A man stands in a destroyed window of a cultural center after an Azerbaijan shelling over the Martuni village on October 11, 2020. Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via AFP

Azerbaijan’s recent 44-day war on Armenia-backed Artsakh, better known by its Soviet name of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulted in a Moscow-brokered deal earlier this week that effectively ends millennia-old Armenian existence in much of the region.

In addition to land already lost on the battlefield, the deal dictates Armenians to cede to Azerbaijan many more territories by December 1. As they evacuate these lands, traumatized Armenians are leaving behind hundreds of sacred sites. Given Azerbaijan’s terrible record with cultural erasure, long-term peace may seem hopeless.      

Over the past 15 years, I have been researching cultural erasure as an understudied aspect of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. My research was prompted in December 2005 when, as a 19-year-old, I watched a newly-taped video of 100 Azerbaijani soldiers deliberately destroying Djulfa, the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery that at its height housed 10,000 medieval khachkars (cross-stones).

Within a year, I produced a short film about the destruction. Last year, my conclusive report, co-authored with historian Sarah Pickman, demonstrated that Djulfa’s erasure was the grand finale of a systematic, covert, and total destruction of 28,000 medieval monuments that represented the indigenous Armenian past of the Nakhichevan region. 

According to Azerbaijan’s authorities, Armenians’ ancient past is fake news. A top Azerbaijani diplomat has dismissed my research as “a figment of Armenia’s imagination.” The 89 medieval churches, 5,840 cross-stones and over 22,000 historical tombstones of Nakhichevan never existed in the first place because, Azerbaijan insists, Armenians are not indigenous to the Caucasus.

A young woman lights candles in a church in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Photo: Maksim Blinov / Sputnik via AFP

Until 1997, however, Azerbaijan had largely preserved these monuments after relabeling them “Caucasian Albanian.” Since the 1950s, in order to challenge Armenian antiquity and to create a myth of indigenousness, Azerbaijan has “Albanized” medieval Armenian Christianity by proclaiming it the stolen heritage of “Caucasian Albania,” a kingdom nowhere near Nakhichevan that existed until the 7th century.

Despite its Turkic roots in Central Asia, Azerbaijan prefers to be seen as the Islamized heir to the long-extinct Caucasian Albanians. 

In practice, Azerbaijan’s “Albanization” of Armenian monuments is an inevitable erasure. In the short term, a medieval Christian monastery stripped of its unique Armenian lettered inscriptions may be preserved in Azerbaijan as “Caucasian Albanian,” but likely not permanently so.

“Albanization” certainly did not prevent the destruction of even Agulis, the most culturally-rich town in Nakhichevan, where all sacred Armenian sites, including the Saint Thomas Cathedral that, per tradition, was originally founded as a chapel by a disciple of Jesus, were methodically destroyed by Azerbaijan’s military starting in 1997.

The destruction of Agulis (Azerbaijani spelling Yukhari Aylis) was witnessed by its most prominent native son Akram Aylisli, the Azerbaijani novelist that currently lives under house arrest in the capital Baku, in part, for protesting this cultural erasure.  

Right now, hundreds of sacred Armenian sites are in the process of being transferred to Azerbaijan. Some were already captured on the battlefield, especially in the Hadrut region and in the prominent city of Shushi (Azerbaijani spelling is Shusha).

Many others are in the process of being ceded to Azerbaijan under the ceasefire agreement. In light of how Azerbaijan erased 28,000 monuments in Nakhichevan, Armenians and cultural rights defenders rightfully fear a similar fate for the sacred sites of Artsakh. 

If history is a guide, this is how Azerbaijan will treat the sacred sites of Artsakh. 

First, it will destroy the numerous medieval statuesque khachkars that are nearly impossible to “Albanize” given their rich Armenian inscriptions. One of the most prominent khachkars at grave risk is the 14th century Angels and the Cross in the Vank village of Hadrut region, which Azerbaijan captured last month.

The Gandzasar Monastery, an outstanding monument of Armenian culture, on the left bank of the Khachen river near the village of Vank in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP via Sputnik/R Mangasaryan

Second, Azerbaijan is likely to swiftly destroy all lesser-known medieval Armenian churches, as well as medieval inscriptions on secular structures, especially those already under its control in the Hadrut region. In fact, video evidence suggests that Azerbaijani soldiers are already desecrating sacred sites. 

Third, the best-known Cathedrals will likely be “Albanized” and preserved in the short-term, although “Albanizing” the majestic Dadivank Monastery, for instance, will be a particular challenge given its over 100 Armenian inscriptions. Again, in light of what happened in Nakhichevan, Albanization of major sites is an unlikely hope for long-term preservation. 

Finally, for public relations and to underscore the myth that Armenians are not the indigenous peoples of Artsakh, Azerbaijan will likely restore the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi it air bombed twice on October 8.

Although Azerbaijani forces further vandalized the Cathedral after Shushi’s capture, the 19th century structure’s age fits Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian historical narrative perfectly; a church of similar age has been similarly preserved in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku for that very purpose. 

The likely token restoration of Shushi’s Holy Savior should not give anyone false hope: the monuments in real danger are the numerous medieval sacred sites that attest to the region’s indigenous Armenian past, especially if they are not well known. 

The Azerbaijani military’s destruction of the medieval Djulfa cemetery in December 2005 as seen from Iran’s territory. Photo: Arthur Gevorgian 

Cultural erasure and desecration are heartbreakingly painful for Armenians. Some Armenian families are literally digging up the burials of their ancestors to evacuate with them as they leave the lands that will soon be transferred to Azerbaijan.

One day, perhaps, Armenians may reconcile with the idea that most of their early heritage has been erased. However, five ancient Artsakh monuments are particularly sacred for Armenians, their erasure would permanently scar generations to come: 

· Amaras, founded in the 4th century upon Armenia becoming the first Christian nation, preserves a 5th century mausoleum to a local saint. It is located in the Martuni region. As of this writing, it is unclear who controls the area.  

· Dadivank, the origins of which date back to a 1st century chapel founded by the earliest preachers of Christianity, was built into a monastic complex between the 9th and 13th centuries. Over the past few days, hundreds of Armenians have been flocking to the majestic monastery to light a candle one last time. It is located in the Kelbajar region. 

A general view of the Dadivank Monastery in Nagorno-Karaakh. Photo: Dr. Hamlet Petrosyan 

· Gtichavank, rebuilt in the 13th century, was a key Cathedral for the autonomous principality of Khachen and its Melikdom successors that relentlessly compromised with Arab, Mongol, Persian, and Turkic conquerors to ensure Armenian existence, even if it meant adopting Islamic names. (My mother’s own ancestral Armenian Christian family included names like Aziz, Manuchar, and Sultan.) It is located in the Hadrut region that Azerbaijan captured last month. 

· Tigranakert is a Hellenistic Armenian city likely founded by the Greek-speaking Armenian emperor Tigranes II and also preserves newly-excavated early medieval Christian temples. It is located in the Agdam region and has been recently shelled

· Tsitsernavank is one of the first basilica churches in the world. Some of its unique architectural features suggest that it may have been founded as a pagan temple before the year 301. It is located in the Lachin region. 

All of these sacred Armenian sites are within several kilometers of the current or upcoming Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact. None of them are located in strategic areas. Having lost the 1990s Karabakh war and now won the second one this month, Azerbaijan should deeply consider preventing a third war. 

As painful as the loss of people, homes, lands, mountains, numerous khachkars and many lesser-known churches may be for Armenians, being allowed to keep Amaras, Dadivank, Gtichavank, Tigranakert, and Tsitsernavank may help Armenians heal. 

I am not asking for mercy. I am suggesting a potential path to peace.

Simon Maghakyan is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Colorado Denver and a human rights activist.