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Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh Destroys History as Well as Lives

Mosques, churches and cemeteries have been desecrated in the intractable war between the former Soviet republics

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Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh Destroys History as Well as Lives
Restoration of a bombed mosque in Shusha, the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, has been a source of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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For more than 25 years, the Juma (Friday) mosque in the city of Aghdam stood ruined and abandoned.

Once home to about 36,000 people, nearly all of them Azerbaijanis, Aghdam was captured by Armenian forces in 1993 during the first war between the two countries. The town was leveled, not so much by the fighting as by post-war looting: Residents used the structures there as free building materials.

The 19th-century mosque was one of the few (barely) intact buildings in the town when I visited in 2007. Its minarets still stood proud. Inside, however, it was in a lamentable state. Cow manure coated the floor and the walls were covered in Armenian graffiti. I had a minder with me from the self-proclaimed, Armenia-backed government that ran the territory, who forbade me from taking any photos. “I can see why you don’t want pictures of this to get out,” I told him. “Well, that’s the way it is,” he replied, inscrutably.

Yet plenty of pictures did get out and the mosque-turned-cowshed became one of the most potent symbols of the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage in the region of Karabakh under Armenian occupation.

The decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan — two ex-Soviet republics wedged in between Russia, Turkey and Iran — has been fought not only on the battlefield, but also in history books. While Armenians and Azerbaijanis have lived intermixed in the Caucasus for centuries, zero-sum historiographies on both sides portray the other as an interloper on “their” native land. When inconvenient facts on the ground get in the way of those narratives — say, a centuries-old monument from the other side — they become threats that must be eliminated.

As one Karabakh Armenian told me on that trip: “We can talk about politics with Azerbaijanis. But we can’t talk about history.”

In 2020, war broke out again. This time, Azerbaijan won and retook most of the territory it had lost in the 1990s, including Aghdam. As Azerbaijanis regained access to the land — an area nearly the size of Cyprus — they could begin to assess the full scale of the destruction.

“Cemeteries throughout Aghdam were desecrated, looted, and/or destroyed, including the sacred and historic 18th-century tombs of Imarat Garvand Cemetery, the city’s ‘Martyrs’ Alley,’” wrote the U.S. State Department in a 2021 report. “Western diplomats visiting Martyrs’ Alley reported seeing holes where bodies were once interred and that only one broken headstone remained in the cemetery.”

Across the territories that Armenia had occupied, mosques, Azerbaijani cemeteries, museums dedicated to leading Azerbaijani writers and composers and other cultural heritage sites all suffered similar fates. There were other, subtler forms of erasure as well: One mosque in the city of Shusha was carefully restored by the Armenian authorities in 2019, but rebranded as “Persian” rather than Azerbaijani.

It all amounted to “a plan for humiliation, abasement, depriving the Azerbaijani nation of its self-esteem,” said Araz Imanov, a government official overseeing the reconstruction of the cultural sites in the newly retaken territories.

Now, an Austrian construction firm is rebuilding the mosque in Aghdam, on the basis of old photos and archival records. It is scheduled to reopen at the end of 2023. A handful of other mosques in other cities have also started undergoing reconstruction — just a small part of the multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar process of making the territory suitable for living again.

Alongside this process of cultural restoration, however, another process is unfolding in parallel: the destruction of the Armenian cultural heritage in the territory Azerbaijan now controls.

In May 2021, just half a year after the end of the war, satellite imagery emerged showing that an Armenian cemetery in the village of Mets Tagher, dating from the 19th century, had been bulldozed. A road was being constructed nearby but the cemetery appeared to have been specifically targeted. “It is so apparent that the bulldozers went out of their way to destroy the cemetery, far more than what was needed for the road,” said Lori Khatchadourian, an archeologist at Cornell University and one of the co-founders of Caucasus Heritage Watch, a project monitoring and documenting at-risk cultural sites in the region.

That satellite evidence was used in a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which in December 2021 ordered Azerbaijan to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage.”

Yet, only a few months later, Khatchadourian and her team found evidence of a new bout of destruction: The entire village of Mokhrenes (known to Azerbaijanis as Susanliq) had been destroyed, including the St. Sargis Church.

It has raised the specter of what Azerbaijan’s government did in another formerly mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani region, Nakhchivan, shortly after the first Karabakh war, where nearly all traces of Armenian culture were destroyed. That story is “inseparably connected to Karabakh,” Khatchadourian said.

Caucasus Heritage Watch, the research initiative led by archaeologists at Cornell and Purdue Universities, is also preparing a report on the destruction of Azerbaijani heritage in the territories controlled by Armenians. Yet Khatchadourian argues this was a cardinally different level of erasure than what is now going on on the other side, given that it was neither initiated nor organized by the state. The destruction of the Azerbaijani sites was a result of “a failure of stewardship by the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh but not a systematic program of destruction,” she said.

In other cases in Karabakh, Azerbaijanis may not be destroying Armenian churches outright, but they are “renovating” them on the basis of a pseudoscientific theory, formally embraced by Azerbaijan’s government, that many of the medieval Armenian churches in the region were in fact built by another medieval Christian people in the Caucasus, the Albanians (not to be confused with the people of the same name in the Balkans). According to this theory, which is not accepted anywhere outside of Azerbaijani pro-government circles, Armenians “falsified” the Albanian churches by adding their own inscriptions when they moved to the region en masse in the 19th century.

Azerbaijani officials have already falsely identified several churches in their newly retaken territories as “Albanian.” The Ministry of Culture also mooted a plan to erase Armenian inscriptions from Albanian churches, though it walked this back after an international outcry.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of UNESCO, which in theory obliges them to protect cultural heritage sites at risk from armed conflict. But UNESCO’s own powers are limited, and sporadic negotiations on allowing a delegation from the organization to visit the region have yet to bear fruit. UNESCO has said that Azerbaijan is blocking them, while Baku complains that the organization was never interested in what was happening to its cultural sites during 26 years of Armenian occupation.

The organization was also powerless to do anything in Nakhchivan, Khatchadourian said. “In the aftermath of one of the most egregious episodes of cultural erasure in the modern era — if that didn’t elicit some sort of significant gesture on UNESCO’s part, then what would?”

UNESCO has very little power, and has already proven ineffective in the face of the destruction of the last 30 years. As long as the two sides remain in conflict, the cycle of destruction seems fated to continue.

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