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Sacred Stones Scream for Justice in Azerbaijan

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By Simon Maghakyan, South Caucasus country specialist for Amnesty International USA

Five years ago today, a sacred place of memory was wiped off the face of the earth. Post-Soviet Azerbaijan's deliberate destruction of the magnificent medieval Djulfa cemetery wasn't meant to make up room for development. The sledgehammers and cranes -- employed to remove and destroy every single khachkar or cross-stone -- were the tools of purging the proof and symbol of Armenian heritage in the borderland area by Iran.

"An absolute lie!" declared Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev after watching video evidence of the destruction, and then banned a European Parliament delegation from visiting the site in the exclave of Nakhichevan. Whatever delegates were barred from observing on ground, however, was recently recorded from space. In its satellite image comparison of the Djulfa cemetery released last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science confirmed that "the entire area has been graded flat."

The beautiful and intricately carved khachkars (the craftsmanship of which is a UNESCO Intangible Heritage tradition), dating from the 9th through 17th centuries, were seen as the latest victims of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict materialized in the early 1990s war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But their destruction was also a broader violation of human rights -- not only against ethnic Armenians but all citizens of Azerbaijan who were denied a chance to explore and appreciate an often inconvenient history.

While the Karabakh war ceased in 1994, destroyed thousands of lives and damaged cultural monuments on both sides, the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery in December 2005 was different since it took place after the war in a region where no skirmishes had taken place. This destruction was more like a war against history: a calculated act of ruling out a future return of the Armenian heritage by denying its indigenous existence in the first place. More than a manifestation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Djulfa's annihilation was a suppression of the right to memory, the oppression of the right to cultural expression, and the worst manifestation of a powerholder's perception of its own limitlessness on controlling societal matters.

To grasp the nature of the destruction, explore the Google-earth powered Global Heritage Network. The world-known network monitors hundreds of major archaeological and cultural heritage sites, each color-coded green (stable), yellow (at risk), red (rescue needed), or black (destroyed). Luckily, only three monuments on the list are black -- two of which have been destroyed by government. One are the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan. The other one are the khachkars of Azerbaijan.

Many have heard of and condemned the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but few have heard the cries of the defenseless khachkars. On the fifth anniversary of the destruction of 3,000 khachkars, let the bare ground as seen from space be the screams for a civilization that was and now is not. And let us tell UNESCO -- the organization charged with protecting our global heritage -- to listen to the screams of Djulfa.