Armenian monuments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the line of fire

UNESCO has been accused of turning a blind eye to the destruction of cultural sites as bitter fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed territory continues

Dorian Batycka / October 26, 2020 / published in:  The Art Newspaper

Cultural heritage and archaeological sites are again under threat as fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has flared up again. The latest escalation comes after a ceasefire brokered by the US authorities was apparently broken within a few hours. Two previous ceasefires brokered by Russia were also broken.

Since the last clashes began on September 27, hundreds have died and thousands have been displaced in what has been described as the fiercest clash between the two countries in more than 25 years.

Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Artsakh Republic, lies within the borders of Azerbaijan but has an ethnic Armenian majority and has been under the control of Armenian troops since 1994. The area is home to numerous monuments of religious and civil importance. Monuments and various art objects, including the remains of ancient settlements, some of which have now been the target of attacks.

Berg-Karabach liegt innerhalb Aserbaidschans, hat jedoch eine große armenische Bevölkerung ©Illustration von Katherine Hardy

Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but has a large Armenian population ©Illustration by Katherine Hardy

On October 8, a spokesman for the Armenian Defense Ministry shared on social media that the Ghazentchezots Cathedral of the Holy Savior in Shushi, one of the largest Armenian churches in the world, was bombed by Azerbaijan. He posted pictures of smashed pews, a large hole in the ceiling, and debris strewn around the 19th-century building. Azerbaijan promptly denied the bombing and a Defense Ministry spokesman said that "the information about damage to the church in Shushi had nothing to do with the activities of the Azerbaijani army". Azerbaijani armed forces "would not target historical, cultural and especially religious sites," he added.

Meanwhile, the 2,000-year-old Hellenistic-Armenian city of Tigranakert was also shelled by Azerbaijani artillery, according to an Oct. 3 report by archaeologist Hamlet Petrosyan. "The best-preserved city of Hellenistic-Armenian culture" in the Caucasus "lies in the zone of intense war activity," Petrosyan's team said in a statement, noting that it was shelled several times. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan issued any pronouncement about this site.

Museums support the military

In Azerbaijan, museums openly support the war effort. On October 7, the Museum of National Art and the National Carpet Museum, both based in Baku, announced that they would make a donation to support the Azerbaijani armed forces. "The glorious sons and daughters of the homeland, gathering all their strength on and behind the front lines, are ready to fight the enemy on the battlefield to liberate the occupied Azerbaijani territories and restore the country's territorial integrity as it is ours Civic duty is,” the National Museum of Art said in a press statement, announcing the donation of 3,000 manats (1,800 US$).

"All 4,000 cultural sites of Nagorno-Karabakh are at risk of serious destruction" - Simon Maghakyan, Armenian political scientist

Last year, Simon Maghakyan detailed Azerbaijan's destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhchivan in the online publication Hyperallergic - another disputed area, with 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars (filigree-carved cross stones) and 22,000 tombstones.

Maghakyan now says, "It is fair to assume that all 4,000 cultural heritage sites of Nagorno-Karabakh are in danger of being destroyed," including the historic city of Amaras and the 5th-century St. Grigoris Tomb and Monastery 13th-century Dadivank, which had been founded as a chapel in the first century.

On October 9, 2020, Armenian Minister of Culture Arayik Harutyunyan called on UNESCO to condemn the bombing of the Ghazanchezots Cathedral. “Deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. Targeted shelling of cultural heritage sites, particularly in times of war, is strictly prohibited by a number of international agreements, including UNESCO's Hague Convention. Unfortunately, when Azerbaijan wiped out all Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhchivan between 1997 and 2006, it was not adequately condemned. This silence led to the obliteration of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars and 22,000 tombstones.

He added: “We call on UNESCO and all other relevant organizations to strongly and unequivocally condemn the ongoing aggression by Azerbaijan and the targeted shelling of cultural heritage sites and other cultural and civic sites. We are convinced that the timely actions of UNESCO and other leading world organizations will stop further destruction of cultural monuments and civil facilities in Artsakh.”

A view through a shattered window from a building near the Shushi Cathedral, the Ghazanchezoz Cathedral, after part of the roof was destroyed by an Azerbaijani double strike October 11, 2020. Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto

On the same day, UNESCO issued a statement on its website condemning the recent violence on both sides: "UNESCO expresses its deep concern at the continued escalation of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, which has resulted in high civilian casualties and causes damage to civilian infrastructure - including schools, cultural and religious sites - and also threatens the safety of journalists."

Maghakyan accuses UNESCO of turning a blind eye to the destruction, saying "it has been complicit in silence regarding Azerbaijan's actions in cultural genocide." He believes UNESCO has been very slow to respond for two reasons: Azerbaijan's financial contributions to the financial ailing institution (Azerbaijan donated $5 million after the US stopped funding in 2013) and its ties to two previous directors-general, Kōichirō Matsuura and Irina Bokova.

In 2017, The Guardian revealed that Kalin Mitrev, Bokova's husband, accepted a consulting fee of at least €425,000 (US$500,000) in connection with a PR firm that has funneled an estimated US$3 billion to various influential groups and individuals , to promote the Azerbaijani government at the international level. Bokova could not be reached for comment. However, in 2017 Mitrev told the Guardian that the payments were intended for a legitimate business consultancy and denied having any knowledge of the channels of connection or the original source of the funding.

Meanwhile, Matsuura worked as a trustee for the state-run Baku International Multiculturalism Center and was awarded the Diplomatic Service Medal in July this year. Matsuura could not be reached for comment.

UNESCO declined to comment on the allegations, referring us to their statement condemning the violence.

In 2019 the meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee took place in Baku. At the meeting, Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, UNESCO Deputy Director for Culture, asked both sides to allow UNESCO investigators to enter Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the wish remained unfulfilled.

Following the recent escalation of hostilities, a group of prominent intellectuals and scientists, including Noam Chomsky, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Tariq Ali, Viken Berberian, Judith Herman, and philosophers Cornel West and Seyla Benhabib, published an open letter on Oct. 16 in the Los Angeles Review of Books,” in which she called for a ceasefire to “end the bloodshed and human and cultural slaughter” in Nagorno-Karabakh. "We remind you that the sites of the bombings include archaeological sites such as the ancient Armenian city of Tigranakert," they wrote.
Translation from English
by Arman Simonian


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Armenian monuments in line of fire in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict _ The Art Newspaper