Monumental loss: Azerbaijan and ‘the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century’

By Dale Berning Sawa

A damning new report details an attempted erasure by Azerbaijan of its Armenian cultural heritage, including the destruction of tens of thousands of Unesco-protected ancient stone carvings

The 21st century’s most extensive campaign of cultural cleansing to date may not have happened in Syria, as you might assume, but a largely ignored part of the Transcaucasian plateau.

According to a lengthy report published in the art journal Hyperallergic in February, the Azerbaijani government has, over the past 30 years, been engaging in a systematic erasure of the country’s historic Armenian heritage. This official, albeit covert, destruction of cultural and religious artefacts exceeds Islamic State’s self-promotional dynamiting of Palmyra, according to the report’s authors, Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman.

Maghakyan, a Denver-based analyst, activist and lecturer in political science, labels it “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century”. He grew up with stories about his father visiting a beautiful, mysterious place called Djulfa. Located in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan, on the banks of the Araxes river, it was the site of a medieval necropolis, the largest ancient Armenian cemetery in the world. Visitors through the centuries, from Alexandre de Rhodes to William Ouseley, had noted the remote location’s splendour.

At its height, the graveyard counted around 10,000 khachkars, or cross stones, standing to attention, the earliest dating back to the 6th century. Unique to Armenian burial traditions, these distinctive tall steles of pinkish red and yellow stone feature crosses, figurative scenes and symbols, and highly decorative relief patterning. By the time the Soviets formalised the autonomous regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan in 1920, after decades of plunder, less than 3,000 khachkars remained. Subsequent episodic vandalism led Unesco in 2000 to order that the monuments be preserved.

But that had little effect. On 15 December 2005, the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, filmed – from across the river in Iran – the Azerbaijani military methodically laying waste with sledgehammers to all that remained of Djulfa. The soldiers loaded the debris on to truck beds and dumped it into the Araxes.

The footage can be found in a 2006 film entitled The New Tears of Araxesposted on YouTube, edited by Maghakyan and scripted by Pickman. It is chilling. Satellite research shows that, in 2003, the uneven, textured landscape was dotted with multiple small structures. By 2009, it is flattened and empty.