The Armenian Orphan Rug and the White House Scandal
If you haven’t heard of the Armenian Orphan Rug of Ghazir, Lebanon, you aren’t alone. Not many people know about this masterpiece and even fewer have had the opportunity to see it because White House officials have continually elected not to display the carpet Although some politicians see it as a pariah that’s best left in storage, others see the Ghazir Orphan Carpet as an elegant expression of thanks and an artful way of overcoming loss. The story of this hidden treasure has inspired a book and is encouraging representatives and cultural groups to lobby for its display.
The Story of the Armenian Orphan Rug
The story of the so called Armenian Orphan Rug of Ghazir begins in the early 1900’s. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, political instability created the first genocide of the century. Feuds between the Turks and Armenians led to the deaths of more than 1 million citizens through direct and indirect causes, including starvation. A surging orphan population was just one of the effects of this unspeakable event.
With assistance from the USA , Near East Relief relocated 100,000 Armenian orphans. One group of about 400 orphaned girls in the Syrian city of Ghazir, now in Lebanon, created a beautiful 12 foot by 18 foot carpet that was gifted to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. The jewel tone rug features fantastical animals and lush flowers arranged in a complex central medallion and corner design. The design is thought to depict scenes from the Garden of Eden. It took 10 months to weave the carpet, which has some 4.4 million rug knots. The Armenian carpet was one of several created in Ghazir, including a number that were commissioned following the well received gift.
President Coolidge graciously accepted the offering. In a letter of appreciation he said, “The rug has a place of honor in the White House where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth.” At the time, the gift received nationwide media coverage. The carpet was displayed in the White House through the end of Coolidge’s tenure, and after that, it remained in his Massachusetts home until his death. His wife kept the rug for years beyond that, until her death, when the Coolidge family returned it to the White House. It was kept in storage there and not displayed. It was only briefly removed from storage in 1995 to show to one of its original weavers and her family, and then returned to storage.
In 2013, requests began to come in asking to show the carpet. The Smithsonian’s Asian cultural history program reached out to White House officials and asked to show the rug at their event sponsored by the Armenian rugs society. While letter signed by a bipartisan group of 33 U.S. Congressmen supported the removal of the rug from storage, the Smithsonian actually later cancelled the event, saying the White House had declined to loan the rug. The White House refused to give an official reason for the refusal, but many people had their own suspicions and speculations. Many speculated that it was to prevent offending Turkey and maintain a good relationship. The Armenian National Committee of America believed it had to do with then-president Barack Obama’s position on the Armenian Genocide (refusal to officially recognize it, among other things).
With all the speculation circulating and creating bad press, the White House decided to respond to the allegations in November 2013. Laura Lucas Magnuson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said, “Displaying the rug for only half a day in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property.” She noted that it did not mean that the rug would not be displayed publicly in the future.
Finally, in November 2014, the rug was displayed at the White House Visitor Center. It was a part of the exhibition “Thank you to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad”. It included the Armenian Orphan Rug, a French vase given to Herbert Hoover after World War I, and Japanese cherry blossoms encased in acrylic given to Barack Obama.