This erasure of the Christian past has also taken place in Turkey and elsewhere. In Turkey, all over the Middle East, and in Central Asia there are mosques built on the former sites of Christian churches. Some of those who persecute Christians today, as well as persecutors of Christians throughout history, also engage in a rewriting of history, an attempt to efface all traces of the Christian presence, so as to give the impression that no Christians ever lived in a particular area from which they were been driven out, and no injustice was actually done. This is one reason why it is so important for Christians and all people of good will to preserve historical memories of the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian genocides of the early twentieth centuries, and all other incidents of the persecution of Christians throughout history.
“A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture,” by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman, HyperAllergic.com, February 18, 2019:
In April 2011, when a US Ambassador traveled to Azerbaijan, on the southwestern edge of the former USSR, he was denied access to the riverside borderland that separates this South Caucasus nation from Iran. But it was not a foreign foe that halted the visit. Instead, his Azerbaijani hosts insisted that the envoy’s planned investigation inside the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan (officially, Naxçıvan Autonomous Republic) could not proceed because it was motivated by fake news. The ambassador had intended to probe the reported destruction of thousands of historical Medieval Christian Armenian artworks and objects at the necropolis of Djulfa in Nakhichevan. This cemetery is recorded to have once boasted the world’s largest collection of khachkars — distinctive Armenian cross-stones. However, according to Azerbaijani officials this reported destruction was a farce, that the site had not been disturbed, because it never existed in the first place. Despite ample testimony to the contrary, Azerbaijan claims that Nakhichevan was never Armenian.
Incompatible narratives of historical rights and wrongs have long bedeviled the unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Following the Russian Empire’s WWI-era collapse, Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged as short-lived independent states. Since centuries of imperial warfare over the strategic Armenian Highland had diversified the region’s ethnic makeup, newly-independent Armenia and Azerbaijan confronted overlapping territorial claims. Soon after the Bolsheviks took power in the area, they formalized two disputed regions — Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan — as autonomies within Soviet Azerbaijan.While Nagorno-Karabakh preserved a majority Armenian population, Nakhichevan’s longstanding Armenian communities dwindled over the twentieth century. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh sought unification with Soviet Armenia. Leaving Azerbaijan was necessary, Nagorno-Karabakh’s majority-Armenian population claimed, to preserve the region’s indigenous Christian past and to avoid the fate of Nakhichevan’s vanished Armenians. Amid Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, Nagorno-Karabakh became a war zone.
Since the 1994 ceasefire among newly-independent Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh, mutual accusations of vandalism and revisionism have been rampant. Azerbaijan’s president protests that “all of our mosques in occupied Azerbaijani lands have been destroyed.” A visitor to Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh (also called Artsakh in Armenian) would observe otherwise: there are mosques, albeit nonoperational, including one in the devastated “buffer zone” ghost town Agdam.
Yet a tourist in Nakhichevan, which was not a war zone, would encounter neither Armenian heritage sites nor public acknowledgment of the region’s far-reaching Armenian roots, including the medieval global trade networks launched by Djulfa’s innovative merchants. These merchants’ legacies, documented in Sebouh Aslanian’s From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, include the legendary treasures of the “Adventure Prize” ship pirated in 1698 by celebrated outlaw Captain Kidd. In addition, according to Ina McCabe’s Orientalism in Early Modern France, many of Europe’s first cafés were founded by these Djulfa (Julfan) merchants in the seventeenth century — contributing to a culture that, as Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker’s last issue of 2018, “helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.” Save for appropriated Armenian folklore linking the region to the Biblical Noah, whose ark was said to have landed on nearby Mount Ararat, Nakhichevan’s Armenian past has all but been erased.
Unlike the self-publicized cultural destruction of ISIS, independent Azerbaijan’s covert campaign to re-engineer Nakhichevan’s historical landscape between 1997 and 2006 is little known outside the region. But one man, Armenia-based researcher Argam Ayvazyan, anticipated the systematic destruction decades before.
Ayvazyan feared that Nakhichevan’s Armenian material heritage was destined to disappear, like its indigenous Armenians already had. The region’s Armenian population shrunk following the 1921 treaties of Kars and Moscow, in which Turkish negotiators secured the disputed territory as an exclave under the administration of Soviet Azerbaijan. Ayvazyan was barely 17 when he started photographing the cultural heritage of his native Nakhichevan. From 1964 to 1987, he collected enough documentation to ultimately publish 200 articles and over 40 books. His photographic missions were self-financed, undercover, dangerous, and supported by his closest companion: “My wife, a teacher, was my number one pillar,” recalls Ayvazyan, “she never once complained about my prolonged absences, financial hardships, or being our children’s primary caretaker.” By the time the Berlin Wall fell, Ayvazyan had documented 89 Armenian churches, 5,840 ornate khachkars, and 22,000 horizontal tombstones, among other Armenian monuments. His affection for Nakhichevan’s artifacts was not confined to Christian sites: Ayvazyan also surveyed the region’s seven Islamic mausoleums and 27 mosques.
Treading carefully while researching contentious sites is a skill Ayvazyan learned early in his work. In 1965, after being taken to a police station for photographing a church near his birthplace, Ayvazyan received a warning from a visiting KGB chief, who treated the teenage offender to tea. In a recent interview with the authors, Ayvazyan recalled that Comrade Heydar Aliyev told him in Russian, “Never again do such things, there are no Armenian-Shmarmenian things here!” Four years later, Comrade Aliyev would become Soviet Azerbaijan’s leader and then, in 1993, president of independent Azerbaijan. “Who knew,” Ayvazyan tells Hyperallergic, “that the man who told me not to photograph churches would 30 years later launch their annihilation.” Ayvazyan became increasingly cautious. For example, when it came to surveying the interior of Nakhichevan’s preeminent cathedral in the town of Agulis in September 1972, he asked an elderly local matriarch, Marus, to escort him to a potentially hostile encounter. As the last Armenian resident of a nearby village, she knew how to speak softly with the Azerbaijani community of Agulis. There, Marus convinced locals to unlock the sealed Saint Thomas cathedral, which tradition states was founded as a chapel by Bartholomew the Apostle. Marus insisted that Ayvazyan was suffering from an illness that, he believed, could only be eased by solitary time spent inside the cathedral.
In August 2005 the region’s authorities detained another visiting scholar. Scottish researcher Steven Sim had traveled to post-Soviet Nakhichevan to assess the condition of the Armenian churches photographed earlier by Ayvazyan. Instead of medieval churches, Sim found vacant plots with no vegetation. His police interrogators had a quick response as to why there was nothing for Sim to study: “Armenians came here and took photographs … then went back to their country and inserted into them photographs of churches in Armenia … There were no Armenians ever living here — so how could there have been churches here?!,” he was told. At the end of the interrogation, Sim was given until midnight to exit Nakhichevan, leaving with photographs of empty lots. But at least some of the toppled headstones of Djulfa, which he had seen from his window during a train ride, were still there. Because of its prominent location on an international border, Djulfa — spelled varyingly and originating from the Armenian “Jugha” — had survived.
Four months later, 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 video tape 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.
The helpless bishop officiated a tearful memorial service for the disturbed dead as the heart-wrenching scenes and screeching sounds of the obliteration continued across the border. Photographs from 2006 taken from the Iranian side of the border showed that a military rifle range had been erected where the cemetery used to be, presumably by Azerbaijan’s armed forces, to rationalize the existence of the freshly flattened soil. Likely due to three factors — its noticeable position on an international border, reputation as the world’s largest collection of khachkars, and previously voiced Armenian concerns for its preservation — Djulfa was the last major Armenian site in Nakhichevan to be destroyed. Its 2005–2006 demolition was the “grand finale” of Azerbaijan’s eradication of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past.
Since Azerbaijan banned international fact-finders from visiting Nakhichevan, 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.” In November 2013, dressed in the guise of a pilgrim to a Djulfa chapel now preserved on the Iranian side of the border, one of the authors of this article saw desolate grasslands across the river in Azerbaijan. The breathtakingly ornate stones of the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery were no more. Except for the peculiarity of flat fields on otherwise uneven terrain, it was as if no human had ever touched the landscape, just as Azerbaijani leaders intended.
Rebuttal by Baku
“Absolutely false and slanderous information … [fabricated by] the Armenian lobby.” These were the words used by Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev — successor to and son of KGB-leader-turned-President Heydar Aliyev — to describe reports of Djulfa’s destruction in an April 2006 speech. Dismissing any criticism as “Armenian propaganda” has been commonplace in Azerbaijan since war gripped South Caucasus in the early 1990s. By the time a fragile Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire was signed in 1994, this conflict — the Nagorno-Karabakh war — had scarred the wider region. It caused tens of thousands of deaths on both sides and many more displaced refugees, the majority of whom were Azerbaijanis from surrounding territories that the otherwise island-shaped Nagorno-Karabakh considers its existential guarantee. “After its defeat and suffering at the hands of the Armenians,” reflected Black Garden author Thomas de Waal on Azerbaijan’s post-war rhetoric, which came to include denial of the WWI-era Armenian Genocide, “[Baku] wanted to assert Azerbaijan’s right to victimhood too.” Azerbaijan’s narrative includes Armenian aggression, ethnic cleansing, massacre in Khojaly, occupation, and anti-Azerbaijan propaganda spread by the well-connected Armenian Diaspora.
But historical revisionism in Azerbaijan challenging Armenian antiquity predates the bloody 1990s war by decades. In the mid-1950s, writes Victor Schnirelmann in the Russian-language book Memory Wars, Azerbaijani historiographers initiated an anti-Armenian agenda. Such a shift likely occurred in response to the rebellious cultural awakening in Armenia, which, as Armenian-American scholar Pietro Shakarian argues, was among the first Soviet republics to experience the “Thaw” and de-Stalinization. Each new argument of the anti-Armenian revisionism, writes Schnirelmann, “inflamed the imagination of the Azerbaijani authors.” In 1975, for instance, a Soviet Azerbaijani construction project demolished the ancient Holy Trinity church, the site of Arab invaders’ mass burning of Armenian noblemen in 705 CE. At the time of the demolition, Azerbaijani historian Ziya Bunyadov downplayed the destruction. Wrecking the church was insignificant since the “real” Holy Trinity, Bunyadov abruptly claimed, was located outside Azerbaijan. A decade later, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Azerbaijani historians claimed that the churches and cross-stones of Nakhichevan were not the work of medieval Armenians but that of long-gone “Caucasian Albanians,” whom many Azerbaijanis consider to be ancestors, even though the extinct nation’s geographic distribution never included Nakhichevan. But, after the region’s last remaining traces of Christianity were expunged in 2005–2006, the Azerbaijani authorities abandoned discussions of “Caucasian Albanians,” and began promoting Nakhichevan as the bedrock of an “ancient and medieval Turkish-Islamic culture,” without reference to its deep Christian past….