Why Scholars, Cultural Institutions Are Calling to Protect Armenian Heritage

After six weeks of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia agreed to cede control of territories in the contested region to Azerbaijan

Two people walk, cast in shadows, underneath the tall white arches of a cathedral; behind them, a pile of rubble blocks a doorway and a broken chandelier hangs from the ceiling
Local residents walk through the damaged Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, or Holy Savior Cathedral, in Shushi. Azerbaijani forces targeted the cathedra during a six-week offensive designed to regain control of the region. Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Getty Images

Earlier this month, a Russian-brokered deal brought an end to active combat in Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked, mountainous enclave in the south Caucasus claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, after six weeks of warfare that killed thousands of people and displaced thousands more, reports Anton Troianovski for the New York Times.

In addition to calling for an end to the bloodshed, leading cultural institutions and scholars are now voicing specific concerns for another common casualty of war: cultural heritage sites. Last week, Dan Weiss and Max Hollein, the president and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively, released a statement advocating for the renewed protection of cultural heritage in the region.

“We implore all those involved to respect these international cultural heritage sites, which enrich our world and have survived for thousands of years,” say Weiss and Hollein in the statement. “The loss of cultural heritage sites is permanent, and is a grievous theft from future generations.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is sandwiched between two ex-Soviet countries: Armenia to its west and Azerbaijan to its east. Long-simmering ethnic tensions between the two countries have endured for centuries, with Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians clashing over who should control the region, as Erin Blakemore explained for National Geographic in October.

Modern conflict over the 1,700-square-mile area—which Armenians refer to as Artsakh—dates back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1923, then-Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin made the fateful decision to designate Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory despite the fact that it was 94 percent ethnically Armenian. Disagreements over the region’s status intensified with the U.S.S.R.’s decline in the late 1980s and early ’90s, ultimately culminating in all-out war. Over the course of the conflict, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced to flee as refugees.

A map of the contested region
This map shows Nagorno-Karabakh's location in relation to Armenia and Azerbaijan as of October 2020. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Legally recognized by the international community as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by an ethnic Armenian majority since 1994, when the clashing nations agreed to a ceasefire. Following the war’s conclusion, the region’s Armenian residents established a “separatist, self-declared [but unrecognized] republic … backed by the Armenian government,” per BBC News. The countries have been locked in a tense stalemate punctuated by occasional violence, such as a period of fighting in early April 2016, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

On September 27 of this year, Azerbaijan, backed by the Turkish government, launched an offensive to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Per the Times, more than 2,000 Armenian soldiers and an unknown number of Azerbaijani civilians and military members died over the course of six weeks of fighting.

In the new deal proposed by Russia, Armenia will retain its de facto control of Nagorno-Karabakh but relinquish a number of disputed surrounding territories that it has occupied since the 1990s. Russian forces will guard the land’s borders and keep the peace along transportation corridors between the regions, writes Andrew E. Kramer in a separate report for the Times.

As Azerbaijan moves to take control of ceded territory, many scholars and cultural leaders are voicing concern for the fate of the region’s rich cultural and historic sites.

“Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a cessation of hostilities but are still a long way from peace,” writes Carnegie Europe researcher Thomas de Waal for Eurasianet. “On an issue where human lives are not at stake, can the parties agree to a more inclusive narrative of regional history that does not seek to erase the identity of the other? The early signs are not positive.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently stated that the preservation of both churches and mosques will be a main focus of the peace deal. Additionally, report Sophia Kishsovsky and Nancy Kenney for the Art Newspaper, Unesco general director Audrey Azoulay has proposed that the United Nations carry out an inventory of the most significant cultural monuments in the area “as a prerequisite for effective protection of the region's heritage.”

For many, these concerns are made all the more urgent by the Azerbaijani government’s history of systemically destroying indigenous Armenian cultural heritage—acts of both warfare and historical revisionism. In a major report published in Hyperallergic in 2019, United States-based researchers Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman, working with Armenia-based researcher Argam Ayvazyan, found that the Azerbaijani government has secretly destroyed a striking number of cultural and religious artifacts in the late 20th century.

Within Nakhichevan, a historically Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani forces destroyed at least 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars (Armenian cross stones) and 22,000 historical tombstones between 1997 and 2006. In another more recent example of destruction, video footage recorded in 2005 depicted the Azerbaijani military destroying what was left of Djulfa, a medieval necropolis that once housed tens of thousands of khachkars dating back to the sixth century A.D., as Dale Berning Sawa reported for the Guardian in 2019.

Azerbaijani officials, for their part, have also accused Armenians of destroying a number of Azerbaijani graveyards, houses and cultural sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. And last year, Armenian authorities’ renovation of mosques in the town of Shusha attracted criticism among Azerbaijanis who viewed it as an attempt to erase local history, reported Joshua Kucera for Eurasianet at the time.

View of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 2018
View of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 2018 Baykar Sepoyan via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Christina Maranci, a scholar of medieval Armenian art and architecture at Tufts University, voiced grave concern for the fate of Armenian cultural sites that will trade hands in the peace settlement. She notes that in October, Azerbaijani forces launched two targeted attacks on the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha (known as Shushi to Armenians)—“a masterpiece of 19th-century Armenian architecture and a landmark of Armenian cultural and religious identity.”

Under the Russian-brokered deal, this cathedral and town will fall under Azerbaijan’s control once again.

“Ancient national treasures in Artsakh are at risk of complete erasure,” Maranci argues.

As de Waal writes for Eurasianet, Armenians say that multiple historic churches in the region are seriously threatened by the new arrangement. (An Azerbaijani statement counters this claim, noting, “The Christian heritage, irrespective of its origin will also be preserved, restored and put into operation at the highest level.”) Among others, the list of potentially at-risk sites includes the 12th-century Dadivank monastery in Kelbajar region and the Tsitsernavank basilica, a fifth- to sixth-century monastery near the Lachin district.

“The Amaras monastery in Martuni region, which contains a [fifth-century] mausoleum and is said to date back to the era of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the founder of the Armenian church, is situated on the new front line and it is not clear whether Armenians or Azerbaijanis currently control it,” de Waal adds.

Just two years ago, major American institutions celebrated Armenia’s culture heritage with large-scale exhibitions. The Met’s exhibition on Armenian medieval art, “Armenia!,” documented the cultural achievements of the Armenian people over 14 centuries, from fourth-century conversions to Christianity at Mount Ararat to Armenian merchants who controlled a global trade network in the 17th century.

That same year, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival celebrated contemporary Armenian culture and its ongoing exchange with numerous diaspora communities around the world. To mark the occasion, Smithsonian magazine rolled out robust coverage of Armenian culture and history.

Editor's Note, November, 24, 2020: This article previously stated that Azerbaijani forces destroyed at least 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars and 22,000 historical tombstones between 1964 and 1989. In fact, this destruction took place between 1997 and 2006.

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