An Islamic mausoleum built by an Armenian architect might offer a unique opportunity to embrace diversity.
Last fall’s war in the South Caucasus, during which Azerbaijan violently procured most of its Soviet-era territories, has left many wondering whether the continued erasure of the region’s Indigenous Armenian cultural monuments can be prevented.
While the haughty Azerbaijani government’s rhetoric and record could hardly be less encouraging, a little-known group of regional monuments — medieval Islamic mausoleums built by local, Christian Armenian craftsmen — may offer a glimpse of hope for cultural preservation in and around the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
In late November, in accordance with a controversial peace agreement, the defeated Artsakh Republic ceded the Agdam district to Azerbaijan. The region encompasses a vast array of cultural heritage sites, including the archeological site of Tigranakert, a Hellenistic Armenian city.
Until the excavations launched in 2006, Vankasar church was the only visible part of the major sacred Armenian site. Nearby, a later Islamic monument sacred to Azerbaijanis memorializes one of the region’s 14th-century Muslim lords. That monument also passed into Azerbaijan’s possession.
Situated in the village of Khachen-Dorbatli (Azerbaijani spelling Xaçındərbətli), the 14th-century mausoleum has long reminded researchers of Armenian architecture. “It represents a polygon with a sharp dome, built of processed yellowish limestone,” wrote the late Armenian researcher Samvel Karapetyan in 2001.
“The style, execution technique, and artistic features of the heraldic scenes cut in low relief around the niches of interior walls (bulls, tigers, other animals) are similar to the reliefs of the western façade of Surb Astvatzatzin (the Holy Virgin) church in Yeghvard.”
Researchers before and after Karapetyan have also noted the similarities of the two structures. A Russian-language book titled The Art of Azerbaijan, published in Moscow in 1976 by well-known Soviet art historians Leonid Bretanitski and Boris Vejmarn, writes of the mausoleum:
The unique architecture and ornamentation of the mausoleum […] significantly expand ideas of the interconnections between the art of the “Muslim” and “Christian” regions of the Near East, Transcaucasia and Asia Minor […] It is framed by a thread of hefty, finely-outlined and skillfully-executed rosettes, reminiscent of the décor of the entrances of the Melik Ajar mausoleum and the temple-burial vault in Yeghvard.
[…] The mihrab and the contents of the inscription confirm that the “customer” was a Muslim. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of elements in the architecture of the mausoleum that speak of connections with the architecture of neighboring Christian regions: the décor of the entrance, the solutions of the columns, the character of stalactites. We especially note the images of living creatures, which are rarely found in the ornamentation of Azerbaijan’s monuments […]
The poignancy of the confident lines, the fleetness of the movements, the sudden angles … speak of the remarkable craftsmanship of the artist. With their motifs and manners of execution, they somewhat resemble the same “graffiti” of [the churches of] Geghard and Saghmosavank in Armenia.
The 1994 book, The Caucasian Knot, also notes the similarities between the Christian and Islamic structures. “The [Muslim] mausoleum at Khachen-Dorbatly (1314 [Mongol period]), not far from Aghdam, reveals a great similarity in sculpted décor to an Armenian funerary church of the same period, the chapel at Yeghvard,” write Levon Chorbajian, Patrick Donabédian, and Claude Mutafian.
Built within several years of each other, the striking similarities of the Yeghvard chapel — situated just north of modern Armenia’s capital Yerevan — and the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum go beyond such obvious commonalities as their nearly identical depiction of wildlife or entry décor.
According to Donabédian, the two structures exhibit mutual influences of Christian and Islamic art. “The chapel of Yeghvard was built in a small local principality, which was one of the rare areas in Armenia where artistic activity was able to continue during the tough period of Mongol domination,” he explained to Hyperallergic.
“This chapel distinguishes itself by its elegance, the abundance and quality of its sculpted decoration, widely open to contacts with the Muslim world, and by the presence, under its cupola, of a row of Persian tiles dating from the end of the 13th century to early 14th centuries.”
In addition to their visual similarities, the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum and the Yeghvard chapel both have inscriptions identifying the architect. Naming an architect on a medieval structure is not a common feature of local architecture, Armenia-based researcher Raffi Kortoshian told Hyperallergic, and must be a result of the architect’s popularity. The Yeghvard chapel’s Armenian inscription identifies the architect as “VD SHAHIK,” with “VD” standing for “vardpet” or master in the Armenian language.
The Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum’s Arabic inscription also names the architect, but as Kortoshian points out, Soviet researchers misinterpreted it, without even publishing the inscription’s photograph or sketch, as either “Shahbenzer” or “Shakhenzi.” In 2017, writing in French, Donabédian and his co-author Yves Porter published the mausoleum’s Arabic inscription in full: “Hadha al-‘imârat al-marhum Qutlu Khwâdjah ibn Musâ al-muhtâj alâ rahmat-allah li-‘âlâ Fi târikh rabi’ al-âkhir sana arba’ ‘ashar sab’amia ‘amal ustâd shâhik (This is the building of the late Qutlu Khwâdjah [ibn Musâ] needing the mercy of God the Most High. On the date [of the month] Rabi’ al-âkhir of the year seven hundred and fourteen /15 July-13 August 1314. Work of master Shâhik).”
While Kortoshian, who has studied the inscription closely, agrees that the Arabic text translates as “master Shahik,” he told Hyperallergic that Donabédian-Porter “have erred in reading” the architect’s title as “ustad.” Instead, he insists, the architect’s name and title is spelled in the Arabic inscription as “Shahikvd,” in which “vd” stands not for “ustad” but for its Armenian equivalent, “vardpet.” Kortoshian acknowledged, nevertheless, that further epigraphic studies of this and similar inscriptions are needed due to some non-standard punctuations “to better understand the use of Arabic in 14th-century Armenia under Mongol-Turkic dominations.”
Additional confirmation that the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum and the Yeghvard chapel share an architect in Shahik Vardpet arrives via a more recent discovery. In 2001, a 14th-century Islamic mausoleum was found in the basement of a disco club in downtown Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Kortoshian says that the Arabic inscription of the Yerevan mausoleum names a possible relative, perhaps the father, of the man buried at Khachen-Dorbatli.
The inscription also indicates it was built six years before the mausoleum at Khachen-Dorbatli. Kortoshian says the Yerevan mausoleum bears visual similarities to the structures in both Khachen-Dorbatli and Yeghvard. Furthermore, it features bilingual inscriptions, in Armenian and Arabic — a rare occurrence among Islamic tombs built by Armenian craftsmen.
While the Arabic version omits the name of the architect, Kortoshian notes that the Armenian inscription acknowledges him as “SHAH[I]K VD.” Incidentally, all of these three structures built by Shahik Vardpet not only name their architect but also identify the year of the construction’s completion: the early 1300s.
The toponym Khachen Dorbatli itself memorializes the village’s hybrid history, points out Ankara-based Azerbaijani researcher and linguist Cavid Aga. He told Hyperallergic that the place name incorporates the wider region’s medieval Armenian name, “Khachen,” with either the Islamic term “türbə” (mausoleum) or the Mongols’ Dörbet tribe. Aga finds the latter connection more probable because “The Yuan Empire’s representative to the Mongolian Ilkhanate, Bolad Chingsang, was from the Dörbet tribe and had an estate in Karabakh, where he died in 1313,” and also because “Dorbatli” has been incorporated into other place names of the region. According to Aga, many toponyms across this part of the world often memorialize demographic changes, “like Baghanis-Ayrum, in which Baghanis is the original Armenian name while Ayrum is the Turkic tribe that settled there.”
It’s worth noting that in 2006, when Armenia brought up the issue of the erasure of the Armenian Djulfa cemetery in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijan authorities responded with what is known as mirror propaganda, baselessly alleging the “total destruction” of various monuments including the “Gutlu Musa oglu tomb,” which is how Azerbaijani authorities often refer to the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum.
The Khachen-Dorbatli is not the only Islamic monument connected with Armenian architecture in the wider region of Artsakh or Karabakh, according to a 2010 publication of the nonprofit organization Research on Armenian Architecture. The Islamic Monuments of the Armenian Architecture of Artsakh states that “during the foreign domination of Armenia, outstanding Armenian masons were often forced into carrying out different tasks within the construction activity of this or that ruler.”
The vast architectural knowledge acquired in constructing Armenian churches was often used by foreign conquerors in the building of new secular and religious sites. “All of these structures reveal the influence of Armenian architecture,” notes the publication, “and bear […] the apparent imprint of its traditional features.” According to the same text:
[…] special mention should be made of the mausoleums (14th to 15th centuries) that were erected in the Eastern regions of Historical Armenia, and particularly in Artsakh, in the times of the Turkmen Kara Koyunlu nomadic tribes. These mausoleums, which were built over the graves of the chieftains of these tribes and are reminiscent of church domes, were designed by Armenian architects and built by Armenian masters.
Armenian-built Islamic mausoleums are no surprise to researchers like Stephennie Mulder, author of the book The Shrines of the Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’is and the Architecture of Coexistence. Armenian influences upon Islamic architecture are not limited to monuments constructed in historical Armenia. “There is a tremendous amount of influence from Armenian stonemasonry on Islamic architecture from about the 11th to14th centuries all throughout Islamic lands,” she notes. “The walls of Cairo, for example, were built by an Armenian army general, Badr al-Jamali, who became vizier to the Fatimid Caliph.”
The Armenian influence is so pronounced that Mulder even begins her class at the University of Texas, Austin on circa 12th-century Islamic architecture with a discussion on Armenian Church architecture. “It was perfectly usual for Christians to work for Muslim patrons, and the Mongols took that up even one more notch,” explains Mulder, in part because “antagonizing the enormous variety of religious communities over which Muslim rulers found themselves presiding was often antithetical to the goal of imperial stability.” Instead, she states, medieval Islamic rulers frequently preferred a strategy of “pragmatic accommodation” over conflict that stimulated shared architectural traditions.
Azerbaijani scholar Elchin Aliyev, who has advocated for historical preservation, told Hyperallergic that Armenian-Azerbaijani cultural commonalities in architecture and beyond, including in cuisine and music, can help to pursue the “renewal of good-neighborly relations.” He plans to visit the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum this summer for the first time and acknowledges, by invoking Leonid Bretanitski’s research, “the influence of Armenian architecture and antiquity in the architecture of the mausoleum.”
He also hopes to visit Yerevan one day to study the Soviet-revitalized city’s “Stalinist” architecture, despite accusing the Armenian government of “denying the existence of a vast cultural heritage of Azerbaijanis in Armenia.” Aliyev is hopeful that “the existence of Armenian architectural heritage in Azerbaijan” can become “one of the bridges for cultural communication” in the region.
Despite overwhelming scholarly evidence to the contrary, the government of Azerbaijan may struggle with acknowledging the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum’s Armenian architect. Government-linked Azerbaijani scholars officially argue that Armenians did not even appear in the territory of modern Azerbaijan until the 19th century, despite the presence of thousands of sacred Christian and pagan Armenian sites. Azerbaijani politicians have relabeled the latter, which consist of mostly churches and cross-stones, as “Caucasian Albanian,” in reference to a now extinct nation that is known predominantly through Armenian history texts.
Starting in the 1950s, after the death of Stalin and the onset of the Cold War thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, then-Soviet Azerbaijan’s nationalist historiography claimed association with the long gone Caucasian Albanians.
The aim was to compete with Armenian and Georgian cultural rebirth and pride in antiquity, a trend that, in the Armenian context, commenced with Anastas Mikoyan’s March 1954 speech in Yerevan, calling for a more liberal line toward national expression. Unfortunately, such pseudo-scientific approaches to regional history became even more pronounced after the Soviet dissolution in 1991 and continue to persist to this day.
What may be seen by outsiders as inconsequential nationalistic historiography turned into a violent campaign of cultural erasure in 1997. During that same year, Azerbaijan embarked on a decade-long campaign to eradicate every trace of Armenian history on the territory of a formerly disputed region, Nakhichevan (known in Azerbaijani as Naxçıvan).
My exposé, co-authored with Yale historian Sarah Pickman, revealed that between 1997 and 2006, the government of Azerbaijan covertly eradicated every trace of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past. The victims of this brazen campaign of complete cultural erasure included 89 medieval churches, 5,840 ornate cross-stones or khachkars and over 22,000 historical tombstones.
It is noteworthy that, even though the vast Christian heritage of Nakhichevan had also been relabeled as “Caucasian Albanian,” Azerbaijan’s historical revisionism still failed to secure their preservation. In a potentially ominous foreshadowing, on February 26, 2021, in a nationalistic speech rich with anti-Armenian demagoguery, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president repeated the lie that Armenians “moved to [Nagorno-Karabakh] in the 19th-century.”
Nor is Azerbaijan’s “Albanization” campaign limited to Armenian monuments. The Georgian monastery complex of Davit Gareja, which has been subject to a heated border dispute between Azerbaijanis and Georgians, has also been classified by Azerbaijani scholars as “Albanian,” despite its Georgian inscriptions. Meanwhile, as Azerbaijani officials continue to engage in “Albanizing” the region’s past, they may have unknowingly acknowledged Armenian influence over at least some Islamic mausoleums built in what is now Azerbaijan — by at least not censoring relevant scholarship on the matter. For instance, the 1976 Bretanitski-Vejmarn work referenced earlier is considered so important in Azerbaijan that it is actually available through Azerbaijan’s virtual presidential library, which features regime-approved books for free, including polemic and xenophobic titles like “Armenian Terror” and “Armenian Mythomania.”
Having won the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan may either choose to repeat the genocidal erasure in Nakhichevan or use cultural diplomacy to pursue peace. Prospects for the latter are not looking great: While Azerbaijan complains about Armenian desecration of some Islamic monuments, it is itself engaged in the ongoing and large-scale destruction of Armenian memorials that have come under its control. Kortoshian, nevertheless, hopes that the Azerbaijani authorities will not erase the name of Shahik from the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum’s Arabic inscription, though the fear remains.
It is at once both unconscionable and plausible to imagine that Azerbaijan, which in 2006 issued a stamp to celebrate the Khachen-Dorbatli mausoleum, would desecrate and revise the history of the exact Islamic monuments that it considers sacred in order to continue its writing-out of Armenian history. Destruction and preservation are political choices. In Shahik Vardpet’s interfaith architectural appeals for coexistence, Azerbaijan has a unique opportunity to transform its politics of erasure into an embrace of cultural diversity.
This article was supported by a grant from the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).