In describing the Talibanâ€™s destruction of the two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, The Wall Street Journal noted:
History has accustomed us to the persecutions that intolerance exercises on those persons whom it intends to subjugate and to the destructions inflicted on the monuments that represent their beliefs and convictions. … The case of Afghanistan is unprecedented.
Sadly, such â€œcultural genocideâ€ is by no means unprecedented, according to architecture and design critic Robert Bevan. In his 2006 book, â€œThe Destruction of Memory: Architecture at Warâ€ (Reaktion Books Ltd.), Bevan makes the case that throughout history, a crime against humanity has inevitably been followed by the destruction of monuments, because wiping out all traces that the victims ever existed â€œis both a denial of a victorâ€™s deeds and a mark of the incomplete nature of that victory.â€
To cite but one example, Bevan writes that while the Ottoman Turks destroyed hundreds upon hundreds of churches, monasteries and monuments during the Armenian Genocide, â€œTurks have continued to remove, stone by stone, the evidence of millennia of Armenian architectural and art history following the mass murder and exile of the Armenian people.â€ Â
In the year before Bevanâ€™s book was published, the medieval Armenian Christian cemetery of Djulfa (Jugha in Armenian) in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan â€œvanished.â€
For years, Azeris had toppled or vandalized the cemeteryâ€™s headstones in retaliation for the six-year Nagorno-Karabakh War that ended in 1994 with 30,000 people dead, a million others displaced and resulted in the creation of an independent republic out of a 1,700 square mile area that Azerbaijan has claimed since the newly-established Soviet Union redrew the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1921 and put the regions of Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh on the Azeri side.
According to several accounts â€“ and a real-time videotape by observers on the other side of the Araks river in Iran – in a final paroxysm of violence over the course of a week beginning December 10, 2005 some 100 Azerbaijani soldiers smashed thousands of headstones to bits with sledgehammers, throwing the chunks into the Araks. This documentary (video link) incorporates footage from the videotape.
But these werenâ€™t just any headstones. Known as khachkars (in Armenian â€œkhachâ€ means cross and â€œkarâ€ means stone), they were unique archeological artifacts â€“ intricately carved monuments between six and eight feet high that dated back between the 9th to 16th centuries.Â Â Â
A June 2006 article in Archeology magazine notes that â€œ[n]o formal archaeological studies were ever carried out at the cemetery Â â€¦ and its full historical significance will never be known,â€ and explains the destruction of the cemetery as â€œsymbolic violence against the dead â€¦ used as an expression of modern enmity.â€
Global Response Ranges From Indifferent To Ineffective â€¦
In letters to members of Congress and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), University of Chicago anthropologist Adam T. Smith and a group of archaeologists from six Western nations called the destruction of the cemetery “a violation of the memories of ancestors and an assault upon the common cultural heritage of humanity.” Armeniaâ€™s foreign minister at the time Vartan Oskanian sent his own letter to UNESCO in December 2005 that called the destruction “tantamount to ethnic cleansing.”
Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ), co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, condemned the act of cultural extermination in a letter to the Azerbaijani government, prompting the Azeri ambassador to the U.S., Hafez Pashayev, to dispute the videotaped evidence,Â asserting that it was impossible to identify either the cemetery as Armenian or the perpetrators as Azeri soldiers.
After the Armenian National Committee of America initiated a fax campaign to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice demanding that our government condemn this act of “cultural cleansing,” Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA), a member of the House Committee on International Relations, followed up with an inquiry about the U.S. position on the matter to Rice. Rice acknowledged that the State Department was aware of the â€œallegations of desecration of cultural monumentsâ€ and indicated that the U.S. â€œencouraged Armenia and Azerbaijan to work with UNESCO to investigate the incident.â€ In other words, the official U.S. position was to shrug and look the other way.
The European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the events at Jugha in February 2006. In the typically namby-pamby multi-cultural EU MO, the resolution aimed to offend no one. The â€œobjectiveâ€ resolution condemned Armenia and Azerbaijan for mutual crimes against cultural heritage – though not one case of destruction of Azeri monuments by Armenians was cited.
Left unsaid by the resolution:Â Â Christian graves were desecrated. For Armenians it is a particularly cruel blow as the oneÂ million genocide victims who literally dropped dead in their tracks during the forced march through the Syrian desert never received Christian rites and proper burials, their bodies left to be fed upon by wild beasts as a final act of humiliation by Ottoman Turks.
To this day,Â theÂ European ParliamentÂ has yet to inspect the site to verify the â€œallegationsâ€ of its destruction, but in April 2006 a reporter with the nonprofit, London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), attempted to ascertain the facts. Escorted by Azeri security officers, he was kept away from the cemetery itself but was close enough to see that there wereÂ noÂ monuments or headstones left.
Writing about the IWPRâ€™s findings, The Times of London noted that â€œForeign organisations had been unable to visit the cemetery because it is in Nakhichevan, a tiny enclave of Azerbaijan cut off by Armenia and Iran and accessible only by airâ€ and quoted a spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry asserting that there had never been an Armenian cemetery or any Armenian cultural relics in the area visited by the IWPR.
In order to sustain this fiction, Azerbaijan denied access to the cemetery to 10 EU Members of Parliament who had traveled to Nakhichevan to check out IWPRâ€™s report, according to this article published in The Independent:
Fears that Azerbaijan has systematically destroyed hundreds of 500-year-old Christian artefacts have exploded into a diplomatic row, after Euro MPs were barred from inspecting an ancient Armenian burial site. â€¦
The works – some of the most important examples of Armenian heritage – are said to have been smashed with sledgehammers last December as the site was concreted over. â€¦
The president of Icomos, Michael Petzet, said: “Now that all traces of this highly important historic site seem to have been extinguished all we can do is mourn the loss and protest against this totally senseless destruction.”
â€¦ And Now, To Ignominious
Adding insult to injury, earlier this month Baku, Azerbaijan hosted a little-noticed two-day conference of Council of Europe cultureÂ ministersÂ to discuss â€œIntercultural dialogue as the basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighboring regions.â€ In his opening remarks to the attendees Azeri president Ilham Aliyev, astonishingly claimed:
â€œAzerbaijan has rich history and the cultural monuments here are duly preserved, and a lot is being done in this direction. The country pursues independent policy. There is no serious discord in society and the peoples unite around the idea of modernism and Azerbaijanism.â€
The high point of the conference was the signing of the â€œBaku Declaration for the Promotion of Intercultural Dialogueâ€ which is â€œfirmly basedâ€ on the European Convention on Human Rights â€¦ as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Plan (Programme) of Action, which bound the participants to:
â€ affirm cultural diversity between and within countries as a common heritage of humankind;
â€ agree to contribute to sustainable economic, social and personal development, favourable to cultural creativity;
â€ promote a sustained process of intercultural dialogue, which is essential for international coâ€‘operation, with a view to promoting Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law;
â€ reaffirm the important role of cultural policies at national, regional and local level and their contribution for promoting intercultural dialogue;
â€ promote intercultural dialogue, including its religious dimension, as a process that requires a coherent interplay between different policy sectors and the full participation of the different stakeholders â€“ including public authorities, the media and civil society.
In all the â€œdialogueâ€ about â€œaffirming,â€ â€œpromotingâ€ and â€œreaffirming,â€ it seems the topic of the destruction of the Jugha cemetery never came up, and none of the attendees made the impolitic observation that Azerbaijan had either violated the UNESCO World Heritage Convention if its soldiers had perpetrated the reprehensible act, or had violated the Valetta Convention by not protecting the Armenian khachkars from destruction by â€œthe real perpetrators, whomever they may be.â€
Just as the Armenian community in the U.S. is hopeful that an Obama Administration will champion the Armenian Genocide Resolution, there is reason to be optimistic that his foreign policy team will also have a very different response to the ongoing stonewalling by the Azeris than Riceâ€™s utter disinterest, which is rooted in the Bush administrationâ€™s pro- Azerbaijani, pro-Turkey foreign policy.
In addition to secretary of state nominee Hillary Clinton â€“ who led the US delegation to a 1995 UN conference on women’s rights in Beijing (â€œIf there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.â€) â€“ prospective U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has a particular interest in genocide and is an advocate of military action to stop mass killings rather than ineffective â€œdialogueâ€ as slaughters continue apace. And Harvard professor Samantha Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (2002), has been quietly advising Obama behind the scenes, even afterÂ falling on her sword during the campaign after making a comment about Hillary Clinton that caused a ruckus.
Given that past is prologue, with these womenâ€™s combined emphasis on championing human rights and genocide prevention, it will not be easy for the Obama administration to ignore or overlook the genocide that preceeded – and encouraged – all others in the 20th and 21st centuries, or the ongoing â€œcultural genocidesâ€ in Azerbaijan and Turkey against the archeological remains of a once-thriving, centuries-old Armenian population that is no more. Â Â
One of The Stilettoâ€™s favorite poems is Percy Bysshe Shelleyâ€™s â€œOzymandiasâ€ â€“ her mother gave it to her to read and ponder in an attempt to temper her teenage tendency towards hubris. The Stiletto had always assumed that the ruination of those vast and trunkless legs of stone and the shattered visage â€“ as well as the works of which the ancient king had boasted in his epitaph – had occurred bit by bit from centuries of erosion by wind-whipped particles of sand until nothing remained except the boundless and bare desert for as far as the eye could see. Contemplating Azerbaijanâ€™s destruction of Jughaâ€™s irreplaceable khachkars, it now occurs to The Stiletto that Ozymandias and his monuments could also have been consigned to oblivion by the vengeful hand of man â€“ such a deliberate and purposeful obliteration, that he and his people may as well never have existed in the annals of human history.
BTW: To learn more about the Jugha cemetery and the Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, check out the Djulfa Virtual Memorial and Museum.
Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe).