Cultural erasure may spark next Nagorno-Karabakh war

Asia Times

If Azerbaijan truly wants peace in Artsakh it should allow Armenians
to keep five sacred Christian monuments

By Simon Maghakyan

Azerbaijan’s recent 44-day war on Armenia-backed Artsakh, better known
by its Soviet name of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulted in a Moscow-brokered
deal earlier this week that effectively ends millennia-old Armenian
existence in much of the region.

In addition to land already lost on the battlefield, the deal dictates
Armenians to cede to Azerbaijan many more territories by December 1.
As they evacuate these lands, traumatized Armenians are leaving behind
hundreds of sacred sites. Given Azerbaijan’s terrible record with
cultural erasure, long-term peace may seem hopeless.

Over the past 15 years, I have been researching cultural erasure as an
understudied aspect of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. My research
was prompted in December 2005 when, as a 19-year-old, I watched a
newly-taped video of 100 Azerbaijani soldiers deliberately destroying
Djulfa, the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery that at its
height housed 10,000 medieval khachkars (cross-stones).

Within a year, I produced a short film about the destruction. Last
year, my conclusive report, co-authored with historian Sarah Pickman,
demonstrated that Djulfa’s erasure was the grand finale of a
systematic, covert, and total destruction of 28,000 medieval monuments
that represented the indigenous Armenian past of the Nakhichevan

According to Azerbaijan’s authorities, Armenians’ ancient past is fake
news. A top Azerbaijani diplomat has dismissed my research as “a
figment of Armenia’s imagination.” The 89 medieval churches, 5,840
cross-stones and over 22,000 historical tombstones of Nakhichevan
never existed in the first place because, Azerbaijan insists,
Armenians are not indigenous to the Caucasus.

[Photo: A young woman lights candles in a church in the
self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Photo: Maksim Blinov /
Sputnik via AFP]

Until 1997, however, Azerbaijan had largely preserved these monuments
after relabeling them “Caucasian Albanian.” Since the 1950s, in order
to challenge Armenian antiquity and to create a myth of
indigenousness, Azerbaijan has “Albanized” medieval Armenian
Christianity by proclaiming it the stolen heritage of “Caucasian
Albania,” a kingdom nowhere near Nakhichevan that existed until the
7th century.

Despite its Turkic roots in Central Asia, Azerbaijan prefers to be
seen as the Islamized heir to the long-extinct Caucasian Albanians.

In practice, Azerbaijan’s “Albanization” of Armenian monuments is an
inevitable erasure. In the short term, a medieval Christian monastery
stripped of its unique Armenian lettered inscriptions may be preserved
in Azerbaijan as “Caucasian Albanian,” but likely not permanently so.

“Albanization” certainly did not prevent the destruction of even
Agulis, the most culturally-rich town in Nakhichevan, where all sacred
Armenian sites, including the Saint Thomas Cathedral that, per
tradition, was originally founded as a chapel by a disciple of Jesus,
were methodically destroyed by Azerbaijan’s military starting in 1997.

The destruction of Agulis (Azerbaijani spelling Yukhari Aylis) was
witnessed by its most prominent native son Akram Aylisli, the
Azerbaijani novelist that currently lives under house arrest in the
capital Baku, in part, for protesting this cultural erasure.

Right now, hundreds of sacred Armenian sites are in the process of
being transferred to Azerbaijan. Some were already captured on the
battlefield, especially in the Hadrut region and in the prominent city
of Shushi (Azerbaijani spelling is Shusha).

Many others are in the process of being ceded to Azerbaijan under the
ceasefire agreement. In light of how Azerbaijan erased 28,000
monuments in Nakhichevan, Armenians and cultural rights defenders
rightfully fear a similar fate for the sacred sites of Artsakh.

If history is a guide, this is how Azerbaijan will treat the sacred
sites of Artsakh.

First, it will destroy the numerous medieval statuesque khachkars that
are nearly impossible to “Albanize” given their rich Armenian
inscriptions. One of the most prominent khachkars at grave risk is the
14th century Angels and the Cross in the Vank village of Hadrut
region, which Azerbaijan captured last month.

[Photo: The Gandzasar Monastery, an outstanding monument of Armenian
culture, on the left bank of the Khachen river near the village of
Vank in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP via Sputnik/R Mangasaryan]

Second, Azerbaijan is likely to swiftly destroy all lesser-known
medieval Armenian churches, as well as medieval inscriptions on
secular structures, especially those already under its control in the
Hadrut region. In fact, video evidence suggests that Azerbaijani
soldiers are already desecrating sacred sites.

Third, the best-known Cathedrals will likely be “Albanized” and
preserved in the short-term, although “Albanizing” the majestic
Dadivank Monastery, for instance, will be a particular challenge given
its over 100 Armenian inscriptions. Again, in light of what happened
in Nakhichevan, Albanization of major sites is an unlikely hope for
long-term preservation.

Finally, for public relations and to underscore the myth that
Armenians are not the indigenous peoples of Artsakh, Azerbaijan will
likely restore the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi it
air bombed twice on October 8.

Although Azerbaijani forces further vandalized the Cathedral after
Shushi’s capture, the 19th century structure’s age fits Azerbaijan’s
anti-Armenian historical narrative perfectly; a church of similar age
has been similarly preserved in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku for that
very purpose.

The likely token restoration of Shushi’s Holy Savior should not give
anyone false hope: the monuments in real danger are the numerous
medieval sacred sites that attest to the region’s indigenous Armenian
past, especially if they are not well known.

[Photo: The Azerbaijani military’s destruction of the medieval Djulfa
cemetery in December 2005 as seen from Iran’s territory. Photo: Arthur

Cultural erasure and desecration are heartbreakingly painful for
Armenians. Some Armenian families are literally digging up the burials
of their ancestors to evacuate with them as they leave the lands that
will soon be transferred to Azerbaijan.

One day, perhaps, Armenians may reconcile with the idea that most of
their early heritage has been erased. However, five ancient Artsakh
monuments are particularly sacred for Armenians, their erasure would
permanently scar generations to come:

· Amaras, founded in the 4th century upon Armenia becoming the first
Christian nation, preserves a 5th century mausoleum to a local saint.
It is located in the Martuni region. As of this writing, it is unclear
who controls the area.

· Dadivank, the origins of which date back to a 1st century chapel
founded by the earliest preachers of Christianity, was built into a
monastic complex between the 9th and 13th centuries. Over the past few
days, hundreds of Armenians have been flocking to the majestic
monastery to light a candle one last time. It is located in the
Kelbajar region.

[Photo: A general view of the Dadivank Monastery in Nagorno-Karaakh.
Photo: Dr. Hamlet Petrosyan]

· Gtichavank, rebuilt in the 13th century, was a key Cathedral for the
autonomous principality of Khachen and its Melikdom successors that
relentlessly compromised with Arab, Mongol, Persian, and Turkic
conquerors to ensure Armenian existence, even if it meant adopting
Islamic names. (My mother’s own ancestral Armenian Christian family
included names like Aziz, Manuchar, and Sultan.) It is located in the
Hadrut region that Azerbaijan captured last month.

· Tigranakert is a Hellenistic Armenian city likely founded by the
Greek-speaking Armenian emperor Tigranes II and also preserves
newly-excavated early medieval Christian temples. It is located in the
Agdam region and has been recently shelled.

· Tsitsernavank is one of the first basilica churches in the world.
Some of its unique architectural features suggest that it may have
been founded as a pagan temple before the year 301. It is located in
the Lachin region.

All of these sacred Armenian sites are within several kilometers of
the current or upcoming Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact. None of
them are located in strategic areas. Having lost the 1990s Karabakh
war and now won the second one this month, Azerbaijan should deeply
consider preventing a third war.

As painful as the loss of people, homes, lands, mountains, numerous
khachkars and many lesser-known churches may be for Armenians, being
allowed to keep Amaras, Dadivank, Gtichavank, Tigranakert, and
Tsitsernavank may help Armenians heal.

I am not asking for mercy. I am suggesting a potential path to peace.


Simon Maghakyan is a lecturer in International Relations at the
University of Colorado Denver and a human rights activist.


You may also like