Let the Stones Scream

December 1, 2010

This post is part 1 of 3 of Cultural Oppression in Azerbaijan series

One of many snapshots from a video taped at the Iranian-Azerbaijani border in December 2005, this image shows a truck dumping deliberatey destroyed celebrated khachkars of the Djulfa cemetery into the River Araxes

Five years ago this month an ancient cemetery in a remote region of southerwestern Azerbaijan was wiped off the face of the earth. The unique and intricately carved tombstones of the cemetery known as khachkars, literally cross-stones in Armenian (the craftsmanship of which is a UNESCO Intangible Heritage tradition), were seen as the latest victims of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict materialized in the early 1990s war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But their destruction was also a broader violation of human rights – not only against ethnic Armenians but all citizens of Azerbaijan who were denied a chance to explore and appreciate an often inconvenient history.

While the Karabakh war, ceased in 1994, destroyed thousands of lives and damaged cultural monuments on both sides (each side equally denying their own responsibility in the casualties), the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery in December 2005 was unique because it took place after the war in a region called Naxçivan (or Nakhichevan) where no skirmishes had taken place (and where ethnic Armenians live no longer). The deliberate destruction of Djulfa was more like a war against history: a calculated act of ruling out a future return of the Armenian heritage by denying its indigenous existence in the first place.


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Although, today, Armenia’s victory in the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh in the early 1990s is understood generally to be the reason for Djulfa’s destruction, the concern for Azerbaijan’s Armenian heritage has roots in the beginning of the unresolved conflict itself. In the words of a December 31, 2000 report by Minorities at Risk Project:

Armenians feared that the Armenian character of Karabakh would disappear as it had in Nakhichevan over the decades, where the Armenian population had all but disappeared and all of the Armenian monuments were systematically removed (and reportedly destroyed) by the Azerbaijani authorities.

The assertion that the region’s native Armenian heritage has been completely cleansed is indirectly affirmed by Azeri officials. Hasan Zeynalov, for instance, has stated:

Armenians have never lived in Nakhichevan, which has been Azerbaijani land from time immemorial, and that’s why there are no Armenian cemeteries and monuments and have never been any.

The destruction of Djulfa (the reportedly last surviving medieval Armenian monument – more recent ones are not destroyed since they are in compliance with the official theory that Armenians have lived in the area since only the 19th century) is more than just a manifestation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was a suppression of the right to memory, the oppression of the right to cultural expression, and the worst manifestation of a powerholder’s perception of its own limitlessness on controlling societal matters (after Djulfa’s destruction, the local authorities in Naxcivan also destroyed privately-owned teahouses probably so that possible dissenters wouldn’t assemble there).

To grasp the nature of the destruction of Djulfa, explore the Google-earth powered Global Heritage Network ran by the Global Heritage Fund. The network monitors hundreds of major archaeological and cultural heritage sites, each color-coded green (stable), yellow (at risk), red (rescue needed), or black (destroyed). Fortunately, only three monuments on the long list are marked black, and two of these three are the only historic monuments deliberately (and completely) destroyed by the powerholders. One are the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban right before America’s invasion. The other one are the khachkars of Djulfa destroyed in Azerbaijan.

Most people have heard of and condemned the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but few have listened to the cries of the Djulfa khachkars, the defenceless and muted voices of an inconvenient culture completely destroyed by the authorities in Naxicevan. On the fifth anniversary of the destruction of a sacred place of memory, let the silenced stones scream about the importance of respecting and safeguarding all world heritage.

Views of the Djulfa cemetery in Azerbaijan before the destruction (more photos here)