Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian heritage on borrowed time

Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh has been a self-proclaimed autonomous republic not recognized by the UN but supported by Armenia (its Armenian name is “Artsakh”). During the resumption of fighting in 2020, Azerbaijan was singled out in relation to local heritage, because, according to several sources, it contributed to the destruction of Armenian monuments. The Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh is mainly religious (churches, monasteries, cemeteries), and dates from the first half of the Middle Ages. In addition to the monastery of Dadivank (9th-13th century BC), the region includes the site of Tigranakert excavated in the 2000s: this Hellenistic fortified city (2nd-1st century BC) is also the site of the defeat of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius I against the Sassanids in 625. The region is also famous for the engraved steles (khachars in Armenian), listed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2010. Azerbaijani heritage includes more recent mosques and cemeteries.

Several calls to protect this heritage have been launched in the recent past, notably in a resolution from the European Parliament and a report from the French Senate. The European text voted in March 2022 recalls that “1,456 mainly Armenian monuments” had been under Azerbaijan’s control since September 2020, and cites bombed 12th-century churches and destruction of medieval cemeteries. But the text above all affirms that Azerbaijan “caused considerable intentional damage to Armenian cultural heritage.” Indeed, both in speeches and actions, Azerbaijani officials have increased calls to destroy the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, like President Aliyev who announced in 2021 that he wanted to erase Armenian inscriptions from churches. MEPs cite the case of 99 churches, 20,000 tombs and 5,000 tombstones destroyed in 2020 and 2021, particularly in the district where Tigranakert is located: the site was even bombed according to an Armenian archaeologist. The resolution cites a 2021 order of the International Court of Justice regarding the protection of the heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had no effect on Azerbaijan’s attitude.

Azerbaijan indeed defends an unproven historical theory according to which Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the culture “Caucasian Albanian” and not to Christian Armenian culture, heir to the ancient kingdom of Armenia. MEPs talk about “falsification of history” and of “negationism”. The French Senate report from July 2021 points to the risk of “distortion of certain monuments” And the one of “destruction of small heritage” because of this historical theory. European deputies and senators have been calling for a UNESCO mission to Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of 2020: UNESCO has never been able to go there for thirty years, and it remains powerless. In a resolution voted in the European Parliament on October 5, MEPs urge Azerbaijan to authorize this mission, and are concerned about a “ethnic cleansing”, because the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in September 2023, after the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh, marks the disappearance of local culture and traditions. To date, it is difficult to confirm heritage information as Azerbaijan locks down communications and media.

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