FAZ: War on cultural heritage

[article in English below]

In der deutschen Ausgabe der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Ausgabe wurde am 18.12.2020 ein Artikel von Dr. Ulrich Bock veröffentlicht, der sich mit der Gefahr für armenische Kulturgüter in Bergkarabach beschäftigt. Wir haben den Artikel vom Übersetzungsdienst des Europäischen Parlaments übersetzen lassen, um ihm auch internationalen Lesern zugänglich zu machen. Den Originalartikel gibt es hier: Krieg gegen das kulturelle Erbe


War on cultural heritage

Forgotten treasures: the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is putting historic Armenian buildings in great danger.

By Ulrich Bock, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18.12.2020 (translated by EP translation unit)

The pictures have spread across the internet and reached a worldwide audience: pictures of the cathedral in Shusha, badly damaged by Azerbaijani drone attacks, and of the neighbouring church of John the Baptist, known in Armenia as Kanach Zham (the Green Church) because of its green dome, which is now missing its two distinctive bell towers, blown up by Azerbaijani soldiers. Soldiers who were filmed elsewhere – in Qubadli, for example – proudly celebrating their destruction of Christian-Armenian cultural landmarks. Their victory poses, accompanied by loud cries of ‘Allahu akbar’, have been circulating on the internet.

The fortunes of war in the latest military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan now favour the latter, thanks to the active support of Turkey. Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia on 10 November, Armenia must relinquish all seven former Azerbaijani districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh will revert to being an exclave, connected to the Republic of Armenia only by a five-kilometre-wide corridor in the Lachin District. It is particularly tough for the Armenians that they must also cede both of the southern districts of Nagorno-Karabakh, Shusha and Hadrut, to Azerbaijan. These are areas which they have inhabited since ancient times, with a great deal of cultural evidence of their presence. The worry is that their expulsion will be followed by the systematic destruction of cultural heritage, purely to expunge the evidence documenting their historic claim on these areas.

The justification for such fears lies not just in current events but also in aspects of recent history. For example, in the Azerbaijan province of Nakhichevan, most of the Armenian monuments have been destroyed, a fate which befell the famous Armenian cemetery of Julfa, with its thousands of gravestones and cross-stones (khachkars) dating from the 5th to the 17th centuries, in 2005 and 2006, and which went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Their inscriptions were first-rate historical source material which is now irredeemably lost.

Armenian churches and monasteries, too, are threatened not only with destruction but also with ‘albanisation’. The theory now being very forcefully propagated by Azerbaijan, which is over 50 years old but is no less absurd for that, is that the Armenian monuments in Nagorno-Karabakh are in fact Albanian. These Albanians were a small Christian group in Eastern Transcaucasia, all trace of whom was lost in the 11th century. A few Armenian churches in Azerbaijan have undergone albanisation in the past, with Azerbaijanis erasing the inscriptions incorporated in the structure of buildings. This happened, for example, in 2004 in Nij, where the Armenian church had been restored with the help of Norway. The large, well-preserved monastery complex at Dadivank, which is an important centre of the Armenian Apostolic Church and in the first half of the 13th century was the spiritual and secular centre of the Armenian Vakhtangian royal house, is currently undergoing albanisation. Dadivank is in Kalbajar, one of the seven Azerbaijani districts which surround Nagorno-Karabakh and which now have to be returned to Azerbaijan. Historical appropriation has not been long in getting started here. Anar Karimow, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of culture, summarily declared the monastery to be Albanian and came up with the idea that Dadivank was ‘constructed by the wife of the Albanian Prince Vakhtang’. There are fears that the long Armenian inscription on the south facade of Katoghike Basilica giving the date of foundation as 1214, which would refute this, will not survive for long. And the same fate may well befall the figures of the founders on the same facade. These represent the sons of Arzu Khatun, the church’s founder, together with a model of the church.

Khachkars, which generally have inscriptions on them, are without doubt at the top of the endangered list. These are cross-stones, rectangular blocks made from tuff found only in Armenia and up to two metres high, artistically decorated with reliefs and always with a central cross as their main motif. They are ubiquitous in Armenia and can be found in monasteries, where they stand at the entrances to churches or embedded in the facades of sacred buildings or lie in the floor as tomb slabs. Khachkars line old transport routes, stand at the tops of mountain passes or mark sites of cultural-historical importance. They perform a variety of functions depending on where they are located. As a kind of religious boundary they mark the sacred ground of a monastery district; as tombstones they remember the dead; and as memorial slabs they commemorate martyrs. They satisfy the particular requirements of popular piety and have, with the dominant cross motif, not least a political function as symbols of the national church of Armenia. For art historians they are rewarding objects of research: in no other branch of Armenian art can stylistic development through the centuries be traced as it can with the khachkars. This is due to the inscriptions which cover the flat backs of many free-standing stones and offer an insight into their origin, their benefactor or, not infrequently, the stonemason. As these khachkars, which are so characteristic of Armenia, cannot be albanised, it is assumed that their destruction in both southern districts of Karabakh has been planned and is under way. The German-Armenian Lawyers Association (DEARJV), which is actively engaged, under the leadership of Gurgen Petrossian, in shining a light on the destruction and desecration of Armenian cultural assets and monuments, in accordance with the provisions of the Hague Convention, and in bringing the perpetrators to justice, lists 144 cross-stones dating from 11 centuries for the Hadrut and Shushi region alone, and this is just a preliminary list.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, during the golden age of the Bagratid Dynasty, the Armenians achieved such inimitable mastery of arching technology that in 989 Trdat, the most prominent Armenian builder of the Middle Ages, was granted the honour of reconstructing the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Their choice of building types showed the Armenians to be keen experimenters, leaving examples from across almost the whole range of Christian architecture, although there is an early emphasis on central structures – cross-in-square, quatrefoil, sextofoil and octofoil-shaped buildings. A further characteristic of Armenian architecture, which differentiates it from that of Byzantium, for example, is the accentuation of facades with sculptural motifs. These range from ornamental bands featuring abstract and vegetable shapes to large-format figurative reliefs.

In the Azerbaijan-occupied Shushi and Hadrut districts alone there is evidence of 13 Armenian monasteries and 51 churches, some of which were founded as long ago as the early Middle Ages. The two most significant historical buildings in the region and also nationwide are without doubt the church of Goshavank Monastery and the Okhta Drni church (the ‘Church with Seven Doors’) near Mokhrenis, which both lie to the west of Hadrut. Goshavank was founded in the eighth century and the present monastery complex largely dates back to the 13th century. An inscription on the north wall of the monastery church gives the date of construction of the church as 1241-1248 and names two Armenian bishops from Amaras as its commissioners. Goshavank is of particular interest as a kind of archive in stone, as it has a large number of inscriptions which contain important information on the history of the area from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

Only the bare structure of the Okhta Drni church remains, yet even the ruins are of cultural-historical significance, as this is the only quatrefoil-shaped building in the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians consider the central structure to be one of their earliest Christian monuments and date its construction to 570. In the Middle Ages it was a place of pilgrimage as well as a monastery, and this is attested to by the remains of other buildings. Its ultimate destruction would be an irretrievable loss.

The worrying question is whether the famous monastery complex of Gandzasar is in danger: the best-known historical monument in Nagorno-Karabakh and one which is worthy of the world heritage label. In this case the all-clear can be sounded for the moment. Gandzasar is in the district of Martakert, which is under Armenian control. The monastery church, built between 1216 and 1238, is remarkable for its rich structural ornamentation and an extensive iconographic repertoire, rare in Armenia, including one of the first Armenian representations of the crucifixion on an external facade. Most of the bas-relief motifs can be seen on the tambour: Christ performing a blessing over the fall from grace with Adam, Eve and the serpent; also the burial of Christ, the Virgin Mary with her child, and two figures of the church founders together with a model of the church.

It remains to be seen whether Gandzasar and many other Armenian churches and monasteries will require protection in the future. After its success in this conflict, Azerbaijan’s desire to control the whole of the Karabakh region is unlikely to diminish. More concerning is the question of whether the southern part of the Republic of Armenia will become the focus of the craving for expansion. This is where a strip of Armenia, only 20 to 40 kilometres wide and stretching to the Iranian border, separates Nakhchivan, an exclave of Azerbaijan, from Azerbaijan itself.

Ulrich Bock is an art historian. He was awarded his doctorate for a study of Armenian architecture and is the author of the DuMont ‘Georgia and Armenia’ art and travel guide.


Dadivank Klosterkomplex, 2019