This week’s Reporter (June 30, 2007) has my newest article on the destruction of Djulfa cemetery that I just wrote for them using much information from my last semester’s research.

You can download the PDF version of current issue’s Section A – where my piece is – from here.

Here is the article in full:

International Reaction to Djulfa cemetery destruction has been only words and no action

by Simon Maghakyan

June 30, 2007

DENVER, CO. – After several failures to visit Djulfa (Jugha), where the largest medieval Armenian cemetery was reduced to dust by Azerbaijan’s military a year and a half ago, officials at international organizations are talking again about sending experts to the region.

      While reports about plans to send a mission by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to Armenia and Azerbaijan have again appeared in the media, words are all that have reached so far the remote shores of the Araxes where an archeological monument with thousands of ancient Armenian burial stones, khachkars, existed not too long ago.

      Still a UNESCO spokesperson says their talks are serious and, according to Armenpress, the organization is now working out the details of a visit both to Nakhichevan – where Djulfa is located – and Karabakh, where Azerbaijan alleges Armenians have destroyed Azeri monuments.

      And this week, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian said that UNESCO has already determined the make-up of its monitoring group and that currently the issue is with the visits’ timing.

      Armenians and others have long urged UNESCO to interfere in the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery and other Armenian monuments.

      In October 2006, an international group of parliamentarians from Canada, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia and Switzerland traveled to UNESCO’s Paris headquarters in order to request that Director-General Koїchiro Matsuura take up an investigation in Djulfa.

      Canadian Parliamentarian Jim Karygiannis, a member of the delegation to Paris, this week told this author that he still has not heard back from UNESCO.


      In addition to UNESCO, the Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis has expressed interest in sending experts to monitor cultural sites whenever a relevant agreement with Armenia and Azerbaijan is reached.

      But efforts by the European Parliament to send a delegation to Djulfa, headed by British MP Edward O’Hara, first in 2006 and again in April 2007 have been unsuccessful. This was despite the February 16, 2006 European Parliament resolution condemning the destruction of Djulfa and calling on Azerbaijan to allow “a European parliament delegation to visit the archaeological site of Djulfa.”

      O’Hara told this author that no party but himself is to blame for this year’s postponement which was “entirely due to domestic commitments.” This explanation is different from last year’s cancellation, which as The Art Newspaper (London) reported in June 2006, was due to Azerbaijan’s refusal to allow ten delegates to enter its territory.

      Meantime, there has been no reaction towards claims by Azeri officials and nationalist historians that the cemetery did not exist or was not Armenian. Foreign diplomats and organizations with presence in Baku have also been quiet toward Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian activities. Former Norwegian Ambassador Steinar Gil, who publicized a case of vandalism at an Armenian church in central Azerbaijan, remains the only exception.

      Thomas de Waal, an expert on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations says that “foreign investors and diplomats in Azerbaijan are very sensitive towards anything that touches on the Armenian-Azerbaijani issue and the peace process and are therefore very timid about raising the issue of the destruction of cultural monuments.”


      Azerbaijan’s continuing military build-up and threats to launch a new war to win control over Nagorno Karabakh add on to the concern for the peace process. But Human Rights Watch has also blamed the West, especially the United States, for trading human rights for oil in Azerbaijan for inaction to condemn broad range of human rights violations.

      The U.S. State Department did not react on the Djulfa vandalism until pressed for comment. Following a congressional hearing on February 16, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a written response to Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) acknowledging U.S. awareness of “allegations of desecration of cultural monuments” and urged Azerbaijan to “take appropriate measures to prevent any desecration of cultural monuments.” She also said the U.S. has “encouraged Armenia and Azerbaijan to work with UNESCO to investigate the incident.”

      During a visit to Armenia in March 2006, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza called the destruction a “tragedy.” He said: “it’s awful what happened in Djulfa. But the United States cannot take steps to stop it as it is happening on foreign soil. We continually raise this issue at meetings with Azeri officials. We are hopeful that the guilty will justly be punished.”

      Later that month, Bryza’s State Department manager, Assistant Secretary Dan Fried, told the Armenian Assembly of America conference in Washington that he “would be happy to raise issues of Armenian historical sites” with Azerbaijani officials because respect and protection for cultural sites is “a universal policy of the United States.”

      And in her May 12, 2006 response to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), U.S. Ambassador-designate to Azerbaijan Anne Derse noted that the U.S. is “urging the relevant Azerbaijani authorities to investigate the allegations of desecration of cultural monuments in Nakhichevan. If I am confirmed, and if such issues arise during my tenure, I will communicate our concerns to the Government of Azerbaijan and pursue appropriate activities in support of U.S. interests.”


      The destruction of Djulfa, nonetheless, did not make it into the State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report on Azerbaijan released on September 15, 2006. The report only repeated the previous years’ language that “all Armenian churches, many of which were damaged in ethnic riots that took place more than a decade ago, remained closed.”

      Likewise, the report failed to notice the words of the Norwegian Ambassador that a church in the village of Nizh was in early 2006 “restored” with Armenian lettering eliminated from its walls and nearby tombstones. That “restoration” was part of the Azerbaijan’s effort to present the Armenian cultural heritage on its territory as “Albanian” – that is belonging to a culture that became extinct hundreds of years ago – and therefore not Armenian.


      The most detailed outsider’s account of Nakhichevan’s Armenian heritage remains that of Steven Sim, a Scottish architect who visited the area in the summer of 2005. During his visit he found no trace of a single medieval Armenian church he had travelled to research, with local interlocutors denying there were any churches there in the first place.

      Still, while traveling along the border with Iran, Sim did manage to see the Djulfa khachkars from his train before the hand-crafted stones were erased from the face of the Earth in less than half a year.

      More than 350 years ago before Sim’s visit, a foreign traveller to Djulfa had estimated 10,000 khachkars in the cemetery. By 1998, less than seven decades after a Soviet agreement with Turkey placed Nakhichevan under Azerbaijan, there were only 2,000 khachkars remaining while the entire Armenian population had disappeared.

      According to eyewitness reports cited by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Azeri authorities made efforts to destroy much of the Djulfa cemetery in 1998 and again in 2002. Describing what he saw in Djulfa in August 2005, Sim reported “what I saw was real savageness, but I cannot say that they did not leave anything, since there are still lying khachkars.”

      Four months later, on December 15, 2005, Russia’s Regnum News Agency was the first international outlet to quote reports of approximately “100 Azerbaijani servicemen penetrate[ing] the Armenian cemetery near Nakhichevan… using sledgehammers and other tools… to crush Armenian graves and crosses.”

      This final stage of destruction, which also amounted to desecration of Armenian remains underneath the burial monuments, had reportedly started on December 14 and lasted for three days, leaving no trace of a single khachkar.

      An Armenian film crew in northern Iran, from where the cemetery was visible, had videotaped dozens of men in uniform hacking away at the khachkars with sledgehammers, using a crane to remove some of the largest stones from the ground, breaking the stones into small pieces, and dumping them into the River Araxes using a heavy truck.

      Nevertheless, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev told the Associated Press that the reports of the destruction are “an absolute lie, slanderous information, a provocation.”

      By March 2006, photographs of the cemetery site showed that it had been turned into an army shooting range. An Azerbaijani journalist who visited the area on behalf of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting in April 2006 similarly found no traces of the cemetery left.