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Protection of the Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

: between useless indignation and anti-heritage violence

Dr. Alain Navarra-Navassartian. Ph.D. sociology /Ph.D. art history


London Tube: poster presenting Armenian heritage as Azeri (since removed)

For the past few days, Azerbaijani media, newspapers and marketing operations outside the territory of Azerbaijan (in the London Underground, which has since been taken away) have been the mediums of a new campaign that undermines the Armenian cultural heritage by reassigning a whole set of Armenian heritage to other groups. This movement had already been initiated a few months ago, but it is now back in the news and is taking shape in the violence of the government's nationalist discourse against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

We have been pointing out for months that this heritage has become a target, the anti-patrimonial violence of Azerbaijan is situated in the patrimonial hatred that has been seen during conflicts and post-conflict periods for a long time now. But it seems necessary to recall this, since the perpetual indignation does not seem to generate any concrete action (e.g., cancelled UNESCO mission).

On the other hand, this heritage hatred is not the simple consequence of the loss of a conflict, but is the result of an ideology that mixes the most violent nationalism with anti-Armenian sentiment, the denial of cultural diversity for the Armenian people (Azerbaijan's hobbyhorse in the direction of the West) with the desire to deny any historicity in the region to the Armenian people.

The staging of the Azerbaijani power around the places of Armenian heritage underlines their symbolic importance in the political discourse of Aliyev, it serves to manufacture this discourse and offers a support to the violent nationalism that regularly punctuates it. Cultural heritage that has become a source of rhetoric for the government, a substrate for the performative discourse that refers to a system of conventions, rituals and a strategy that crosses historical references, political discourse, symbolic epic tales to the most vindictive nationalism. Aliyev makes some places of this heritage "discursive places", a landscape-spectacle (B. Tratnjek. 2009) that comes to underline and justify the destruction or the reattribution of the symbols of the existence of "the other". Posing a clear act that demonstrates the impossibility of "living together". While at the same time, the London advertising campaign wants to emphasize the multicultural dimension of the country.

In these different campaigns, the Armenian cultural heritage, the "impurity" of this people who committed "crimes against the world of Islam" (Aliyev. 2021) is highlighted. During the conflict, it was noted that photos of a mosque transformed into a pigsty were circulating on social networks, and had raised a general outcry in some Arab countries. Needless to say, these photos were a montage, but for the first time in the thirty-year conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the religious dimension had never been so clearly present.

Apart from the fact that the Armenians were unwilling or unable to counteract this campaign, the religious component in anti-Armenian propaganda was used again in November 2020 during the visit of the Aliyev couple to the Aghdam mosque. Aliyev stresses the Islamophobia of the West, which supports Armenian "vandals", those who "dare to keep pigs in the Mosque of Zangilan or Jabrayil".

In order for history, as an ideal self-narrative, to be possible and relatable, it will be necessary to erase the cumbersome traces of the Armenians. To achieve the homogenization of the cultural space of the region is an obvious goal for the Azerbaijani government.

Churches are the high places of Armenian identity in the everyday life of the people: places of sociability, education or identity building (A. Navarra. 2020). The policy of denial, deprivation or degradation carried out by Azerbaijan against the Armenian cultural heritage marks the will to cut off the Armenian people of the region from their history, from their material or immaterial goods. Heritage in the sense of cultural identity is all the more in danger. We have already highlighted in various texts the links between the population and its heritage and the effects of its destruction on individuals, notably an increased vulnerability. The systematic denial of the origin of the Armenian built heritage has become a systemic policy in Azerbaijan. All the churches originate from the Albanians of the Caucasus, the epigraphs are erased and the reconversion of the Armenian heritage is going well, becoming the support of the repressed history.

Once again, it should be emphasized that any discourse on heritage takes us into the field of ethics, cultural and human rights, conflicts of ownership of heritage and universal rights to heritage. The impossibility for UNESCO to carry out its mission, the polite and expected silence of the European or other authorities, never ceases to question the ethics and the legal aspects of the protection of cultural heritage for these infra-state entities. The attack on heritage removes all sense of the relational value of heritage; the monolithic vision of history desired by Aliyev, makes a clean sweep of the regional cultural diversity. How, then, can we believe in a sincere possibility of "living together" for the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh?

The government of Azerbaijan proclaims to anyone who will listen that it is the defender of cultural diversity, but nevertheless, it seems to be suspicious of the multiple identity of the region whose heritage is a witness. By erasing epigraphs on monuments or changing the attributions of churches and monasteries (in a clumsy and unscientific way), he only demonstrates his will to redefine the social identity of the area, through a well-orchestrated political and communication program that only continues the military program, enriched with the religious component in order to produce new symbolic values and to control the definition of the identities of the region.

Aliyev orders the removal of Armenian inscriptions (end of march)

How, then, can one want to belong to an organic nation that is thought of under the idea of difference, that creates a border between "us" and "them", namely the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh, to a Nation that is thought of as a "natural" entity from which Armenians are, in fact, excluded? Who is still naive enough to think that Armenians will be peacefully allowed to merge into the Azerbaijani "nationality", while everything is done to exclude them from the "imaginary community" that constitutes the Nation (B. Anderson)?

Military violence is followed by cultural violence, not only the destruction of a heritage but a structural violence (preventing the Armenians' access to self-realization) through destruction, denial and appropriation of their cultural heritage.

Culture is a political tool to establish, confirm or resurrect the anti-Armenian hatred that has been raining down on the Armenians of the region for more than a hundred years (Baku pogroms 1905, 1990. Sumgait pogrom 1988).


The protection of the cultural heritage during a conflict is a traditional problematic of the situations of conflict, but that of the heritage in the post-war period and in human and legal situations as complex as those of the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh, is much less. We will not return to the various legal questions raised by the right of peoples to self-determination, which was the subject of a file presented by Hyestart to various European authorities. However, we will focus on how heritage is, in this case, used politically to create an "ideology of togetherness" (Di Meo/Alii. 1993) from which Armenians are totally excluded.

Any discourse on the collective cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh is a discourse of exclusion of its majority population, the Armenians.

It has been repeated often enough, the heritagization and the conservation are essentially Western approaches, some would say of Western technocrats, in the case in question, their universal and univocal vision is confronted with stakes of power subjected to negotiations which do not have any "universalist" character, but rather economic and geopolitical. It is obvious that during these long years of war, no peace process has been put in place: only the clumsy management of the conflict has prevailed. It is therefore difficult today to integrate the Armenian cultural heritage into broader economic and social responses. At present, for reasons of interest that deceive no one, and because the effective protection of this heritage is non-existent or very weak, its politicization and ethnicization continue.

From advertising campaigns to social networks, insidious attacks are perpetuated.

Here the church of St. John of Mastara (Armenia) is presented as a church whose architectural origins are Turkish and it should be noted that the district of Talin in Armenia is presented as being in Azerbaijan!

How can we think, then, of a social and psychological recovery of the affected communities? What sense can be made of Aliyev's speeches to Westerners about cultural diversity when cutting the continuous thread of the Armenian presence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is at the heart of all these communication campaigns?

These acts are contrary to reconciliation and the restoration of peaceful relations. This multidimensional and multidisciplinary process cannot be satisfied with the polite silence of international bodies or with standardized responses. It is obvious that the multiplicity of actors: international organizations, economic or community interest groups, and the media create a conflict of perceptions and concerns, but also of values that only complicate the task.

But behind any conflict, there are populations that must, once again, be able to undertake a process of restoration and development in which cultural heritage is one of the driving forces. The various attacks on the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh are attacks on the right to participate in cultural life. A broader approach to cultural life and the role it can play has been proposed by UNESCO itself, culture is not just the life of the mind, but its scope is more important and encompasses the whole way of life of a social group but also any activity or social expression specific to that population. The right to culture also becomes the right to one's own culture. This includes the protection of minorities and the rights of indigenous peoples.

UNESCO took a position as early as 1982, with the Mexico declaration on culture, defining it as "ways of life, fundamental rights of human beings, value systems, traditions and beliefs". The 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration adopts the same conception. So, if we refer to a set of texts, the links between human rights and cultural rights are close. It is not only a question of defending monuments; it goes far beyond.


It is necessary to specify that the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, proclaimed in the name of the right of peoples to self-determination, comes up against the hierarchy of international norms that are not favorable to the questioning of the territorial integrity of a State. It is not a question of developing the legal aspect of self-determination in this article, nor even of underlining the price that certain peoples have to pay for the preservation of the territorial integrity of certain States, but of questioning the instruments that the Hague Convention and the protocols propose, in situations such as that of Nagorno-Karabakh, that is to say an infra-State entity.

It is not only a question of attacks on property, but also of tensions rooted in the instrumentalization of identity, the denial of individual and collective rights by a signatory country of the charter, namely Azerbaijan.

The destruction, alteration and denial of Armenian cultural property is the visible part of a more complex problem that integrates social, political and cultural dynamics and requires a human rights approach to be combined with a broader approach to cultural heritage.

This heritage is implicated in older and more complex conflicts against Armenians: Sumgait pogrom (1988), Baku pogrom (1990). The climax of these ethnic tensions was the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery by the Azerbaijanis from 1998 to 2005. Djulfa was a cemetery of khatchkars (stone crosses), a unique expression of Armenian art.

Photo: Arthur Gevorgian. 2005. Destruction of the cemetery of Djulfa by Azeri forces

Armenian culture is at the heart of these conflicts because of the repeated desire for its annihilation by the governments of Azerbaijan. Culture is at the heart of the analysis of the conflicts but it must also be also in the strategies of peace. The mission that was to be carried out by UNESCO was cancelled by opposition from Azerbaijan, leaving a certain bitterness in the minds of those who thought that the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh would at least benefit from the protection of their heritage. I am using the word "people" here, not "population", to clarify the nature of an entity whose collective (and not just individual) rights are to be recognized.

One can understand the skepticism that this may raise. For cultural diversity, presented as a tool for change in the 1990s by UNESCO, is being undermined by a policy of denial of heritage by a state party.

"A mature society is determined by its ability to manage cultural pluralism, which has led it to evolve from a state of political ignorance to the rational choice of building a democratic society that can integrate all differences. In this sense, cultural diversity enriches and invigorates society" (UNESCO 2002). It is assumed that in this 2002 text, there is a thread of the 1996 text, which refers to tolerance, dialogue and democracy. We should therefore move away from any fundamentalism. It remains to be seen whether Azerbaijan is a "mature" country and what a mature society is. There is a dichotomy between the policy of Azerbaijan against the Armenian heritage and what it is supposed to adhere to by being a state party of UNESCO.

There is a great mistrust of the notion of origin in the UNESCO texts on cultural diversity. The Aliyev government has understood this and is using this mistrust to try to prove that cultural diversity is adapted to the wishes of Westerners. As for the Armenians, whose lack of experience in communication, especially in crisis situations, has been noted, they are stuck in a discourse about primacy or origins and are trapped in the "unacceptable" difference of the nationalist discourse.

The ambiguity of UNESCO's declarations is explained by the need to spare member states and relies on institutionalized documents that poorly mask their socio-political origin (B. Nielsen 2013). Important documents because they promote peace, equality and freedom, but due to prevarications or compromises, they seem more to promote an illusion that puts forward Westernized aesthetic projects forgetting that the real projects of emancipation go through the political.


The policy of denial of Armenian heritage is not new in Azerbaijan, but the fact that it is coupled with a religious discourse is more recent. Islam was not an issue for a society project, which made Azerbaijan one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world. However, since November 2020, the religious fact is directly invoked. Either to demonstrate that Armenians have defiled mosques (see photo above) with the help of fake photos, or by Aliyev's allegations of attacks on the Muslim world by Armenians in their enterprise to destroy mosques. Until now, Azerbaijani ethno-nationalism was not coupled with its religious and aggressive component. Aliyev is changing his tone and the tolerance towards the different religious currents of the country does not seem to be able to apply to the Armenians. But attacking this Christian group head on would be difficult (for the moment), communication with European partners could suffer and it is assumed that these same partners could be "embarrassed". But the denial and reattribution of Armenian heritage to the Caucasian Albanians has become commonplace. Armenian heritage as a political tool will not be able to count on the respect of the population for the heritage of the "other". Thirty years of war, which has resulted in population transfers and nationalistic discourses on both sides that have prevented any emphasis on a horizontal history (that of groups that have lived with each other in these rural areas) will not facilitate respect for Armenian heritage. In these rural areas, which have little to do with Baku, disinterest in heritage among the poorer classes is a fact, especially since heritage involves different practices than in the West.

The videos of destruction or degradations which circulated as of the signature of the agreements between the two countries, which concerns the culture of war, were a means of propaganda towards the populations but disappeared, at present, of the social networks. They were too aggressive, too explicit and became embarrassing for the relations with the West and could only contradict the promotion of Azerbaijan abroad.

Violence is at the heart of many nationalisms as in Azerbaijan. Let's remember the murder of Gurgen Markaryan in Hungary in 2012. Ramil Safarov, the murderer, has become a national hero in Azerbaijan, helping to give a sense of impunity to a racist crime. In 2016 the Council of Europe pinned Azerbaijan for not taking measures against hate speech and recalled that no anti-discrimination legislation was in place. Aliyev and his performative speeches use violence to "make the Nation happen" (X. Crettiez. 2013) and determine the boundaries of ethnicity.

What place for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in this organic Nation?

The Aliyevs in an Armenian church attributed to "Caucasian Albanians".

During the conflict, tolerance towards different religions became an important communication tool for Azerbaijan. In the midst of the war, the country's Chief Rabbi confirmed in a Swiss newspaper that there was no risk of ethnocide or genocide of Christians. To ride the religious wave, some newspaper articles linked the defenders of the Armenian cause to right-wing extremists on a crusade against Islam. This conflict, which did not have a religious origin, is mired in a flood of nauseating exchanges.

But what about the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh?

Thirty years of mismanaged conflict, errors of judgment, inconsistencies without any reflection on peace processes that have only fanned the flames of mutual hatred to end in the tragedy of the loss of thousands of young Armenian men. The causes of this conflict and the will of a people to demand the right to self-determination have been forgotten; the pogroms of Sumgait (1988) and Baku (1990) are in the memories of every Armenian who has lived in Azerbaijan.

The individual and micro-political parameter is what has been most disturbed in recent years (Rosenau), such as the feelings of loyalty of individuals towards their collective of belonging or the behaviors of submission towards the authority. But one wants, always, only to recognize the state with this reason that the individuals cannot constitute an acceptable unit of analysis. The individual has been asked to leave the scene to reappear only as an extra in the enterprises of destabilization of the realist hegemony. But the macro-political structures remain considerable and nothing has really been thought of to have perceptions of collective elaborations, which leaves room for the simple hegemonic achievement.

The attacks on the Armenian cultural heritage in Azerbaijan, as well as the violence of the government's anti-Armenian discourse and its instrumentalization among the population, only fix the communal rejections. The stabilizing function of this violence is useful for a government that has been able to mask the impoverishment of society, the increase in social inequality and the enrichment of its own clan, which does not augur well for the Armenian cultural heritage and the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an important text. One can certainly discuss its normativity or its legal nature, but it is indeed the "internal side" of the right to self-determination that is enshrined in this declaration. States have all the legal, political, socio-economic and media means at their disposal to annihilate the need for emancipation of an oppressed people.

Since 1918, the date of the first congress of the Karabakh Armenians (which formed a government and proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh a territorial entity), the Armenian people of this territory have known the vexations and social brutalities that led to pogroms and have not ceased to be discriminated against for a hundred years. The hatred of heritage always precedes the attacks on populations, how can we not think of it when we see how the violence of Aliyev's words and his instrumentalization of heritage is based on the denunciation of a community, supposed to return under his power. A community is made by distilling a shared hatred that has the function of social amnesia, but which endangers the Armenian population of the region.

Shouldn't the people of Nagorno-Karabakh then be considered as a discriminated people or under domination? Why shouldn't they be able to benefit from an external self-determination, to break the links with an oppressor state that will not guarantee the security of this people? For behind all the emotional and affective outpouring of Aliyev's nationalism, there is a strategy.

What good are proclaimed rights without effective implementation? Change is perhaps overestimated here in order to "better force theoretical thought" (B. Badie. 2004)

"He who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past". 1984. G.H. Orwell

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