top of page

Protect the Cultural Heritage And Armenian Cultural Heritage Of Nagorno-Karabakh

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Dr. Alain Navarra-Navassartian

Ph.D. art history; Ph.D. sociology


Tsitsernavank monastery (now under Azeri control)

Cultural goods are not goods like any other; they are part of humanity's heritage and constitute its wealth. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh entails significant risks of damage to the Armenian cultural heritage of the region. We would therefore like to draw attention to the obvious danger of erasing all traces of a thousand-year-old past and culture on this territory. However, many elements of this cultural heritage must be seen in its global dimension, as much for their historical interests as for their artistic characteristics and the links that connect them to other regional and international artistic centers.

It is obvious that this is part of a universalist presupposition, but this is the source of the legitimization of the notion of protection of world heritage. It is also a rhetoric of urgency. The demand for the preservation of this heritage is seen as a fight against the risk of disappearance of places that have become vulnerable because of the conflict.

It is also justified by the fears that the population and professionals (art historians, archaeologists, etc.) are legitimately entitled to have after the systematic destruction of the Armenian cemetery of khatchkars (stone crosses) in Julfa carried out by the Azeri government from 1998 to 2005, a destruction that has been documented.

We therefore appeal to universal values. Concern for heritage also summons the values of the universal, in a movement that combines the will to bring help and justice to men as well as to their cultural heritage and their works.


The first reflection on Armenian cultural heritage addresses important aspects of heritage, as they are related to human rights, and promotes a broader conception of heritage and its relations with human communities and society. Indeed, heritage is not only a public good; it has often even been the source of conflicts. Many examples show that, today as in the past, heritage can become a divisive factor if groups use it to express differences.

"Values" have become a vast subject of debate in contemporary society. Values influence what we choose to protect or conserve and how we represent the past and manage the present. Modern society is faced with the challenge of reconciling divergent points of view that give heritage aesthetic, historical, community or economic value. In the case of the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, many buildings, including religious ones, are in use, so it is not a heritage that is only linked to the past; it must be resolutely inscribed in the present and in the future. A heritage isolated from the flow of life could be of limited value, which is not the case here. Therefore, in protecting this cultural heritage, it is a matter of being in line with the vision of the European Council and UNESCO, which sees heritage as a concept, as a set of processes and as a dynamic that helps to better prepare the future.

We could focus solely on the aims of the 1972 UNESCO Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage, but it is a holistic definition of cultural heritage that we will use to draw attention to this territory. This approach aims to draw the attention of all those involved in the protection of world heritage to the link between the conservation of this heritage and the right for all to recognize themselves in one or more heritages and the right to participate in cultural life within the meaning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If significant destruction were to occur, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh would no longer be able to access these rights. We refer here to the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

On the other hand, the destruction of certain elements of the built environment, both ancient and modern, would have social and economic consequences on the Armenian population of the territory. Tourism, for example, an important source of the local economy, would be impacted. In addition to the intrinsic value of the heritage, other values would be impacted:

- institutional value (value as a center and catalyst for local action that can strengthen ties and facilitate broader social functions);

- instrumental value (as a contributor to some other social objective, for example as a means of providing general education);

- economic value (as an asset that, when used sustainably, can generate financial returns to the general population, such as tourism); and

One could also add that: "Cultural heritage is a set of resources inherited from the past that people consider, beyond the property ownership regime, as a reflection and expression of their ever-changing values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. This includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction over time between people and places. »

We will add that the protection of the Armenian cultural heritage can be a source of dialogue, even if not immediately, between the two parties, a start of intercultural dialogue and can be considered as a tool for conflict prevention (2003 Opatija declaration of the Council of Europe on intercultural dialogue and conflict prevention). The cultural heritage bears the traces of the often-troubled history of the region. The ceaselessly repeated calls from the various world bodies to find peace in the region can therefore find material to go beyond mere words, by intervening in this issue. By underlining the existence of a shared responsibility towards the heritage of the territory. Azerbaijan has shown great interest in the work of UNESCO and should grasp the importance of this concept. Mechanisms that are at the heart of UN and European policies: The reconciliation of contradictory values and respect for the heritage of others.


We call to consider this cultural heritage as universal. The notion of belonging to humanity proposed by Kant and the rights and responsibilities that derive from it imply that every person should, in order to be a full citizen, have the right to have access to all the knowledge accumulated by mankind and to know the great achievements of humanity through the ages. Cultural heritage is a metaphor. It refers to property inherited from the past and bearing a publicly recognized value that must be preserved for future generations so that they in turn can inherit it. The preservation of material and conceptual elements for future generations includes, to a certain extent, the duty to make these elements available to present generations as well. This is also why the Armenian cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh is an important issue. From the earliest antiquity through the churches of early Christianity, some of which are of major interest for the history of architecture and ideas, these monuments are part of a corpus of elements shared by other civilizations and underline a minimum of fundamental common points of a civilizing nature.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention - on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property - introduced the notion of human civilization and the text attempted to establish universal commonalities: “Cultural property is one of the fundamental elements of civilization and the culture of peoples, and it only takes on its true value if its origin, history and environment are known with the greatest precision. “

In many subsequent UNESCO documents, including the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, cultural heritage is considered the heritage of all humanity. It is also a common heritage in terms of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. That is why we hope that every effort will be made to avoid destruction and other threats to Armenia's cultural heritage.

The threats to this heritage are threefold

Heritage is changing its status: a reflection of the disorder and violence of this conflict. Heritage has become a target and a weapon of war. Three threats thus weigh on the Armenian heritage:

Heritage Hate

Which, as we know, often occurs in the case of non-international wars. The risk of purifying public space of the symbols of the culture of the "other" is in this case real, the bombing and then the tags on the walls of Shushi Cathedral are a perfect example. Heritage hatred is, in this case, particularly to be feared since it stems from a refusal to acknowledge the historicity of things, people and communities on this territory. We cite again the destruction of the cemetery of Julfa by the Azeri authorities from 1998 to 2005.

Deprivation, predation and denial

Deprivation would be to prevent the use of certain churches, for example, it would be to cut off the Armenian group from its history, from its property, whether material or immaterial. The heritage understood in the sense of cultural identity would be all the more in danger; there is also the risk of mutilation (degradation or destruction of Armenian inscriptions on churches, steles, etc.).

The instrumentalization of heritage

Namely the political manipulation of heritage. A whole corpus of texts having already been edited by Azerbaijan to underline the belonging of certain monuments to the Azeri history. It is therefore here, the relationship between memory and history that is emphasized. As well as the political uses and misuses of history. The reconversion of the heritage which is the support of the historical repression.


All too often, in the face of the worst, discourse takes the place of action. Yet the international community is not condemned to impotence. Members of this group have intervened in the course of ICCROM or ICOMOS actions and we have been able to observe that the definition of legally protected cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has been enriched by the important normative development that has taken place in recent decades, particularly within the UN system, even if sometimes its precise contours are still partly the result of the free appreciation of states. This is why we express our concern here.

The case of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognized state, requires an understanding of the obligations to protect the heritage through a range of instruments more varied than those governing the conduct of hostilities alone. The situation of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh can be considered as resulting from an armed conflict of a non-international character. And the resulting military occupation, which seems to be long-lasting, will lead to profound changes in the economic and social fabric of the societies concerned, in ways of life and in behaviour. All of these elements can affect the cultural identity of individuals. Since the conflict has also been considered as an internal conflict by Azerbaijan, and has been of an ethnic, cultural and religious nature, it is feared that this will be a factor of fragility of property, but also of the cultural and spiritual expressions attached to it.

We would like to draw the attention of all those involved in the protection of cultural heritage to the danger of changing the use of elements of the Armenian cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh. This has been proved in Azerbaijan. We are aware that there are no norms expressly prohibiting such actions. Although such a prohibition could be inferred from certain provisions of the Law of Armed Conflict relating to situations of military occupation. But what is important to point out, for us who work in the field of culture and heritage, is that a change of use is likely to destroy intangible or immaterial elements of this heritage, such as the knowledge and history that are linked to these goods and that give them meaning and value (Article 52§2 of the 1907 regulation, as well as Articles 4§3 and 5 of the 1954 Hague convention. As well as the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention). But another function would be endangered, that of the free participation of the Armenian group in the manifestations of this heritage. Eradicating a monument or preventing access to places where this heritage is expressed must be taken into account. This is indeed an infringement whose body of law could be sought in the norms relating to the protection of human rights. We would therefore like to emphasize that the connection between tangible cultural heritage and cultural property has been highlighted by the various UN conventions and the notion of heritage of humanity is no longer limited to a list of excellence, exceptional sites or monuments spread across the planet, defined by precise topographical, cultural and chronological limits, of universal value, but also includes "the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge, as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated with them". Thus, we ask all those involved in the defense of cultural heritage to take into account this reflection carried out for some time by the various international organizations, in order to better understand the dangers to which the Armenian cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh is exposed. In this new, broader sense of heritage, attention should not focus on the destruction of "excellences" but should take into account the defense of different cultures and the protection of cultural diversity. Our fear is that there may be a deliberate choice to destroy historical or religious buildings, which could be seen, then, as a desire for ethnic cleansing of the region. The purpose of the destruction would then be to eliminate the cultural, social and religious traces that mark the presence of the Armenian community on this territory. The example of the Dulfa cemetery still haunts memories.


The question of the Armenian cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh questions the rapprochement between cultural heritage and human rights, the concepts of universality and globality. Any destruction of a site recognized as cultural heritage is ultimately an attack on the collective memory. The rapprochement between cultural heritage and human rights appears to be very significant in the resolution on human rights adopted by the European Parliament in March 2015: "The European Parliament recalls that in the framework of the universality of human rights, and on the basis of UNESCO conventions, cultural diversity and cultural heritage are part of the world heritage and that the international community has a duty to cooperate to ensure their protection and enhancement; considers that intentional forms of destruction of cultural and artistic heritage, as currently taking place in Syria and Iraq, should be prosecuted as war crimes and crimes against humanity".

But we know the low binding value of such conventions, but it would therefore be important, in this case as in others (Timbuktu, Mali), to emphasize the fundamental principles of the individual, namely the prohibition of discrimination, freedom of religion and expression, which the 2003 UNESCO convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage underlines by explicitly referring to the 1948 Universal Declaration and the 1966 United Nations covenants on civil and political rights and on economic and social rights. And finally, the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

As for the European Union, it can intervene in the diplomatic framework of the peace missions that have within them, since 2017, an expert in the field of cultural heritage.

The intervention of the permanent representative of France at the international conference in Geneva, in April 2019, on the anniversary of the second protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention, is important enough to underline the passage where it is said that the protection of heritage is a civilizational issue, an ethical issue, which brings us together in the diversity of our membership. “Believing that modernity can be based on oblivion is a dangerous imposture”.

We draw attention, therefore, to the fact that cultural destruction often precedes violence against people and that any act of vandalism must be prosecuted in order to send a "signal" and to warn that no further violence can be tolerated. Violence against heritage follows the same paths as violence against human beings. The challenge of enforcing the legal arsenal is once again in question. The destruction of Iraqi and Syrian heritage was an important challenge, the answer was not convincing. For the universalist conception to still prevail, strong signs are needed, otherwise it is the questioning of the Western humanist edifice that is at stake.


The role of religion as an aggravating factor in conflicts or tensions is no longer to be demonstrated. It must be emphasized that the origin of this conflict does not in any way lie in religion. But over time it has also become a clash of identities and in this case religious monuments become privileged targets, as symbols of the culture of the "other". Degradations and attacks on this specific cultural heritage have already been documented on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The protection of religious heritage, as well as cultural heritage in general, can become an intrinsic part of the peace-building process. We refer to a set of UN texts and conventions, but also to the various ICCROM or ICOMOS conventions:

"The question of the importance and urgency of further implementation of joint initiatives for the protection of religious and sacred heritage, effectively using the possibilities of existing programs within the framework of UNESCO, ICCROM, ICOMOS, IUCN and other relevant international organizations and institutions was also raised by the Ukrainian authorities during the meeting of the open working group to reflect on the future of the World Heritage Convention (34th session of the World Heritage Committee, Brasilia, 2010). This issue was considered by the States Parties to the 1972 Convention as an emerging theme and it was agreed that the results of the Kiev seminar would provide the platform to launch discussions and consultations on this issue".

In the same spirit:

"In most countries of the world, religious and sacred properties represent perhaps the largest category of property. According to ICCROM, living religious heritage has characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of heritage. Sacred sites, which UNESCO's MAB program refers to as "de facto the oldest protected areas on the planet are of vital importance in safeguarding cultural and biological diversity for present and future generations. This heritage provides people with a sense of identity. Collectively, religious and sacred properties cover a wide range of cultural and natural diversity and each of them can individually manifest the spirit of a particular place. "

"A new meaning and dimension of contemporary history could be given to places, monuments and sites of religious and spiritual significance, which should no longer be considered only as cultural, religious, sacred or holy sites, but also as places of education to strengthen mutual respect, knowledge and understanding of this cultural heritage on the part of all communities. «

Whatever the status of a group, in this case the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, they cannot envisage a stable future as long as they cannot live and express their cultural identity without fear. Transforming the symbols of different regional identities into tools for creating a future dialogue between divided communities is, most certainly, one of the goals of cultural heritage protection. From the very beginning of the conflict, there was never a peace process, but just a management of the conflict. Cultural heritage is often a geopolitical issue, but we must not forget that the symbolic function of the Armenian religious buildings of Nagorno Karabagh is also part of societal functions. This heritage is part of the social present.


The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh certainly leads to a reflection on the role of cultural heritage, its protection and the orientations necessary for the efficiency of the measures taken for its safeguarding. First of all, what about unrecognized territories, which are therefore not members of any convention as is the case for Nagorno-Karabakh? Governmental and intergovernmental organizations can only work with heritage authorities that are under the authority of a recognized state. Non-state parties in a conflict therefore suffer from a lack of heritage support or assistance from many heritage institutions. What status should be granted to them so that they can join international conventions?

The appeal of Professor Fabio Maniscalco (then Director of the International Observatory for the Protection of Cultural Heritage) for the protection of Palestinian cultural heritage was in the sense of giving the authorities of a still unrecognized state the benefit of all international instruments for the protection of cultural heritage:

"I, the undersigned, prof. Dott Fabio Maniscalco Considering that

- Palestine is not recognized as a state, therefore it cannot ratify treaties;

- Although Israel signed the Hague Convention in 1957, it is not obliged to respect its provisions because the Palestinian Authority has not ratified it #...#

- Requests the Palestinian Authority #...#

- to enact national laws concerning the safeguarding, conservation and restoration of cultural heritage, more adequate to the increased imperatives of Palestine

- to present a petition to UNESCO seeking "authorization" to ratify the 1954 Hague convention and its additional protocols

Requests the Government of Israel

- to raise public awareness of respect for their cultural and historical identity and that of others and to take all appropriate measures to observe the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention on its territory and in the Palestinian Territories;

- to support the possible request of the Palestinian Authority to UNESCO to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention.

Requests UNESCO and all High Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 14 May 1954)

- In the event that the Palestinian Authority presents a petition to UNESCO to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention, to accept it and to promote its implementation in the Palestinian Territories. #...# » .

This appeal was ignored because the state is still the primary legal basis. But we cannot, on the one hand, call for a mutual reinforcement between the protection of cultural heritage and human rights and, on the other hand, tolerate a growing use of international law as a framework for violence.

The Armenian cultural heritage of this region has a special status, it reflects, at the same time, community values, creativity, intergenerational ties, sense of belonging but also the cultural diversity present in the region. Our approach is in line with the confidence generated by current international initiatives towards the protection, not per se, of cultural heritage but because of its value for peoples, minorities, groups or communities. Underlining thus that the interests of sub-state entities must be taken into account.

113 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page