Anahit: a goddess, her people and a museum

I looked everywhere. Every section of the museum, for the bust of my goddess — the goddess of my people. Anahit is the goddess of fertility, healing and wisdom. In a time when Armenia was pagan, she was one of the most venerated deities.

I had the ‘pleasure’ of visiting the British Museum, on one of my trips to London. A product of Britain’s imperial past, the well-known fancy historic building houses precious objects that have been acquired — for the most part — from around the globe, in dishonest and sometimes unlawful ways. One such artifact is the bust of the goddess Anahit. After searching and asking for the bust with near tears in my eyes, I found out that it was not on display. Instead, a replica was on sale in the museum’s souvenir shop (for 700 GBP).

Story goes, the bust was sold by Alessandro Castellani, a dealer who took the head on a voyage from the village of Sadak, in northwestern Anatolia where it was discovered in 1872, to Constantinople and then Italy, until it found its way to the British Museum (according to the museum website).

According to the Museum, “[…] the statue has been identified as a nude Aphrodite, but it has also been suggested that it represents the Iranian goddess Anahita, who was later assimilated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena […]”.

Whether the bust is in fact the Armenian goddess Anahit has actually not been established. Regardless, in the minds of the Armenians of the world, the erasure of the bust’s armenian-ness is like erasing their own. Armenians have been so heavily invested in ancient and medieval history, that they collectively know more about the different Armenian kings, princes and deities of the time, than the history of prominent Armenians of the 18th and 19th century, for example.

I knew that the bust might not be that of my goddess, but I nevertheless aggressively clung to the thought of it being hers. After all, what else do we have aside from our myths, histories and symbols ?

“Anahit, come home!” chanted a group of angry students in Yerevan in 2012 at the calling of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), the youth-wing of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (Dashnag), asking for the British to give back the bust. This is an example of populism, which, alone or coupled with nationalism, is unproductive and dangerous — to any society.

The power held by memory sites is fascinating. Different peoples from around the world have claims on what is theirs in the museums of London, Paris, Berlin and New York. Populist leaders rally their citizens (often quite naïve) to demand what is ‘theirs’. Memory sites (the British Museum in this case) have thus become a hotbed for both nationalist sentiment and myth-making.

Why should the bust of Anahit be given to Armenia, when it was not discovered in Armenia ? Armenians do not a have a legal claim to the bust, they can only wish for its return on friendly — maybe, moral — grounds. An act of good-will by the Museum.

To what extent can the Armenians, French, Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Lebanese, Jews and others of today claim a historic continuity with the different peoples of antiquity ? How far back can we go ? To the Kingdom of Urartu, the Gauls, the Romans, the ancient Greeks, the Pharaohs, the Phoenicians and the ancient Israelites ?

The alleged bust of Anahit will not be given to Armenia. Problem is, why did I look everywhere for it and have tears in my eyes when I couldn’t find it ?

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