World watches in silence as Azerbaijan wipes out Armenian culture
Western governments have failed to condemn the destruction of a unique medieval cemetery by Azerbaijani soldiers

By Lucian Harris | Posted 25 May 2006
The Art Newspaper, United Kingdom

LONDON. A delegation of European members of Parliament was last month refused access to Djulfa, in the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan, to investigate reports that an ancient Armenian Christian cemetery has been destroyed by Azerbaijani soldiers.

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Armenia says the Christian cemetery of Jugha, dating from the ninth to 16th centuries, has been completely destroyed by Azerbaijani soldiers.

The delegation of ten MEPs from the commission on EU-Armenia parliamentary co-operation travelled to Armenia on 17 April following a resolution passed by the EP’s conference of presidents on 6 April. An EP spokesman told The Art Newspaper that when the party tried to enter Nakhichevan, it was “opposed by the Azerbaijan authorities”.

This was despite the Muslim country’s outright denial that the cemetery has been destroyed—and despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe and thus committed to respecting cultural heritage.

According to witnesses, as quoted in Armenian reports, in a three-day operation last December, Azerbaijani soldiers armed with sledgehammers obliterated the remnants of the Djulfa cemetery (known as Jugha in Armenian). Until the early 20th century it contained around 10,000 khachkars, dedicatory monuments unique to medieval Armenian culture. They are typically carved with a cross surrounded by intricate interlacing floral designs.

A great number of khachkars, the majority of which date from the 15th to 16th centuries, were destroyed in 1903-04 during the construction of a railway, and by the early 1970s only 2,707 were recorded.

Armenian culture has always had a precarious existence sandwiched between Russia and the Islamic spheres of Turkey and Iran. The Armenians are still fighting to get acknowledgement of the genocide of their people by the Ottoman Turks which reached its peak in 1915. After 1921, when the southern enclaves of Nakhichevan and Nagorno Karabakh were absorbed into Soviet Azerbaijan, many Armenians fled the area and much of their cultural heritage was destroyed. By the late 1980s when the Soviet Union crumbled, less than 4,000 Armenians remained in Nakhichevan—so few that the exclave avoided the ethnic warfare that exploded in Karabakh where a larger Armenian population remained under the administration of Muslim Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani army began clearing the Jugha cemetery in 1998, removing 800 of the khachkars before complaints by Unesco brought a temporary halt. But the destruction commenced again in November 2002, and by the time the incident was written up by Icomos in its World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger for that year, the 1500-year-old cemetery was described as “completely flattened”. It is not clear exactly how many khachkars were left, but on 14 December 2005, witnesses in Armenian reports said that soldiers had demolished the remaining stones, loading them onto trucks and dumping them in the river, actions that were filmed from across the river in Iran by an Armenian Film crew, and aired on the Boston-based online television station Hairenik.

Armenians say the destruction of the Jugha cemetery represents the final move in Azerbaijan’s systematic cleansing of Armenian cultural heritage from Nakhichevan, mostly carried out between 1998 and 2002.

On a visit to Armenia in March, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, whose mother is Armenian, reacted to the destruction by likening it to the Taleban’s obliteration of the Bamiyan Buddhas. His comments elicited an angry response in the Azerbaijani press. However, the lack of international condemnation of Azerbaijan’s actions has been a source of frustration to many Armenians. Baroness Cox, a long-standing campaigner for the protection of Armenian heritage in Azerbaijan who has urged the British government to take action, told The Art Newspaper that, despite the influential Armenian Diaspora, both the US and UK administrations are more concerned with cultivating close relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, than with Armenia.

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Azerbaijani soldiers photographed destroying headstones at Jugha

A response issued by the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Brussels in January, insisted that Armenian allegations were made “to delude the international community” and detract attention from “atrocities committed by the Armenian troops in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, where no single Azerbaijani monument has been left undamaged”. It also contained an implied historical claim on the Jugha cemetery stating that it was not Armenian but created by “Caucasian Albanians”.

The Azerbaijani allegations, which claim the destruction of hundreds of mosques, religious schools, cemeteries and museums in the Shusha, Yerevan, Zangazur and Icmiadzin districts of Armenia, have undoubtedly compounded the reluctance of international organisations to get involved in a situation described to The Art Newspaper by Guido Carducci, the head of Unesco’s International Standards Section, as “a political hot potato”.

According to Baroness Cox, even during the war, mosques in Armenia were generally protected by the Christian population, but with so many emotive claims and counter claims being made, and both sides accusing each other of rewriting history, non-partisan monitoring and verification of all alleged cultural crimes seems more important than ever. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mikhail Piotrovsky said: “Any destruction of the cultural heritage is a crime, whether that heritage be Armenian, Russian, Azerbaijani, or Iraqi. The cultural heritage belongs to the entire world, not just to one nation.”