In surprise U-turn, the White House may display rug woven by orphans of 1915 Armenian killings

 Cover art for "President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug" by Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian (Courtesy of The Armenian Cultural Foundation)
Cover art for "President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug" by Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian (Courtesy of the Armenian Cultural Foundation)

On Friday, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that the White House would soon display the "Armenian Orphan Rug," bringing a historically important artwork out of storage for the first time since 1995.

The news appears to mark a U-turn for the administration. In late 2013, the White House decided against loaning the artwork to the Smithsonian for an event that would include a book launch for Hagop Martin Deranian's book on the rug, “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.” At the time, The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott reported that Armenian American organizations suspected that the refusal was due to the fear of a response from Turkey. “It is without a doubt a political decision,” Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told the Los Angeles Times in November.

The potential fear of a Turkish response is rooted in the rug's origins. The Armenian girls who created it were living in an orphanage in the town of Ghazir, now in Lebanon, while they worked on the rug. The children had been made homeless by the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 in what is now modern Turkey during the final years of Ottoman Empire, and the rug was gifted to the President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 as a thank you for American help during that time. It is said to have taken the orphans 10 months to create the roughly 12-by-18-foot rug, which features more than 4,000,000 hand-tied knots.

The killings of 1915 are better known to many as the "Armenian Genocide," and many historians consider it the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey has vocally rejected the label for decades — just weeks ago, the country's Foreign Ministry criticized a U.S. Senate committee resolution that described the killings as a genocide, arguing that it "distorts history and law." President Obama, who used the word "genocide" to describe the killings before taking office, has avoided the terminology in the past few years.

There have been some minor signs of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia recently. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently made an unprecedented acknowledgement of the "inhumane" killings, but he stopped short of calling them a genocide. It is unclear whether this played a factor in the White House's decision.

“I’m pleased to be able to say that planning is underway for the Armenian Orphan Rug to be displayed as early as this fall," Schiff said Wednesday. "I have worked out with the White House that the display will take place in a venue that is open to the general public, and I appreciate their willingness to place this significant artifact on display for all to see.”

Regardless of the political connotations, the rug is said to be an extraordinary work of art. As Kennicott, The Post's art and architecture critic, described it, it is a "complicated, richly detailed work that would hold its own even in the largest and most ceremonial rooms."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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