Protecting Cultural Heritage – All of Them

January 8, 2008 at 4:40 am (Djulfa destruction)

Protecting cultural heritage

And the “both sides are to blame” argument

By Simon MaghakyanThe Armenian Reporter, January 5, 2008 Page A3

DENVER – “The Armenian side gave its consent to the realization of a monitoring [of cultural monuments by the Council of Europe] in the entire territory of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and we expect an analogous decision from the Azerbaijani side,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in December 18 press conference. The foreign minister was making a reference to Armenia’s continued efforts to attract international attention to the destruction of the region’s cultural heritage.

Mr. Oskanian went on to say that Armenia is ready to allow such monitoring on its territory, whether or not Azerbaijan gives its consent. And so far there is no evidence that such consent by Azerbaijan is forthcoming.

While on a one-day visit to Nakhichevan last November, the U.S. Ambassador in Azerbaijan Anne Derse was confronted by angry Azeri students who were unhappy that an exhibit at Harvard University featured photographs of Armenian cultural heritage – today completely vanished – in Nakhichevan. During Mrs. Derse’s visit, the Nakhichevani branch of Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences issued an official statement proclaiming that “there is no Armenian historical or cultural monument among those registered” in the region.

In fact, these Armenian monuments no longer exist. One of the largest – the medieval cemetery of Djulfa – was wiped off the face of the earth two years ago, in December 2005, in a well-documented case of vandalism that was condemned by the European Union.

And according to what Jonathan Henick, Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Baku, told this writer, “[t]he Ambassador and others at the Embassy have raised the issue of the Djulfa cemetery with Azerbaijani officials.”

But during her short visit to Nakhichevan, Mr. Henick said, “The Ambassador did not have the opportunity to travel outside of the capital city. She did visit a number of interesting cultural monuments in Nakhichivan city, but our understanding is that none of those monuments were of Armenian origin.”

Perhaps the Ambassador missed a chance to visit the site where the world’s largest Armenian cemetery existed not too long ago. Instead, the American Embassy, as articulated by Mr. Henick, offered an important message to Armenia and Azerbaijan that “joint efforts to preserve monuments in both countries would serve the interests of safeguarding the shared cultural heritage of this fascinating region and might also be a valuable confidence- building measure in the ongoing efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.”

The well-intentioned statement of the Embassy resonates with a popular Western sentiment that “both sides are to blame” for the cultural destruction that is happening. This argument is in a way a form of political correctness and seeks not to dehumanize any ethnic group.

Yet this approach avoids analysis of specific cases and unintentionally supports the prejudiced “barbarian” argument – “Azeris are barbarians they have always destroyed Armenian monuments,” and vice versa. It suggests that if we accept that a certain aspect of an ethnic conflict – such as destroying the other’s culture – may be an official policy or a norm among one side and not necessarily and equally among the other then this one side is more “civilized” than the other.

In reality, cultural destruction during ethnic conflict and who destroys how much and how it goes about destroying is not a reflection of “clash of civilizations,” but a representation of a slew of historical and social circumstances. These do not demonstrate the “humanity” of one people or another but whether one or the other perceives the opposite side as much human.

While ethnic conflicts do typically involve misbehavior by both parties this does not necessarily mean that the “both sides” argument should be thrown out without actual evidence. This is what the European Parliament tried to do in its February 16, 2006, resolution on the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery by calling on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop destruction of the other’s monuments, although the resolution’s title was specifically about cultural heritage in Azerbaijan.

The recent and continuing destruction of Baku’s old Armenian cemetery, where many Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, Georgians and Azeris are also buried, a year and a half after the European Parliament resolution demonstrates the ineffectiveness of this approach.

Careful analysis demonstrates that there is a state-sponsored, systematic and popularly supported destruction of Armenian monuments in the Republic of Azerbaijan. This has been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt by non partisan experts such as Steven Sim – a researcher equally concerned and heavily critical of Armenia’s treatment of non- Armenian monuments.

Azerbaijan, too, has indirectly confirmed this assertion by suggesting that there have never been Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan and even in Karabakh. The Azeri leadership makes an exception only with Baku’s surviving Armenian cathedral – perhaps the only Armenian monument in Azerbaijan that has not been destroyed, although it was damaged in 1990 riots and shut down since then.

Elsewhere in Azerbaijan, there are no such exceptions. As reported by BBC, in March 2005 Armenian letters were removed from church walls and nearby tombstones in the village of Nizh in central Azerbaijan. “The Armenians argue,” the BBC reported at the time, “that churches with this type of [Armenian] inscription are an indication of their long roots in the region.”

This carefully-worded statement attributed to “the Armenians” is that Armenians are indigenous, at least in comparison, to the area and having a distinct alphabet they can demonstrate their long presence. This type of vandalism is essential in understanding the reasons for systematic deArmenization in Azerbaijan. The cultural destruction is, consequently, an attempt to deny Nakhichevan’s Armenian heritage.

Had the Azeris a distinct alphabet that could mark their past presence in Armenia and Karabakh – would Armenians too engage in systematic destruction of cultural monuments?

Armenia’s leaders have no such reasons to rewrite history and instead try to contrast their policies to what Azerbaijan has done to Armenian monuments. The restoration of two mosques in Karabakh with government funding is the most recent such example.

A more realistic picture of Azeri monuments in Armenia is one of neglect and ignorance, as Vanadzor-based journalist Naira Bulgadarian reported for the IWPR Caucasus Report in September 2007. There is also an effort to present Muslim monuments on Armenian territory as belonging only to the Persians, and not the Azeris – while both groups, as well as Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, can lay claims to these monuments.

Yet, as Ms. Bulgadarian reported, the Armenian government has also allocated funds to catalogue and to safeguard Azeri cemeteries. An exhibit in Stepanakert late last year featured photographs of about 30 Muslim monuments in Karabakh.

Azerbaijani officials and activists, on the other hand, have to a large degree ridiculed the discussion of monuments in the South Caucasus. Last October and November, as part of the effort to thwart the Nakhichevan exhibit at Harvard, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry distributed letters and statements claiming that “Armenians destroyed over 100,000 cultural monuments, hundreds of cemeteries and 1,000-2,000-year-old archaeological monuments in the occupied Azerbaijani territory.”

These incredible numbers are presented without any evidence. Yet, the fact that Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly rejected outside investigation of the monument sites is telling of their insincerity when it comes to the protection of monuments, including the Azeri ones.

There is nothing dehumanizing about discussing cultural destruction and accepting the possibility that under certain circumstances one side of a conflict may have a different treatment of cultural monuments than the other. In fact, it should be the role of scholars and interested observers to have an objective, universal and apolitical approach to cultural destruction and call things by their names in order to contribute to preservation of cultural heritage of all involved.

It is also dehumanizing for Armenians to forget the Djulfa destruction. Last month was the second anniversary of the final destruction; few Armenian newspapers or organizations have taken notice.

It took Armenians fifty years to begin a campaign for Genocide affirmation. It has been only two years since Djulfa’s destruction, and it should not take as long to realize that a campaign is underway today to erase the Armenian heritage and with it Armenian presence from the remainder of their homeland.

(PHOTO): The Old Djulfa (Jugha) cemetery in the 1960s.

(IMAGE): A satellite image of the Djulfa site in September 2003 before its final destruction. At right bottom is the Arax river; the still standing or lying khachkars are the darker patches between the ridges and around the lighter area – which is the section where khachkars were removed before 2003. Source: DigitalGlobe.



  1. Blogian ( » Political Correctness and Cultural Preservation said,

    […] full article is also available at the Djulfa blog. […]

  2. Azerbaijan » Blog Archive » ocean liners travel improtex travel azerbaijan france travel ... said,

    […] Protecting Cultural Heritage – All of Them… the Embassy have raised the issue of the Djulfa cemetery with Azerbaijani officials.” But during her short visit to Nakhichevan, Mr. Henick said, “The Ambassador did not have the opportunity to travel outside of the capital city. … […]

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