The Artsakh Agony

In September of this year, the several thousand years of Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh came to an end.Azerbaijan then attacked what was left of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh whose defense forces surrendered after 24 hours. In the following days, all Armenians, about 100,000 people, left the area in a mass exodus to Armenia.

The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) is home to a rich ancient Armenian cultural heritage. Here are the monasteries Dadivank (9th– 13th centuries) and Gandzasar (13th century). It is also home to the archaeological site of Tigranakert, the ruins of a city founded by the Armenian king Tigran the Great (95–55 BC). 

Of special importance is the monastery of Amaras. It is believed to have been founded by the patron saint of the Armenian Church, Gregory the Illuminator (c. 257 – c. 328). His grandson, also named Gregory (Grigor, died in 338), is buried here. When the monk Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century, he founded a school in Amaras to teach it.

When the area came under Soviet rule, the Bolsheviks decided to give Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, even though the vast majority of the population was Armenian. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a brutal war broke out that brought not only most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also a significant surrounding area under Armenian control. After efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully failed, Azerbaijan attacked in September 2020.

After 44 days of fighting, a cease-fire agreement was reached that saw the breakaway Republic of Artsakh cede most of its territory. What remained was from December 2022 subject to an Azerbaijani blockade, preventing the entry of food, medicine, and fuel. In February 2023, the International Court of Justice issued a binding order that the blockade must be lifted immediately. Azerbaijan’s reaction was to further tighten the blockade, which by the end of the summer created a serious humanitarian emergency

Then in September 2023 came the military attack with subsequent ethnic cleansing.

The destruction in Nakhichevan 

Another area with a similar history is Nakhichevan. It also had an Armenian population, but when the area became part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet period, the Armenian population gradually decreased. The last Armenians moved from there in the 1970s. 

After Azerbaijan became independent, the Armenian cultural heritage of Nakhichevan has been systematically destroyed. 89 churches have been razed to the ground, as has the legendary cemetery in Djulfa. There, thousands of Armenian stone crosses, khachkars, were destroyed with sledgehammers in 2005. 

Despite the existence of extensive documentation (travelogues, photographs, satellite images) of this Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan today claims that it never existed and that no Armenians ever lived there.

Will it be the same in Nagorno-Karabakh? 

Now that all of Nagorno-Karabakh, with its rich Armenian cultural heritage, is under Azerbaijani control, many fear that it will suffer the same fate as the one in Nakhichevan. There are some signs of this happening. After the war in the fall of 2020, at least two churches in areas who then came under Azerbaijani control have been destroyed.

Nakhichevan has always been a closed area and few outsiders have visited it. With Nagorno-Karabakh it is different. Its heritage is much better documented. It is therefore unlikely that churches and monasteries will be destroyed and then claimed not to have existed.

Instead, Azerbaijani revisionism will take a different form. In the 1950s, a theory was put forward that no one took seriously at the time, but which in recent years has become state-sanctioned “truth” in Azerbaijan. According to this theory, Armenians did not have ancient roots in the region, but only arrived in the 19th century. The explanation for the old Armenian churches and monasteries is that they are not Armenian at all: they were built by the Caucasian Albanians, who later converted to Islam and became today’s Azerbaijanis. Therefore, the Christian cultural heritage of these structures is not attributed to the Armenians, but to the Caucasian Albanians and, by extension, to the Azerbaijanis.

One weakness of this theory is that the region’s ancient churches and monasteries have extensive carvings in Armenian, a language that was not that of the Albanians. The Azerbaijani explanation for these is that they were done much later by the Armenians in order to claim the buildings.

Let me add that no international expert on the ancient history of the Caucasus believes in this theory. 

It remains to be seen what will happen to the Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is unlikely to be destroyed, as it happened in Nakhichevan. There is a lot of attention to it and Azerbaijan cares about its reputation in the world. In December 2021, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to “prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration of Armenian cultural heritage”. More likely, Azerbaijan will instead invest even more in promoting the theory that this cultural heritage is not Armenian, but Albanian. 

The 100,000 Armenians who were forced to flee their old homeland not only have to deal with this trauma and the challenge of building a new life in Armenia. They also worry about what will happen to the material remains of their history in what they call Artsakh.

Featured image generated by the text-to-image AI.

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