Underground Heritage Researcher in Azerbaijan
Andran Abramian – March 27, 2021
An Interview by Andran Abramian
The loss of irreplaceable monuments and, indeed, of the whole history of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh/Artsakh, now partially under Azerbaijani control, is greatly feared by millions of people of Armenian heritage. That fear is based on the reality of past acts of destruction by the Azerbaijani government of thousands of medieval Armenian monuments, especially in Nakhichevan.
Cultural Property News is privileged to publish a rare interview with Argam Ayvazyan, a researcher who underwent many risks to secretly document the history and monuments of the Armenian people in the Nakhichevan. The interviewer, Andran Abramian, is a documentary filmmaker who graduated from FAMU film academy in Prague. Abramian’s work focuses primarily on topics related to nature, psychology, society and ideologies. The Argam Ayvazyan interview is a part of a project in progress dealing with the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Abramian and Ayvazyan spoke most recently in December 2020.
Geographically, Nakhichevan is an exclave belonging politically to Azerbaijan but separated from the bulk of the country by a section of Armenia. Nakhichevan borders both Turkey and Iran. The best-known case of systematic destruction of Armenian heritage at the medieval cemetery of Julfa (also called Djulfa of Jugha) was actually witnessed and filmed from across the border in Iran.
In his surveys in the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan between 1964 and 1987, Argam Ayvazyan personally recorded 89 standing churches and cathedrals that now no longer exist. He counted and documented 5,840 elaborate khachkars (cross-stones) and estimates some 22,000 flat tombstones which are now smashed, plowed under or removed. Eyewitness accounts – supported by statements in an Encyclopedia issued by Azerbaijani authorities – report that every remaining monument was destroyed by 2008 in the state sponsored campaign to eliminate Armenian history in the region.
Ayvazyan (born 1947, Arinj, Nakhichevan) is an Armenologist, cultural historian and author of more than 300 articles and 55 books, 48 of which deal with the material and cultural heritage of Nakhichevan. On November 2-19, 2007, an exhibition of Argam Ayvazyan’s photographs of Nakhichevan monuments was held at Harvard University, displaying over 250 pictures. He worked in the Monument Protection Department of Armenian SSR, in the Art Institute and Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. Today, he is a senior researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography.
THE LAST JOURNEY TO THE HOMELAND – FRIENDLY ENCOUNTERS AND A NARROW ESCAPE
When was the last time you visited Nakhichevan?
t was the end of October 1987. At that time I worked at the Monument Protection Department of Armenia. My female colleagues wanted very much to visit Nakhichevan and asked me if I could arrange a trip. So I asked the head of our department, who gave us his consent to go for a business trip to Meghri, in south Armenia. At that time, the road from Yerevan to Meghri passed through the territory of Nakhichevan. But he warned us to be careful, as the Karabakh movement was already emerging at that time. We took our department’s van. We visited the city of Nakhichevan, where we saw the magnificent Seljuq tomb of Momine Khatun and the Armenian Church of St. George. Then we went to Abrakunis, where we took photos at St. Karapet Monastery and continued to Tsghna, a famous settlement of Goght’n region. We arrived there in the late afternoon and by chance we met one of my old friends, Martin, who lived in Yerevan, and he wouldn’t let us go. In an hour, Martin set up a sumptuous table on the large balcony of his father’s 18th century two-story house. He hosted us with barbecue, village crops, homemade spirits… Ten other people from Tsghna gathered around the table and our party went on until 3 o’clock in the morning.
Did you ever get to Meghri [in Armenia] then?
Yes, we reached Meghri at dawn. After staying there for two days, we planned to visit the town of Agulis on the way back. As we entered Agulis and parked the car at one of the Armenian cemeteries, I was completely stunned. The cemetery, which had held about 300 tombstones, was gone. A building had already been built in its place.
n less than five minutes, twenty or thirty [Azerbaijani] people gathered around us and started asking questions. Of course, they did not believe my explanations and I could hear them telling each other “Let’s go get gas and burn the car.” I ordered the girls to get in the car. They said, “How come? Why can’t we see the wonderful place and go later?” At my urging, we all got in the van and drove off. The mob started throwing stones and sticks at us and followed us with their cars all the way to the highway. I explained in the car what the people who surrounded us were saying and what could have happened to us. We might not have got out of the village alive.
I also planned to visit Julfa on the way back to retake pictures of 200 khachkars that I had photographed a year before, but the KGB had confiscated the films. In Julfa we visited the house of my old acquaintance, Mrs. Mariam, an elderly Armenian who lived there alone. By the time we set up the table to eat, the autumn weather changed; fog-like clouds accumulated and that’s why I didn’t try to enter the Julfa cemetery. I thought I would come and take the pictures next spring, when the weather would be better. Unfortunately, it was a fatal mistake. After the Karabakh movement started in February 1988, it became clear that it would no longer be possible to return there.
See more: https://culturalpropertynews.org/argam-ayvazyan-spy-researcher-for-nakhichevan-armenian-culture/