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Tragedy on the Araxes June 30, 2006
by Sarah Pickman

A place of memory is wiped off the face of the Earth.

[image] Khachkars of the Djulfa cemetery, c.1987 (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

On the banks of the River Araxes, in the remote, windswept region of Nakhichevan, is a small area of land known as Djulfa, named for the ethnic Armenian town that flourished there centuries ago. Today, Nakhichevan is an enclave of Azerbaijan. Surrounding it on three sides is Armenia, and on the fourth, across the Araxes, is Iran.

Hundreds of years ago, almost all of Djulfa's residents were forced to leave when the conquering Shah Abbas relocated them to Isfahan in Persia. But Djulfa was not left completely empty: its cemetery, said to be the largest Armenian graveyard in the world, survived. Inside it were 10,000 or so headstones, most of them the intricately carved stone slabs known as khachkars. Long after the town was emptied, the khachkars, which are unique to Armenian burials, stood like "regiments of troops drawn up in close order," according to nineteenth-century British traveler William Ouseley.

Those stone regiments are gone now; broken down, all of the headstones have either been removed from Djulfa or buried under the soil. No formal archaeological studies were ever carried out at the cemetery--the last traces of a community long gone--and its full historical significance will never be known.

[image] The region of Nakhichevan, situated between Armenia and Iraq. "NKR" indicates the contested region of Nagorny-Karabakh. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

A History of Violence

The oldest burials in the Djulfa (Jugha in Armenian) cemetery date to the sixth century A.D., but most of the famed khachkars are from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the town was at its most prosperous as a stop on the silk and spice trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean. After the forced resettlement of 1604, the graveyard endured, and was visited by travelers from within and outside of the Caucasus over the next few centuries. They saw slabs of pink and yellowish stone, between six and eight feet high, intricately carved in relief. Most khachkars, which were believed to aid in the salvation of the soul, were decorated with crosses and representations of Christian holy figures, as well as depictions of plants, scenes of daily life, geometric designs, and epitaphs in Armenian.

By the twentieth century, the carved stones that had survived the forces of time and nature faced a human threat. In 1903 and 1904, part of a railroad line connecting Djulfa to the Armenian city of Yerevan was laid through the cemetery, and a number of khachkars were demolished to make room for the tracks. In 1921, the newly established Soviet government, which had recently gained control over the Caucasus, gave the regions of Nakhichevan and Nagorny-Karabakh, historically part of southern Armenia, to Azerbaijan as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy for controlling the Caucasus. After the new borders were drawn, Nakhichevan was separated from the ruling government of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. Over the next 70 years, the Azeri population in Nakhichevan grew and almost all of the remaining Armenians emigrated because of political pressure and economic hardship. The Azeris often broke down the stone memorials of Djulfa for use as building material, and by 1998, according to the nonprofit organization Reserch on Armenian Architecture (RAA), there were only 2,000 khachkars left.

RAA, an Armenia-based awareness organization which documents Armenian architectural monuments located outside the borders of the modern republic of Armenia, has studied and published material on the recent history of the Djulfa cemetery. According to RAA, the destruction continued after the fall of the Soviet Union, and local vandals were no longer the only group accused of contributing to the demolition. In 1998, the Armenian government claimed that Nakhichevan's Azeri authorities were deliberately wrecking the cemetery in an act of symbolic violence and had destroyed 800 khackhars. The Armenians appealed to UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), trying to get "the entire international community up in arms," according to deputy culture minister Gagik Gyurdjian. UNESCO responded by ordering an end to all destructive activity in Djulfa. However, the demolition began again in 2002, according to RAA and local witnesses. The last remains of the cemetery were obliterated this past December. Over a period of three days beginning on December 14, 2005, a large group of Azeri soldiers destroyed the remaining grave markers with sledgehammers, loaded the broken stones onto trucks, and dumped them into the waters of the Araxes. That is what witnesses who watched the devastation from across the river in Iran say happened. Among them were representatives from the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocesan Council in the Iranian city of Tabriz, who were able to take photographs, and an Armenian film crew, which captured a significant amount of the event on camera. The video footage from this has been broadcast online through the Armenian community news service, Hairenik.

[image] Intricate designs on a broken khachkar. Photo by Zaven Sargissian, 1987. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

The Djulfa episode is only the latest in a string of controversies and tragedies that have marred the relationship between the modern nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tensions have run high between the two countries since soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when, as they asserted their independence, the nations laid competing claims to the Nagorny-Karabakh region, which was under Azeri authority but whose population had remained largely Armenian. The region's local parliament voted to secede and join with Armenia, and fighting erupted between the secessionists and Azeri authorities. The conflict escalated into a full-scale war that involved both armies and unofficial citizen militias from Armenia and Azerbaijan and left thousands dead on both sides. Precariously positioned, Nakhichevan escaped being engulfed in the violence largely because its Armenian population had dwindled to less than 4,000 people and thus was not viewed as a threat by Azeri authorities.

Though a ceasefire was declared in 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have not yet reached a permanent agreement regarding Nagorny-Karabakh, and the hostility between the two countries makes the Djulfa destruction even more contentious. There can be little doubt that historical grievances and political land claims have played a part in this attempt to eradicate the historical Armenian presence in Nakhichevan.

[image] A standing row of khachkars. Photo by Zaven Sargissian,1987. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Reacting to the Ruins

Outraged at the destruction of the historic site, Armenians and members of the international Armenian community launched a public and political campaign to bring the issue to the eyes of the world. RAA published print materials and created online exhibits to raise awareness of the incident and its repercussions for Armenians. One RAA brochure states that, "Following the example of the Taliban who destroyed the statues of Buddha in Bamian, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan is obliterating Nakhichevan's centuries-old historical monuments, thus hoping to prove that the region was never an Armenian territory." Armenian foreign minister Vartan Oskanian protested in a letter to UNESCO dated December 16, 2005, calling the destruction "tantamount to ethnic cleansing." The Armenian National Committee of America led a fax campaign to American secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, demanding the United States condemn the devastation.

Azeri authorities wasted no time in firing back. After U.S. Congressional Armenian Caucus co-chairmen Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) condemned the Djulfa incident in letters to Azeri officials, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States Hafez Pashayev responded with his own letter, dated January 9, 2006. In it, he asserted that it was impossible to identify either the cemetery as Armenian or the perpetrators as Azeri based on the videos shown on Hairenik. "Any accusation can be made against anybody based on that footage," he wrote, adding that the Azeri Ministry of Defense confirmed that none of its personnel had been involved with the Djulfa incident. He affirmed his nation's commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of all peoples. Pashayev then concluded that the Armenian accusations are "groundless" and meant to divert attention from Armenian destruction of Azeri heritage sites, destruction that includes, according to his count, 1,585 mosques, 20 museums, and 969 libraries. A few Azeri cultural and political organizations do list names of mosques and other sites allegedly destroyed by Armenians on their websites (see for example, this site), with a large portion of the destruction said to have happened during the Nagorny-Karabakh war. However, these claims have not yet been verified by international news services.

[image] Khachkars and a carved ram's head stone. Photo by Zaven Sargissian,1987. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Adding to the contrversy over Djulfa is the widespread belief in Azerbaijan, whose population is majority Muslim, that the Christian burial monuments were the work of the Caucasian Albanians (unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans), and not the Armenians. Speaking to the BBC last December, Hasan Zeynalov, the permanent representative of Nakhichevan in the Azeri capital of Baku, strongly dismissed all concerns over Djulfa. "Armenians have never lived in Nakhichevan, which has been Azerbaijani land from time immemorial, and that's why there are no Armenian cemeteries and monuments and have never been any," he explained.

Despite this dramatic war of words and the best efforts of Armenian organizations, the coverage of, and response to, the incident by international news services, organizations, and Western governments has largely been tepid. The European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the events at Djulfa in February 2006. As for the United States, deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza called the incident a "tragedy" at a press conference in Armenia the following month, but added "the United States cannot take steps to stop it as it is happening on foreign soil." American ambassador designate to Azerbaijan Anne Derse, at her confirmation hearing in May 2006, responded to questions concerning Djulfa by saying that she "encouraged Armenia and Azerbaijan to work with UNESCO to investigate this incident." Not surprisingly, these statements have created little increase in concrete action or major news coverage, with articles from the London Times and The Independent being the lone exceptions. Clearly, the international community would rather sacrifice cultural heritage for stability, however temporary and precarious, in a region that has seen so much violence recently.

[image] Khachkars broken down, probably for use as building material. Photo by Zaven Sargissian, 1987. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Beyond the Armenian community, many archaeologists and scholars have also decried both the razing of the cemetery and the lack of response from the international community. The destruction of the cemetery at Djulfa is "a shameful episode in humanity's relation to its past, a deplorable act on the part of the government of Azerbaijan which requires both explanation and repair," says anthropologist Adam T. Smith of the University of Chicago, who has excavated in Armenia.

Smith, along with other archaeologists and students from six Western nations, sent a letter to Armenian cultural associations and sent copies to American and international archaeological and preservation organizations, members of the United States Congress and UNESCO. In it, they expressed their anger over the destruction of the historic cemetery, calling it "a violation of the memories of ancestors and an assault upon the common cultural heritage of humanity." At the same time, the signers condemned the Armenian government for decrying the loss of the cemetery while failing to protect cultural heritage sites within its own borders that are threatened by industry, development, and the weak authority of its ministry of culture. As of mid-June 2006, the scholars have received no responses to their letter.

[image] One section of the cemetery, cleared of its khachkars. Other stone monuments remain standing higher on the hill. 1998. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Searching for the Truth

Four months after the last of the khachkars were broken up and removed from the cemetery, according to observers in Iran, outsiders finally traveled to Djulfa to investigate. In April 2006, an unamed staff reporter from the nonprofit, London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the first outside journalist to investigate the issue on site, traveled to the Djulfa area. Accompanied at all times by Azeri security officers, and not permitted to visit the actual site of the cemetery, he was close enough to see that the landscape had been entirely stripped of any monuments. Where earlier photos had indicated that there were magnificent stone grave markers, there was only bare ground.

Later that month, ten European Union Members of Parliament (MEPs) were denied access to Djulfa by Azeri authorities after they traveled to Nakhichevan to investigate the eyewitness reports. Azerbaijan insists that it will not allow such a delegation to view the sites unless it also visits alleged sites of Armenian destruction of Azeri cultural heritage. This refusal aroused suspicion among many Armenian and international observers of Azerbaijan's claims of non-involvement. Said Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian MEP and member of the barred delegation, in The Independent, "If something is hidden we want to ask why. It can only be because some of the allegations are true."

[image] The cemetery, partially cleared of khachkars. According to eyewitnesses, railroad cars like the one in this photo were used to cart away broken stones. Photo by Arpiar Petrossian, 1998. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Regardless of any conclusions drawn from the video footage and eyewitness accounts, Djulfa sits just across the Araxes from Iran. As it is a border zone, Azeri government forces patrol the area heavily, and it is unlikely that such an incident could have occured without their knowledge, if not complicity or involvement. As the European Parliament noted in its February declaration, Azerbaijan ratified the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1993. By failing to safeguard the khachkars and other headstones it has violated its agreement under that convention to preserve and protect cultural heritage. Azerbaijan, a member of the Council of Europe, is also held to the statutes of the Valetta Convention of 1992, which requires member states to protect archaeological heritage within their borders. Thus, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, the events of December 2005 represent Azerbaijan's violation of, or failure to live up to, the international agreements it has signed. Even if, as Pashayev asserts, the Azeri government did not commit the desecration at Djulfa, it was still responsible for protecting the khachkars.

[image] Khachkars knocked to the ground. 2002. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

Breaking the Pattern

The politically motivated desecration of cultural sites, including cemeteries, is not unique to the southern Caucasus. During the recent war in Kosovo, Muslim Albanian extremists destroyed numerous Serbian Christian cemeteries and accompanying churches. In several instances, remains were disinterred from graves and scattered around the cemeteries, in a powerful message to discourage the ethnic Serbs from returning to their villages.

In March 2003, graffiti was discovered on a large memorial at the Etaples Military Cemetery in Pas-de-Calais, France, where 11,000 British soldiers, most of whom died during World War I, are buried. Messages spray-painted on the monument attacked England and its ally in the war in Iraq, the United States, and included the phrases "Dig up your rubbish, it's contaminating our soil," "Rosbeefs [a derogatory slang term for the British] go home," and "Sadam [sic] will win and spill your blood." A majority of French citizens oppose the war in which England and the United States are engaged, and the vandals attempted to air their political grievances against modern people by attacking their opponents' sacred past.

Last year in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, the local government strongly condemned the vandalism of a colonial-era cemetery, where the bodies of more than 700 Italian expatriates were exhumed and scattered. Regional governor Abdullah Hassan Firimbi, speaking with the online daily Arab News, said that the vandals who committed these acts were anti-government rebels, and the desecration was a protest against the new Somali government, which is dependent on foreign aid from Italy.

[image] Another field of broken, scattered khachkars. 2002. (Courtesy of Research on Armenian Architecture)

The recent destruction in Djulfa is one example of many where symbolic violence against the dead is used as an expression of modern enmity. In the southern Caucasus, a bizarre Soviet geopolitical relic has fueled animosity, violence, and cultural devastation. But is there a way forward from the events at the Djulfa cemetery?

In their letter, Smith and his fellow scholars called for the Azeri government to immediately commission an international team of conservators and archaeologists to restore the cemetery as much as possible. They also called for a conference on heritage management in the south Caucasus that would write and enforce guidelines for the preservation of historic sites and materials in the region, thus "bring[ing] a positive commitment to heritage preservation from a tragic event." The damage to the Djulfa cemetery is irreversible, but it could mark the end of such tragedies and be the starting point of a fresh commitment to preservation here and elsewhere.

Despite the back-and-forth blaming between the Armenians and Azeris, and questions surrounding the ultimate perpetrators, the graveyard at Djulfa, a place of unique beauty and cultural importance to the Armenian community, has been erased. It is important that the perpetrators are brought to justice, but it may be more important that this event receive much greater attention from the international community than it has. It is a cautionary tale, and the destruction of priceless cultural sites, like this cemetery on the Araxes, must not be allowed to happen again.

  • For more photos from the Djulfa cemetery, including photos from the final destruction of December 2005, please visit
  • For larger photos of the khachkars prior to the destruction, please visit

Sarah Pickman, an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY, is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago pursuing a major in anthropology and a minor in art history.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America