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Is Western Condemnation of Cultural Destruction Reserved Exclusively for Enemies?

by Simon Maghakyan Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 at 7:20 PM

Djulfas destruction, like that of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Timbuktu shrines, merits widespread coverage, unwavering condemnation, and international liability, no matter who the perpetrator is.

Is Western Condemnat...
djulfa_before_destruction.jpg, image/jpeg, 640x326

International organizations, Western governments, and mainstream media are vociferously outragedand rightfully soover the recent destruction of majestic Sufi Muslim shrines by Islamist extremists in Timbuktu, Mali, mirroring the reaction to the Talibans 2001 demolition of two beautiful Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The violators of cultural rights in both instances are anti-Western, al-Qaeda-linked groups, and that alone seems to have merited the strong Western condemnation.

Otherwise, why has the West maintained its overwhelming silence regarding the complete destruction of the worlds largest medieval Armenian cemetery by Azerbaijan, a major energy supplier to, and arms purchaser from, the West?

In December 2005, clerics from the Armenian Church of Northern Iran videotaped


over 100 uniformed men across the border in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan destroying the thousands of breathtaking and unique Armenian khatchkars


or cross-stones, of the magnificent Djulfa cemetery.

The church later issued photographs


clearly showing that the sacred site had been replaced by a military rifle range.
Azerbaijan vehemently denied


the destruction report, suggesting that the cemetery, like the medieval Armenians it memorialized, never existed


in the first place. (Official historiography in Azerbaijan claims that Armenians did not live in the South Caucasus region until the 19th century.)

To protect its case, Azerbaijan subsequently banned


European observers (and years later

a wavering U.S. ambassador) from visiting the cemetery site, thereby compelling the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to document


the crime with satellite data.

The AAAS joined the European Parliament




an organization for cultural preservation, as one of a few international institutions to document or condemn Djulfas destruction.

Washingtons public reaction to Djulfas destruction, however, came months after the devastation in the form of a written response


to a question posed by California Senator Barbara Boxer (D). In their response, the State Department urg[ed] the relevant Azerbaijani authorities to investigate the allegations of desecration of cultural monuments in Nakhichevan, essentially downplaying an entire cultures obliteration by irresolutely calling it desecration, an oft-used description for gravestone graffiti vandalism. In private, however, the State Department was aggravatednot with Azerbaijans wanton destruction, as suggested by a leaked cable


but with Armenias strongly worded press release condemning it.

The international organization charged with protecting our global heritage, UNESCO, followed suit, Washington style. UNESCOs only public reaction


to Djulfas destruction was a response to my 2010 petition


wherein the organization expressed its readiness to dispatch an investigative mission, contingent on the consent of the perpetrator, Azerbaijan, and otherwise failed to condemn the destruction. In other words, UNESCO has effectively committed itself to indefinite silence by asking Azerbaijan to willingly work against its perceived political interests, a near certain impossibility. As expected, Azerbaijan did not react to UNESCOs proposal.

While Azerbaijans destruction of Djulfa failed to elicit any meaningful response from UNESCO, the organization did spring into action after the word Djulfa was mentioned in a 2011 exhibit of Armenian cross-stones. Even after censoring the word, UNESCO boycotted its own exhibit


because a photo of the cemetery was still included in the exhibition, albeit without a caption.

The impetus behind the cemeterys destruction and ensuing political machinations is the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabagh, but the obliteration of Djulfa took place in an undisputed regionNakhichevan. And while the United States, as a mediator in the Karabagh conflict, is expected to remain impartial, a muted response to the well-documented destruction of a major cultural site cannot be equated with evenhandedness; it is, in fact, counterproductive as it reinforces a primary cause of the conflict: the Armenian perception that Azerbaijan has intentionally been wiping out all traces of their indigenous identity without accountability.

Washingtons response to Djulfas destruction has likely been muted, in part, by Azerbaijans vast energy resources, which Baku sells to Western markets via Turkey. Azerbaijans arms purchases from Israel, as well as its speculated status as secret staging ground for a possible attack against Iran, may also play a part in the silence over Djulfas destruction.

While Washingtons mealy-mouthed response may be predictable given its energy and security interests in Azerbaijan, UNESCOs inaction is unacceptable, as is the silence of much of the international media (with a few exceptions).

[http://www.djulfa.com/media_coverage/ ]

It is troubling that Washingtons selective condemnation of cultural rights violations, which are apparently based on perceived self-interests, is mimicked in international media coverage as well as in the actions of an international organization ostensibly created to stand up for all vulnerable and threatened heritage.

In the meantime, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova has the time to pen a CNN opinion piece


on Timbuktus destruction, but she acts as if she has not even heard about Djulfa, even though a 2011 document prepared for Bokova, and once posted on unesco.org


suggests otherwise. Its summary of a speech by the Armenian foreign ministers contains the following statement:

[The minister] further explains that, with Azerbaijan, efforts to do away with Armenian heritage go on unabated despite the continuous alarm rang [sic] by Armenia. He refers to the annihilation of the centuries-old Jugha (Julfa) Cemetery in Nakhichevan [previously resided by Armenians, now territory of Azerbaijan; comment by UNESCO] with its thousands of carved cross-stones being knocked over, piled and carted away between 1998 and 2005, and its transformation into a military training ground in 2005.
In what appears to be appeasement for failing to take a stand on Djulfas destruction, UNESCO indirectly acknowledged the value and vulnerability of Armenian khatchkars by declaring


their craftsmanship and symbolism Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, without any mention of what until five years earlier was the largest collection of khatchkars on earth.

Djulfas destruction, like that of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Timbuktu shrines, merits widespread coverage, unwavering condemnation, and international liability, no matter who the perpetrator is.


The writer of this article, Simon Maghakyan, documents the destruction of Djulfa on http://www.djulfa.com. He is also the South Caucasus country specialist for Amnesty International USA, and recently joined the political science faculty at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo.

This article was first published in the Armenian Weekly (http://www.armenianweekly.com/2012/08/16/is-western-condemnation-of-cultural-destruction-reserved-exclusively-for-enemies/)

PHOTO CAPTION: The cemetery before it was destroyed (Photo: djulfa.com)
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