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Cultural Destruction and Preservation in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh

14 May 2012 One Comment

While some Azerbaijani and Armenian cemeteries in Armenia and Azerbaijan were destroyed during and after the 1991-94 war, others were not. Photo: Azerbaijani cemetery, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh in the early 1990s cost the lives of around 30,000 people and also displaced hundreds of thousands on both sides. Hundreds of settlements were razed and cultural monuments were destroyed not only during the war, but also in the 18 years since the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

But, while lamenting the loss of its own monuments situated in territory controlled by the other, each denies that it has done the same. Armenia, for example, raises the issue of the eradication of the Djulfa medieval cemetery in the autonomous exclave of Nakhichevan, but stresses that Islamic monuments in Nagorno Karabakh are being restored even if officials avoid reference to any of them as Azerbaijani.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan decries the widespread razing of settlements in the territories currently under Armenian control which also saw the loss of libraries, monuments and graveyards, and presents the restoration of the Armenian Church in downtown Baku as proof of occasional tolerance. Of course, the cross has been removed and the church now serves as a presidential archive.

Nevertheless, during a visit by the Armenian Catholicos, Garegin II, to Baku in 2010, not only did he hold a rare religious ceremony in the St. Gregory The Illuminator church, but also discussed the need for both sides to restore religious monuments with the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev. It is unclear if there was any follow up when Azerbaijani spiritual leader Sheik Pashazade visited Yerevan last year.

Both sides were responsible for the destruction of monuments, and often seem more intent to follow David Pugh’s Seven Rules of Nationalism in order to justify claims on land. In 2001, this issue became the subject of a feature I worked on with Thomas de Waal for the Los Angeles Times. Nevertheless, even if seldom heard of in the mainstream media, there are those who believe that culture is a shared value.

While helping with the research for Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, for example, I put de Waal in touch with an Armenian from Shusha, the disputed town in Nagorno Karabakh now renamed by Armenians as Shushi.

But for the efforts of a few brave Shusha Armenians, much more might have been destroyed, Mher Gabrielyan, an Armenian artist, told me how he came back to his native town on the morning of its capture on 9 May 1992 and saw with horror that marauders and vandals were burning it to the ground. Mher and a couple of his friends stood in front of one of Shusha’s two nineteenth-century mosques to stop a group of young men in an armored personnel carrier firing tank shells into its facade. They barricaded themselves inside the town museum for several days, preventing looters from stripping its collection of carpes, pots and paintings. As one of the Armenian minority in Shusha, a largely Azerbaijani town, Mher had many Azerbaijani friends. “[…] I know it’s very painful for them, and it is for us too. I personally do not consider myself the victor of this town. The town as such is dead.”

In December 2008, then Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis visited both the Armenian and Azerbaijani capitals, but plans to form an international mission to investigate the state of historical and cultural monuments in the region appears to have been delayed. “I am very disappointed by the losses,” Davis said. “Both Azerbaijan and Armenia suffered, and it is not only yours, [but also European] cultural heritage. […] They are our common values and we should protect them.“

Photographs and video by an Armenian of an Azerbaijani cemetery in the Vayots Dzor region of Armenia sent to Conflict Voices today indicates there is definitely the need. Shot this year, the graveyard has been destroyed. It is unclear how many other Armenian and Azeri monuments or graveyards have met the same fate in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh.

Azerbaijani cemetery, Vayots Dzor region, Armenia

Nevertheless, an article by Naira Bulghadaryan for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in 2007 also reports that the picture is mixed, with some graveyards and monuments having been destroyed and others preserved.

As the [Nagorno Karabakh] conflict escalated, monuments – principally graveyards – suffered in both countries. The two Azerbaijani cemeteries of Saral – one of 20 Azerbaijani villages in Lori region – are now abandoned, with many of the headstones broken.

Last year, the Armenian non-governmental organisation the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly did a study of the Azerbaijani cemeteries in the region. It showed that they were mostly in a state of ruin and a decision was made to use grant money from the organisation to restore them.

The Armenians who now live in Saral came here from the village of Gushchi in the Khanlar region of Azerbaijan, at the same time as the Azerbaijanis of Saral fled to the former Armenian village of Chardakhlu. The incoming Armenians renamed the village Nor Khachakal. They insist that they did not destroy the graves and the cemetery had already been ruined by the time they arrived.

The head of Nor Khachakal village administration, Surik Truzian, recalls that people arrived from other parts of Armenia, loaded Azerbaijani gravestones into a vehicle and took them away to re-work or re-sell them. He also says that he saw someone taking photographs of the cemetery last autumn – probably at the request of the former villagers.


Eighty-year-old Dmitry Babakhanian, from the village of Kursali, near Saral, who fled Getaashen in Azerbaijan, leaving behind his family’s graves, has one dream – “to go, see my graves and come home again”. He is convinced that his Azerbaijani neighbours did not destroy the graves.

“Do you know what we left behind there?” he asked. “Our grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers.”

Babakhanian is also proud that the thousand or so Azerbaijani graves, some of them made of basalt and tufa, in the cemetery in Kursali have not been touched. “That would be inhuman,” he said.

Babakhanian says that two or three years ago, he was riding his donkey and noticed some strangers in the Azerbaijani cemetery who had slaughtered a sheep and were eating and drinking. He heard them speak Azeri and was convinced that they had somehow come to visit their old graveyard.

The head of the village, Lalik Bayadian, says he does not necessarily believe stories like this but that once he did see fresh flowers in the cemetery, “They came, put fresh lilac on the grave of their relatives and left again.”

From Home to Home, a 2008 documentary by an Armenian journalist working in cooperation with Azerbaijani journalist colleagues, also tells the fascinating story of a mutual agreement between Armenians and Azerbaijanis who continue to respect the past in the hope of contributing to a better future.

An ethnic Azeri originally from Armenia reads aloud the Armenian inscriptions of the tombstones in his village in Azerbaijan. An ethnic Armenian from Azerbaijan videos the Azeri graveyard in his village in Armenia, speaking over the tape in Azerbaijani before sending it off to the families of those that used to live there instead of him. In a region where negative stories and stereotypes of the “enemy” abound, it’s an example of a promise kept between two peoples until this day that is seldom told.

From Home To Home excerpt uploaded and used with permission

Onnik Krikorian

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