The cultural genocide actively being waged by Turkey and Azerbaijan is a component of the physical genocide of the Armenian people, intended to obliterate any vestiges of their existence on their ancestral lands, which they have inhabited for centuries.
According to a report by the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, before World War I, there were 2,538 churches and 451 monasteries on historic Armenian lands taken over by the Ottoman Empire. Today, besides the active churches in Istanbul, the current Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, has allowed only one cathedral — to showcase Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar, on Lake Van — to be opened, where Armenians are allowed to perform religious services once a year. There are also churches in Kayseri and Vakifli that can hold services periodically, but the grand Armenian church at Diyarbekir is back in the control of the Turkish government.
That “generosity” in Akhtamar benefits the Turkish government more than the Armenian people, first as a lucrative tourist attraction, but above all, as a symbol of tolerance of the Turkish rulers in the eyes of the international community.
Nearly all the remaining churches and monasteries have been subjected to systematic destruction to bolster the government’s claim that no Christian nation had inhabited those territories.
As Turkey develops and exports its political and military powers to other regions, the recovery of the vestiges of Armenian Christian heritage will become even more remote.
Now, adding insult to injury, Azerbaijan has joined the fray, by destroying or “Albanizing” Armenian churches and monasteries. Albanians were indigenous Christian people who were assimilated mostly with the Armenian people over the centuries, but Azerbaijanis claim to be their ancestors, as a convenient fabrication of history which can serve dual purposes: by giving legitimacy to their unfounded claims that they have their roots in the history of that land and on the other hand, to falsify the identity of the Christian heritage present on that land by misattributing Armenian religious monument to Caucasian Albanians.
In early July, Dr. Christina Maranci lectured at the 8th Summer School of Human Rights of the Conference of European Churches, where she noted the process of “Azeri Albanification of the Armenian Churches and monasteries on social media.”
The Azerbaijanis had already destroyed or misidentified Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan. As a result of the recent 44-day war waged by the former, they occupied more territory in Karabakh and thus many more monuments fell under their control, such as Amaras, a cemetery and the tomb of St. Gregory’s grandson, St. Grigoris, Tsitsernavank, an early Christian basilica, and Dadivank, a landmark and intact mosaic complex from the 13th century.
Dadivank was hidden by the surrounding forest and was literally unearthed and restored after the Armenian forces took over in 1994.
Gandzasar, a 13th-century cathedral, is where the Hasan-Jelalyan Armenian dynasty, rulers of Artsakh and Syunik dating back to the 12th century, are buried. It still remains under the control of the Artsakh Republic at present but no safer than other monuments.
Yet another jewel of Armenian architecture in danger is Amaras.
More pitiful will prove to be the destruction of Tigranakert, also known as Tigranakert-Artsakh, a ruined Armenian city dating back to Hellenistic period, in Agdam, now under the rule of Azerbaijan. It was explored and studied by Armenian archeologists after 1994.
A story in the New York Times, accompanied by beautiful, haunting and tragic photos, in the July 25 edition of the paper, attempts, in its own way, to treat both sides of the conflict on the same footing.
Azerbaijanis are not allowing their people to resettle in the newly occupied territories, arguing that minefields may still injure or kill them. But in fact, those refugees who were hostage to the Azerbaijani policies for almost 30 years, have already settled in other cities in Azerbaijan, and their offspring are not eager to move into territories which are not their native land.
The Azerbaijani government has allowed a few people to settle in Shushi to cater to its army. Among them are two business partners who run a bakery, Gazanfar Dadashov and Iftihar Aliev. The writer, Anton Troianovski, adds: “They saw nothing strange about moving into homes where Armenians had been living. After all, they said, Armenians did the same thing in the 1990s after they expelled the Azeris.”
This last sentence captures the focus and spirit of the writer.
Troianovski also describes Karabakh as “an area mostly populated by Armenians within the internationally-recognized borders of Azerbaijan.”
John Lavenburg, in an article published in The Crux (July 23, 2021) perpetuates this narrative again, identifying Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory, thus “Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani, though ethnic Armenians had run the region since 1994.”
Although well intentioned, the article still adopts the Azerbaijani claims. The writer’s intent is to introduce and cover a museum exhibit, writing, “The virtual exhibit as a whole is a precursor to a larger in-person ‘Bible in Armenia’ exhibit the museum is preparing for March of 2022. … Here is a nation of people which has maintained its Christian identity and in many ways, struggled because of it and yet sustained that Christian identity for centuries.”
The fact that Karabakh has never been a part of Azerbaijan’s territory is overlooked routinely. Karabakh was defined by Soviet laws as an autonomous region (oblast) under the tutelage of the Azerbaijani government. It was named as an “autonomous region” because it belonged to another ethnic group, the Armenians, and Karabakh seceded from the Soviet Union, under the same laws that Azerbaijan used.
Azerbaijan’s petrodollars are buying influence and legitimacy, even at the level of the Vatican and UNESCO, beneficiaries of the ruling Aliyevs’ largess. That is why no reaction was forthcoming when an alarm rang about the destruction of thousands of khachkars in Jugha, in Nakhichevan.
Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia claims that Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory, contradicting the other co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which insists that Karabakh’s status has yet to be decided through peaceful negotiations, meaning that it is not part of Azerbaijan.
President Putin’s position reflects a pattern of policy he has applied to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, before taking over those territories. In fact, Moscow distributed Russian citizenship to the populations of those regions to have an excuse for protecting them. The same process is being used in Karabakh, with the distribution of Russian citizenship. If at the end of five years of Russian peacekeeping Baku asks for the removal of Russian forces, the excuse to occupy the enclave is already there. To complement this policy, the Karabakh parliament just passed a resolution to give official status to the Russian language, certainly not without a prodding from the Kremlin.
Nakhichevan’s destiny seems already sealed. The Azerbaijani government has executed a systematic policy of destruction by thumbing its nose at the world community. One single scholar has crusaded for saving at least the records of those destroyed monuments; that was historian and archeologist Argam Ayvazyan (also spelled Ayvazian) in Armenia. He applied for a grant from the Alec Manoogian Cultural Fund in the 1970s to document the Armenian monuments in his native Nakhichevan. His pitch was that Nakhichevan will soon emerge as a topic of international dimensions. No one had an inkling at the time that the Soviet Union could collapse one day. Even under the Soviet regime, the Aliyev clan had forbidden Ayvazyan from entering Nakhichevan. Therefore, he had to use the grant money to hire other photographers of different ethnic backgrounds to carry out his mission. Eventually he published a book on the subject, which was later translated into English.
But we learn more from Argam’s activities in an extensive paper by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman published in Hyperallergic (February 18, 2019) under the title “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture.” Cultural Genocide as a Political Tool
The article provides the following bit of information: “From 1964 to 1987, he collected enough documentation to ultimately publish 200 articles and over 40 books. His photographic missions were self-financed (*), under cover, dangerous and supported by his close companion (and wife) … by the time the Berlin wall fell, Ayvazyan had documented 89 Armenian churches, 5,840 ornate khachkars, and 22,000 horizontal tombstones, among other Armenian monuments.”
In the end, Ayvazyan rightfully lamented, “All that remains of Nakhichevan’s Armenian churches and cross-stones that survived earthquakes, caliphs, Tamerlane and Stalin are my photographs.”
Azerbaijan has scoffed at all attempts to verify its acts of cultural genocide. In April 2011, it banned the US ambassador from visiting Jugha, to look for remnants of khachkars. It has even punished its own people who have criticized this policy. A celebrated case is the treatment of a Nobel Prize-nominated Azerbaijani writer, Akram Aylisli, whose book, Stone Dreams, laments the destruction of Armenian monuments. The Azerbaijani government has burned his books and placed him under house arrest for his “unpatriotic” attitude.
The Turkish government has also been very sensitive to any criticism, especially the Armenian Genocide. That sensitivity is not passive; it is aggressive to prevent any individual or government from taking actions against its genocidal policy. One example of its aggressiveness is demonstrated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talking to President Donald Trump, on the very last day of his presidency, on January 19. 2021, to ratify the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) titled “Import Restrictions imposed on Categories of Archeological and Ethnological Material of Turkey.”
Turkey claims the heritage of all the ethnic minorities as its own. All the artifacts of Armenian and Greek origin, which have been saved from Turkish destruction and preserved in the US, are in jeopardy with this MOU. Armenians have to fight it since there are grounds to overturn it. Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, an expert on religion and geopolitics in Turkey and a former commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, insists that the MOU is a violation of US law.
It is ironic and grossly hypocritical for the Turkish government, on the one hand, to allow the looting of Armenian monuments by treasure hunters, a lucrative business domestically, and feign to pose as protectors of those treasures overseas.
The campaign of the Armenians and Greeks to have Turkey recognize the Genocide must also include cultural genocide. It is not enough that Turkey and Azerbaijan have annihilated Armenians but they have also targeted their heritage as part and parcel of their genocidal policy.
(*Argam Ayvazyan was lucky to have a brother in Europe who was a successful businessman who believed in his brother’s mission.)