Bone Memory: Armenian Pilgrimage Rituals in the Killing Fields of Dayr al-Zur, Syria

By Elyse Semerdjian
Submitted to Session P4874 (Excavating Memories of Minorities in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The word Dayr al-Zur still conjures powerful emotions for Armenians whose ancestors died there a hundred years ago. Poet Peter Balakian has described Dayr al-Zur as being to Armenians what Auschwitz is to the Jews. Dayr al-Zur constituted the killing fields during the Armenian Genocide. This paper discusses the ways Armenians have collected, displayed, and exchanged the bones of their murdered ancestors, in formal and informal ceremonies of remembrance. These pilgrimages — replete with overlapping secular and nationalist motifs — are a modern variant of historical pilgrimage practices; yet these bones are more than relics. Bone rituals, displays, and vernacular memorials are enacted in spaces of memory that lie outside of official state memorials, making unmarked sites of atrocity more legible. Vernacular memorial practices are of particular interest as we consider new archives for the history and spaces of memory for the Armenian Genocide. This essay is a preliminary attempt to document the experiences and raw emotion of Armenian pilgrimage practices within the deathscape of the Euphrates and Khabur River basins that converge on the city of Dayr al-Zur, a place held by the Islamic militant group ISIS. This project seeks to rehabilitate the memory of an historical site into public consciousness, since the Armenian Genocide Memorial Museum and Martyr’s Church at the center of the pilgrimage site, were both destroyed by an explosion in 2014. The multiple layers of bone and trauma contained within the geography of Dayr al-Zur poses a challenge to this reconstruction, but also offers an opportunity to consider the shared experience of trauma among both Armenians and local Dayri Arabs in this troubled border zone over the last hundred years. What do bones do to those who make pilgrimages (including local Arab residents who live among them) in Dayr al-Zur? How do Armenians describe the compulsion to collect, display, and keep the bones of their murdered ancestors? How are these forms of collecting, exchange and display ethically understood by those who engage in these practices?