The Destruction of Djulfa

by Mykil Bachoian

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently released “satellite image comparison and analysis confirming the complete destruction”[1] of Djulfa,[2] an ancient Armenian cemetery located in what is now Azerbaijan.[3] Five years ago, Azerbaijani soldiers were caught on film destroying the medieval cemetery, which was founded in the Armenian province of Nakhichevan during the 9th century.[4] While UNESCO temporarily halted Azerbaijan’s campaign to destroy Djulfa in 1998, the pogrom resumed in 2002 with little international resistance, finally culminating in 2005 after Djulfa was obliterated.[5] Armenia recently issued an appeal to the United Nations on December 15, 2010, the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Djulfa.[6]

The candid film caught by spectators shows uniformed Azerbaijani soldiers “smashing Armenian monuments with sledgehammers, using a crane to remove some of the largest monuments from the ground, breaking the stones into small pieces, and dumping them into the River Araxes by a large truck.”[7] An estimated total of 3,000 khachkars – intricately carved cross-stone religious burial monuments[8] – were decimated.[9] The ornate khachkars were added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010,[10] notwithstanding objections from Azerbaijan.[11] “The loss of Djulfa was a blow to not just Armenian culture, but also to all world heritage,”[12] proclaimed Simon Maghakyan, founder and project manager of the Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum.[13]

The international community should not condone the pillaging of any cemetery, let alone one with so much cultural significance. While responsibility is with individual nations to protect sacred sites and objects within their geographic boundaries – regardless of their cultural origin – the international community must play a larger role in their protection.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) is responsible for monitoring and protecting the preservation of cultural heritage.[14] Under Article 6(3) of the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, “[e]ach State Party . . . undertakes not to take any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage” of another State Party.[15] Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s actions have gone unpunished and practically unnoticed.[16]

The problem is that UNESCO only recently recognized the khachkars as protected objects on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010,[17] nearly five years after Djulfa was destroyed. Despite active protests by Armenian and international organizations urging Azerbaijan to halt its campaign of destruction against Djulfa, UNESCO did not intervene.[18]

Ironically, in 2010 – the same year UNESCO declared Armenian khachkars as “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding”[19] – Azerbaijan was elected to a four-year term as a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,[20] a committee responsible for safeguarding cultural resources and historical sites.[21] Given the Azerbaijani government-sponsored destruction of a cemetery – an ancient cemetery with immense cultural, religious, and historical value – the election of Azerbaijan as a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is appalling.
In 2006, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev asserted that the destruction of Djulfa was “an absolute lie,” and that “not one cultural-historic monument, not one Armenian cemetery in the autonomous Nakhichevan republic has been destroyed.”[22] President Aliyev has now been officially proven wrong by the AAAS, which released its satellite image comparison and analysis contradicting Aliyev’s assertions.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in serious conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh since 1921.[23]Historically part of the Armenian province of Artsakh, Karabagh was arbitrarily annexed to Azerbaijan by the U.S.S.R. in 1921.[24] Control of Nagorno-Karabagh has been disputed ever since.[25] Karabagh, a mountainous region with an 80% Armenian population,[26] has never quit in its pursuit to reunite with Armenia,[27] and sought independence from Azerbaijan in 1988.[28] After a bloody six-year battle, an unstable 1994 cease-fire left the province under Armenian control.[29] While Armenia desires for Nagorno-Karabagh to be an independent nation, Azerbaijan prefers a politically autonomous Nagorno-Karabagh under Azerbaijani control.[30]

Although the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been strained since 1921, there is absolutely no justification for plundering a cemetery dating back to the 9th century and destroying a sacred site of cultural heritage. With the current heated gridlock in the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations over Nagorno-Karabagh,[31] Djulfa serves as a symbol and reminder for why the independence of Nagorno-Karabagh is so crucial for the protection of its own cultural heritage.


[1]New Satellite Images Confirm the Destruction of Djulfa Cemetery, Asbarez.com, (Dec. 8, 2010), http://www.asbarez.com/89909/new-satellite-images-confirm-complete-destruction-of-djulfa-cemetery.
[2]Am. Ass’n for the Advancement of Science, High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and the Destruction of Cultural Artifacts in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, (Dec. 5, 2010), http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/azerbaijan/Azerbaijan_Report.pdf (showing the AAAS Djulfa case study and satellite image comparison).
[3]See supra note 1; See AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/azerbaijan/azerbaijan.shtml (last visited Mar. 1, 2011) for images of Djulfa cemetery before and after its destruction.
[4]See id.
[5]See An Appeal to the UN on Djulfa’s Destruction, Asbarez.com, (Dec. 16, 2010), http://www.asbarez.com/90281/an-appeal-to-the-un-on-djulfa’s-destruction.
[6]Id.
[7]See supra note 1.
[8]See UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00011&RL=00434 (last visited April 6, 2010).
[9]See supra note 1.
[10]See UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, supra note 8.
[11]See UNESCO Lists Armenian Khachkar as Cultural Heritage to Protect, Asbarez.com, (Nov. 18, 2010), http://www.asbarez.com/88764/unesco-lists-armenian-khachkar-as-intangible-cultural-heritage.
[12] See supra note 1.
[13]See Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum, http://www.djulfa.com (last visited Dec. 10, 2010) (providing information on the history of khachkars and the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery); supra note 1.
[14]See Lyndel V. Prott, UNESCO International Framework for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, in Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legacy of Conquest, Colonization, and Commerce 257 (James A.R. Nafziger & Ann M. Nicgorski eds., 2009).
[15]UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Unesco.org, (Nov. 16, 1972), http://whc.unesco.org/archive/convention-en.pdf; Accord Prott, supra note 14, at 269.
[16]For example, a search of the term “Djulfa” on CNN.com and Reuters.com will yield no results whatsoever.
[17]See supra note 11.
[18]See Azerbaijan Elected to UNESCO’s Culture and Heritage Body, Asbarez.com, (June 24, 2010), http://www.asbarez.com/82532/azerbaijan-elected-to-unesco-culture-and-heritage-body.
[19]Supra note 11.
[20]See supra note 18.
[21]See id.
[22]Ara Khachatourian, Inaction on Djulfa is Byza’s Blueprint for Biased Diplomacy, Asbarez.com, (Sept. 14, 2010), http://www.asbarez.com/85289/inaction-on-djulfa-is-bryza’s-blueprint-for-unbiased-diplomacy.
[23]See Patrick Donabedian & Claude Mutafian, Introduction, in The Caucasian Knot: The History and Geo-politics of Nagorno-Karabagh 49-50 (Levon Chorbajian et al. eds., Zed Books, 1994).
[24]Id. at 49.
[25]See id. at 49-50.
[26]See id. at 49.
[27]See id.
[28]See Elise Labott, Powell Gets First Chance at Mediation With Nagorno-Karabakh Talks, CNN.com, (Apr. 2, 2001), http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/04/02/powell.nagorno.karab/index.html.
[29]See id.
[30]See id.
[31]See supra note 1.

8 thoughts on “The Destruction of Djulfa

Add yours

  1. It has been my attitude since I was old enough to develop my own take on the issue of frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space and specifically in the Southern Caucasus, to treat that conflict and the accusations lobbed by both sides at one another as spirited by a culture of mutual refusal to relate and opportunism. In my view, these two nations are and have been undergoing a period of statehood evolution, a process that throughout all modern history has been marred by extreme violence and destruction. After all, It took modern Europe centuries of conflict and two world wars to arrive at the current map of roughly ethnically and religiously heterogeneous states. Caucasus, both North and South, is undergoing the same changes today and is suffering from the symptoms of the “disease” that has plagued all post-colonial regions. The disease is that of not having the opportunity to delineate borders in recognition of the innate lines of distinguishing characteristics, be they ethnicity, religion, or any other, and instead of being forced to adapt to arbitrarily drawn lines that force unwilling parties to coexist. While it is absolutely wrong to destroy the cultural heritage of your own or another peoples, I am afraid that any form of international legal solution would be of no avail, at least in this part of the world. In fact, it is my view that the involvement of international organizations in this part of the world, other than to provide humanitarian and development aid, have been very much counterproductive. The process of Armenization of the present-day territorial Armenia and of the Azerization of the present-day territorial Azerbaijan has been underway in these two as well as other of the former Soviet space countries ever since the central Soviet authority vacated them (consider the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia over the contested region of South Ossetia, the Russo-Ukranean contest over the coastal city of Sevastopol, and the Russo-Moldovan contest over the Transnistria region of Moldova). Accordingly, the examples of sanctioned or spontaneous destruction of one country’s heritage and people in another are ample (for every Khojali there is Sumgait; for every Djulfa Khachkars there is an Aghdam Masjid). In the pursuit of gathering any bit of international support for their cause (the cause being the recognition of a particular form of territorial integrity), these countries use instances of proven and “proven” cleansing as an opportunity to convince the unwilling yet powerful international players, in recognizing the wrongs committed by the other side, to provide their national cause some legitimacy. It is due to this deeply politically motivated use of the events that strike an emotional cord with the native and outside populations that I refuse to give them any attention beyond recognizing them as mere examples of yet another form of human imperfection. Accordingly, I will restrict my comments on this paper to a single editorial remark, and will leave others to scrutinize the sources used and the points asserted. That editorial remark is that the words “[g]iven the Azerbaijani government sponsored” should be cited as it is neither plain from the discussion that an element of government sponsorship was involved, nor is it implicit in the fact that the destroyed site was located in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, which is both administratively and physically separate from the main parts of Azerbaijan, and enjoys tremendous independence from the central authority (as is shown by the fact that Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic frequently takes steps contravening the central authority, such as the recognition of the independent Turkish Cypriot state, which threatened to cause Greece to recognize the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh).

  2. I think the theme of your comment is accurate. Every victim in any walk of life has his or her conflict stories. Victims may also share a collective identity. This is why Armenians hold onto the Genocide, as Jews do to the Holocaust, and for Palestinians, al Nakba. The bottom line is that trauma can define a group’s identity.
    As psychiatrist Vamik Volhan comments in his book, Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism, “[l]arge groups . . . regress under shared stress: they fall back on primitive ways of behaving.” This is precisely the cause of events that led to the Khojaly massacre and the destruction of Aghdam Masjid. I think my article and your comment shows what else this phenomenon can entail.

    As to the lone editorial remark you cited, no one truly knows whether the Azerbaijani government ordered the destruction of Djulfa. The fact that it was “sponsored” by Azerbaijan flows simply from the fact that Azerbaijan is the nation-state, and Nakhichevan is the province within the nation-state. The sovereign state must take responsibility for any action of its autonomous province, so the blame and burden falls onto Azerbaijan, especially since the soldiers were in Azerbaijani uniforms.
    Regardless, my intention is not to make excuses or defend statements made in my article. To do so would miss the point of your entire comment, which I found to be inspiring. I appreciate your centered and grounded approach to the issues. And here are two individuals from clearly oppositional backgrounds (with respect to the Armenian/Azerbaijani conflict) discussing some of the problems that have plagued our peoples for generations. I am truly glad that you commented so that a dialogue will exist, as opposed to a monologue. There are always two sides to a story, and perhaps the typical lack of inclusion of “the other’s” story in the media perpetuates these problems.

    In sum, trauma and collective suffering should not excuse evil. Regardless of whether a nation-state is a State Party to UNESCO, every nation-state has an obligation to protect cultural heritage and sacred sites located in its territory, even if that cultural heritage belongs to a different ethnic group or nationality. Your comment is insightful and highlights how such practice is especially crucial in the entire Caucasus region.

  3. It sounds like we are roughly on the same page in our global viewpoints. My aim was not to suggest an excuse for the events in Nakhchivan or to somehow legitimize them. It was merely to place them in the context of a larger and deeply-rooted political and social struggle, and to suggest that such events, as terrible and reprehensible as they are, may have a rational basis to them from the perspective of state building. Most importantly, my aim was to show that though an argument should be made that the international bodies charged with the duty to protect articles of human heritage are frequently ineffective in discharging their duties, their involvement in some instances is entirely contraindicated. The reason for that, as I tried to state, is that their involvement at most yields a “condemnation” of the parties at fault and yet does not resolve the underlying issue. However, what it does, though unwillingly, is it provides ammunition to the parties disinterested in resolving the conflict and content in the status quo, to convince the moderates (if there are any remaining) that the only solution is a military solution. And since there is no shortage of this type of ammunition on either side, both sides remain tied up in an intractable struggle.

    As to the second issue, I am afraid I cannot agree with you. State of Afghanistan is never blamed for the destruction of a Buddhist Temple, the Taliban regime is. Though Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is a part of Azerbaijan, it is by no means under the full control of the central authority. It acts, virtually in every sphere as a private actor. Even in the area as central to the identity of the executive branch as foreign affairs, Nakhchivan enjoys free rein. It is so because the region draws its power from the Treaty of Kars, under which Turkey and Russia act as guarantors of its status as an autonomous protectorate of the state of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, it is physically isolated, has its own set of grievances with Armenia, and is not subject to direct supervision from Baku. In fact, it may be argued that it is a proxy of Turkey though an integral part of Azerbaijan due to the fact that it is geographically isolated from Azerbaijan and has a single viable economic link to the outside world through Turkey. Once again, this does not excuse their actions, but it is strong evidence to the fact that the actions were not sanctioned by the central authority, though, to my knowledge, neither did the central government take any actions subsequent to the events to punish the responsible parties. That, however, is a common feature for the region as a whole, as other of the many destroyed cultural artifacts remain in ruins.

  4. I had never even thought of events like the ones we have discussed as having “rational basis to them from the perspective of state building.” Although I have yet to fully digest the magnitude of that suggestion, I think it is a worthwhile study, which is a scary thought. I tend to think of those types of events as abnormalities that occur when states irrationally act under either extreme nationalism (Djulfa and Aghdam Masdij) or fear (Sumgait and Khojaly).

    As for Djulfa, I still think responsibility falls with Azerbaijan – at least as much as it does with Nakhichevan – unless the soldiers were in fact not in Azerbaijani uniforms (in which case most reports on Djulfa would be wrong). Nevertheless, as your comment addressed, the major issue is not who to blame, but rather that such events must be prevented in the future. Further, I would like to note that the United States is as blameworthy as any country for failing to preserve, or in many cases, for destroying indigenous sacred sites.

    As such, I was thinking about stronger international enforcement of the protection of sacred sites and whether a protocol to UNESCO could be implemented whereby countries would face severe fines and possibly sanctions for destroying cultural heritage. Although many countries would hesitate to sign on to such a punitive treaty, perhaps the strong incentive of preserving world cultural heritage that is irreplaceable would convince countries to support that endeavor.

  5. I have greatly enjoyed this conversation as it proved to be quite insightful. Thus, I would like to leave it at that at this point. Maybe we could revisit the topic in the future when our thoughts and ideas have gained a more sophisticated character. By then, we should hopefully have the benefit of seeing our two peoples cooperating for a resolution to the issue. But just to clarify a potential confusion, if you would like to find out how acts of atrocity or destruction may have a rational basis from the point of state building, you may wish to consult one number of Thomas de Waal’s many books. He is a fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is the most reputable independent commentator and student of the so called “frozen conflicts,” including that of the Nagorno Karabakh.

  6. Appreciate the sober, respectful, and insightful discourse between the two of you. It is very rare to see an ethnic Armenian and an ethnic Azerbaijani carry such a meaningful online discussion. Djulfa stands out in the ArAz atrocities in that it was committed against remote defenseless monuments in an area where no skirmishes had taken place. It was reduced to dust to prove that Armenian culture never existed in that region. None of the previous atrocities committed by Armenians and Azerbaijanis had the same organization, intent, and maliciousness as the destruction of Djulfa. Agdam is a ghost town, but it can (and will) be rebuilt. All that is left from Djulfa is dust dumped into the Araxes. Azerbaijan denies that Djulfa even existed in the first place.

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