Azerbaijan, which has non-existent relations with Armenia, has enjoyed the fruits of its rich natural resources. The Caspian oil fields and the EU’s need to digress away from Russian gas was a prime opportunity to push Baku to the forefront of geopolitics.
The Aliyev family, which has ruled Azerbaijan in an inherited dictatorship, has applied brutal methods to Azerbaijani dissidents and to Armenians that used to reside in the country. Nevertheless, the family was welcomed to become goodwill ambassadors of UNESCO to much controversy.
In late 2022, Azerbaijan’s goodwill ambassador and First Lady quit amidst their controversial actions towards cultural destruction—particularly in the Karabakh region. These events have opened discussion on Baku’s state-sponsored policies on cultural genocide of Armenian ancient heritage in the region — something which the country has long attempted to rewrite since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Much of the South Caucasus has traces of Armenian and Persian heritage, and the ancient Armenian state was a buffer zone between the Romans and Persians. After the Seljuk Turks conquered the region in 1071, there was a delicate and fragile peace between Armenians and Turkic tribes. This peace would end as the Turkic-ruled Ottoman Empire began to collapse and persecutions such as the Hamidian Massacres and Armenian Genocide ensued.
When the Ottoman Empire capitulated, there was a short-lived union state between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which ended due to ideological and territorial disputes. The Soviet Union would forcibly annex the South Caucasus and redraw borders to keep the ethnic groups in perpetual conflict with each other. This included transferring the majority Armenian Karabakh region to the Azerbaijani SSR by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, ethnic violence and territorial disputes would ignite once more, and Armenia and Azerbaijan were no exception to this. In the First Karabakh War, Armenia would decisively defeat Azerbaijan while the latter retained control of Nakhichevan.
Cultural Genocide in Nakhichevan
Wanting to erase a trace of Armenian history in the region, the Aliyev family enacted a state-sponsored policy of cultural genocide. This would start at the medieval cemetery of Djulfa in Nakhichevan where satellite images showed the Azerbaijani military purposely destroying the Armenian graves in the region.
Despite proof of the cultural destruction, Azerbaijan would vehemently deny it and state the cemetery and Nakhichevan never had any Armenian heritage. It would later be confirmed that over 98% of the Armenian cultural heritage in the enclave was destroyed. The failure of the international community to send monitors or apply sanctions would only embolden Aliyev’s autocratic rule several decades later.
Cultural Genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh
In the aftermath of the 2020 Karabakh War, which saw Armenia capitulate to Azerbaijan, there were renewed fears of cultural erasure in the region, especially when the status of Karabakh and its transfer by Stalin has been the flashpoint of the ethnic and territorial conflict. When the Dadivank region was due to be transferred, the Armenian priests of the Monastery attempted to move priceless relics out of it in fear they would be desecrated. Russian peacekeepers moved to the monastery as well to mitigate the sacking of the religious site.
In March of 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the cultural destruction of Armenian heritage sites in the region post-war. Months of reports of cultural destruction and negligence in the aftermath of 2020 was what led to Azerbaijan’s UNESCO ambassador resigning, citing “bias.”
After the Yugoslav Wars and ISIS rampage, the world vowed to mitigate cultural destruction, but these acts are still ongoing in the South Caucasus. Cultural Genocide is another form of genocide in which a perpetrator attempts to erase the existence of a group and the longer the world idly watches, the more ancient Armenian heritage will be destroyed in the region.
[Photo by A. Ayvazyan, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”