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As Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh prepare to hand some of the territory to Azerbaijan, as per a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia earlier in November, they fear for the fate of the numerous Christian, pre-Christian and Muslim heritage sites in the region, Dale Berning Sawa wrote for the Guardian on Thursday.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region, or Artsakh as its Armenian residents call it, has had an ethnic Armenian majority for millennia, but is officially part of Azerbaijan as a result of Soviet-era policies.
Sawa cited a report by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman, published last year, that documented the destruction of heritage sites by Azerbaijan – what the couple called cultural cleansing – in the neighbouring Nakhchivan, an Azeri exclave that also had a significant Armenian population that saw another dispute between the two countries.
Between 1997 and 2006, at least 89 churches and 22,000 tombstones were destroyed in the exclave, as well as the largest ancient Armenian cemetery in the world, the Djulfa necropolis, according to the report.
“The Azerbaijani response has consistently been to simply deny that Armenians had ever lived in the region,” Sawa said. “And that is precisely what observers fear will now happen across Artsakh, too.”
As they were preparing to leave, Armenians removed bells, crosses and khachkars, the ornamental stone crosses that are important pieces of Armenian art, from a monastery in one of the districts to be turned over to Azerbaijan. Azeri authorities said the removal was illegal.
Azerbaijan says the region is home to an Albanian people, from the northern Caucasian Albania region, denying the historic presence of Armenians. However, many monuments display Armenian script, and “not a single Caucasian Albanian inscription has been found in Artsakh,” archaeologist Dr Hamlet Petrosyan told Sawa.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, “It’s going to be very difficult to avoid the destruction,” said archaeologist Carsten Paludan-Müller. “And there is a risk now that Nagorno-Karabakh will lose its Armenian population.”
Many have packed up and left, and some villagers fearing what fate would await their property upon their absence, set fire to their homes before doing so.
The region’s Turkish residents are no stranger to conflict. A third of them had fled to the area as refugees when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
But so were some of the Armenians in the region – during the collapsing empire’s mass killings of Armenians in 1915. Many Armenians also fled to France and the United States between 1915 and 1922, and the diaspora’s strong presence in western countries “only exacerbates the Turkish sense of a Christian bias towards Armenians,” Sawa said.
Whether there is bias or not, among Armenian cultural heritage sites that have already been destroyed were UNESCO world heritage sites like Djulfa, and a Hellenistic ancient city discovered in 2005, the Tigranakert, was targeted in the recent fighting, putting the historic findings in the city that connect the region to ancient Greece and Jerusalem.
According to archaeologist Hamlet Petrosyan, there is little hope to maintain the heritage sites, as Armenians “have had neither military nor political clout.” Petrosyan continued: “There is no difference between Azerbaijan wiping out our people or our culture. We are our culture.”