Web Panel Documents Cultural Erasure in Nagorno-Karabakh

“For the displaced and dispossessed, ancient cultural output provides material evidence for the historical existence of a people in a region,” Dr. Mashinka Firunts Hakopian stated during an online panel discussion titled “The Caucasian Albanian Palimpsest and Cultural Erasure in Nagorno-Karabakh.” “Just as present cultural output attests to their continued existence in spite of efforts toward their annihilation.” 

This panel was organized by Zoravik and Dr. Laure Astourian at a critical moment for the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of Armenian churches built on territories that have been handed over to Azerbaijan as per the ceasefire agreement ending the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War are at risk of destruction, consistent with Azerbaijan’s well-documented pattern of cultural genocide. Examples of active desecration of such churches have already been recorded, as discussed by Dr. Astourian in her opening remarks. 

The existence of centuries-old Armenian cultural monuments in Nagorno-Karabakh testifies to the indigenous Armenian presence on the land that is denied through the Caucasian Albanian theory. The Caucasian Albanian theory is an ethnogenetic theory that traces the origins of the people of Azerbaijan to the ancient Caucasian Albanians. The theory is instrumentalized in order to deny an ancient Armenian presence in the region, re-label Armenian churches as Caucasian Albanian and justify territorial claims in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We are dealing with a state-sanctioned memory project,” Dr. Vahé Tachjian explained. Dr. Tachjian is a historian and editor of the Houshamadyan website, a research project whose aim is to reconstruct the Ottoman Armenians’ local history and memory. According to Dr. Tachjian, Caucasian Albanians lived in the South Caucasus in antiquity and shared many similarities with their Armenian neighbors, particularly in terms of religion. While the Caucasian Albanians who resided outside of Nagorno-Karabakh were Islamized during the early Muslim conquests, the Caucasian Albanians of Nagorno-Karabakh were Armenianized through intermarriage. 

This long history of Caucasian Albanian and Armenian coexistence has been lost and manipulated by the Caucasian Albanian theory propounded by the Azerbaijani government for nationalistic and authoritarian purposes in the modern day. “We have here an issue related to a historical and cultural legacy that Azerbaijan is trying to portray or define by its nationalist tools, using the modernist concept of a nation, adding to that violent and I will say radicalist views that are characteristic to dictatorial regimes,” Dr. Tachjian upheld. 

This theory is part of a mechanism of inventing a longstanding history for a recently constructed national identity, partly in order to legitimize territorial claims. Yelena Ambartsumian stated that the first reference to Azerbaijani identity was articulated in the early 20th century with the formation of the first Azerbaijani state, prior to which inhabitants of the region were referred to as “Caucasian Tatars,” “Tatar” being an umbrella term for Turkic ethnic groups. Ambartsumian is an attorney and the founder of OrigenArt.com, a collection management tool and online marketplace for contemporary art collectors. “Azerbaijani scholars are falling into the same framework created by the Soviets, which is an attempt to trace an ethnic group to some sort of ancient borders,” she asserted. “Those ancient borders, however, of course also happen to be the recently created Soviet borders.” 

Yet the Armenian monuments of Nagorno-Karabakh disrupt this imperialistic scheme, not only by exposing the falsities of the Caucasian Albanian theory, but also by attesting to the longevity of Armenian existence in the region and carrying an ancient Armenian history in Nagorno-Karabakh into the future. “What we have then is a scenario where the indigenous past of Armenian monuments disrupts the settler-futurity that the occupying forces hope to build,” Dr. Hakopian argued. Dr. Hakopian is an art historian and senior researcher at the Berggruen Institute.

The panelists warned that the designation of churches as Caucasian Albanian will not protect them from material destruction. “Any elements of these sites that contain unique or distinctive Armenian elements that cannot be passed off as Caucasian Albanian will be removed,” Ambartsumian said. Such elements include khachkars (cross stones), church domes, founding inscriptions (written in the Armenian language) and donor portraits. 

Strategic activism will be crucial in order to protect these irreplaceable monuments. “In order to make a real and palpable material intervention and to actually take steps toward preservation, we will need very robust coalition building with agencies that can take the steps necessary and have the resources necessary to institute protections and monitoring systems,” Dr. Hakopian suggested. Indeed events like this one contribute to documenting cultural erasure and raising awareness of the renewed threats of cultural genocide facing the rich Armenian cultural heritage in the South Caucasus in order to galvanize the global community to action. 

Zoravik (“in solidarity”) is an Armenian activist collective that promotes new avenues for grassroots and political organizing for progressives. Zoravik recently published “From Hate Speech to Ethnic Cleansing: Why We Need to Get our Facts Right about Armenia and Azerbaijan”—an op-ed that was translated into 14 languages—and “Seeing through de Waal: Faux Neutrality in the War over Nagorno-Karabakh,” an article accompanied by English translations of Dr. Christian Kolter’s scholarly critique of Thomas de Waal’s claims to neutrality.

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian is a staff writer for the Armenian Weekly. Her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hetq and the Daily Californian. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Peace and Conflict Studies and Armenian Language and Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a human rights journalist and feminist poet. Her first poetry collection, Journey to Tatev, will be published with Girls on Key Press in spring of 2021.

4 Comments

  1. This was a truly excellent panel. A wealth of information and detailed, intelligent analysis. I hope the recording will be shared widely.

    • I agree! I am so thankful for the panel, and for this article. I learned much, and the elements I already knew were strengthened by the level of scholarship, inquiry, and authenticity upheld throughout the event.

  2. Thank you Zoravik for a fascinating and enlightening panel. “Strategic activism will be crucial in order to protect these irreplaceable monuments.” The total willful destruction by Azerbaijan of 89 churches and tens of thousands of Khatchkars in the medieval Armenian cemetery in Nakhichevan demonstrates the world’s immense cultural loss and the dangers of turning a blind eye to cultural erasure and Genocide.

    • Hi Judith, that “89 churches” figure is not accurate, and is one I am partly responsible for. I said in a telephone interview that there are 59 separate sites listed in Argam Ayvazyan’s book “Nakhchivan Monuments” and that on the basis of the sample number of sites I visited, I believed that they had all been destroyed. Somehow that got written down as 89 (the interviewer was French). 59 is just the number in that book, they were just the most important sites – and even those 59 separate sites were in many cases composed of multiple churches. So 89 is an underestimation. I don’t know if a total figure for all the extant churches that existed into the 1980s has been assembled.

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