“Cultural heritage is what makes us human. It gives us a sense of place, and identity,” writes Peter Stone, UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University. “Destruction of historical sites is a loss to all humanity,” echoes Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General. Cultural sites and historical monuments have a universal value. They are not just objects, stones or buildings, they represent cultural heritage, identities, and belonging.
The destruction or looting of sites and objects of cultural significance, especially when it is intentional, can create lasting resentments and obstacles to peace, and hurts societies for the long term. Those who destroy historical monuments target culture because it strikes to the core, because it has a powerful message and mediatic value in an increasingly connected global society. This was observed with war in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, where libraries were burned. We saw this prominently when in 2001, Taliban fighters blew up the famed 6th century giant statues of Buddha in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province; or when in 2012, Ansar Dine, a radical islamist militia, destroyed mausoleums and shrines in the historic City of Timbuktu in Mali. We have seen this in cities across Syria and Iraq, where in 2015, ISIS brutally destroyed ancient artifacts and buildings by smashing and bulldozing them, or by blowing them up, and used social media to distribute videos of the cruelty and damage.
Historical and cultural heritage that are under threat and exposed to irreparable loss can be observed in the recently escalated conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, as a result of the continuing aggression of Armenian military forces occupying Azerbaijan’s lands for almost 30 years. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia used force against Azerbaijan and occupied its territories, including the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, and expelled hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from their homes. Part of the activities of Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied territories have been measures to change the demographic, cultural and physical landscape of the occupied territories, which has included the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage. The international community condemned Armenia’s use of military force against Azerbaijan and the resulting occupation of its territories. In 1993 the United National Security Council adopted resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and demanded immediate withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. At the same time, the US, Russia and France, as a part of the OSCE Minsk Group, have been trying to mediate the conflict over the last 30 years unfortunately without any significant outcome.
With close ties to the Silk Road and its history, Azerbaijan played an important role as a melting pot of civilizations for thousands of years, serving as a major transfer point of different cultural traditions and customs. The cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, diverse and rich, continues to be passed on from generation to generation. Karabakh, as a central part of this millennial crossroads, was landscape rich in the varied and diverse architecture of the different cultures that contributed to the history of the region. Karabakh and surrounding regions contain remains from the Neolithic era, from the long history as part of Caucasian Albania, and from the equally long era of Islamic influence beginning in the 8th century. Albanian Christian religious monuments, cloisters and churches, Islamic era bridges, mosques, castles, madrassas and caravanserais, as well as sculpture and traditional folk building ornamentation styles demonstrate cultural continuity through religious shifts in the region. During the Soviet era, there were efforts to preserve this tangible cultural heritage, including major restoration projects, monuments erected to commemorate key historical figures and events of the area, and a variety of mausoleums, tombs and memorials documenting histories important to the region.
In the city of Shusha, known as home to many Azerbaijani intellectuals, poets, writers and musicians, more than 170 ancient buildings, 160 cultural and historical monuments, mosques, and rare manuscripts have been destroyed and subjected to vandalism, or rendered unusable. Shusha, once one of the most important cities and the capital of the region, was almost completely destroyed during and after the 1990’s war. With an estimated 80% of the city in ruins by 2002, it now has the population of a small village. Before the war, the well preserved city center had been made a historic and architectural reserve, but nearly all monuments were targeted afterwards. Among the devastating destruction of major monuments in Shusha are the Imarat of Panah Khan complex and library, the Khan Palace and Caravansary, the Ashaghy Govharagha and Saatly Mosques, the Mausoleum of Vagif, Natavan’s House, and many others. One of the damaged monuments, once considered an important part of the beautiful Shusha, the museum-mausoleum complex of the Azerbaijani poet Molla Panah Vagif, was built on the tomb of the great poet and housed several exhibits describing his life, but was destroyed during the occupation.
In addition to outright destruction of important architectural features, another troubling aspect of the damaging effect of the conflict has been the reconstruction and appropriation of other monuments, to alter the historical record. The architectural design features of the Khanlig Mukhtar Caravansary, the Saatly Mosque, and the Mamayi Mosque were changed as part of “renovation” under Armenian custody. The Saatly Mosque was built in 1883 by a prominent local architect, while the Mamayi Mosque, built in the 19th century, functioned as a poetry house during Soviet rule. Both were significantly altered: all the traces of the Arabic script on these mosques have been removed and replaced by the Armenian crosses and script, a common practice across the region, and also in Armenia itself.
Several Azerbaijani cities in the occupied lands such as Fizuli, Cebrayil, and Aghdam, have been completely destroyed by the Armenians. The city of Aghdam in eastern Karabakh, with famous architectural treasures, is now an urbicide, a destroyed uninhabited city in sight of the entrenchments of the front line and still sometimes used for military maneuvers. The numbers are overwhelming – 148 schools, a mugham and a classical school of music, a theater, bread museum, portrait gallery, history museum, among others – were all destroyed. Among the destruction near the city of Aghdam was Uzerliktapa – a middle Bronze Age settlement, an incredibly rare monumental remains of the city’s first urban culture. Stone carvings that survived from the 14th century, the Panahali Khan residence, built in 1738 during the time of Nadir Shah, were also destroyed. Along with other important mosques in the region Aghdam’s beautiful and iconic Juma mosque was pointedly destroyed and used as space to keep livestock. Other significant losses have been the collections of the region’s many historical museums, many of which were auctioned off after the war, and dispersed. Numerous ancient cemeteries in the region have also faced destruction and some have been built over to erect new infrastructure in the separatist region.
The recognition that the cultural remains of different civilizations are important parts of the history of all mankind is an integral part of the ethical argument for protecting culture in conflict. After the second world war, the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural property in case of of an armed conflict and its subsequent protocols in 1999 provided an international legal framework for the protection of cultural heritage. The deliberate acts of cultural vandalism undertaken by Armenian forces and nationalists in Nagorno-Karabakh have been destructive for prospects of future peace, the landscape itself bearing visible scars of the wounded identity of the area, likely for many people who count it as their homeland and heritage. It presents grave challenges for the healing of a regional cultural fabric, formed over so many centuries in this crossroads region. And it also demonstrates some of the obstacles in the attempts to come to a peaceful resolution of the problems that have been encountered for 30 years. One hopes, realizing the serious historical loss as well as the humanitarian tragedy experienced by the area over the last few decades, that somehow the people of this region will be able to come back one day to the centuries of peaceful and cross-pollinating coexistence that was so influential to its cultures.