign to shame the White House into giving the carpet to our community who can show it the care and respect it is due and share the story with everyone.

    p.s. who does know what’s happening with our museum in D.C.?

  18. avatar Vanessa Kachadurian // July 27, 2010 at 9:26 pm // Reply

    Mr. Mirakian brings up a very good proposal for the rug, put it to use on tour and replicate it to sell and raise much needed funds for Karabakh!
    The museum in Washington DC. has too much fighting and lawsuits involved, we need to keep it positive and support the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Mass.

  19. Armenians should purchase the rug back from the White House???  I should hope not!  The rug was made by the fingers of needy Armenian orphans who had nothing…and then gifted to the White House. If nothing else, the White House should be shamed into 1) either putting the rug on display w/ all the related history or 2) gifting it back to the Armenian community of the US, so it could be displayed for all the world to see. Gee, maybe it could be loaned to the Holocaust museum or the Smithsonian, and put on display there until we get our own genocide museum?  Hopefully that will happen sometime soon.  This is a monumental work of art that honors thousands of years of Armenian rug weaving, as well as survival and the help given by Americans at the time. I’m sure someone can trace a good number of girls, their birthplaces and their stories. If done properly, this story could easily become a  documentary film.

  20. Would love an update on the museum if anyone knows the latest.
     
    I wonder if an Armenian filmmaker couldn’t produce a piece about the rug and the lives of those who made it.  It would make a beautiful documentary.  A worthy project.  Could reach more people through film than in a museum or library, though i support this idea as well.

  21. Hye, in pursuit of our Armenian culture,
    –  the Armenian rug created by Armenian children, survivors, to thank USA … and its resurrection     from storage in the White House…  soon                                                                                            –  the Armenian Museum awaiting to be built in Washington DC (when?)                                            –  the newly published book INHERITANCE (new-fiction) by Nicholas Shakespeare (written up in www. Groong.com – Sunday 7/25… heading:  Will to Live – New Fiction)
    INHERITANCE sounds interesting… can we make this book a best seller across the USA and more?   Manooshag

  22. Wow, I agree with Karekin again!

  23. If anywhere, the Armenian carpet, currently stored/hidden away at the White House – to be displayed (until it is to be secured for posterity) and recognized for the young Armenian Survivors  who created it… young nimble fingers forming a labor of love by our Survivors of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation – today, to be housed within the ANCA building in Washington DC.   Here now come the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren as workers, volunteers – nationwide – dedicated to Hai Tahd – our Haiastan.  A cherished symbol of our Survivors’ efforts, created with great efforts and gifted President Coolidge by our Survivors of the horrors of Genocide  – in memorium – for this while, to be amongst Armenians… again.  Manooshag

  24. Karekin… yet another excellent idea… you are full of absolutely great ideas.. and I agree with you 100%…

    Documentary about the carpet would be absolutely profound… and if it is done properly, this can open doors to many other resources..

    I know someone who may take on the challenge but i have to sent an e-mail to him and see what he says.. but someone with financial stability and ability to research should taken on this project.. this will turn into something big..

    Gayane

  25. Does anyone know Atom Egoyan?  Just kidding….he’s a good storyteller and filmmaker, but probably not very good as a serious documentarian. Then again, who knows?  Perhaps someone from the History channel or Discovery might take an interest?  There is a huge story here…Armenians, the US, presidents, WWI, crumbling empires, saving orphans….done right, this can and will be very effective.  

  26. avatar Tom Vartabedian // August 2, 2010 at 9:33 pm // Reply

    Since I wrote the piece in the first place, I am quite flattered by all the positive responses and ideas to get this rug its overdue exposure in the American mainstream. At the very least, perhaps you could entice your organization or church to invite Dr. Martin Deranian (Worcester) to your community for what would prove an exhililarating presentation.

  27. avatar Sylva-MD-Poetry // August 3, 2010 at 9:41 am // Reply

    “Armenian Presidential Orphan’s Carpet Defined as a Rug”
    What a tragidy!

    Rug is a Rug Can’t Turn to a Carpet
    Can Any Palace Transform to a Hut—
    The stones will unite and stay on the ground,
    But the hut with winds might fly.
     
    Carpets are many styles
    With poetic words,
    With colorful million knots.
     
    This carpet was laced by artful Armenians’ hands
    Is the highest quality of an Isfahan Carpet.
     
    Rug doesn’t take 18 months to lace
    Doesn’t need many hands …many ties
    On rugs is none of pictures
     
    If it was a rug
    The president’s wife (First Lady Grace Anna Goodhue)
    Would never enjoy keeping it at her sitting room
    After carrying it from the White House
     
    She found something to look at and feel—
    She found the orphans’ souls
    That beautiful piece was ‘Her Peace’
    And seems restored part of her spirit.
     
    When you love a carpet
    It becomes part of you hart
    You can’t leave and give
    Till you sigh away—
    The Lady Grace Coolidge the same way behaved.
     
    Can you tell a beautiful girl, that ‘you’re an ugly dam?’
    Then you can name an Isfahanian Carpet, the same name.
     
    If the girls who laced… hear this ugly phrase
    They will awake from their graves and roar
    To blame you from their deepest core,
     
    And Chant,” We Armenian are too honest and too accurate
    We don’t lace and gift USA President Coolidge a rug.
     
    You American-Armenians open your Oxford Dictionary and read
    Don’t accept what others soullessly defined.
     
    “My name is Armenian Isfahan Carpet, hence never a rug.”

  28. I agree with Tom.. Inviting Dr. Deranian is a great idea..

    In addition, I would think having a clip on the Armenian Channel or on KCET about this story would be a fantastic idea… just to get the word out to everyone..

    If KCET agrees to showcase this, it would reach millions of people… they already help out the ARmenian Community by renting time slot for the ARmenian Telethon….so if anyone has access or power to make this happen, they will do a great deal to the ARmenian community worldwide..

    Gayane

  29. avatar angelique villa // December 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm // Reply

    bonjour
    Je suis Française  et j habite à MONTPELLIER dans le sud de la FRANCE et je recherche des renseignements sur mes grands parents maternels qui ont sejourné dans les orphelinats Armeniens après le génocide. Ma grand mère  Rahan BOGHOSIAN  dans celui de GHAZIR et mon grand père HOHANES AGOPIAN dans celui de MANIULTEIN en SYRIE ou au LIBAN . Je ne vois pas très bien le tampon sur leur carte d identité du NEAR EAST RELIEF. Ils sont nés tous les deux en TURQUIE à MEZGERD en 1906 et 1910 ou 11 pour ma grand mère, et tous les deux étaient ARMENIENS. Merci

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