Sacred Stones Silenced in Azerbaijan

December 12, 2007 at 11:54 pm (Djulfa destruction)

“Sacred Stones Silenced in Azerbaijan,” the most recent article about the Djulfa destruction published in History Today Magazine’s November 2007 issue has been reposted by Encyclopaedia Britannica:  

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.

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