By Harut Sassounian
“A groundbreaking forensic report tracks Azerbaijan’s destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,480 intricate cross-stones, and 22,700 tombstones,” is the subtitle of an incredible article by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman, published in the Hyperallergic Newsletter last week. The article is titled: “A Regime Conceals its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture.”
In April 2011, when the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan wanted to visit Nakhichevan, an Armenian territory classified by the Soviets as an “autonomous republic” of Azerbaijan, to verify the destruction of thousands of historical medieval Armenian khachkars (cross-stones), he was blocked by Azeri officials who told him that reports of their destruction was fake news.
Under Azeri oppression, the longstanding Armenian community of Nakhichevan had dwindled to zero! Not content with ethnic-cleansing, the Azeris proceeded to eliminate all traces of Armenian monuments, claiming that no Armenians had ever lived in Nakhichevan.
“In December 2005, an Iranian border patrol alerted the Prelate of Northern Iran’s Armenian Church that the vast Djulfa cemetery, visible across the border in Azerbaijan, was under military attack. Bishop Nshan Topouzian and his driver rushed to videotape over 100 Azerbaijani soldiers, armed with sledgehammers, dump trucks and cranes destroying the cemetery’s remaining 2,000 khachkars; over 1,000 had already been purged in 1998 and 2002,” reported Maghakyan and Pickman.
The flattened land, where the khachkars stood for centuries, is now a military rifle range. The “demolition was the ‘grand finale’ of Azerbaijan’s eradication of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past,” wrote the two authors.
Maghakyan and Pickman reported that “the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) employed remote sensing technologies in its pioneer investigation into cultural destruction. Their 2010 geospatial study concluded that ‘satellite evidence is consistent with reports by observers on the ground who have reported the destruction of Armenian artifacts in the Djulfa cemetery.’”
“Absolutely false and slanderous information … [fabricated by] the Armenian lobby,” proclaimed Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who makes frequent threats against Armenia and distorts its history.
The authors also quote from public decree No.5-03/S on December 6, 2005, by Nakhichevan’s “local autocrat” Vasif Talibov, a relative of Pres. Aliyev, “ordering a detailed inventory of Nakhichevan’s monuments. Three years later, the investigation was summed up in the bilingual English and Azerbaijani ‘Encyclopedia of Nakhchivan Monuments,’ co-edited by Talibov himself. Missing from the 522-page ‘Encyclopedia’ are the 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate khachkars, and 22,000 tombstones that [Armenian researcher Argam] Ayvazyan had meticulously documented. There is not so much as a footnote on the now-defunct Christian Armenian communities in the area — Apostolic and Catholic alike. Nevertheless, the official Azerbaijani publication’s foreword explicitly reveals ‘Armenians’ as the reason for No. 5-03/S: ‘Thereafter the decision issued on 6 December 2005 … a passport was issued for each monument … Armenians demonstrating hostility against us not only have an injustice [sic] land claim from Nakhchivan, but also our historical monuments by giving biassed [sic] information to the international community. The held investigations once again prove that the land of Nakhchivan belonged to the Azerbaijan turks [sic]….’”
Any Azerbaijani who dares to speak out in defense of Armenians is also attacked as an enemy of Azerbaijan. A courageous Azerbaijani writer, Akram Aylisli, paid a hefty price for telling the truth about the destruction of Armenian monuments in his hometown of Agulis (known today as Aylis). The well-known novelist was furious that the Azeri government was destroying Armenian churches. In his novel, “Stone Dreams,” the protagonist, an intellectual from Agulis, refers to memories of the town’s eight of the 12 medieval churches that had survived until the 1990’s, and protects a victim of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Pres. Aliyev revoked Aylisli’s pension and title of “People’s Writer.” His writings were removed from school curricula, his books were publicly burned, and his family members were fired from their jobs. He has been under de facto house arrest since the release of his novel. Aylisli protested the destruction of the Armenian churches in Agulis and resigned from his position as Member of Azerbaijan’s Parliament. He fearlessly sent a telegram to Pres. Heydar Aliyev in 1997, calling the destruction of the Armenian churches in Aylis an “act of vandalism being perpetrated through the involvement of armed forces and employment of anti-tank mines.”
The two authors spoke with Russian journalist Shura Burtin who after interviewing Aylisli in 2013 traveled to Nakhichevan and reported that he didn’t see “a trace of the area’s glorious past.” Burtin concluded: “Not even ISIS could commit such an epic crime against humanity.”
The authors reported that Aylisli’s 2018 non-fiction essay in Farewell, claimed “that a mosque built five years ago on the site of one of the destroyed churches has been boycotted by locals because ‘everyone in Aylis knows that prayers offered in a mosque built in the place of a church don’t reach the ears of Allah.’”
Argam Ayvazyan, a native of Nakhichevan who spent decades photographing the local Armenian monuments before their destruction, was quoted by Maghakyan and Pickman as decrying the world’s silence: “Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s annihilation of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past make it worse than ISIS, yet UNESCO and most Westerners have looked away.” ISIS-demolished sites like Palmyra can be renovated, Ayvazyan argued, but “all that remain of Nakhichevan’s Armenian churches and cross-stones that survived earthquakes, caliphs, Tamerlane, and Stalin are my photographs.”