NEW YORK — It was five years ago that I visited the crowning glory of Artsakh, the Dadivank Monastery. Inside the almost bare church, except for fresco paintings and numerous Armenian inscriptions, was an elderly woman lighting a candle. I approached and asked, “Mayrig Jan, what are you praying for?” She replied without hesitation, “Khaghaghoutiun” (Peace). Boldly I asked her age, thinking she was in her 90s. “Sixty-five,” she said, her beautiful face lined with wrinkles, reflecting the suffering she had endured for her family that she had lost in the first Karabakh war.

This majestic and spiritual structure is one of hundreds of churches, monasteries, ancient cross stones, cemeteries, manuscripts and other sacred artifacts under the control of Azerbaijan now. The Dadivank Church complex (9th to 13 centuries), is located in the rugged Kelbajar region, replete with high peaks where wild horses roam, and dense forested slopes surrounding numerous Armenian villages. The complex includes two frescoed churches, a refectory, winepress, library and bell tower with delicately carved Khachkars (cross stones), and many medieval Armenian inscriptions.

Fresco from Dadivank

On December 6, the Azerbaijanis sent to Dadivank an Albanian priest from Azerbaijan who claims that there are 300 churches in Artsakh of Albanian origin, a false assertion. For the time being, Russian peacekeepers are guarding Dadivank, and the Armenian abbot of the monastery, Fr. Hovannes Hovhanissian, has vowed he will never leave the sacred church.

However, throughout the more than 50 percent of Karabakh now in the hands of the Azerbaijanis are hundreds of churches and thousands of sacred sites without Russian protection, including the Yeritsmankants monastery in Mardakert, the Katarovank, and the 13th century Gtichavank in the Hadrut region, the Tsitsernavank in the Kashatagh Province, the partially destroyed Cathedral of Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) in Shushi, bombed twice, and so many others.

The Azerbaijani flag has now been raised on Vankasar Church in the Aghdam district.

Even after the ceasefire, gangs of Azerbaijanis and terrorist mercenaries put swastikas and wrote the words “Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad” on the Holy Savior Cathedral, the cities in Azerbaijan where Armenians were hunted down and killed in 1988. There are also videos of Azerbaijanis in Kelbajar kicking down several gravestones in the Armenian cemetery, and desecrating khachkars.


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Several international organizations have made statements for the protection of these sites, including Human Rights Watch, World Monuments Fund, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition, Russian President Putin has asked for the protection of those monuments. However enforcement of protection is another story.

One of the goodwill ambassadors of UNESCO is Mehriban Aliyeva, the vice president of Azerbaijan, as well as the wife of the president, Ilham Aliyev. Around the time she was appointed to the post for her efforts to preserve Azerbaijani culture, her country oversaw the systematic destruction of all traces of Armenian culture in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhijevan. Dozens of churches, thousands of khachkars and tombstones were bulldozed and ground into dust in Nakhijevan.

Repeated efforts to get in touch with the UNESCO leadership were unsuccessful.

Efforts Continue

Former Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, now the Echmiadzin’s Legate to the Vatican, has informed two clerical leaders of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and Bishop Paul Tighe, about the current dangers threatening the Armenian Christian heritage, as well as measures by Echmiadzin to “thwart cultural genocide.” These include the establishment of a department to protect these sacred sites in Karabakh as a result of the recent war. Barsamian said in an interview this week that that Cardinal Ravasi has stated that the Pontifical Council for Culture is “following the developments very closely and is ready to offer its expertise and influence in support of these efforts. The Holy See will bring this preservation matter to the attention of UNESCO,” he said.

The Eastern Diocesan Primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan, said this week that these sacred sites are “utterly unique creations of art and beauty, created by people who prayed, and have existed for thousands of years. They are significant not only for their historical value, but for the manifestations of a living faith. To desecrate a church is to kill the heart of the people who prayed there and poured out their souls thousands of years ago.”

Dr. Helen Evans, longtime Byzantine Curator and Armenian scholar at Museum of Art, and initiator and curator of several Armenian exhibitions at both the Metropolitan, and the Morgan Library in New York, was responsible for the statement of protection by the Met’s president and director for the Armenian monuments in Karabakh. Currently, with a new exhibition at the Met marking the 150-year history of the museum, Evans, always pursuing Armenian art, revealed that there is a 15th-century Armenian gospel book on display, For several years, she has also put on permanent exhibit an exquisite khachkar which she personally chose during one of her travels to Armenia.

Christina Maranci, professor of art and architecture at Tufts University, added that “these monuments represent centuries of the incontrovertible Armenian presence in the region. They must be preserved.. Work has to be done to document this sacred ancient history.”

Destruction of Armenian cross stones in Nakhijevan in 2004-2005

One of the most philanthropic families from New Jersey, brothers Saro and Nareg Hartounian, have been giving Armenia and Artsakh for many years in the name of their parents, Karapet and Knar. They have been responsible for building communities, and institutions. In Kelbajar, they spent millions constructing the Knaravan village with all the accruements. The village had been built to accommodate survivors of the first Karabakh war. And in Shushi, they built the Naregatsi Art Institute for budding artists, and the Artists House, spending more than $2 million. They unsuccessfully tried to retrieve the important documents from the institute before the Azerbaijanis took Shushi, but they were unsuccessful.

“Our national identity is infused in our religion, as evidenced through our churches, monasteries, khachkars, and the generations of Armenians who always kept their faith,” said Saro Hartounian. “This is why we survived. We will be back,” he declared with positive emphasis.

Program at Naregatsi Center

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