An in-depth report published earlier this year at Hyperallergic reveals a harrowing assault on Armenian relics carried out by Azerbaijan’s government from 1997 to 2006. The report tracks Azerbaijan’s destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones. This column will present and explain those findings.
One of the well-reported and documented crimes of ISIS was the terrorist organization’s systemic and targeted demolition and campaign of cultural cleansing of historical vestiges throughout Syria and Iraq — sites sacred to Muslims, Jews, Christians, Yazidi Kurds, and others alike — amid their murderous rampage through the area.
According to Marina Gabriel, a coordinator at the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI), the trail of destruction left by ISIS is “almost unprecedented in recent history, and is particularly devastating for a region with extensive history that has impacted the world.”
WORSE THAN ISIS?
While almost unprecedented, it is preceded by a much lesser-known cultural erasure of 89 churches, 5,840 ornate cross-stones, 22,000 tombstones, and other artifacts, sanctioned by the oil-rich regime in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. The fault of these medieval Christian monuments was that they were proof of the rich indigenous Armenian heritage of a once fought over territory that is now an exclave — courtesy of a 1921 Turkish-Soviet treaty — of Azerbaijan. That region, nestled between Armenia and Iran and bordering Turkey, is called Nakhichevan.
Unlike the monuments destroyed by ISIS, however, not even dust remains of the Armenian sacred sites of Nakhichevan. The details of this elegiac, inhumane crime have been exposed in a groundbreaking Hyperallergic report — bolstered by the UK Guardian — by Denver-based political analyst Simon Maghakyan and Yale-trained historian Sarah Pickman. Azerbaijan has not only erased those monuments, but also claims that they never existed to begin with. After all, the regime absurdly claims that Armenians did not live in the region in medieval times.
Before delving into the details of Azerbaijan’s 1997-2006 — near-decade long — perpetration of cultural genocide, the secret erasure of 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments, it’s imperative to understand the deep-seated Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in its entirety. Its roots run deep, writhing through Soviet history, and are deeply entrenched in a territorial conflict over another region, Artsakh, which is better known by its Russian-Persian name of Nagorno-Karabakh.
THE ARMENIAN-AZERBAIJANI CONFLICT
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the demise of the Russian Empire in the early days of the Russian Revolution and the Sovietization of the South Caucasus. Shortly after the uprising that ousted the Tsar, the ephemeral Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic was established. Brimming with internal conflicts, it soon dissolved and separated into the Democratic Republic of Georgia, the Democratic Republic of Armenia, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
Three historically Armenian regions in this area (which had also become home to large Azeri populations following nomadic Turkic conquests of the Armenian homeland) — Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan, and Zangezur — were host to a slew of battles between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the next two years, 1918 through 1920.
After forced Sovietization, Zangezur remained within Soviet Armenia, but Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh were placed under Soviet Azerbaijan as “autonomous oblasts.” It is often said that this was part of Joseph Stalin’s divide and conquer strategy. However, other scholars claim that the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan to Soviet Azerbaijan recognized the political realities of the day: Turkey, having committed the Armenian Genocide and hell-bent on further weakening what was left of Armenia, was pressuring the Soviets to be generous to Turkey’s co-ethnolinguistic Azerbaijan. Others say that the Soviets favored Azerbaijan’s oil reserves over Armenians’ ancient presence and rich history in the South Caucasus.
For the next few decades, tensions between the Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan quelled, freezing to a standstill under the hard chill of Moscow rule. However, as the Iron Curtain began to dwindle and weather in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, contention over Nagorno-Karabakh began to thaw, reemerging with intense ferocity.
Throughout its Soviet epoch, Nagorno-Karabakh maintained a majority Armenian population, while Nakhichevan’s diminished as aggressive Azeri policies cleansed the region of its indigenous Christian inhabitants (40% in 1914 down to a paltry 1.4% by 1979; today the number of Armenians in Nakhichevan is zero).
Fearing the fate of Nakhichevan’s Armenian denizens, Nagorno-Karabakh pursued confederacy with Soviet Armenia in 1988. However, under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s rigid policies, the region descended into chaos as war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
When, just three years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight, and Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged as newly independent states, tensions between the belligerents escalated. Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh (which the native Armenian inhabitants call Artsakh) was up against an Azerbaijan aided by mercenaries and volunteers from its Muslim-majority compatriots, Afghanistan and Chechnya, and heavily supported by Turkey, which some believe had a plan of attacking Armenia in 1993.
After consuming tens of thousands of lives on both sides, and uprooting many more, a cease-fire, intermediated by Russia, was successfully negotiated in May of 1994. Armenians miraculously won the war — which some attribute to the specter of yet another Armenian Genocide hanging above their heads. Artsakh not only became a de-facto republic, but gained a large “buffer zone” territory that was not part of its Soviet boundaries.
The humiliating defeat of Azerbaijan might have been one of the reasons why its leadership decided to perpetrate the Cultural Genocide in Nakhichevan.
Maghakyan and Pickman present a detailed investigation into this destruction, including recounting Soviet-era documentary efforts of the existing monuments, eyewitness testimony of the post-Soviet erasure, satellite data, and even Azerbaijani governmental documents that implicitly acknowledge the wipeout of Nakhichevan’s ancient Armenian past.
DOCUMENTING THE DESTRUCTION
Today, tourists vying to visit historical vestiges in post-Soviet Nakhichevan will be dismayed to find the land stripped clean and excavated of its Armenian roots and heritage sites in a fashion harking back to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, in which whole swaths of documents and photographs were meticulously edited to wipe out inconvenient facets of history. Only here, the victims of historical revisionism aren’t photos and papers; they are sculpted stones and grand churches dating back thousands of years.
Predicting the inevitable demise of Armenian relics throughout Azerbaijani occupied Nakhichevan, an Armenia-based researcher, Argam Ayvazyan, spent more than two decades, from 1964 to 1987, amassing a trove of documentation, enough to fill the crevices of 200 published articles and 40 books, on the region’s intrinsic Armenian roots.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union more broadly, Ayvazyan had documented 89 Armenian churches and 5,840 ornate “khachakars” (the Armenian word for ancient slabs of stone bearing a hand-carved cross, abound with intricate decals) and 22,000 horizontal tombstones, among other Armenian monuments.
Fast-forward to the turn of the millennium, and the cultural artifacts archived by Ayvazyan all but disappeared under the heel of Azerbaijani occupation. When, in 2005, a Scottish researcher, Steven Sim, traveled to Nakhichevan intent on assessing the grand churches captured in the work of Ayvazyan, he instead found vacant lots and scant tumbleweeds amid the arid land. Azerbaijani state police, parroting propaganda, explained to him, as quoted in Hyperallergic, “Armenians came here and took photographs … then went back to their country and inserted into them photographs of churches in Armenia … There were no Armenians ever living here – so how could there have been churches here?”
The only historical remnants Sim was able to find were toppled headstones in an ancient cemetery in what had been the city of (Old) Julfa in the medieval era. They had only survived due to their location, being within a stone’s throw of Nakhichevan’s international border with Iran. But even this internationally-renowned cemetery, which was considered the largest medieval Armenian necropolis, was not spared.
Mere months later, the Armenian Church in Northern Iran — near the border with Azerbaijani occupied Nakhichevan — was alerted of a military attack on the Julfa cemetery, visible across the border. Armenian Bishop Nshan Topouzian and his driver were able to film a mob of over 100 Azerbaijani soldiers hoisting sledgehammers and operating dump trucks and cranes destroying the historic cemetery’s final remnants: 2,000 “khachkars” — more than a thousand had already been destroyed within the last few years.
The cemetery in Julfa was the final, major Armenian site in Nakhichevan to be razed. In the Azerbaijani crusade against Nakhichevan’s Armenian ties, nothing remained. Between 1997 and 2006, the Government of Azerbaijan eradicated every material trace of ancient Armenian heritage in the previously-disputed region of Nakhichevan, including 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricately-carved cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conducted a geospatial study in 2010, which concluded that, “satellite evidence is consistent with reports by observers on the ground who have reported the destruction of Armenian artifacts in the Djulfa cemetery.”
Despite vehement denial of perpetrating cultural genocide against Nakhichevan’s Armenian heritage, Azerbaijan’s own government is host to some of the strongest evidence of their war crimes. Maghakyan and Pickman unearth previously-unknown evidence from official Azerbaijani sources. In the days leading up to Julfa’s demolition, the Azeri autocrat of Nakhichevan, Vasif Talibov, ordered a detailed inventory of the region’s monuments. When the investigation was finished, the resulting 522-page English/Azerbaijani bilingual report omitted spates of historic Armenian vestiges which, in previous government data, prior to demolishing them, had acknowledged.
Today, the sole extant speckle of Christian heritage in Nakhichevan is the former St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1862 by an Armenian clan. According to Azerbaijani authorities, it is known as the “Ordubad Temple.” The temple serves two purposes for Azerbaijan: (1) a museum to display photos of Islamic monuments, and (2) a façade draped over the Azeri government’s morbid erasure of Armenian culture, wielded by its state media to posture Azerbaijan’s ostensible tolerance and “multiculturalism.”
What Armenian remnants survived the Azerbaijani’s campaign of cultural genocide, the Azeri government re-branded as “ancient Azerbaijani” relics. As one example, in 2009, Nakhichevan’s Azeri officials boasted a new Islamic sepulcher as, “the restored 8th-century grave monument of the Prophet Noah.” It was, however, once an Armenia tomb in an Armenian cemetery in an Armenian land.
Paralleling Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide — where, aside from massacring 1.5 million Armenians, the Ottoman Turks laid waste to over 2,538 Armenian churches and 451 monasteries — Azerbaijan’s autocratic regime fervently denies not only its systematic and complete destruction of Armenian monuments but [also], rubbing salt on an open wound, denies their very existence.
Turkey’s ties to the hemorrhaging of Armenian history don’t end there. Under the 1921 Turkish-Soviet treaty, Turkey is the protectorate of Nakhichevan. It is widely accepted that Turkey — which, unlike mainland Azerbaijan, has a border with Nakhichevan — supplies the latter with its entire military arsenal.
Albeit never officially confirmed, it stands to reason that Turkey provided the anti-tank mines to blow up all surviving 89 medieval Armenian cathedrals in Nakhichevan between 1996 and 2007.
While Turkey’s siege on Armenian churches and landmarks in the 1915 genocide far exceeds Azerbaijan’s in sheer numbers, traces and recognizable ruins of Armenia’s rich history have endured in Eastern Turkey (what used to be Western Armenia). However, under Azerbaijani occupation, Nakhichevan has been entirely bifurcated from its deep, historical ties to Armenia, which, sanctioned by Azerbaijan, have been forever destroyed.
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