The interior of the cathedral in Shushi

When an Enemy’s Cultural Heritage Becomes One’s Own


By Hugh Eakin

Since its origins in the ninth century, Dadivank Monastery has withstood Seljuk and Mongol invasions, Persian domination, Soviet rule and, this fall, a second brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Now the majestic stone complex — which includes two frescoed churches, a bell tower and numerous medieval inscriptions — faces something that could be even worse: a dangerous peace.

Perched on a rugged slope in the western part of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region, Dadivank is one of the hundreds of Armenian churches, monuments and carved memorial stones that will come under the control of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan according to a cease-fire agreement reached earlier this month. Some of those structures — like the Amaras monastery and the basilica of Tsitsernavank — date to the earliest centuries of Christianity. For many Armenians, turning over so much of their heritage to a sworn enemy poses a grave new threat, even as the bloodshed has for the moment come to an end.

Their concern is understandable. Under the cease-fire, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis uprooted by a previous war in the early 1990s will be able to return. In a victory speech on Nov. 25, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan suggested that Armenians have no historical claims to the region, asserting that the churches belonged to ancient Azerbaijani forebears and had been “Armenianized” in the 19th century.

Between 1997 and 2006, the Azerbaijani government undertook a devastating campaign against Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the main part of the country by Armenian territory: Some 89 churches and the thousands of khachkars, or carved memorial stones, of the Djulfa cemetery, the largest medieval Armenian cemetery in the world, were destroyed. And since the recent cease-fire, images circulating on social media suggest that some Armenian monuments and churches in territory newly claimed by Azerbaijan have already been vandalized or defiled.

On the other hand, Armenian forces laid to waste the Azerbaijani town of Agdam in the wake of the previous Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. The Azerbaijani government has also claimed that mosques and Muslim sites that had been under Armenian control were neglected or desecrated.

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Now, as Azerbaijan takes possession of newly won territories, a longstanding problem acquires special urgency: How can a government be persuaded to care for the heritage of a people that doesn’t fit into its view of the nation?

In any instance of intercommunal strife, preserving monuments must take a distant second place to saving lives and protecting human welfare. But the fate of cultural sites matters, too, for the prospects of long-term peace.

Until now, international efforts to protect monuments have overwhelmingly focused on acts of war and terrorist violence. Following the widespread destruction of museums, libraries and artworks during World War II, diplomats drafted the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was eventually ratified by more than 130 countries. But the treaty had a significant loophole for “military necessity.”

Since the Cold War, deliberate attacks on an adversary’s major monuments — the Croatians’ shelling of the Old Bridge of Mostar, Bosnia, in 1993; the Taliban’s dynamiting of the giant sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001; the Islamic State’s razing of Yazidi shrines in Iraq in 2014-15 — have pushed world leaders and international organizations to give more teeth to the existing legal framework.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court was established to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes — including, in the case of war crimes, for the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. In 2008, following widespread outrage over the looting and damage to sites in Iraq during the American invasion and occupation, the United States Senate ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.

More recently, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, launched a high-profile campaign to counter what Irina Bokova, a former UNESCO director general, called “cultural cleansing” by “violent extremists.” In 2016 the I.C.C. convicted a Malian jihadist of war crimes for leading attacks on the 14th-century Djinguereber Mosque and other sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

That year, several governments called for the creation of “an international network of safe havens” to protect cultural property at risk of imminent attack. In 2017, the U.N. Security Council also condemned the destruction of cultural sites by terrorist groups. President Trump’s threat, in January, to target “important” cultural sites in Iran caused an uproar, as well as pushback from the Pentagon.

Yet some of the most systematic destruction in modern times has involved sovereign governments rather than military combatants or extremist groups. China launched a sweeping campaign against Tibetan monasteries, not during the annexation of Tibet in 1950-51, but years later, when the region was firmly under Beijing’s rule. The Turkish government continued to seize or destroy Armenian sites in Eastern Anatolia many decades after the Armenian genocide, including even in recent years.

Since 2012, the Myanmar military has demolished hundreds of mosques and Islamic schools in Rakhine State — part of its brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. Satellite evidence suggests that the Chinese authorities have destroyed 8,500 mosques in Xinjiang in the last three years alone.

Just a few months ago, India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, laid the cornerstone for a new Hindu temple on the site of the 16th-century Babri Mosque, which was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has ordered that two of Istanbul’s most important Byzantine churches — Chora and Hagia Sophia — be converted from museums to mosques, raising fears that their extraordinary Christian mosaics might not be cared for.

But in all of these cases, the United Nations, the United States and its European allies have remained largely mute. UNESCO, which depends on many of the offending governments for funding and support, has shown little interest in intervening. And alliances and prevailing international norms tend to make foreign governments reluctant to interfere with the domestic affairs of other nations during peacetime.

By contrast, the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, where a hot war has just ended, could provide a rare opportunity.

As in other post-conflict situations, cultural sites are particularly vulnerable to score-settling attacks. In 1992, Georgian forces destroyed numerous Abkhaz cultural sites in the former Soviet republic of Abkhazia, including the archive containing much of the region’s history; in the five years after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war with Serbia, some 140 Serbian Orthodox churches and monuments in Kosovo were burned or destroyed.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of war, precisely because a peace effort is underway, foreign governments and international peacekeepers are unusually well-placed to intervene. Unlike during armed conflict, there is also a chance for international mediators and local communities to work together to prevent attacks before the damage is done.

The historical treasures of Nagorno-Karabakh need not become casualties of the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan — nor drivers of a next one.

Since antiquity, numerous sites and monuments have successfully passed from the control of one group to another, often across confessional lines. The Pantheon in Rome, one of the greatest pagan temples of antiquity, owes its remarkable survival in part to its adoption by the Catholic Church in the seventh century. After the fall of Constantinople, Mehmed II the Conqueror preserved Hagia Sophia as a mosque. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther opposed the destruction of Catholic art in Germany, even as he sought to stamp out Catholicism.

In these cases, major buildings or artworks were recognized by their new stewards as having transcendent value, aesthetic or otherwise. Prestige helped determine preservation: As later Catholic chroniclers argued, the Holy See, by converting one of the greatest Roman buildings into a church, had inherited the glory of the ancient world.

But legions of lesser-known buildings, artworks and sites have also been cared for and maintained across centuries and traditions. Typically, that has been because they spoke to the people living around them, regardless of the identity of their creators.

During the Syrian civil war, while Western leaders were wringing their hands about Islamic State attacks on Palmyra, the ancient trading city and UNESCO World Heritage site, residents of Idlib, a rebel-controlled city, courageously protected the ancient, pre-Islamic mosaics and structures in their communities. They viewed these artifacts and sites as crucial to their own contemporary Syrian identity.

In divided Cyprus, a joint cultural-heritage commission of Greek and Turkish Cypriots was created in 2012 to care for endangered monuments on both sides of the island. Funded by the European Union and the U.N. Development Program, the commission has been embraced by both communities for restoring churches as well as mosques and hamams, and ancient aqueducts and fortifications. Following recent arson attacks on mosques in Greek Cypriot territory, the Greek Orthodox community was quick to condemn the assailants.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, too, cultural reconciliation is still possible. Despite the dismal record of the past three decades, both sides have demonstrated awareness of — and admiration for — heritage that is not their own. In 2019, Armenians restored a prominent 19th-century mosque in Shusha (though they pointedly failed to note its previous use by Azerbaijani Muslims). And in his recent address, Mr. Aliyev acknowledged the importance of the region’s churches — even as he denied their Armenian origin.

Security must come first. Russia has already deployed peacekeepers at Dadivank Monastery and has pressed Azerbaijan to protect other Armenian monuments now under its control. The European Union should make similar demands as part of its offer of humanitarian aid, as well as insist that Armenians’ access to important churches is assured. The Azerbaijani government, which already has obtained much of what it wanted in the cease-fire, would have a strong incentive to comply.

But a durable future for Armenian sites — especially the numerous less known medieval churches and ornate khachkars — will require direct engagement by Armenians and Azerbaijanis themselves.

In fact, the two communities have coexisted at many points in the past. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was once home to an Armenian population, and there were a number of mosques in Armenia. In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the strategic town of Shusha, now under Azerbaijani control, has important 19th-century monuments from both nations — including the distinctive mosque with twin minarets that was controversially restored by the Armenians and a large cathedral, which was damaged by Azerbaijani forces during the recent fighting.

Despite centuries of regime change, many of the most important monuments in the region, including Dadivank and other early Armenian sites, have endured — a reminder that the supposedly ancient and intractable differences driving the current conflict are of recent manufacture. Like the beleaguered civilians around them, these buildings need the world’s immediate attention. But their very survival — like that of the Pantheon or Hagia Sophia — so far points to a hopeful truth: It is the natural inclination of human beings to preserve; destruction takes special effort and motivation.

(Hugh Eakin, a Brown Foundation Fellow, has reported on endangered cultural heritage for The New York Review of Books and other publications. This commentary originally appeared in the New York Times on November 30.)


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