How a Mythical Fertility Goddess Could Help Steer Armenia's National Election

A political party is trying to rally voters to demand the British Museum return a 2000-year-old bust of Anahit.

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Left, the bust held in the British Museum. Right, Anahit's face on Armenian currency and stamps. / EurasiaNet

To the British Museum, she is "probably Aphrodite," the Greek goddess of love and beauty. To most Armenians, she is Anahit, an ancient Armenian goddess of fertility. Whoever is on the 1st century BC female bronze head with wavy hair and aquiline nose, it may serve as a political prop in Armenia's looming parliamentary election campaign.

The bust, housed in the British Museum, is featured on Armenian beauty parlor logos, coins, banknotes and stamps alike. It is better known in Armenia than even the country's state emblem, a recent TV opinion poll indicated. If asked, many Armenians most likely assume that the head, and a companion hand, are in Armenia itself.

And, now, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, a leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, along with the party's Armenian Youth Foundation (AYF), want to make sure that, one day, they will be. In February, Ashotian and the AYF launched an online campaign to gather petition signatures aimed at having the British Museum turn over to Yerevan ownership of the 1st century BC hand and head.

Ashotian disclaims any political motive, saying the timing of the petition drive has nothing to do with the upcoming parliamentary election. It is instead, he says, tied to the arrival of new British envoys, the husband-wife team of Jonathan Aves and Katherine Leach, to Yerevan in January. The parliamentary vote is scheduled for May 6, and the governing coalition, which is dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia, stands to potentially benefit from the publicity surrounding the initiative.

"It's merely my own initiative as a citizen. Not as a politician," Ashotian told Armenian media outlets.

Holding posters of the goddess and chanting "Anahit, come home!" roughly a hundred young people gathered on March 7 in front of the British Embassy to present Ambassador Leach with a petition of 20,000 signatures. An accompanying letter expressed thanks to the United Kingdom for keeping an eye on the goddess, but asserted that "historical justice requires" that the statue's head and hand "be repatriated and find refuge in the country of their origin."

In response, the British Museum has agreed to a temporary exhibition of Anahit in Armenia, according to the British Embassy. Details are not yet available.

Ashotian called the exhibition "the first step" in what he predicts will be "years of consistent work and efforts [that] will result in the permanent return of this highly important relic of ours."

Some local experts scoff at the campaign to recover Anahit, characterizing it as a sideshow. "Have we run out of all other issues?" asked Zhores Khachatrian, a leading expert on Armenian art from the Hellenstic period at the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. "It's pointless and . . . populism that failed from the start."

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