Cultural cleansing in occupied Artsakh

The BBC has documented the total destruction of a 19th-century Armenian church in the latest recorded incident of a systematic pattern of cultural genocide perpetrated by the Azerbaijani government against Armenian cultural heritage in the South Caucasus. 

BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher traveled to the region of Jabrayil, an outlying territory of Artsakh that came under Azerbaijani control under the November 9 ceasefire agreement, to investigate the disappearance of Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church (Armenian Holy Mother of God Church) in the village of Mekhakavan. Video footage from November proves that the church was intact immediately following the end of the war. When Fisher questioned his Azerbaijani police escort about the church, he was told that it was destroyed during the war. 

The agreement ending the 2020 Artsakh War handed jurisdiction over seven outlying territories (including Jabrayil) and parts of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, including the Hadrut region and the city of Shushi, to Azerbaijan. These lands contain at least 1,456 Armenian historical and cultural sites, including 161 churches, the preserved Hellenistic city of Tigranakert, the Azokh Paleolithic cave and the Nor Karmiravan tombs. Eight state museums and galleries, including the Shushi Carpet Museum and the Shushi Armenian Money Museum, with 19,311 exhibits also fell under Azerbaijani control

Cultural heritage sites were among the victims of Azerbaijani aggression during the war, as the military deliberately targeted Armenian cultural and religious monuments in Artsakh. Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi, situated far away from any military targets, was struck twice using highly accurate munitions systems in an attack Human Rights Watch has classified as a possible war crime. The major Hellenistic and Armenian archaeological site Tigranakert founded in the 1st-century BCE was also shelled several times. 

Following the end of the war scholars from around the world penned an open letter calling on international organizations to safeguard and monitor Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which organized and hosted the Armenia! exhibition in 2018, also enjoined the warring parties to respect Armenian cultural heritage sites. 

These supplications for international protection not only stem from wartime examples of desecration and damage to cultural monuments, but also from a widely documented campaign directed by the Azerbaijani government to systematically erase the ancient Armenian presence in the South Caucasus through the destruction of cultural and religious sites. The most glaring example of this cultural genocide is the demolition of the world’s largest collection of khachkars, or distinctive medieval-era Armenian cross-stones, at the cemetery in Djulfa, Nakhichevan. 

Djulfa cemetery before its destruction (Photo: Aram Vruyr, 1915)

A groundbreaking forensic report in 2019 by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman exposed the obliteration of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones and 22,000 tombstones in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan between 1997 and 2006. The historically Armenian Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic was conceded to Azerbaijan alongside Artsakh following the region’s Sovietization. Video footage documents the last stage of the erasure of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past in December of 2005, as Azerbaijani soldiers, equipped with sledgehammers, dump trucks and cranes, destroyed the final 2,000 cross-stones remaining in the Djulfa necropolis. 

While the government of Azerbaijan denies its role in the devastation of Armenian cultural monuments, it justifies the appropriation of Armenian cultural heritage sites through the discredited Caucasian Albanian theory. The Caucasian Albanians constituted a confederation of tribes that coexisted alongside Armenians in antiquity and were ultimately Armenianized through intermarriage. In the mid-20th century Azerbaijani scholars adopted the Soviet model of inventing historiographies to trace newly demarcated boundaries to ancient borders and developed the Caucasian Albanian theory, according to which the Azerbaijani people are the direct descendants of Caucasian Albanians. The theory is instrumentalized to deny the ancient Armenian presence in the South Caucasus and label Christian Armenian cultural heritage monuments as Caucasian Albanian. 

International silence on cultural genocide in the South Caucasus can be attributed in part to strategic Azerbaijani diplomacy. The government influences institutions charged with protecting cultural heritage, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to promote a tolerant image of the tyrannical regime and espouse silence on its human rights violations. 

A 2017 investigation by the Guardian revealed a complex money-laundering operation nicknamed the Azerbaijani Laundromat that covertly paid European politicians and journalists through a $2.9 billion slush fund to deflect criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s administration. Among the beneficiaries was Kalin Mitrev, husband of former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. Mitrev received six payments totaling $468,000 between 2012 and 2014 for private consulting work from a local Azeri company, Avuar Co. 

The impacts of Azerbaijan’s lobbying efforts are evident in the continued friendly relations between the country and UNESCO. In 2004 the Vice President of Azerbaijan Mehriban Aliyeva (and the wife of President Ilham Aliyev) was granted the title of Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO, a position that organizations including the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom have entreated UNESCO to withdraw. In 2005, seven months before the demolition of the Djulfa cemetery, President Aliyev awarded the “Order of Glory” medal to the former Director-General of UNESCO Kōichirō Matsuura. 

Two years after the cash-strapped organization lost 22 percent of its former budget in 2011, Azerbaijan made a timely contribution of $5 million to UNESCO. That same year UNESCO hosted a photo exhibition titled “Azerbaijan, Land of Tolerance” at its Paris headquarters at the request of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, led by Mehriban Aliyeva. The exhibition lauded the country’s purported tradition and state policy of multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence among ethnic and religious minorities. In 2019, the 43rd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was hosted in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku. 

UNESCO has abstained from condemning acts of cultural genocide committed by the Azerbaijani government, including the erasure of Armenian religious monuments in Nakhichevan. Azerbaijan for its part has refused to comply with the monitoring mechanisms of international organizations committed to the protection of cultural heritage. In 2006 the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of Djulfa cemetery and demanding that Azerbaijan allow a delegation of the European Parliament to visit the site. However, the European Parliament was denied access to Nakhichevan. In December of 2020 UNESCO lamented the delay in sending a mission to Artsakh to assess the status of cultural property following the war due to the lack of cooperation by Azerbaijan. 

Following the latest report of the demolition of the Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church in Jabrayil, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan refuted allegations of a cultural crime, claiming that the 200 year old chapel was constructed “only five years ago” and “cannot be considered a part of Jabrayil’s cultural history.” Meanwhile thousands of cultural and religious monuments testifying to an ancient Armenian presence in Artsakh remain under Azerbaijani control and at risk of erasure. 

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.

1 Comment

  1. This is no more surprising like 100 years ago, like 30 years ago. Like now, Azerbaijan and Turkey do everything to destroy Armenian monuments and churches and claim that there had never lived any Armenian and that grounds belong them for centuries. I think Armenia should use its international relation to speak up about this and make Azerbaijan respect our culture. Unfortunately, our government is now busy with elections, and we all are seeing how Azerbaijani soldiers destroy our heritage in front of our eyes…

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