Azerbaijani soldier destroying Armenian tombstones. Came across to this cartoon from an Iravunk article (in Armenian) published on August 30, 2007.
An 1890? Djulfa cemetery photograph (published in an 1893 book) available at a French website may be the oldest image of the famed historic site (now a military rifle range after Azerbaijan reduced the tombstones to dust in December of 2005):
Vue générale de la nécropole de Djoulfa (Nakhitchevan) à la fin du 19e s., bois anonyme, d’après une photographie de M. Chantre, in Chantre B., A travers l’Arménie russe, Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1893, p. 179, 13 x 19 cm, coll. particulière, Paris
WHEN, IN THE SUMMER OF 2005, Scottish researcher Steven Sim visited the region of Nakhichevan, an exclave of the South Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, in order to study medieval Armenian monuments, he found out his trip was in vain — there was nothing there for him to research. After being detained and questioned by security police, Sim was asked why he expected Armenian Christian churches in a region where only Muslims lived. A villager, too, told him Armenians had never lived in Nakhichevan. When the researcher explained that a book had directed him to the ancient Armenian church in the village, an old man blasted out words in what Sim thought was German. The translator explained that the man was talking to him in Armenian, apparently to see if Sim was an Armenian spy. Knowing Armenian in a place where no Armenians ever lived seemed too awkward.
But Sim did not confront Azeris in Nakhichevan about history. Neither did he resist orders to put his camera away in a military zone at the Azerbaijani-Iranian border when his train was passing by world’s largest surviving Armenian medieval cemetery — Djulfa (Jugha in Armenian). Sim might have done otherwise if he knew back then he was going to be the last known outsider in this remote area — on the border with Iran — to glance at the thousands of sacred and beautifully handcrafted khachkars (literally, cross-stones) — up to eight feet tall burial monuments with intricately carved surfaces — before they were going to be reduced to dust in less than half a year.
More than 350 years ago, a foreign traveller to Djulfa estimated 10,000 khachkars in the cemetery. By 1998, less than eight decades after a Soviet agreement with Turkey placed Nakhichevan under Azerbaijan, there were only 2,000 remaining. Still, the surviving stones were stunning and irreplaceable, and a screaming statement to the aged presence of the Armenian people in Nakhichevan who were forced to leave their ancestral homes as Azerbaijan took over. Archaeology Magazine writes, ‘The oldest burials in the Djulfa cemetery … date to the sixth century AD, but most of the famed khachkars are from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.’ According to the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the Azeri authorities destroyed much of the cemetery in 1998 and in 2002 followed by limited international protest. But as late as August 2005, as Sim witnessed, Djulfa was not entirely wiped out. He says that ‘most of the stones were still there and had only been toppled’.
On December 15th, 2005, Russia’s Regnum News Agency was the first international outlet to quote reports of approximately ‘100 Azerbaijani servicemen … crush[ing] Armenian graves and crosses ….’ An Armenian film crew in northern Iran, where the cemetery was visible from, had videotaped dozens of men in uniforms in the Azerbaijani border hacking the khachkars down with sledgehammers, using a crane to remove some of the largest monuments from the ground, breaking the stones into small pieces, and dumping them into the River Araxes by a large truck. The destruction, which also amounted to desecration of Armenian remains beneath the stones, had reportedly skirted on December 14th and lasted for a few days giving the world media enough time to report it as it was happening. But it was not until April 2006 when Azeri journalists from the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting confirmed that the cemetery had vanished. The Times reflected on April 21st, ‘[a] medieval cemetery regarded as one of the wonders of the Caucasus has been erased from the Earth in an act of cultural vandalism likened to the Taleban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.’
The rest of the article is here.
A columnist in Lebanon calls for establishing Commemoration Day for the Destruction and Desecration of Nakhichevan’s Armenian Heritage in an article on the eve of the second anniversary of the world’s largest ancient Armenian cemetery’s demolition by the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Writing for Lebanon’s largest Armenian-language daily newspaper, Azdag Daily, columnist Avo Katrjian recalls in his December 12, 2007 (received in e-mail as .pdf) piece that two years ago this month Azerbaijani servicemen were videotaped as destroying cemetery memorials in an ancient Armenian site that testified to the long presence of the Armenian people in Nakhichevan.
The article draws parallels of Turkey’s treatment to Armenian monuments to that of Azerbaijan’s and concludes that there are the same. It would be fair, nonetheless, to note that there are many Armenian monuments that still stand in Turkey while in the Republic of Azerbaijan every single one of them have been reduced to dust.
As Azerbaijan has been denying the destruction by claiming that there have never been Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan because Armenians didn’t live there, Katrjian reminds that Nakhichevan’s flag adopted in 1937 – when Nakhichevan was already part of Soviet Azerbaijan – had the word “Nakhichevan” written in Armenian and Azerbaijani.
The Wikipedia description of the flag reads:
Flag of the Nakhchivan ASSR introduced in 1937 with both Azerbaijani and Armenian text. It fell from use in the 1940s when the Azerbaijani Latin alphabet was replaced with Cyrillic characters.
It is interesting to note how Azerbaijan has changed the word “Nakhichevan” – in an attempt to Azerize – several times. While the 1937 flag called Nakhichevan “Nahçüvan,” today Azerbaijan refers to the region as “Naxçıvan” with a clear difference in the pronunciation as well.
December 15th is Djulfa’s anniversary. Whether it will be called Nakhichevan Armenian Heritage Commemoration Day or simply Djulfa Remembrance Day, the destruction of an ancient cemetery should never be forgotten.
In just a few days it will be the second anniversary of the Djulfa destruction. The second anniversary of an end to an ancient history that bothered some. Our hope is to make sure that Djulfa is not forgotten. So stay tuned for news later this week.
Remember, remember the 15th of December.
International Reaction to Djulfa cemetery destruction
has been only words and no action
By Simon Maghakyan, The Armenian Repoter
June 30, 2007
DENVER, CO. – After several failures to visit Djulfa
(Jugha), where the largest medieval Armenian cemetery
was reduced to dust by Azerbaijan’s military a year
and a half ago, officials at international
organizations are talking again about sending experts
to the region.
While reports about plans to send a mission by
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to Armenia and
Azerbaijan have again appeared in the media, words are
all that have reached so far the remote shores of the
Araxes where an archeological monument with thousands
of ancient Armenian burial stones, khachkars, existed
not too long ago.
Still a UNESCO spokesperson says their talks are
serious and, according to Armenpress, the organization
is now working out the details of a visit both to
Nakhichevan – where Djulfa is located – and Karabakh,
where Azerbaijan alleges Armenians have destroyed
And this week, the Armenian Foreign Ministry
spokesman Vladimir Karapetian said that UNESCO has
already determined the make-up of its monitoring group
and that currently the issue is with the visits’
Armenians and others have long urged UNESCO to
interfere in the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery
and other Armenian monuments.
In October 2006, an international group of
parliamentarians from Canada, France, Greece, the
United Kingdom, Russia and Switzerland traveled to
UNESCO’s Paris headquarters in order to request that
Director-General Ko¿chiro Matsuura take up an
investigation in Djulfa.
Canadian Parliamentarian Jim Karygiannis, a
member of the delegation to Paris, this week told this
author that he still has not heard back from UNESCO.
In addition to UNESCO, the Council of Europe
Secretary General Terry Davis has expressed interest
in sending experts to monitor cultural sites whenever
a relevant agreement with Armenia and Azerbaijan is
But efforts by the European Parliament to send a
delegation to Djulfa, headed by British MP Edward
O’Hara, first in 2006 and again in April 2007 have
been unsuccessful. This was despite the February 16,
2006 European Parliament resolution condemning the
destruction of Djulfa and calling on Azerbaijan to
allow “a European parliament delegation to visit the
archaeological site of Djulfa.”
O’Hara told this author that no party but
himself is to blame for this year’s postponement which
was “entirely due to domestic commitments.” This
explanation is different from last year’s
cancellation, which as The Art Newspaper (London)
reported in June 2006, was due to Azerbaijan’s refusal
to allow ten delegates to enter its territory.
Meantime, there has been no reaction towards
claims by Azeri officials and nationalist historians
that the cemetery did not exist or was not Armenian.
Foreign diplomats and organizations with presence in
Baku have also been quiet toward Azerbaijan’s
anti-Armenian activities. Former Norwegian Ambassador
Steinar Gil, who publicized a case of vandalism at an
Armenian church in central Azerbaijan, remains the
Thomas de Waal, an expert on
Armenian-Azerbaijani relations says that “foreign
investors and diplomats in Azerbaijan are very
sensitive towards anything that touches on the
Armenian-Azerbaijani issue and the peace process and
are therefore very timid about raising the issue of
the destruction of cultural monuments.”
Azerbaijan’s continuing military build-up and
threats to launch a new war to win control over
Nagorno Karabakh add on to the concern for the peace
process. But Human Rights Watch has also blamed the
West, especially the United States, for trading human
rights for oil in Azerbaijan for inaction to condemn
broad range of human rights violations.
The U.S. State Department did not react on the
Djulfa vandalism until pressed for comment. Following
a congressional hearing on February 16, 2006,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a written
response to Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.)
acknowledging U.S. awareness of “allegations of
desecration of cultural monuments” and urged
Azerbaijan to “take appropriate measures to prevent
any desecration of cultural monuments.” She also said
the U.S. has “encouraged Armenia and Azerbaijan to
work with UNESCO to investigate the incident.”
During a visit to Armenia in March 2006, Deputy
Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza called the
destruction a “tragedy.” He said: “it’s awful what
happened in Djulfa. But the United States cannot take
steps to stop it as it is happening on foreign soil.
We continually raise this issue at meetings with Azeri
officials. We are hopeful that the guilty will justly
Later that month, Bryza’s State Department
manager, Assistant Secretary Dan Fried, told the
Armenian Assembly of America conference in Washington
that he “would be happy to raise issues of Armenian
historical sites” with Azerbaijani officials because
respect and protection for cultural sites is “a
universal policy of the United States.”
And in her May 12, 2006 response to Sen. Barbara
Boxer (D-Calif.), U.S. Ambassador-designate to
Azerbaijan Anne Derse noted that the U.S. is “urging
the relevant Azerbaijani authorities to investigate
the allegations of desecration of cultural monuments
in Nakhichevan. If I am confirmed, and if such issues
arise during my tenure, I will communicate our
concerns to the Government of Azerbaijan and pursue
appropriate activities in support of U.S. interests.”
The destruction of Djulfa, nonetheless, did not
make it into the State Department’s 2006 International
Religious Freedom Report on Azerbaijan released on
September 15, 2006. The report only repeated the
previous years’ language that “all Armenian churches,
many of which were damaged in ethnic riots that took
place more than a decade ago, remained closed.”
Likewise, the report failed to notice the words
of the Norwegian Ambassador that a church in the
village of Nizh was in early 2006 “restored” with
Armenian lettering eliminated from its walls and
nearby tombstones. That “restoration” was part of the
Azerbaijan’s effort to present the Armenian cultural
heritage on its territory as “Albanian” – that is
belonging to a culture that became extinct hundreds of
years ago – and therefore not Armenian.
The most detailed outsider’s account of
Nakhichevan’s Armenian heritage remains that of Steven
Sim, a Scottish architect who visited the area in the
summer of 2005. During his visit he found no trace of
a single medieval Armenian church he had travelled to
research, with local interlocutors denying there were
any churches there in the first place.
Still, while traveling along the border with
Iran, Sim did manage to see the Djulfa khachkars from
his train before the hand-crafted stones were erased
from the face of the Earth in less than half a year.
More than 350 years ago before Sim’s visit, a
foreign traveller to Djulfa had estimated 10,000
khachkars in the cemetery. By 1998, less than seven
decades after a Soviet agreement with Turkey placed
Nakhichevan under Azerbaijan, there were only 2,000
khachkars remaining while the entire Armenian
population had disappeared.
According to eyewitness reports cited by the
International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS),
Azeri authorities made efforts to destroy much of the
Djulfa cemetery in 1998 and again in 2002. Describing
what he saw in Djulfa in August 2005, Sim reported
“what I saw was real savageness, but I cannot say that
they did not leave anything, since there are still
Four months later, on December 15, 2005,
Russia’s Regnum News Agency was the first
international outlet to quote reports of approximately
“100 Azerbaijani servicemen penetrate[ing] the
Armenian cemetery near Nakhichevan… using
sledgehammers and other tools… to crush Armenian
graves and crosses.”
This final stage of destruction, which also
amounted to desecration of Armenian remains underneath
the burial monuments, had reportedly started on
December 14 and lasted for three days, leaving no
trace of a single khachkar.
An Armenian film crew in northern Iran, from
where the cemetery was visible, had videotaped dozens
of men in uniform hacking away at the khachkars with
sledgehammers, using a crane to remove some of the
largest stones from the ground, breaking the stones
into small pieces, and dumping them into the River
Araxes using a heavy truck.
Nevertheless, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev told
the Associated Press that the reports of the
destruction are “an absolute lie, slanderous
information, a provocation.”
By March 2006, photographs of the cemetery site
showed that it had been turned into an army shooting
range. An Azerbaijani journalist who visited the area
on behalf of the London-based Institute for War and
Peace Reporting in April 2006 similarly found no
traces of the cemetery left.
Historic graveyard is victim of war
Azerbaijan is being blamed for the destruction of a unique cemetery
From Jeremy Page in Moscow, April 21, 2006
A MEDIEVAL cemetery regarded as one of the wonders of the Caucasus has been erased from the Earth in an act of cultural vandalism likened to the Taleban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
The Jugha cemetery was a unique collection of several thousand carved stone crosses on Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran. But after 18 years of conflict between Azerbaijan and its western neighbour, Armenia, it has been confirmed that the cemetery has vanished.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based non-governmental organisation that supports independent journalism, said that one of its staff had recently been to the highly restricted site.
Where once stood between 2,700 and 10,000 intricately carved headstones — khachkars — dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, there was only a dry patch of earth, said the institute (www.iwpr.net). It was the first independent confirmation of what Armenia has long alleged — that Azerbaijani authorities have razed the cemetery since the two former Soviet republics began a bloody border war in 1988.
The war ended in a ceasefire in 1994, with 30,000 dead and a million displaced, but still simmers over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is held by Armenia but internationally recognised as Azerbaijan. Foreign organisations had been unable to visit the cemetery because it is in Nakhichevan, a tiny enclave of Azerbaijan cut off by Armenia and Iran and accessible only by air.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly dismissed Armenia’s allegations as scaremongering and in turn accused Armenia of destroying hundreds of Muslim sites. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan angrily dismissed reports about the cemetery’s destruction as “a lie and a provocation” last week.
The institute’s revelation now threatens to embarrass him and further cloud the prospects for a lasting peace with Armenia.
Vartan Oskanian, the Armenian Foreign Minister, welcomed the report. “The irony is that this destruction has taken place not during a time of war but at a time of peace,” he told The Times. There has been clear intent by the Azerbaijanis to eliminate all evidence of Armenian presence on those lands. To do that, unspeakable, irreversible destruction has been wrought and 10,000 tombstones which hold immense religious and artistic significance are simply gone.”
Tahir Tagizade, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, said that there had never been an Armenian cemetery or any other Armenian cultural relics in the area visited by the institute. “As a multi- ethnic society, we are proud of our diverse cultural heritage,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for destroying Armenian property, even though we are at war with the Armenians.”
The report comes as a European Parliament delegation is visiting both countries to look into allegations of attacks on cultural sites. It had hoped to visit the Jugha site, but has yet to be granted permission.Unesco said that it was also ready to send a fact-finding mission but needed permission from the Azeri and Armenian governments. The institute said that there was now a village of about 500 people by the cemetery site. Some of those there said it had been destroyed much earlier, while others disputed that it was Armenian.
The report quoted two witnesses as saying that the cemetery had been deliberately destroyed between 1989 and 2002. Argam Aivazian, the leading expert on Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan, said that Jugha had been the largest Armenian cemetery in existence, and a unique example of medieval art. “On the entire territory of Nakhichevan there existed 27,000 monasteries, churches, khachkars, tombstones and other Armenian monuments,” he said.
They were mostly intact when he visited in 1987. “Today they have all been destroyed.”