The Cost of Armenia's Peace: Its Unique Monuments
By Pallabi Munsi
- Azerbaijan has taken control of most of the Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh under a peace deal with Armenia in November.
- While that deal has brought peace for the moment, independent experts fear Azerbaijan might destroy ancient Armenian churches and monuments to bolster its historic territorial claims.
- The one man who could stop a fresh crisis from erupting? Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 19th-century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral had survived two world wars and communist Soviet Union. But on Oct. 8, the world awoke to photographs of the iconic shrine in ruins, a part of its roof collapsed. As journalists and civilians rushed to the spot in the town of Shusha in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have historically claimed, they were hit by a second strike, believed to have been launched by a drone.
Azerbaijan denied that it had targeted the Armenian cathedral and called the allegations it faced “fake news” and “black propaganda,” even though three Russian journalists were injured in the second attack. For the most part, Azerbaijan’s version has few takers outside that country. “The two strikes on the church, the second one while journalists and other civilians had gathered at the site, appear to be deliberate,” wrote Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia.
Yet independent experts worry that what happened with the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral was merely a warning of what might now lie in wait for hundreds of historic Armenian shrines and buildings in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
In November, Armenia and Azerbaijan arrived at a peace deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin after six weeks of bitter fighting that left thousands dead and many more displaced. Though Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked, mountainous enclave in the south Caucasus, is majority Armenian, the deal gave large chunks of the region to Azerbaijan, the militarily superior nation.
[Any destruction and erasure of Armenian heritage] isn’t just of cultural importance, but political as well.
Emil Sanamyan, Institute of Armenian Studies, University of Southern California
But while the deal might have bought Armenia temporary peace, it has sparked concerns that Azerbaijan could pointedly target the region’s unique, historic buildings that are now under its territorial control. That, experts and many Armenians fear, could eliminate evidence of their cultural roots and, in effect, demolish their history.
Any destruction and erasure of Armenian heritage there “isn’t just of cultural importance, but political as well,” warns Emil Sanamyan, a fellow at the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California.
It’s a concern that has prompted calls for UNESCO to intervene. In November, the Armenia chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites and a group of museum professionals called ICOM Armenia wrote to the United Nations’ cultural arm “to take meaningful action to protect and secure the Armenian Cultural Heritage on the part of the territory of Artsakh under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan from any form of destruction and misappropriation.” Artsakh is another name for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Separately, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York released a statement cautioning that “the loss of cultural heritage sites is permanent, and is a grievous theft from future generations.” International scholars wrote in an open letter that “once they (the Armenian monuments) are gone, it will be too late.” The Armenian church, too, has articulated worries that the historic churches, monasteries and tombs of the region might be neglected or even destroyed, now that they’re under Azerbaijan’s control.
There’s a historical reason for these fears. Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region witnessed the destruction of 89 Armenian churches, 22,000 tombstones and more than 5,800 cross-stones known as khachkars.
And during the war last year, Azerbaijan bombed the ancient city of Tigranakert, founded in the first century B.C. by the Armenian king Tigranes the Great. Another 19th-century church, known as the Kanach Zham and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, was also damaged.
So why would the Azerbaijan government have an interest in targeting sites of historical importance? That, some experts say, is because these shrines undermine Azerbaijan’s historic territorial claims over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has long tried to convince the world that Azeris — who the country’s government claims are descended from an ancient Caucasian Albanian race — are the region’s original inhabitants.
Globally, historians and experts disagree. “Nobody believes the Caucasian Albanian theory outside [of] Azerbaijan,” Thomas de Waal, an author on the Caucasus, wrote on Twitter amid the ongoing debate.
But Azerbaijan and those who support it argue that their claims over the region — and its history — are in fact guarantees that the country will try and protect these monuments. “Rest assured Azerbaijan will keep them [monuments] safe and clean,” Azeri numismatist Jasur Abdullayev recently tweeted.
After an Armenian abbot from Nagorno-Karabakh announced plans to carry the bells, cross and cross-stones of his monastery over into Armenia, Azerbaijan’s culture minister Anar Karimov accused him of “illicit export of cultural property,” in violation of a U.N. convention. Karimov called the monastery “one of the best testimonies of ancient Caucasian Albania civilization.”
Yet despite its claims, Azerbaijan has not nominated any of its historic churches for inclusion in UNESCO’s heritage list, which critics cite as evidence of a lack of intent in protecting these monuments.
Sanamyan sees little protection for Armenian shrines in the region “unless the world comes together to join hands and fight it out.” With the West so far sitting this crisis out for the most part, it might once again fall to Putin — who has warned Azerbaijan that it must protect churches — to help keep Armenian culture alive. It’s a strange twist of fate for a former KGB officer, but it’s one that Armenians will take.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi