An aerial view of the Djulfa cemetery before (top) and after (bottom) the destruction.

An aerial view of the Djulfa cemetery before (top) and after (bottom) the destruction.

Satellite Streams Screams of Silenced Sacred Stones

by | March 9th, 2011 | 0 comments
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You don’t need a visa these days to investigate human rights abuses. That’s if you are the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and are wondering why Azerbaijan prevents European observers from visiting the site of an ancient cemetery. All is needed, it turns out, is good satellite technology.

Five years after the complete destruction of the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery in December 2005 —the Djulfa (Jugha) graveyard of thousands of intricately carved khachkar burial monuments — the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science has released a satellite study stating that “the entire area [of the Djulfa cemetery] has been graded flat.”

In a video released by the scientific association, Susan Wolfinbarger, senior program associate for the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, details the methodology and findings conducted by her team.

While the newest evidence of Djulfa’s complete destruction may not be a surprise, it is a conclusive confirmation of Azerbaijan’s war against indigenous Armenian monuments that UNESCO can no longer afford to ignore. Asking UNESCO to speak up, a petition (sponsored by this author) submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, reads, in part:

Newly released satellite images and analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science confirm that the celebrated medieval Djulfa cemetery, located in the southwestern quadrant of Azerbaijan, has been erased from the face of the earth. We therefore urge the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO to expressively discontinue considering the inclusion of any further monuments from Azerbaijan to the World Heritage List until the Government of Azerbaijan takes responsibility for the deliberate destruction of the Djulfa cemetery by facilitating an impartial investigation into the demolition that occurred; prosecuting those who gave orders and supervised the destruction; and designating the site where the cemetery existed as an archaeological landmark.

… The satellite data comparison leaves no room for doubt that the celebrated Djulfa cemetery with its unique 3,000 medieval tombstones, intricately carved monuments of Christian Armenian art known as khachkars, has been deliberately erased from the face of the earth. The role of the World Heritage Centre is to protect all historic monuments, especially the most vulnerable ones. The only parallel to the destruction of Djulfa is the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. UNESCO forcefully (and rightfully so) responded to the latter but has kept silence on the former. Now is the time for UNESCO to break that silence.

An otherwise prompt respondent to reports on Djulfa’s destruction, the government in Azerbaijan has kept silent since the AAAS report and the subsequent petition. UNESCO, on the other hand, has finally responded to the petition. The respond reads in part:

The protection of Armenian cultural heritage is a constant concern for UNESCO. For several years, UNESCO has received complaints from the State Parties, Armenia and Azerbaijan, about the alleged destruction of the historical heritage located at the cemetery of Jugha [Djulfa], as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh…. The UNESCO Secretariat… remains ready to dispatch an expert mission in both countries, upon the agreement with both countries.

While UNESCO’s response is meant to sound positive, it is an unfortunate exercise of inaction. My response to UNESCO’s reply explains:

Your expression of “hope” to investigate the cemetery site is worth nothing, given the fact that you will never be allowed to visit Nakhichevan to investigate Djulfa’s (Old Jugha’s) destruction by the government of Azerbaijan which has used a number of excuses to deny access to the cemetery for many years and will continue hindering an investigation at any price.

That’s exactly why the American Association for the Advancement of Science used satellite technology to investigate the destruction, conclusively proving what video material and independent Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov (who has been abused by the authorities for his work) have already documented – that the Djulfa cemetery has disappeared from the face of the earth.

Instead of expressing false “hope” to be allowed to investigate the cemetery, you should condemn a priceless global heritage’s deliberate destruction documented beyond reasonable doubt.

It is very disappointing that UNESCO doesn’t have the will to condemn the destruction of the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery. The government of Azerbaijan has not only silenced thousands of sacred stones which were the proof and symbol of the Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan but has apparently effectively silenced UNESCO as well. I pray that you find the courage to reverse your inaction on this important violation of cultural rights.

A wonderful heritage has been deliberately reduced to dust — and verified so by satellite research — to prove that it never existed in the first place. As UNESCO is, effectively, saying it will do nothing to hold Azerbaijan to account, one wonders what can be done to give voice to the silenced sacred stones of Djulfa.