A vicious circle of cultural erasure in Azerbaijan

“War does not make one forget the other,” said François-Xavier Bellamy, a French MEP on March 10. With the world’s eyes on Ukraine, the European Parliament found time this month to condemn Azerbaijan’s war on Armenia’s sacred past. This solidarity is encouraging but insufficient.

On February 3, the Azerbaijani government announced it would attack hundreds of holy sites in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region that bear witness to Armenian Christian history. “A working group of specialists,” pro-government media quoted Culture Minister Anar Karimov as saying, “was set up to erase the fictitious traces written by Armenians.”

Fictional tracks? The Armenian presence in the region dates back thousands of years and can be seen in countless monuments. Some churches have roots in the early fourth century and no serious scholar disputes their authenticity. But Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country that seized much of the region in a 2020 war, is employing a government-sponsored conspiracy theory that paints Armenian cultural monuments as fakes. As Cornell University-based Caucasus Heritage Watch shows in its satellite research, even Armenian cemeteries are not safe from Azerbaijan’s wrath as of 2020. New and old tombstones are leveled in the name of building.

Azerbaijan proclaims that no Armenians existed in Nagorno-Karabakh until the 19th century. This conspiracy theory relates to Caucasian Albania, a kingdom northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh that ceased to exist in the 9th century. During the Soviet period, to compete with Armenian and Georgian narratives, Azerbaijani scholars claimed Caucasian Albanians as their ancestors, eventually expanding the discredited theory to proclaim that the Armenian heritage was stolen Caucasian Albanian heritage. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a new conspiracy theory, claiming that Armenians khachkar Monuments are “artificially aged”.

Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan secretly razed any vestige of Armenian Christianity in historically disputed areas it already controlled. Azerbaijan now says the thousands of destroyed monuments, including the prominent churches of Agulis and the famous necropolis of Djulfa, never existed. That Baku is expanding this project to its new dominions is bold but not surprising.

In December, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration”. The organization was particularly concerned about Azerbaijan’s practice of renaming Armenian monuments as Caucasian Albanians. After some backlash, Azerbaijan’s culture ministry retracted part of the February 3 announcement in new text that was less threatening, but the milder language should not fool anyone. A commission set up by Azerbaijani authorities in Nakhchivan in 2005 identified a list of surviving Armenian monuments for deletion but did not specifically mention their destruction. The monuments were quickly razed to the ground.

As a natural gas producer, Azerbaijan is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine: European countries that want to reduce their dependence on Moscow are turning to Baku. Some of Brussels and Washington’s isolation after the 2020 war has ended. While the world is distracted by the bloodshed in Ukraine, Baku projects power over newly conquered territories by destroying cultural artifacts.

The goal is to expel the Armenians completely. When their holy sites are attacked – and their secular infrastructure is deliberately damaged – many will be demoralized and will leave of their own free will. If you don’t have a place of remembrance in this part of the world, you have nothing.

Azerbaijan’s government could portray the demolition of Armenian monuments as revenge for damage to Islamic monuments that were under Armenian control in Nagorno-Karabakh until 2020. But this is a false equivalence. Many websites have been damaged, but there is no evidence of systematic, let alone government-sponsored, deletion. Therefore, last year the International Court of Justice rejected Azerbaijan’s counter-accusation against the Armenians.

Not that the Armenians are blameless. Before the war, Azerbaijanis did not have access to their holy sites in the Armenian-controlled area. Now the roles are reversed. Had Armenian and Azerbaijani religious leaders encouraged joint pilgrimages after the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994, more monuments might have been preserved. Ideas for practical confidence-building measures such as installing public video monitors in churches and mosques remain ideas.

As a cultural politician who wants to prevent further extinctions, I try to promote dialogue. In February, I sent an email to Azerbaijan’s Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade. “Your virtue,” I asked the religious leader of Azerbaijan, “have you approved the construction of a mosque in your honor on the site of a destroyed church?” built in his honor, replaced a medieval Armenian church that once stood there. Previously, he participated in the opening of at least one other mosque built in place of an Armenian church in Abrakunis.

I have not received an answer, but I still pray that the Sheikh will use his voice to support the resumption of Armenian pilgrimages to Dadivank, one of Armenia’s most sacred sites, which will come under Azerbaijani control in 2020.

The practice of wiping out a culture only fuels conflict. Azerbaijan’s religious leader, while effectively serving at the president’s discretion, has more power than global institutions like the European Parliament to stop cultural obliteration in Nagorno-Karabakh. He has the opportunity to break this vicious circle – if he has the courage to act.

Mr. Maghakyan is a Visiting Scholar at Tufts University and Executive Director of Save Armenian Monuments.

Journal Editor’s Report: The Best and Worst of the Week by Adam O’Neal, Dan Henninger and Kim Strassel. Images: Zuma Press/DNC/AFP/Getty Images/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Ethan Gach

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