Stop the destruction of monuments in Nagorno-Karabakh

The cathedral in 2018, two years prior the damage in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Foto: Wikipedia cc.

OPINION. As Azerbaijan has gained control over the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region and no Armenians are left in Nagorno-Karabakh, thousands of Armenian historical and cultural monuments are at risk of being destroyed. If this happens, it will be a loss for the whole humanity, writes Anzhela Mnatsakanyan, political researcher and Coordinator for A Demand for Action in Armenia.

The opinions expressed in this article are those by the author.

Armenia, a small landlocked country nestled between powerful neighbours, lacks natural resources, access to the sea, and boasts a population of barely 3 million people. Despite these geographical and demographic limitations, Armenia stands as a rich fabric of history and culture, representing one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It holds the honor of being the first nation to embrace Christianity as a state religion. Exploring Armenian history often reveals a profound parallel: just as Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for the sins of humanity, Armenia, as the first Christian nation, has seemingly borne a comparable burden for the faults of the Christian world.

In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians, 500,000 Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, and approximately 350,000 Greeks endured genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which is now modern-day Turkey. These tragic events marked some of the darkest chapters in human history, shaping the fates of entire communities and leaving lasting scars on the regions they once called home. The residual genetic trauma from this tragedy has been passed down through generations of survivors and their descendants. In 2023, 105 years after the Armenian Genocide, history tragically repeated itself in Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh—an integral part of historic Armenia with rich Armenian cultural and religious heritage, but which was handed to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era by Stalin’s decision made in a single night. After enduring a nine-month blockade by Azerbaijan, Armenians of Artsakh were forcefully displaced from their ancestral homeland.

In 2020, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, launched a war against Nagorno-Karabakh. After 44 days of intense fighting, Azerbaijan gained control over 70 percent of the territory. Throughout the conflict, Azerbaijan openly violated the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict, despite being its State Party, by deliberately targeting cultural sites. On October 8, 2020, Azerbaijani forces launched precision rocket attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh’s ”white pearl,” the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the city of Shushi. This assault, carried out with double trap bombing tactics, resulted in serious injuries to journalists covering the initial bombing and inflicted significant damage on the Cathedral. Numerous videos released by Azerbaijani soldiers depict desecration, vandalism, and graffiti on its walls, with one angel statue severely damaged. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan subsequently barred UNESCO access and controversially announced the Cathedral’s ”restoration” without consulting Armenian experts or UNESCO. During this process, the entire dome was removed, and the cross was taken down from the Cathedral of the first Christian nation—an act viewed as deeply disgraceful. This incident was not isolated; numerous churches suffered vandalism by Azerbaijani soldiers who, feeling immune, documented their desecrations on smartphones and shared them on social media.

Heritage under threat

Now that Azerbaijan has gained control over the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region and no Armenians are left in Nagorno-Karabakh, the region’s entire cultural heritage is under threat. Despite calls from U.S. member states and orders by the International Court of Justice to respect cultural heritage and condemns of the European Parliament, Azerbaijan has not complied with these mandates. Some churches, which are jewels of Armenian and Christian cultural heritage, no longer exist. For instance, the Church of Saint John the Baptist, built in 1847 – a unique and personally cherished site for many –has been destroyed. Saint Zoravor Astvatsatsin Church in Mekhakavan has suffered a similar fate, having been entirelydemolished. Subsequently, the churches of Saint Sargis Church in Mokhrenes and Saint Ascension Church in Berdzo met similar ends. Shockingly, all these churches were intact when Azerbaijan assumed control of the territory. 

It is crucial to note that the destruction is not limited to churches alone but extends to cemeteries, schools, sacred spaces, entire villages, and thousands of khachkars—Armenian carved cross-stones, each a unique piece of medieval Christian Armenian art. Many of these intricately carved khachkars have already been destroyed or damaged, and many of them were dating from the 9th to 13th centuries. It is also important to remember that Azerbaijan, under President Aliyev’s direct supervision, has systematically erased over 25,000 pieces of Armenian Christian cultural heritage in Nakhijevan. This includes the destruction of the world’s largest and oldest Armenian cemetery in Julfa, which originally housed around 10,000 funerary monuments consisting mainly of khachkars.

Azerbaijan has adopted a policy not only of outright destruction but also of ”Albanization” of Armenian religious sites and cultural heritage in the territories under its control. Azerbaijani government officials have launched a widespread campaign to assert that Armenian heritage sites either do not exist or belong to ”Caucasian Albanian” culture, despite lacking support from international research. The vast majority of experts in the region’s art, architecture, and archaeology have refuted Azerbaijan’s revisionist claims as unfounded. Nevertheless, the promotion of Caucasian Albanian narratives has spurred efforts to remove Armenian imagery and inscriptions from buildings and monuments through iconoclastic acts, aiming to eliminate traces of Armenian presence from their historical homeland.

Right now, thousands of Armenian historical and cultural monuments remain in the territories under Azerbaijani occupation. These treasures date back to ancient times, with many archeological sites from times before Christ. Imagine the loss to humanity if they keep being destroyed. 

Anzhela Mnatsakanyan
Ph.D. in Political Science, serves as a Coordinator for A Demand for Action (ADFA). She is an accomplished political researcher and author of numerous academic papers and research articles, specializing in Eastern Partnerships, Russia, and the EU.

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