by Mykil Bachoian
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently released “satellite image comparison and analysis confirming the complete destruction” of Djulfa, an ancient Armenian cemetery located in what is now Azerbaijan. 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. 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. Armenia recently issued an appeal to the United Nations on December 15, 2010, the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Djulfa.
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.” An estimated total of 3,000 khachkars – intricately carved cross-stone religious burial monuments – were decimated. The ornate khachkars were added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, notwithstanding objections from Azerbaijan. “The loss of Djulfa was a blow to not just Armenian culture, but also to all world heritage,” proclaimed Simon Maghakyan, founder and project manager of the Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum.
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. 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. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s actions have gone unpunished and practically unnoticed.
The problem is that UNESCO only recently recognized the khachkars as protected objects on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, 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.
Ironically, in 2010 – the same year UNESCO declared Armenian khachkars as “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding” – Azerbaijan was elected to a four-year term as a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a committee responsible for safeguarding cultural resources and historical sites. 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.” 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.Historically part of the Armenian province of Artsakh, Karabagh was arbitrarily annexed to Azerbaijan by the U.S.S.R. in 1921. Control of Nagorno-Karabagh has been disputed ever since. Karabagh, a mountainous region with an 80% Armenian population, has never quit in its pursuit to reunite with Armenia, and sought independence from Azerbaijan in 1988. After a bloody six-year battle, an unstable 1994 cease-fire left the province under Armenian control. While Armenia desires for Nagorno-Karabagh to be an independent nation, Azerbaijan prefers a politically autonomous Nagorno-Karabagh under Azerbaijani control.
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, 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
See supra note 1.
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).
See supra note 1.
See UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, supra note 8.
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.
 See supra note 1.
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.
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).
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.
For example, a search of the term “Djulfa” on CNN.com and Reuters.com will yield no results whatsoever.
See supra note 11.
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.
Supra note 11.
See supra note 18.
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.
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).
Id. at 49.
See id. at 49-50.
See id. at 49.
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.
See supra note 1.