Saturday, December 13, 2008

Freeing our khachkars

Much of Armenian symbolism is about rocks. Starting from Mount Ararat - the highest peak of the Armenian highland - to the multitude of fortress-churches and associated cross-stones (khach-kars in Armenian). It's a rocky country with a rock-and-roll kind of history.

The cross-stones - man-sized slabs of stone with unique, complex and often intricate carvings - are much more than religious symbols. Serving primarily as gravestones they are intended to symbolize the uniqueness of each individual life even if packed into similar-sized human bodies. See

The tradition goes back many centuries. But faced by the elements - beaten by wind making writings unrecognizable, relocated to be used for construction (and often new khachkars), gone underground or under water because of shifting rivers and earth - not that many survive in their natural habitats rather than in museums.

I am aware of only two large medieval cemeteries that survived into modernity - one at Noraduz near Lake Sevan and another at Jugha in Nakhichevan.

Three years ago, the one at Jugha (or Julfa, Djulfa) was wiped out by the government of Azerbaijan. See

It was a multi-year project by Azerbaijan - there were just too many khachkars, they were hard to move, it was hard work done by army conscripts - essentially slave laborers.

It was an outrageous decision but one that fits into the overall logic of what has been happening to Armenians and Armenian things in places where Azerbaijani nationalism runs amock (see previous post).

Other than a statement here and a resolution there the international community has imposed no obvious costs on Azerbaijan's government for this and earlier outrages. As with most issues few people seem to understand the problem and those who may often don't care.

To be sure there is plenty of grievances that Armenians and Azeri can trade. But going after cemeteries?

In Baku Armenian cemeteries with less historical but more immediate sentimental value to many (including my family whose three generations made their home in Baku for nearly a century) were paved over for roads or new construction. That does not justify the disrespect they were afforded but makes some remote kind of sense.

In the case of Jugha, khachkars stood in the middle of nowhere and were simply crushed, dismembered, thrown into the river. They were targeted and wiped out for their Armenian symbolism and as the last remaining Armenian outpost. All remaining Armenian churches of Nakhichevan were done away with in years prior.

What can be done short of going to war about this?

There are no fast and easy solutions. In the hard years of the Karabakh war the only way to get your POWs or civilian hostages or even their dead bodies back was to trade them for those of the enemy.

Now I am thinking, perhaps Armenians should disassemble the remaining Azeri mosques and gravestones on their territory and exchange them for the khachkars and other Armenian heritage items of value?

Certainly some of the Azeri items have cultural value for Armenia and people who truly care about cultural heritage would rather not see them go. But what other options are there?

What do you think?


Sınav said...

Destroying any sort of ancient heritage must be condemned harshly but the case you have brought up has got its roots in the past events and in my opinion is an act of retaliation.

Azerbaijanis and Armenian communities have got a specific animosity toward each other for a long time. Issues like this and unfortunately tit for tat killings have been existed. ( )

You may suggest razing Azerbaijanis heritage in Karabakh but I would like to ask if this hasn’t taken place yet? Not just in Karabakh but also in Armenia.
For instance, once upon a time Yerevan used to be the central source of Shiite religion but are there any Azerbaijanis living in Armenia today? A mosque may exist in Yerevan to please the Iranian government that fully backs Armenia against Azerbaijan but where is the Azerbaijanis community who used to fly the Islamic flag in the south Caucasus regions of recent Armenia and Karbakh?
While Armenians continue to ignore the right of Azerbaijanis to exist in their former homes esp. Karabakh, so how could you expect them to have a friendly approach to the Armenian heritage?

I believe that the only way to solve this sorts of issues on the one hand and on the other hand eliminating the mutual hatred that has been existed between Both Azerbaijanis and Armenians, is to create an special commission made up of both Azerbaijanis and Armenian intellectual who could come together and discuss all what have been the cause of hostility and make roadmaps to pave the way for cordial relationships. I assume that unfriendly relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan will hurt both countries more than any other neighboring countries.

Emil Sanamyan said...

Hi Sinav - thank you for your comments.

The Julfa destruction can not be justified by any degree of animosity and testifies to the fact that the Azerbaijani republic is today run by apostates or simply born atheists who have no place in the Organization of Islamic Conference or any association that values basic human dignity.

As to my modest proposal:

The Azeri government fact sheet to which you linked has pictures of the mosque in Armenian-controlled Aghdam. As you can see from those pictures, and many other pictures online, that and other Azeri mosques and cemeteries are still standing and are in fact under local government protection.

In general, while some of the Azeri heritage in Armenia has been damaged due to neglect and occasionally targeted by vandals, nothing close to what happened in Julfa ever occurred - none were deliberately targeted by the state.

On the other hand, there is the Armenian church building in central Baku - it was ransacked and burned in 1990 and later became a warehouse.

All other Armenian churches in present-day Azerbaijan have been wiped out and I am afraid the Baku building (which is already missing its cross, and main interior decorations) will also go soon. Since the Armenian cemeteries in Baku have already been paved over and Baku would not relinquish its opera, philharmonia and other prominent buildings built by Armenians, the church building is perhaps the only item of Armenian Baku among those left standing that the Azeri government might be happy to see go.

The Aghdam mosque is about the same age. It stands amid ruins of Aghdam and is unused other than by tourists who climb its minarets to take pictures.

I think it would make sense to swap the Aghdam building for the one in Baku. It could also be welcomed by Azeris from Aghdam.

(The mosque in Yerevan is attended by Iranians, including Persians, Kurds and Azers, and the two in Shushi are part of the local architectural landscape and probably wont be let go of.)

Let's start by protecting each other's cultural values. And if necessary moving them for better protection and care.

This may be the first task to be entrusted to the commission you are suggesting and might even qualify as a confidence building measure the Moscow declaration called for!