Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fear destruction of their cultural heritage

Photos of damaged Armenian churches and statues have been circulating on social media ever since Armenia agreed to pull out of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh after signing a peace deal with Azerbaijan. (The first image was posted on TikTok by ugurluyev061. The second image was shared on Telegram by @reartsakh)
Photos of damaged Armenian churches and statues have been circulating on social media ever since Armenia agreed to pull out of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh after signing a peace deal with Azerbaijan. (The first image was posted on TikTok by ugurluyev061. The second image was shared on Telegram by @reartsakh) © ugurluyev061 on TikTok / @reartsakh on Telegram

Armenians are terrified that important cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh will be destroyed after Armenia agreed to withdraw from the contested territory as part of a peace deal signed with Azerbaijan. Armenians have been circulating images of damaged statues and churches on social media, while Azerbaijanis have responded with images of mosques being used as pigsties. Although no Armenian landmarks have been completely destroyed, many are fearful that their destruction is imminent.


Damaged churches

The Armenian ambassador to the Netherlands, Tigran Balayan, took to Twitter on November 14 to share a video of a man he claimed was a jihadist mercenary crying out "Allahu Akbar" from the bell tower of a church. You can see that the bell has been removed and the cross has been broken. 

The video, which has been shared several hundred times, was indeed filmed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Our team ran the video through a reverse image search, which revealed that it was Saint Mary Church, located near the village of Mekhakavan (Jebrayil).

Graffitied church, destroyed statue

A photo, posted on Tiktok on November 11, shows the Ghazanchetsos Cathedral in Chouchi covered in spray paint.

Armenian media outlet Zatonk Media said in a tweet that this statue of an angel came from the same church and that it had been destroyed by Azerbaijanis.

This photo was widely circulated out of its original context. Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, was severely damaged by an air raid on October 8, 2020, which we covered in a previous article. 

The statue was destroyed during these air strikes, as shown in a photo published on October 12 by Russian media outlet Daily Storm.

No graffiti appears in a video of the cathedral that was filmed by Azerbaijani troops and posted on Instagram just a few hours before the photo showing the graffiti damage was posted TikTok.

Did Azerbaijani troops desecrate the bust of an Armenian national hero?

This video posted on Telegram on November 9 shows Azerbaijani soldiers destroying a bust of Garegin Njdeh, who is an Armenian national hero.

We found no evidence that this video has been posted online before. Some social media users claimed it was filmed in an Armenian military base in the Qubadli region in Nagorno-Karabakh, but their claims haven’t been verified. Azerbaijani social media users reacted quickly to the video, highlighting Garegin Njdeh’s links with Nazism. 

Azerbaijan’s response

Azerbajani social media users were quick to respond to these posts, highlighting the way that Armenian authorities had treated mosques in Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenia took control of the region in 1993. Hikmet Hajiyev, who is an advisor to the Azeri president, accused Armenians of having turned a mosque into a pigsty.

Hajiyev claimed that the photos he posted online were taken in the village of Mamar, in the Qubadli district. A video circulated by an Azerbaijani TV channel does show pigs. There is little information available about this mosque, except for an archive photo from the Ministry of Culture that was published by a press agency on October 23. The mosque’s Wikipedia page was created October 28.

This is not the first time that Azerbaijani officials have posted images on social media of ruined mosques filled with livestock. The Azerbaijani consulate general in Los Angeles posted a video on YouTube on April 16 showing cows in the Agdam mosque in Nagorno-Karabakh. The post was meant to illustrate how disrespectful Armenians were towards Azerbaijani cultural heritage sites.

However, other photos, posted on an architecture blog, show that the mosque had been abandoned and the livestock had wandered in of their own accord. 

Historic incidents when Azerbaijan destroyed Armenian monuments

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev promised during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 14 that Armenian churches in Nagorno-Karabakh would be protected. 

However, our team spoke with human rights activist Simon Maghakyan, who said he didn't think this phone call was enough to protect Armenian cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. Maghakyan lives in Denver, Colorado. Back in 2005, he documented the destruction of the Djulfa Armenian Cemetery in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhitchevan, which borders Iran.

It’s hard to know if sites have already been damaged in Nagorno-Karabakh because there are very few observers on the ground. Likely, the big monasteries, like the one in Dadivank, won’t be targeted at first. However, smaller churches and khachkars – which are carved, memorial steles bearing a cross that are very common in Armenian culture – could easily be destroyed. That was the case in Djulfa.

In the past, Azerbaijan has worked to restore and preserve Armenian churches in its territory, like the Saint Mary Church in Gabala. Maghakyan pointed out, however, that writing in Armenian had been removed from the church during this process.

Instead of recognizing some of these structures as Armenian, Azerbaijan has attributed them to the kingdom of Albania, a Christian kingdom that emerged in the eastern Caucasus during Antiquity in what is now part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's Culture Minister, Anar Karimov, did just this in a tweet on November 11 where he referred to the Armenian Dadivank Monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh by its Azerbaijani name, Khudavang.

After six weeks of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement to end hostilities on November 9 in a deal brokered by Russia.

Azerbaijan controlled Nagorno-Karabakh until the 1990s war that left the disputed territory under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists.  The 2020 deal returned part of the contested region to Azerbaijani control. Russian peacekeeping forces will be deployed to the Armenian part, as well as along the frontlines.