With the signing of the trilateral agreement ending the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, clear deadlines for the deoccupation of Azerbaijani territories were established. In the days after the announcement, homes were set on fire, trees felled, and livestock slaughtered by ethnic Armenians leaving territories that had been returned to Azerbaijan. These scenes garnered attention from international media, but destruction on a much wider and deeper scale began nearly thirty years earlier as occupying forces sought to wipe out any and all cultural and historical traces related to Azerbaijan.
On November 17, one of the world’s most famous museums released a press release on the importance of preserving cultural heritage. The statement, made by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, called for the preservation of Armenian cultural sites. “The recent bloodshed and destruction in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a global tragedy of grave concern to us all,” read the official statement. Museum officials added that, “we implore all those involved to respect these international cultural sites [of Armenians], which enrich our world and have survived for thousands of years.”
The Met, which hosted an exhibit titled Armenia! in 2018, made no mention of Azerbaijani culture or historical sites. Funding for this exhibition primarily came from the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, the Hirar and Anna Hovanian Foundation, and the Armenian General Benevolent Union. The Hagop Kevorkian Fund has provided more than $650,000 in donations to the Met in recent years.
Beginning in 1994 when Azerbaijan lost control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, Armenian forces and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities pushed for the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural and historical sites in order to erase Azerbaijani history in the region, justify their actions, and complicate the possibility of Azerbaijan reclaiming its lost territories.
As Karabakh is the cultural center of Azerbaijan, these efforts were widespread and comprehensive. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions led to the destruction of 927 libraries, 22 museums, 808 recreational venues, 4 theaters, 2 concert halls, 8 cultural parks, 4 art galleries, and 85 schools of music, and more.
Religious sites were also a common target of the de-facto authorities. Many mosques were simply destroyed but those that survived were neglected, used as animal shelters, or modified to erase Azerbaijani elements. Examples include the mosque of the Alkhanli village in Fizuli, which was graffitied and converted to be used as a cowshed. More widely known is the Juma Mosque in Aghdam. As the only building still standing in Aghdam, a city referred to as the Hiroshima of the Caucasus, the mosque has fallen into disrepair and served as a barn for cows and pigs under Armenian occupation.
Some religious sites escaped total destruction during Armenian occupation, but were instead defaced in an attempt to change their identity and provide an alternative history for the region. In 2019, after five years of restoration efforts, authorities of the regime occupying Nagorno-Karabakh announced the completion of restoration efforts on the Govhar Agha Upper Mosque in Shusha. After its restoration, the mosque was referred to as “Persian” in an attempt to erase evidence showing Azerbaijan’s historical ties to the region.
Other sites, including the Khudavang Monastery Complex near Kalbajar, had traditional, Caucasian-Albanian motifs destroyed and replaced with Armenian designs. The monastery, which was constructed in the 15th century, previously held many oil paintings and inscriptions on the walls of the building. The Albanian crosses were replaced with Armenian crosses, and Armenian paintings covered the previous designs and inscriptions.
In 2011, Armenian and Karabakh authorities began to ‘renovate’ the walls of the Ganjasar Monastery Complex, which was constructed in the 12th century. With the financial backing of Armenian businessman Levon Hayrapetyan, work to cover the exterior walls of the complex with marble stones began. Armenians themselves protested this action, stating that it would destroy the historical and cultural value of the structure. Azerbaijanis claim that this ‘renovation’ was used to make the site more Armenian, masking more significant changes to the structure and design.
In addition to religious centers, historical sites and museums became easy targets for deliberate destruction of the Azerbaijani legacy. In the Khojavend district, the Azykh Cave is an archaeological site where bones and relics of ancient people have been discovered. As a result of Armenian occupation, many illegal excavations were allegedly carried out, and until liberation, the cave served as a storage facility for Armenian military equipment.
In Shusha, the Museum Mausoleum Complex of Molla Panah Vagif fell into disrepair. The complex and permanent exhibits were destroyed, and any transportable artifacts were taken to Armenia. Khurshudbanu Natavan’s house, a historical monument, music school, and later the site of the National Museum of Azerbaijani Literature was pillaged in 1992, and hundreds of pieces of arts, carpets, miniatures, and archaeological samples were destroyed and seized by Armenian forces.
In surrounding areas, the Museums of History in Kalbajar, Lachin, and Aghdam were all destroyed and plundered as well. Historical pieces have often made their way to markets where valuable artifacts have been sold for scrap metal or auctioned off. Bronze statues of the poet Natavan, the composer Uzeyir Hajybayov, and singer Bulbul were being sold as scrap metal in Georgia, but the Azeri government purchased these pieces and took them to Baku for safekeeping. In another instance, a silver handbag from the Lachin Museum of History was sold at Sotheby’s in London for $80,000.
As members of UNESCO, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to uphold international cultural conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention, which states that attackers have an obligation to not only protect cultural property, but to take steps to prevent the theft of property in occupied territories. In the nearly thirty years of occupation of Azerbaijani territory, Armenia failed to honor its pledge to the international community. Not only did much of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions turn into a desolate wasteland, Armenian authorities actively encouraged destroying and defacing cultural and historical monuments. On top of this, they sought to profit from this destruction by selling valuable artifacts and incorporating relics into their own museums.
While little attention has been given to the widespread destruction and vandalism of Azerbaijani property, international organizations, museums such as the Met, and international media have all called upon Azerbaijan to ensure the security of Armenian historical and cultural heritage. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern over historical Christian sites in the territories being returned to Azerbaijan. In response to this, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has affirmed that Azerbaijan will work towards these goals.
During the entire 44 days of warfare, Azerbaijan was guided by international law and the legal framework that supported the country’s territorial integrity. It is in Azerbaijan’s best interest to uphold the obligations of the 1954 Hague Convention, and to set an example for the importance of preserving history. Azerbaijan has a longstanding reputation of tolerance and diversity in culture and religion. These principles should be adhered to in the reconstruction efforts in the recently liberated lands by preserving all historical and cultural sites, even those built during the years of occupation.