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Azerbaijan: Destruction of Ancient Cemetery Commemorated

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

Three years after a cemetery dating back to the 9th Century was deliberately destroyed in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, bloggers recall an ancient culture annihilated and condemn the world for closing its eyes to what many consider to be an official attempt to rewrite history.

NoThingfjord, a Turkish blog, writes:

Today is the commemoration of the 3rd anniversary of Djulfa's destruction. …This [is] not only a crime against Armenian culture, but against our collective cultural heritage as humankind. Don't let it go unnoticed.

Between 10-16 December 2005 over a hundred uniformed men were videotaped destroying the Djulfa cemetery using sledgehammers, cranes, and trucks. The video was taken from across the border in Iran.

More than just a loss to global culture, Ivan Kondratiev [RU] says that Djulfa's destruction was meant to change the story of Nakhichevan's indigenous heritage.

Азербайджанские власти на протяжении всего советского периода старались уничтожить этот некрополь, поскольку для них он был всего лишь свидетельством о том, что именно армяне были хозяевами этой территории на протяжении веков, вопреки тому, что говорилось в азербайджанских советских мифах о собственной “древности”… Это кладбище, вполне достойное названия чуда, было даже не внесено в реестр архитектурных памятников Азербайджана… После распада СССР, во время карабахского конфликта, продолжалось разорение кладбища, и, наконец, оно было окончательно уничтожено….

The Azeri authorities throughout all Soviet period tried to destroy this necropolis as for them it was only a testament that Armenians were owners of this territory throughout centuries in spite of Azerbaijan's Soviet myths about own “antiquity”… This cemetery, quite worthy to be called a wonder, was not even placed on the register of architectural monuments of Azerbaijan… After USSR's collapse, during the Karabakh conflict, the cemetery's demolition continued, and, at last, definitively destroyed….

An Iranian blogger also argues that Djulfa was undesirable evidence of an inconvenient past.

آنان از سنگ قبر ارامنه هم نگذشته اند و با تخریب دوازده هزار قبر با سنگ قبر هایی منحصر به فرد که متعلق به چند قرن پیش بوده و جزئی از میراث فرهنگی ارامنه به حساب می آمد، هیچ اثری از ارمنی نشین بودن آنجا، بجا نگذاشته اند.

[After acquiring Nakhichevan, Azeris] did not even tolerate Armenian gravestones. They destroyed twelve thousand Armenian graves. These unique gravestones with several centuries’ history were part of Armenian cultural heritage. However, through destruction of these gravestones, [Azeris] destroyed all signs indicating the existence of Armenians in that land. [translated by Loosineh M.]

iArarat, remembers Djulfa by discussing Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, a book that was “part of a class I teach at a Texas university on nationalism and ethno-political conflicts.”

[…]

While reading Bevan’s book I was inevitably reminded of the destruction of the medieval Armenian cemetery in Jugha, presently in Azerbaijan. Azeri soldiers at the command of their superiors without as much as blinking an eye would embark at destroying and erasing the last vestige of the Armenian civilization in that territory as if the Armenians had never as much as existed there, as if Armenians had never as much as created anything, something to celebrate their faith and commemorate their dead…

The Stiletto, an award-winning blog posts a well-researched account of Djulfa's destruction and attempts by Azerbaijan to deny it ever existed.

Adding insult to injury, earlier this month Baku, Azerbaijan hosted a little-noticed two-day conference of Council of Europe culture ministers to discuss “Intercultural dialogue as the basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighboring regions.” In his opening remarks to the attendees Azeri president Ilham Aliyev, astonishingly claimed:

“Azerbaijan has rich history and the cultural monuments here are duly preserved, and a lot is being done in this direction…”

Meanwhile, nrbakert_tashuk [Ru] asks whether one should laugh or cry at attempts to represent other indigenous Armenian monuments as Turkish or Azerbaijani. However, Kornelij [RU] says Armenia is also to blame for not participating in a conference held early this month in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku.

Unzipped agrees.

[T]he Armenian Ministry of Culture failed to deliver a message by boycotting the conference. They either should have properly boycotted the conference by making an appropriate statement explaining the reasons for non-participation, or they should have participated there to raise the all important issues of destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Azerbaijan, as well as protecting and restoring the multinational cultural heritage in all three South Caucasus countries [Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan].

old-dilettante [RU], says that Djulfa's destruction was the last stage of Azerbaijan's attempt to eradicate Nakhichevan's Armenian heritage. Commenting on a post about churches in Georgia, she writes:

Теперь там не найдется ни одной армянской церкви, несмотря на фотографии и книги, изданные всего ничего – лет 20 тому назад. Все церкви уничтожены. Все могилы. Все хачкары.

И кто через 20 лет скажет, что там вообще жили армяне? … А ведь мой дед был “местным жителем”.

…Now, not a single Armenian church will be found [in Nakhichevan] despite of photographs, some as recent as 20-years-old. All churches are annihilated. All cemeteries. All khatchkars. 

And who will say in 20 years that Armenians ever lived there? … It wasn’t that long ago that my own grandfather was a “local” there.

Also recalling family history, Washington-based Armenian journalist Emil Sanamyan, a native of Azerbaijan's capital Baku, commemorates the destruction of Djulfa.

In Baku Armenian cemeteries with less historical but more immediate sentimental value to many (including my family whose three generations made their home in Baku for nearly a century) were paved over for roads or new construction. That does not justify the disrespect they were afforded but makes some remote sense.

In the case of Jugha khachkars stood in the middle of nowhere and were simply crushed, dismembered, thrown into the river. They were targeted and wiped out as the last remaining Armenian outpost.

Sarcastically, the journalist-blogger considers how other Armenian monuments on Azerbaijani territory could be protected.

Now I am thinking, perhaps Armenians should disassemble the remaining Azeri mosques and gravestones on their territory and exchange them for the khachkars and other Armenian heritage items of value?

Certainly some of the Azeri items have cultural value for Armenia and I would rather not see them go. But what other options are there?

Reacting to a comment on his above-mentioned post, Ivan Kondratiev [RU] also says that if Azerbaijanis wanted to cleanse their territory of Armenian heritage, they could have at least given the monuments to Armenia even if such a transfer would amount to acknowledging Djulfa's Armenian history.

Is the world willing to confront deliberate destruction of historic monuments? In her long post on Djulfa's destruction, The Stiletto sees hope in an Obama administration.

[T]here is reason to be optimistic that [Barack Obama's] foreign policy team will… have a very different response to the ongoing stonewalling by the Azeris than [current US Secretary of State] Rice’s utter disinterest [about Djulfa's destruction], which is rooted in the Bush administration’s pro-Azerbaijani, pro-Turkey foreign policy.

In addition to secretary of state nominee Hillary Clinton [...] prospective U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has a particular interest in genocide and is an advocate of military action to stop mass killings, rather than ineffective “dialogue” as slaughters continue apace. And Harvard professor Samantha Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (2002), has been quietly advising Obama behind the scenes [...].

Given that past is prologue, with these women’s combined emphasis on championing human rights and genocide prevention, it will not be easy for the Obama administration to ignore or overlook the genocide that preceeded – and encouraged – all others in the 20th and 21st centuries, or the ongoing “cultural genocides” in Azerbaijan and Turkey against the archeological remains of a once-thriving, centuries-old Armenian population that is no more.

More photographs of the cemetery, before and after its destruction, are available at www.djulfa.com.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

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  • emil

    i would rather say im dissatisfied with this article which is full of anger.First i would say that i dont doubt that cemetry is destroyed though Azeri officials deny it, as stated above.If you are the author of Azerbaijan in this site then you should at least take on other side-Azeris point of view on the issue.
    First,Nakhichevan is controlled by “king of Nakhichevan” as we call him in Azerbaijan.He does whatever he wants.There were a lot of scandals about him.He pushed out all international organizations away from the region and rules it with unseen dictatorial way.If i start to count the problems of Nakhichevan which is departed from Azerbaijan thanks to the “Karabakh war” you would probably be astonished.
    Anyway,I condemn these actions but come on we are not living in democratic countries.We see unjustice everyday in both countries.Recently the graveyard was destroyed in the center of Baku to build a new apartment buildings there.And all the graves were Azeris graves.People protested holding the sceletons of their dear ones destroyed by business-pursuing government corruptionists.
    So i think the purpose was not to destroy Armenian cemetry in Nakhichevan but other than that,like business or construction.If they wanted to destroy Armenian heritage they would do that during latest 18 years.
    And please dont seek help from American democratic party politicians and Armenian diaspora.They have hurt enough Azerbaijan restrictring help(907 law).Obama with his young mind and false surrounders will definatly fail in foreign policy(my prediction).We should seek help from outside the region(Caucases) and try to inflow the money into the region rather than seeking to see other country(Azerbaijan or Armenia) to suffer.If we achieve peace in the future it would it would be in our interest to have a strong neighbour and strong Caucases.

  • http://www.blogian.net Simon Maghakyan

    Hi Emil, the article is a roundup of what different blogs say about the 3rd anniversary of Djulfa’s destruction. If you see anger, that’s because the article reflects what other blogs are saying. In fact, every single blog post on Djulfa’s destruction I was able to find in the blogosphere has been reflected here. In other words, there has been no cherry-picking. In fact, I tried very hard to find recent Azeri posts but didn’t see anything. If you find some Azeri-language posts on Djulfa written this Fall, please e-mail it to me at info@blogian.net

    I do agree with you that oppression in Nakhichevan is not exclusively limited to Armenian heritage. I do know that the people of Nakhichevan are oppressed through human trafficking, freedom of speech restriction, and even with destruction of gathering places. I don’t know if you read my blog (www.blogian.net), but I have covered all of these topics. At http://blogian.hayastan.com/2007/12/09/azeris-tied-to-trees-for-not-paying-utility-bills/, for instance I mention how small tea-houses are destroyed in Nakhichevan to promote monopoly business. At http://blogian.hayastan.com/2007/11/20/our-azeri-sisters/, I discuss human trafficking of Azeri girls and women from Nakhichevan to Turkey and Azerbaijan. At http://blogian.hayastan.com/2008/12/08/azerbaijan-18-month-sentence-for-letters-to-government/, I report how an ordinary citizen in Nakhichevan has been arrested for writing anti-government letters. You can search other posts at http://www.blogian.net.

    I also agree that there has been vandalism against Azeri memory by the Azeri government in the name of business development. But you are wrong to suggest that “the purpose was not to destroy Armenian cemetry in Nakhichevan but other than that,like business or construction.” I don’t know how well you are aware of where Djulfa existed, but if you check out Google Earth (which shows the cemetery almost intact because the data is from 2003) you will see that the cemetery was in a remote region, surrounded by a lot more land that could have been used for “development.”(The image http://www.djulfa.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/google.JPG shows a 2003 Google Earth capture. The red circle is the cemetery. Only green areas are terrain inhabited by people. It makes no sense “developing” anything in a remote area far away from where people live. And if there is need to “develop” something, there are miles and miles of other similar terrains that don’t need to be “cleaned up” as opposed to a historic cemetery. In fact, “development” doesn’t often happen in military zones especially on an international border. Furthermore, today the cemetery is a military shooting range with limited materials used (see photos at http://www.djulfa.com/photos/today/). Why would Azerbaijan’s government use so much energy and money (it took several cranes, trucks, weeks) to “convert” a historic cemetery in a remote area to a military shooting range? If your answer is “why not,” then my question is then why Azerbaijan 1) either denies that the cemetery didn’t exist in the first place or 2) says that even if the cemetery exists/existed it was never Armenian or 3) the destruction never happened. None of these make sense.

    I do commend you, though, for condemning the destruction. And I also agree that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is a democratic country. My question to you is what individual progressive Azeris such as yourself should do to stop further destruction of historic Armenian monuments – if any are left – in Azerbaijan.

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