Will the genocide witness orphanage be a holiday camp?

A holiday camp project in Lebanon caused debates due to the sentimental value of the region. The planned location of the luxury holiday site is the coastal Biblos town in Beirut and the region also includes a cemetery, school and orphanage which belong to genocide survivor Armenians and known as “Bird's Nest”.

The demolition works in the region, which belongs to Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, was stopped a year ago due to reactions. However, a document leaked recently reveals the architectural details of the project. It is claimed that one of the partners of the holiday camp is Turkish. 

Preserving the Bird's Nest since 1967, Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, on February 21, 2015, announced that the coastal part of the region will be rented to a holiday camp project.

Since '90s

Known as the Bird's Nest, the region was a part of a Danish missionary orphanage and school, and welcomed genocide survivor Armenians and hosted one of the first Armenian communities in Lebanon. The Catholicosate announced that they came to terms with a contractor and it was claimed that almost a century old Surp Gayane Church, which is one of the oldest Armenian churches in Lebanon, will be turned into a SPA or restaurant. People severely criticized the project, when they found out that the remains of 33 people in the cemetery will be transferred to another cemetery in the north. People reacted against the project and investigations were started. Finally, about a year ago, the Catholicosate announced that the project is canceled.

Bird's Nest Orphanage Board of Trustees Spokesperson Seta Khedeshian made the statement on the cancellation. The spokesperson stated that Catholicos Aram decided to stop the project “in order to consider the situation more thoroughly by explaining the issue to the community in a more detailed way and relieving the tension”.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been a meeting or event, where people are informed about the details of the project, though it's been almost a year since this statement. On the contrary, some documents are leaked, which include architectural details of the holiday camp called “Diplomatic Club”. Sketch of one of the buildings belonging to the holiday camp is also shared on the website of the architectural firm. It turned out that the contractor company is executing the project contrary to the statement of the Catholicosate and in the absence of a building permit and furthermore, Surp Gayane Church has been evacuated and won't be used as a place of worship.

The group called “Bird's Nest Collective” started a campaign against construction work in the region, which has a great sentimental value for Armenian and Lebanese people. Having served as a shelter for genocide survivors, the orphanage also represents the first humanitarian aid initiatives in the country. According to the campaigners, turning such a place into an amusement site is disrespectful against the history and heritage of Bird's Nest, which has such an important connection to the genocide.

Diplomatic Club”

The “Diplomatic Club” project is in fact a part of another project, which has been carried out as part of privatization of the coastal areas in Beirut.

Founded by Protestant missionary and Danish nurse Maria Jacobson in 1928, the orphanage hosted Armenian children who were rescued from Harput. Managed by Jacobson until 1960, Bird's Nest is adjacent to the archaeological sites in Biblos. The property was belong to Denmark Benevolent Christian Women's Association, which left it to Armenian Church in Lebanon in 1970. Bird's Nest also offered educational and social services for Armenian children. Educating poor Armenian children in Syria and Lebanon between 2005 and 2007, the school provided social and educational services for children, who have been abused, mistreated or living on the streets.

Until the holiday camp project of the Armenian Church, Bird's Nest had been used in accordance with Jacobson's principals. She wanted this place to be a safe haven for genocide survivors and she had been taking care of children from different generations, who went through this trauma. Bird's Nest is a place where life and death coexist and where genocide victims are both commemorated and mourned for; thus, it would be a great loss for Lebanese Armenians.

Furthermore, historical Biblos town is in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Campaigners want the Bird's Nest to be turned into a public memory center. You can contact the Bird's Nest Collective via Facebook and Twitter. 

Surp Gayane Church

The church was initially built as a multipurpose room in 1921. In the periodical issued by Bird's Nest, the building was referred as a place of worship in 1926 for the first time. It is registered as a church in Lebanese cadastral archives. The church was named Surp Gayane, after the Bird's Nest was transferred to Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in 1967. The bell tower was added to the building after 1967.

Bird's Nest Orphanage

During World War I, Near East Foundation had been building refugee camps for the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Between 1919 and 1922, around 110,000 orphans had been taken to Russia, Syria, Lebanon and Greece, and 1400 orphans were settled in Biblos. Taking over the orphanage in 1926, Maria Jacobsen managed the Bird's Nest until 1960. Hosting about 4,000 orphans, Bird's Nest was given to Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in 1967. 


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Fatih Gökhan Diler