Five years ago in December 2005, the magnificent medieval cemetery of Djulfa was reduced to dust in southwestern Azerbaijan. According to video evidence, the Azerbaijani army itself had conducted the operation to destroy the thousands of intricately carved khachkars, or cross-stones, which were the proof and symbol of ancient Armenian heritage in the exclave of Nakhichevan. “An absolute lie,” declared Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, and then banned a European Parliament delegation from visiting the site.
But last December, the American Association for the Advancement of Science publicly confirmed Djulfa’s complete disappearance through satellite image comparison. A few months later, the Azeri authorities banned the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan from visiting the site where the cemetery existed.
“Armenians have never lived in Nakhichevan, which has been Azerbaijani land from time immemorial, and that’s why there are no Armenian cemeteries and monuments and have never been any,” is one argument – to quote Azeri official Hasan Zeynalov – of denial of the destruction. Such reasoning is not meant to cover up, but rather project the intent of the crime. Armenians, according to the official historiography in Azerbaijan, did not live in the Caucasus before the 19th century.
While fighting history in Nakhichevan by making indigenous artifacts disappear, Azerbaijan vows to win back the Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh it lost in a post-Soviet war in the 1990s. Such flare fails to realize that Karabakh’s fight for freedom wasn’t a mere tussle to revoke Joseph Stalin’s 1920s awarding of Nagorno-Karabakh (along with Nakhichevan) to Soviet Azerbaijan, but a hustle to avoid Djulfa’s very fate.
Cultural destruction in post-Soviet conflicts is not unavoidable as seen in Armenia’s ongoing restoration of Azerbaijani mosques in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan’s own 2004 renovation of the Armenian church, built in 1887, in the capital Baku. Drawing from the latter, Azerbaijan’s government can reverse its war on history by facilitating an impartial investigation into the demolition that occurred at Djulfa; prosecuting those who gave orders and supervised the destruction; and designating the site where the cemetery existed as an archaeological landmark.
Baku must acknowledge that a war against history is no path to peace.