Is Western Condemnation of Cultural Destruction Reserved Exclusively for Enemies?

The Armenian Weekly
Aug. 18, 2012

International organizations, Western governments, and mainstream media are vociferously outraged–and rightfully so–over the recent destruction of majestic Sufi Muslim shrines by Islamist extremists in Timbuktu, Mali, mirroring the reaction to the Taliban’s 2001 demolition of two beautiful Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The cemetery before it was destroyed (Photo:

The violators of cultural rights in both instances are anti-Western, al-Qaeda-linked groups, and that alone seems to have merited the strong Western condemnation.

Otherwise, why has the West maintained its overwhelming silence regarding the complete destruction of the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery by Azerbaijan, a major energy supplier to, and arms purchaser from, the West?

In December 2005, clerics from the Armenian Church of Northern Iran videotaped over 100 uniformed men across the border in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan destroying the thousands of breathtaking and unique Armenian khatchkars, or cross-stones, of the magnificent Djulfa cemetery. The church later issued photographs clearly showing that the sacred site had been replaced by a military rifle range.

Azerbaijan vehemently denied the destruction report, suggesting that the cemetery, like the medieval Armenians it memorialized, never existed in the first place. (Official historiography in Azerbaijan claims that Armenians did not live in the South Caucasus region until the 19th century.) To protect its case, Azerbaijan subsequently banned European observers (and years later, a wavering U.S. ambassador) from visiting the cemetery site, thereby compelling the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to document the crime with satellite data. The AAAS joined the European Parliament and ICOMOS, an organization for cultural preservation, as one of a few international institutions to document or condemn Djulfa’s destruction.

Washington’s public reaction to Djulfa’s destruction, however, came months after the devastation in the form of a written response to a question posed by California Senator Barbara Boxer (D). In their response, the State Department “urg[ed] the relevant Azerbaijani authorities to investigate the allegations of desecration of cultural monuments in Nakhichevan,” essentially downplaying an entire culture’s obliteration by irresolutely calling it “desecration,” an oft-used description for gravestone graffiti vandalism. In private, however, the State Department was aggravated—not with Azerbaijan’s wanton destruction, as suggested by a leaked cable, but with Armenia’s “strongly worded press release” condemning it.

The international organization charged with protecting our global heritage, UNESCO, followed suit, Washington style. UNESCO’s only public reaction to Djulfa’s destruction was a response to my 2010 petition, wherein the organization expressed its readiness to dispatch an investigative mission, contingent on the consent of the perpetrator, Azerbaijan, and otherwise failed to condemn the destruction. In other words, UNESCO has effectively committed itself to indefinite silence by asking Azerbaijan to willingly work against its perceived political interests, a near certain impossibility. As expected, Azerbaijan did not react to UNESCO’s proposal.

While Azerbaijan’s destruction of Djulfa failed to elicit any meaningful response from UNESCO, the organization did spring into action after the word “Djulfa” was mentioned in a 2011 exhibit of Armenian cross-stones. Even after censoring the word, UNESCO boycotted its own exhibit, because a photo of the cemetery was still included in the exhibition, albeit without a caption.

The impetus behind the cemetery’s destruction and ensuing political machinations is the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabagh, but the obliteration of Djulfa took place in an undisputed region—Nakhichevan. And while the United States, as a mediator in the Karabagh conflict, is expected to remain impartial, a muted response to the well-documented destruction of a major cultural site cannot be equated with evenhandedness; it is, in fact, counterproductive as it reinforces a primary cause of the conflict: the Armenian perception that Azerbaijan has intentionally been wiping out all traces of their indigenous identity without accountability.

Washington’s response to Djulfa’s destruction has likely been muted, in part, by Azerbaijan’s vast energy resources, which Baku sells to Western markets via Turkey. Azerbaijan’s arms purchases from Israel, as well as its speculated status as secret staging ground for a possible attack against Iran, may also play a part in the silence over Djulfa’s destruction.

While Washington’s mealy-mouthed response may be predictable given its energy and security interests in Azerbaijan, UNESCO’s inaction is unacceptable, as is the silence of much of the international media (with a few exceptions). It is troubling that Washington’s selective condemnation of cultural rights violations, which are apparently based on perceived self-interests, is mimicked in international media coverage as well as in the actions of an international organization ostensibly created to stand up for all vulnerable and threatened heritage.

In the meantime, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova has the time to pen a CNN opinion piece on Timbuktu’s destruction, but she acts as if she has not even heard about Djulfa, even though a 2011 document prepared for Bokova, and once posted on, suggests otherwise. Its summary of a speech by the Armenian foreign minister’s contains the following statement:

“[The minister] further explains that, with Azerbaijan, efforts to do away with Armenian heritage go on unabated despite the continuous alarm rang [sic] by Armenia. He refers to the annihilation of the centuries-old Jugha (Julfa) Cemetery in Nakhichevan [previously resided by Armenians, now territory of Azerbaijan; comment by UNESCO] with its thousands of carved cross-stones being knocked over, piled and carted away between 1998 and 2005, and its transformation into a military training ground in 2005.”

In what appears to be appeasement for failing to take a stand on Djulfa’s destruction, UNESCO indirectly acknowledged the value and vulnerability of Armenian khatchkars by declaring their craftsmanship and symbolism Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, without any mention of what until five years earlier was the largest collection of khatchkars on earth.

Djulfa’s destruction, like that of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Timbuktu shrines, merits widespread coverage, unwavering condemnation, and international liability, no matter who the perpetrator is.

Simon Maghakyan

Simon Maghakyan

Simon Maghakyan is a Denver-based educator and activist. He teaches political science at the University of Colorado Denver and Red Rocks Community College; coordinates community development for the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region; and previously campaigned for human rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia with Amnesty International USA. He writes in personal capacity.


  1. The Turks and their Azeri brethren are experts at erasing history and denying the existence of other cultures whose historic homelands they have claimed, from northern Cyprus, across Anatolia and up to Baku. Of course, realpolitik dictates that due to Turkey’s “strategic importance,” the West continues to turn a blind eye to the ongoing cultural destruction occurring in that part of the world. However, in doing so it imperils its own moral high ground and minimizes the impact of its outrage at the destruction of cultural monuments elsewhere around the world. Washington and UNESCO need to understand that consistency matters, regardless of “strategic” imperatives; otherwise, they become willing accomplices to these crimes. There is no room for selectivity when it comes to protecting the patrimony of humankind.

  2. The European Parliament was the only international organization which clearly condemned the destruction of the Julfa Khatchkars. see the links
    On 16 February 2006 the EP emergency Resolution “demands that Azerbaijan allow missions, including experts working with ICOMOS, who are dedicated to surveying and protecting archaeological heritage, in particular Armenian heritage, onto its territory, and that it also allow a European Parliament delegation to visit the archaeological site at Djulfa.”
    Later in a 7 April 2006 meeting the Conference of Presidents of the EP ( Presidents of political groups and the President of the EP) decided to send a mission to Nakhitchevan
    but Azerbaijan banned access to the site.
    The European Armenian Federation acted strongly along with many influential MEPs to insure the decisions of the EP and faced a fierce lobbying from the mixed Azerbaijani/ Turkish governments for that achievement.

  3. I’ll tell you why the West doesn’t care about the Muslim destruction of Armenian monuments: because they are Christian. That’s why NATO forces in the Balkans allowed the destruction of 150 Churches right under their noses that they were ‘protecting’. That’s why the US Air force bombed Yugoslavia on Easter day; they wrote ‘Happy Easter’ on the bombs (note that they never bomb Muslims on Ramadan). That’s why the West is aiding and abetting the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis coming to power in multiple countries in the Middle East that is causing immense suffering to Christians and other minorities. The West no longer cares about the plight of anyone or anything Christian because the West no longer self identifies as a Judeo-Christian civilization. The latter is the result of a century of de-christianization, a process that now powers the self-hating and self-destructive tendencies of the West.

    • So….. You’re kidding right? As someone who grew up in the deep south let me just say that if you think the West is de christianized you are completely out of your mind.

    • geopolitical concerns and money trump imagined religious affinity every time.

      Western European Roman Catholic Christians have no great love for Orthodox Christian Serbs, or Russians, or Armenians.
      RC France under Napoleon invaded OC Russia.
      The coalition that confronted and defeated Napoleon consisted of RC and OC nations.

      Sunny and Shia Muslims have been killing each other for centuries.
      Minority Sunny (dominated) Iraq attacked Shia Iran: the war cost the lives of an estimated 800,000 Iranians and 400,000 Iraqis.
      Christian Germany started two World Wars against other Christian nations: England and France. Total dead close to 100 million.

      Christian Germany was allied with and enabled Muslim Ottoman Turkey to exterminate its Christians.
      Islamic Republic of Iran provided crucial humanitarian aid to Christian Armenia when Muslim Azerbaijan and Muslim Turkey had blockaded her, with some connivance of Orthodox Christian Georgia.

      Regarding UNESCO: Both Turkey and Azerbaijan have lots of surplus funds to ‘contribute’ to UNESCO.
      You can buy a lot of love from someone like Irina Bokova, if you are paying a large chunk of her Org’s budget.

      Armenians: strive to become more powerful and wealthy – weak and poor always get trampled.

  4. Mr. Maghakyan:
    Thank you for an excellent, informative and well documented article, and for your website.
    If I may be allowed, you may wish to refer to Nakorno Karabagh as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the future, instead of the Nagorno Karabakh region.

  5. Mr. Terjanian and Mr. Maghakyan,

    You are both wrong – It always was and will be in the future ARTSAKH ! As long as Armenians use the word Black Garden they use the Azeri expression for Armenias most important area. About 1000 years before the first Tartar came to the so called
    Azerbaijan our Krikor Lussavoritch taught Armenians at Amaras.
    If WE don´t teach the world to use ARTSAKH, who then is going to do it ?

    • sorry WR: you are wrong and Mr. Terjanian is right.

      here is the Official web site of NKR Government:

      for a variety of practical and political reasons it is called NAGORNO KARABAKH REPUBLIC. When the time is right, people of Artsakh will change it to Republic of Artsakh (or whatever name they choose).

      No biggie.

    • Avery-jan, Thank you for providing the link to the ARTSAKH’s Government website. How about we read more then the heading?

      Here is what I found there:

      Artsakh’s Constitution starts with the following words: “We, the People of Arstakh…” and it’s Chapter 1 Article 1 states the following:

      “Chapter I. The Foundations of Constitutional Order

      Article 1.

      1. The Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Artsakh, is a sovereign, democratic state based on social justice and the rule of law.

      2. The Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Artsakh Republic designations are the same.”

    • Voskanapat: I read more of the Constitution.

      Here is what I found:
      There are 5 instances of ‘Artsakh’ in the Constitution.
      There are 68 instances of ‘Nagorno Karabagh’ in the Constitution, including the title – C O N S T I T U T I O N OF THE NAGORNO KARABAKH REPUBLIC.

      Almost every Article of the Constitution refers to Nagorno Karabagh Republic.

      Nobody is arguing that Artsakh is not the historic, proper place name.
      And obviously Artsakh sounds far more beautiful to Armenian ears.

      But the people and leadership of Artsakh have chosen to use the official name NKR for their State at this time. See also the Coat of Arms of NKR Army.

      So I stand by what I previously wrote to WR: Mr. Terjanian is right (or maybe more right).

  6. To Mr. or Ms
    I agree with you, it would be better if we all used the term Artsakh Republic (Արցախի Հանրապետություն).
    With all due respect, I have noticed however that, just like the official Artsakh Republic website uses the term “Nagorno Karabagh Republic” (see ) in English, Armenian and Russian almost all the time, your own website is also full of the term “Нагорный Карабах”.

  7. The opinions about using NKR and Artsakh are always interesting, but like Avery, I don’t think it’s that big a deal, for the moment anyway. In fact, NKR may even provide an advantage… it is our message to the world, that no matter how much you Turkify a name and try to erase its history, Armenia will never be divided as a nation both culturally and physically. Just like “Nagorno Karabakh”, failed to convince anyone that it is Turkish/Azeri land, likewise “East Anatolia” will one day also fail. THE ARMENIAN HIGHLAND can never change, and as Armenians every one of us has a duty to never stop our demand for justice until our nation is fully restored to the last centimeter.

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