Damage to cultural heritage

Damage to cultural heritage

Shortly after the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991 and both Armenia and Azerbaijan were accorded international recognition, armed hostilities and Armenian attacks against areas within Azerbaijan intensified. Armenia unleashed the war, used force against Azerbaijan and occupied its territories, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, carried out ethnic cleansing of the seized areas by expelling about one million Azerbaijanis from their places of origin, committed other serious crimes during the conflict and established a separatist entity on the occupied Azerbaijani territory.

The international community has consistently deplored and condemned the use of military force against Azerbaijan and the resulting occupation of its territories. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions 822 (1993), 853 (1993), 874 (1993) and 884 (1993), condemning the use of force against Azerbaijan and occupation of its territories and reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the inviolability of its internationally recognized borders. In those resolutions, the Security Council reaffirmed that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is part of Azerbaijan and demanded immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan[1]. The United Nations General Assembly adopted four resolutions on the conflict (48/114 of 20 December 1993, 57/295 of 6 February 2003, 60/285 of 7 September 2006 and 62/243 of 14 March 2008) and included the special item entitled “The situation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” in the agenda of its plenary sessions.

In flagrant violation of the generally accepted norms and principles of international law and in total disregard of the demands contained in the above-mentioned UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and decisions of other international organizations, Armenia continues to occupy one fifth of the territory of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts.

Having succeeded in realizing its territorial claims militarily, Armenia spares no effort to consolidate the results of the use of force and politically promote its annexationist aspirations. To this end, Armenia undertakes measures to illegally change the demographic, cultural and physical character of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, thus gravely violating the relevant resolutions of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other applicable norms and principles of international humanitarian law. Over the period passed since the beginning of the conflict, tens of thousands settlers have moved to the occupied areas depopulated of their Azerbaijani inhabitants. Illegal activities in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan include also  exploitation, plunder and illicit trade of assets, natural resources and other forms of wealth, permanent infrastructure development, extensive exploitation of agricultural and water resources, timber exporting, archaeological excavations, embezzlement of artefacts etc.

The occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan has also had catastrophic consequences for the country’s cultural heritage both in the occupied territories and in Armenia.[2]

The occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan (Kalbajar, Lachyn, Gubadly, Zangilan, Jabrayil, Fuzuli and Aghdam), as well as seven villages in the district of Gazakh and the village of Karki in Nakhchyvan, which are beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh region and situated on the border with Armenia, saw the destruction of 927 libraries, 22 museums, 808 recreational venues, 4 theatres, 2 concert places, 8 cultural parks, 4 art galleries and 85 musical schools.[3]

Architectural monuments of national importance in those territories include the sixth century Albanian Agoglan cloister and the fourteenth century Malik Ajdar tomb in Lachyn, the fourth century Albanian Amaras cloister and a considerable number of Albanian temples in Khojavand, the eighteenth century Asgaran castle, fourteenth century tombs and a number of Albanian temples dating back to the Middle Ages in Khojaly, the sixth century Albanian Saint Jacob and thirteenth century Albanian Khatiravang cloisters and the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries Lekh castle in Kalbajar, the Albanian cloister of the fifth to eighth centuries in Gazakh, the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries Mirali tomb and the seventeenth century caravanserai in Fuzuli, the fourteenth century tomb in Zangilan, the seventeenth century mosque complex in Jabrayil, the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries Yukhary and Ashaghy Govharagha and Saatly mosques, caravanserais and houses in Shusha, the nineteenth century mosque in Aghdam, and archaeological sites like Garakopaktapa, Khanta a, Gunashtapa, Uzuntapa, Meynatapa and Zargartapa, residential areas of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Fuzuli, the residential areas of Chyragtapa and Garaghajy, of the Bronze Age, and those of Gavurgala, of the Middle Ages, and Aghdam, Imangazantapa and Gyshlag mounds of the Bronze Age in Jabrayil, rock drawings of the Bronze Age in Kalbajar, the stone box necropolis of the Bronze and Iron Ages in Khojaly, the residential area and necropolis of the Bronze Age in Sadarak, mounds of the Bronze and Iron Ages in Lachyn, a cave of the Stone Age, a mound and stone box graves of the Bronze and Iron Ages in Shusha.

The monuments of world importance in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan include the 11- and 15-arch medieval Khudafarin bridges and Niftaly mounds of the Bronze Age in Jabrayil, Albanian medieval Ganjasar and Khudavang cloisters in Kalbajar, the fourteenth century Gutlu Musa oghlu tomb and Uzarliktapa residential area of the Bronze Age in Aghdam, the Azykh and Taghlar caves of the Paleolithic Age in Khojavand, and mounds of the Bronze and Iron Ages in Khojaly.

Apart from its wealth of architectural and archaeological monuments and its spectacularly beautiful nature, Karabakh has been home to many talents, including in particular Vagif, Natavan, Nawab, Hajybayov and Bulbul, whose legacy, for their great contribution not only to the Azerbaijani but also to the world’s cultural heritage, has been recognized at the international level.

The ongoing policy of purposeful destruction of this legacy following the occupation has been and continues to be an irreparable blow both to Azerbaijani culture and world civilization. As has clearly been demonstrated in the deliberate change of the cultural look of Shusha and other towns and settlements of Karabakh, by destroying the monuments, changing architectural features and making “archaeological” excavations, Armenia pursues far-reaching targets of removing any signs heralding their Azerbaijani origins.

Immediately following military operations architectural monuments in Shusha, such as the Yukhary and Ashaghy Govharagha mosques with their madrasahs, the mausoleum of Vagif, and the house of Natavan and caravanserais, have been destroyed, burnt and plundered.

As for other districts, the “Imarat of Panah khan” complex, mosques in Aghdam town, Abdal and Gulably villages, the tomb of Ughurlu bay and the home museum of Gurban Pirimov in the Aghdam district, fourteenth century tombs in the Khojaly district, mosques in the Bashlybel and Otagly villages, ancient cemeteries in the Moz, Keshdak and Yukhary Ayrym villages and Kalbajar town in the Kalbajar district, mosques in the Zangilan, Gyrag Mushlan, Malatkeshin, Babayly and Ikinji Aghaly villages, medieval cemeteries in the Jahangirbayli, Babayly and Sharifan villages in the Zangilan district, ancient cemeteries in the Gayaly and Mamar villages, the mosque in Mamar village in the Gubadly district, the mosque in Garygyshlag village and the ancient cemetery in Zabukh village in the Lachyn district, the mosque complex in Chalabilar village and the ancient cemetery in Khubyarly village in the Jabrayil district, mosques in Fuzuli town and the Gochahmadli, Merdmli and Garghabazar villages in the Fuzuli district, the cemeteries of the Khojavand, Akhullu, Kuropatkino, Dudukchu and Salakatin villages and the old cemetery of Tugh village in the Khojavand district, the ancient hammams in Umudlu village in the Tartar district and the cemetery of Karki village in the Sadarak district, have been destroyed, burnt down and plundered.

The Museum of History in the Kalbajar district with its unique collection of ancient coins, gold and silverware, rare and precious stones, carpets and other handicraft wares, museums in Shusha, the Lachyn Museum of History, the Aghdam Museum of History and the Bread Museum and others have also been destroyed, plundered, and their exhibits put on sale in different countries. For example, the bronze statues of the poetess Natavan, the composer Uzeyir Hajybayov, the singer and musician Bulbul were going to be sold as bronze scrap metal in Georgia if the Azerbaijani Government had not bought them for $500,000 and taken them to Baku. Similarly, a silver handbag from the Lachyn Museum of History was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London for $80,000.

Acts of barbarism are accompanied by different methods of defacing the Azerbaijani cultural image of the occupied territories. Among them are large-scale construction works therein, such as, for example, the building of an Armenian church in Lachyn town, the extension of the flight line of the Khojaly airport by destroying the children’s music school, library, social club and infrastructure facilities. Another widespread practice employed is the change of the architectural details of different monuments, such as the Saatly mosque and Khanlyg Mukhtar caravanserai in Shusha town, as well as replacement of the Azerbaijani-Muslim elements of the monuments with alien ones, such as the Armenian cross and writings, which have been engraved on the Arabic character of the nineteenth century Mamayi spring in Shusha town.

Armenia has conducted “archaeological excavations” in the “Azykh” cave in the occupied Khojavand district since 2003 and in the area near the occupied city of Aghdam since March 2005.

Grave robbery, uncovering tombs and graves to steal artefacts or personal valuables has been a widely reported practice in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani historical and cultural heritage in Armenia shared the same fate. Thus, the Damirbulag mosque in Iravan (present-day Yerevan) – one of Azerbaijan’s medieval cities – was razed to the ground, while Goy mosque in the same city was “reconstructed” to alter its original authenticity. Among the destroyed architectural monuments are also Haji Novruzali bey Mosque in Iravan, built by Gara Seyid in the second half of the XVIII century and the palace complex, called “Sardar Palace” or “Khan Palace”, also in Iravan, a valuable example of the palace architecture of Safavis and Gajars periods. Sardar Mosque of Iravan (sometimes referred to as Abbas Mirza Mosque) was also subject of systematic destruction, until it was reportedly raised to the ground in 2014. To remove any sign of Azerbaijani heritage, the cupola of Amir Saad icosahedra mausoleum, built in 1413 in Jafarabad village (renamed into Argavand) in Armenia, with Arabic inscriptions under its cornice, stating that the tomb was built by order of Amir Pir Huseyn during the rule of Pir Budag khan and Yusif Noyan for Amir Sad, was destroyed. At the same time, this mausoleum was renamed into a “mausoleum of the Turkmen Amirs’ family”. Furthermore, both ancient and modern Azerbaijani cemeteries in Armenia were also demolished. Like in the occupied territories, all native toponyms of historical Azerbaijani places in Armenia have been altered to change their original character.

Cultural property is among the most obvious civilian objects and is entitled to special protection.[4] The 1907 Hague Regulations provide carefully tailored rules against the destruction of cultural property[5] and confer a wide degree of protection on cultural and religious institutions in occupied territories.[6] The 1949 Geneva Convention IV did not provide much guidance on the protection of cultural property during armed conflicts.[7]

According to the 1954 Hague Convention or Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, attackers have an obligation not only to respect and preserve cultural property, but also to take affirmative steps to prevent the theft of property in occupied territories. States parties agreed to “prohibit, prevent, and if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage, or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property.”[8] Occupiers are also required “to take measures to preserve cultural property” and even work closely with national authorities to meet this objective.[9]

In particular, and perhaps most relevant to the Armenian occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan, Article 9 of the Second Protocol of the Hague Convention provides that a Party in occupation “shall prohibit and prevent in relation to the occupied territory” any illicit export, other removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property, any archaeological excavation or any alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property which is intended to conceal or destroy cultural, historical or scientific evidence.

In addition to the aforementioned instruments, a number of other treaties provide an important framework for the protection of cultural property.[10]


[1] Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council, Chapter VIII, Consideration of questions under the responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security, Agenda Items in 1993-1995, Part 19, Items relating to the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, <http://www.un.org/en/sc/repertoire/93-95/Chapter%208/EUROPE/93-95_8-19-ARMENIA%20AND%20 AZERBAIJAN.pdf>.

[2] For detailed information, see “War against Azerbaijan: Targeting Cultural Heritage” (Baku, 2007)

[3] http://www.azerbaijan.az/_Karabakh/_SocialEconomy/_socialEconomy_e.html

[4] Yoram Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict (Cambridge, 2004), p. 152.

[5] Articles 25, 27 and 56.

[6] Dinstein, op. cit, p. 153.

[7] The Convention forbids “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly,” (article 147), but these protections are no broader than those afforded in the 1907 Hague Regulations.

[8] Article 4, para. 3.

[9] Article 5, para. 2

[10] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970; Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972.

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