BELMONT, Mass. — The possible — and even highly probable — destruction of all the irreplaceable Armenian moments in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), now under Azerbaijani rule, the reasons why monuments matter as well as why they are targeted for destruction, are covered in a new book, Monuments and Identities in the Caucasus: Karabagh, Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan in Contemporary Geopolitical Conflict (Brill, 2023).

The book’s two co-editors and a contributor, Dr. Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev, who teaches at Sofia University, in Bulgaria; Haroutioun Khatchadourian, an independent researcher in France and Dr. Marcello Flores, formerly of Università di Siena in Italy, participated in an online discussion hosted by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research on April 26. Dr. Sebouh D. Aslanian of the University of California, Los Angeles, offered introductory remarks at the discussion.

The book is the first multidisciplinary volume about Armenian monuments in historic Armenian lands, now under Azerbaijani rule. Much of the work, as well as the NASSR discussion, focused on not only the destruction of those monuments, but also the roots of disinformation campaign by the Azerbaijani government regarding the history of those monuments.

Aslanian started the talk by detailing the century-long efforts by successive Azerbaijani governments of deleting Armenianness from its lands. He ascribed the penchant for a revisionist history in Azerbaijan to Turkey, where dating back to the late Ottoman days, many people in power — seldom historians — wrote history books deleting Armenians from their historic lands.

One such person he cited as an example was Riza Nur, an Ottoman official. “In 1918, an Ottoman Turkish official, Riza Nur, who five years later would become an important representative of the Turkish delegation at Lausanne, wrote a one-volume history,” Aslanian said, “in which he drew from the depths of the collective Pan-Turanist” imagination to present an alternate history. In his book, Aslanian said, Nur wrote that “for 4,000 years or since at least since 2000 BC, the true autochthonous (indigenous) population in central and eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus and the territory of what is the Caucasus are the Turanians.”

Of course, that is not true.

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“Our lineage lived in Armenia since 4,700 years,” Aslanian said.

Nur and the Pan-Turanists are important because they seem to have founded the invented history tradition, which a century later the Azerbaijani government put into use while conducting the ethnic cleansing of Armenians of Karabakh. (The enclave, in the book title, is spelled Karabagh, whereas the Mirror-Spectator uses the spelling Karabakh.)

“One of the chief architects of Azeri revisionism,” whose work goes back to the 1990s, was Farida Mammedova.

“To Mammedova, the Armenians are a people without land,” he said. Her work has been debunked by respectable historians, yet the Azerbaijani government still relies on her narrative. It was she who championed the narrative of Caucasus Albanians being the creators of all the Armenian monuments in Artsakh.

Dr. Sebouh Aslanian

Aslanian asked, “what does wading through the underbelly of Azeri revisions tell us about the present?” He replied that among the various phases of Azerbaijani nationalism and its subsequent historiography, one needs to consider “the Stalinist primordialism of the late 1930s, tying in back to the Young Turk” attitudes.

Quoting Eric Hobsbawm, he said, “‘historians,’ including those who are medical doctors, engineers, etc., are to nationalism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts. They supply the raw material for the market, that is the past, or an invented version of it that can be weaponized to incite genocide and pave the way for the bulldozing of other people’s history and monuments.”

Flores, the author of the introduction of this volume, spoke about the recent public hearings at the International Court of Justice during which Azerbaijan had asked the court to toss out Armenia’s case accusing Azerbaijan of committing ethnic cleansing and inciting ethnic hatred in Artsakh in 2020, since, Azerbaijan claimed, the court did not have jurisdiction in the issue. Included in the Karabakh representative’s case was the wanton destruction of Armenian monuments.

Dr. Marcello Flores

Next, Flores quoted Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, and her statement on the importance of the relationship between cultural heritage and cultural rights, “in the right to take part in cultural life, the right of members of minorities to enjoy their culture and the rights of indigenous people for self-determination and to maintain control, protect and develop a cultural heritage.”

Cultural heritage is central to dignity, he said. “Culture is central to man and that without it, no rights are possible, since it is the matrix from which all else must spring,” he said, according to UNESCO.

He said it is vital that Karabakh remain under surveillance by the international community so as to prevent more malfeasance and destruction by Azerbaijan.

“The volume you are discussing today focuses precisely on the destruction of Armenian monumental patrimony by Azerbaijan, which found a new impetus in the aftermath of the 2020 war,” he said.

Haroutioun Khatchadourian

Khatchadourian, the next speaker, discussed his two sections in the book, one about “Cultural heritage as a Political Tool,” and second, an inventory of 686 Armenian religious monuments, namely churches and monasteries in Nakhichevan and Karabakh.

Again referring to Azerbaijani disinformation, he said the government often provides contradictory figures for the number of mosques it alleges were destroyed in Karabakh when it was reclaimed by Armenia, changing the numbers from 61 to 9, at one point.

“There is very bad data,” Khatchadourian said, and the inventory is far from exact.

“For Azerbaijan, the [creation of the] inventory gives an opportunity to generate fake information,” he said.

Azerbaijan, he said, routinely creates its own statistics, which differ from those of everyone else. He cited as an example the Wikipedia page of Echmiadzin Cathedral. The page in English, Armenian, French and all other languages, contains the same information, but the Azerbaijani version is different.

“When we open the translation of Azerbaijani transition of Echmiadzin Cathedral, we see fake information,” he said, which classifies it as “a Turkish temple.”

According to studies, he said, a total of 696 churches and monasteries have been destroyed in Nakhichevan and the Azerbaijani authorities have embarked on the same path in Artsakh.

He also called out UNESCO for the weaknesses built into its system, rendering it toothless, as well as their website’s dearth of information regarding Armenian monuments.

When you look at “Julfa [in Nakhichevan] there is no information about its destruction. The same goes for the Armenian Church in the old city of Baku. The old city of Baku is in the UNESCO list,” he said. Yet, the Armenian Church of the Holy Mother of God there, which was destroyed by the authorities, is not mentioned, he said.

“The first risk [to the monuments] is the physical risks such as the total destruction of monuments, like in Nakhichevan. Or their transformation, such as changing churches to houses or libraries, and finally keeping them as a religious monument but transforming the architecture to a mosque or deleting the inscription and saying it is an Albanian church,” Khatchadourian said.

He concluded “we have to alert, inform and question about the falsification of history. I think this book will go in this direction.”

Dr. Igor Dorfmann-Lazarev

The final speaker, the co-editor of the book, Dorfmann-Lazarev offered an overview.

He said, “This book analyzes the ways in which the architectural and cultural landscape of the South Caucasus correlates with its national identities, the older and the younger ones.”

“The continuous Armenian presence in both these regions [Artsakh and Nakhichevan] over two millennia is attested to by chronicles and numerous monuments,” he said.

Those monuments, he said, “have served as points of convergence for the Armenians.”

“The book aims to awaken the world to the danger that today is threatening the architectural and artistic heritage of Karabakh,” he said. “The novelty of our approach to the study of the rich cultural legacy of Karabakh, Nakhichevan and the adjoining regions consists of combining diverse disciplinary approaches. The volume is the fruit of collaboration between historians, archeologists, historians of art, cultural anthropologists, sociologists and specialists in the protection of cultural heritage and experts in international law.”

Dorfmann-Lazarev touched upon the deliberate destruction of monuments as part of creating a new national identity in Azerbaijan. From the 1930s to 1950s, the government issued a new “ethnogenetic mythology.” One of the actions the government took toward that end was the 1938 state-mandated suppression of teaching the minority languages of Kurdish, Talish and Lezgi, among others, by the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Mir Jafar Bagirov, who cited that these ethnic groups were in fact all Azerbaijani, therefore there was no need for the languages.

Dorfmann-Lazarev continued that the approach is one that the Azerbaijani Republic continues to lean into.

“This approach still remains valid in Azerbaijan today. It underlies the complete disappearance of the Armenians and their cultural from Azerbaijan,” he said.

The destruction of Julfa Cemetery in Nakhichevan (Foreign Policy Journal photo)

He then spoke about the heroic work of Argam Ayvazyan, a Nakhichevan-born historian who covertly documented many of the monuments of the now-Azerbaijani exclave between the mid-1960s and late 1980s. (There are two chapters by him in the book.) Nakhichevan was closed to everyone and those entering it risked arrest.

Dorfmann-Lazarev said that Ayvazyan, who was taking pictures, was arrested for the first time in the mid-1960s. He was interrogated by Heydar Aliyev, then head of the KGB in Nakhichevan. Of course, the latter rose steadily in the ranks until he became the leader of Azerbaijan SSR, and later its president after independence. He was succeeded by his son, the current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

“Aliyev urged Ayvazyan to forget there were any Armenian monuments or Armenians in Nakhichevan. Many of the steles, churches and monuments are only known to us thanks to Ayvazyan’s photographs and descriptions,” he noted.

Dorfmann-Lazarev explained that the idea of the book came together right after the war unleashed by Azerbaijan against Artsakh in 2020 and the “disastrous truce signed in November of the same year.”

“Since the early 19th century, the Armenian arts have attracted the attention of Russian, French, English, German and Italian scholars,” he said. He then quoted Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word Genocide. Marcello Flores in his introduction to the book. Lemkin defined nations as “a human group capable of making original creative contribution to the world.”

“In other words,” he continued, “in order to remain capable of creative work, every nation has the task of protecting its cultural landscape. The apprehension that has accompanied us throughout various stages of editing was that the progressive loss of historical monuments in Baku, on the southern slopes of greater Caucasus, in Nakhichevan, in the region of Ganja (Ganzak), and in Karabakh, endangers the very existence of the Armenians.”

The memorial complex in the village of Talish in 2017 (credit: Ashot Minasyan) and as it appeared after vandalism and destruction under Azerbaijani control in December 2020 (credit: Kirill Krivosheev for EVN Report)

The moderator was Marc Mamigonian, who tied the event to the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

In answering a question after the talk, Flores said, “The focus of this book is probably the most important link with the destruction of Armenian life in 1915. The deduction of the cultural heritage is something that was something that was at the core of the genocide.”

Other contributors to the book include Prof. Stephan Astourian of the University of California, Berkeley, Prof. Patrick Donabedian, professor emeritus of Armenian Studies and history of art at Aix-Marseille University, Prof. Anna Leyloyan-Yekmalyan, who teaches the mediaeval art of the Christian Caucasus at INALCO, Paris and Prof. Claude Mutafian, who has written volumes on histories of Armenia and Karabakh.

The program was co-sponsored by the Association Internationale des Etudes Arméniennes (AIEA), Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies at Harvard University, NAASR, Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA, Richard Hovannisian Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA and Society for Armenian Studies (SAS).

The discussion can be viewed on NAASR’s YouTube channel.

Monuments and Identities in the Caucasus is available now.


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