A Historian Gives Her Perspectives On Karabakh Region Art
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A Historian Gives Her Perspectives On Karabakh Region Art

Interview by Irina Tsukerman

Special Guest:

Nigar Akhundova,

Doctor of Philosophy in Art History

December 24, 2020 

What is your opinion on the Smithsonian Institution’s article “Why Scientists and Cultural Institutions Call for the Protection of Armenian Heritage?”

I have carefully read this article and should note that it was written in line with the large-scale campaign that is being conducted today by the Armenian lobby around the world. I see in it not so much concern for the preservation of heritage as a desire to draw attention to the process of liberation of the occupied territories of Karabakh from Armenian armed formations, which is currently taking place in accordance with the trilateral Statement of the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia. Since this process is absolutely legitimate and is carried out on the basis of four UN Security Council resolutions (Nos. 884, 822, 853, 874), then, having no counterarguments in the legal field, our opponents are trying by any means to win over the world community, speculating with such saints for every civilized person, concepts such as culture, historical heritage, religion, etc.

Believe me, as an art critic, I have great respect for the cultural heritage of all peoples, regardless of their antiquity and number. It is on this principle of ” ALL DİFFERENT-ALL EQUAL ” that the activities of such international organizations as UNESCO, the COUNCIL OF EUROPE, ISESCO and others are built.

Therefore, I am sincerely surprised by the fact that smart, educated people recognized by the world professional community, openly disregarding moral and ethical norms, stand up for the preservation of the cultural heritage of one of the parties to the conflict, not wanting to notice and state the obvious facts taking place on the other side; call for the protection of the Armenian heritage, turning a blind eye to the enormous destruction and acts of vandalism that took place in the liberated Azerbaijani territories. And then what about the shrines that we inherited from Caucasian Albania or Russian Orthodox churches, not to mention Muslim mosques? Do they not need to be protected and restored? The very formulation of the question, stated in the title, to put it mildly, is not entirely correct.

What would you say to art historians and other authors cited in this article?

First of all, I would urge my colleagues to take a balanced and objective view of the post-war situation in the Karabakh conflict zone, to thoroughly study the opinions of both sides. I would take them to the “ghost town” of Aghdam, which foreign journalists call “Azerbaijani Hiroshima” or to another city – Fizuli, in which, according to the words of our President Ilham Aliyev, the military did not find a single whole building to hoist the banner of Azerbaijan. And then I would take them to my mother’s homeland, Shusha, which is undoubtedly under the auspices of the poetic and musical “genius loci” (genius of the place), because it was here that such famous composers and musicians were born from generation to generation. poets like Mir Movsum Navvab, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, Bulbul, Khan and Seid Shushinskiy, Vagif and the khan’s daughter – Khurshid Banu Natavan; it is here that the famous Karabakh mugham school was formed and developed.

Signature: This is how the Azerbaijanis found the Russian Orthodox Church in the liberated territories.

In Shusha, as well as in all the occupied territories, museums and monuments of cultural heritage were deliberately destroyed. One of the most shameful acts of vandalism is the “shot monuments” of Uzeyir Hajibeyov, Bulbul and Natavan, whose house-museums were located in Shusha. The fate of these monuments is amazing. At first, they were riddled with bullets of Armenian militants, then sold for scrap to Georgia, and only by chance did the Azerbaijani government manage to find out about their whereabouts, redeem them and bring them to Baku, where they are now. I hope that they will be able to return home soon.

What is the general situation with Azerbaijani monuments and cultural heritage objects in the liberated territories?

It should be noted that both Azerbaijan and Armenia have joined the Hague “Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” of 1954. This imposes very serious obligations on both countries and implies high responsibility for the acts committed, including criminal responsibility. I very much hope that after the inspection trip to Azerbaijan, the UNESCO delegation will be able to objectively assess the state of affairs and the scale of destruction in the liberated territories.

I read an emotional appeal for the protection of cultural heritage in the region by Dan Weiss and Max Hollein, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In their address, they used such a strong expression as “we implore” – we implore … From the context it follows that we are talking about the Armenian cultural heritage, and this address is addressed to the Azerbaijani side. That is, their fears and reflections refer to hypothetically possible or, rather, impossible destruction in the future, while the cultural heritage in the liberated territories has already been barbarously destroyed and no one wants to see this.

I hope that our esteemed colleagues will read this interview and answer my question: who and what should we – Azerbaijanis beg for, if there is nothing to defend on the lands liberated after 30 years of occupation ??? Cities have been destroyed to the ground, villages have been ravaged, once peaceful arable lands and flowering gardens are now mined, dug by trenches and military fortifications. 22 museums and museum branches with a total of about 100,000 exhibits, 4 art galleries, 4 theaters, 2 concert halls, 8 parks of culture, more than 700 historical and cultural monuments, hundreds of libraries and much more were destroyed (data are given according to the official information of ICOM Azerbaijan, which was presented to UNESCO). The mausoleum of the 18th century Azerbaijani poet and statesman of the Karabakh Khanate, Mola Panakh Vagif, was desecrated.

As for religious sites, out of 67 mosques that functioned in the occupied territories before the First Karabakh War, today only 3 remain. Think about this figure !!! 64 existing mosques were completely destroyed, and livestock were kept on the ruins that remained from them. The invaders did not spare the Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord, erected on the territory of the village of Kuropatkino, Khojavinsky district in 1894. Such is the respect for brothers in Christ.

But for some reason all these obvious facts do not cause “concern and concern” among any of our respected experts.

What is Azerbaijan’s approach to this issue in general?

Azerbaijan, unlike mono-ethnic Armenia, is a multinational and poly-confessional country. We are proud that the Azerbaijani people consists of many ethnic groups, where along with the titular nation live Lezgins, Russians, Talysh, Avars, Turks, Jews, Tats, Ukrainians, Georgians, Tsakhurs, Kurds, Udins, Armenians, Tatars and other peoples. In the very center of Baku, there is a restored Armenian Church, which houses thousands of books in Armenian;  with private donations from Azerbaijani businessman Aydin Samedov, the Orthodox Cathedral of the Myrrh-Bearing Women was restored in Baku; almost on the same street there are two synagogues – Ashkenazi Jews and Mountain Jews, a magnificent Lutheran church was restored with state funds; a few years ago a beautiful Catholic church was built in Baku. Colleagues-art historians, probably, would also be interested to study the experience of international cooperation in the restoration of one of the oldest churches in the Caucasus in the village of KISH (Azerbaijan Republic), which was carried out by specialists from Norway, Sweden and Azerbaijan.

Moreover, at the initiative of the First Vice-President of Azerbaijan and President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mrs. Mehriban Aliyeva, the oldest Christian catacombs of Saints Marcellino and Pietro in Rome were restored, work continues on the restoration of the ancient Christian sarcophagi of the complex of the Basilica of St. Sebastian, a monument to Prince Astrakhan , funds were allocated for the restoration of five stained-glass windows in the Strasbourg Cathedral and for the installation of stained-glass windows in the Church of St. Mary in Baku, large-scale work is also underway to restore the Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baku. You may ask why Muslim Azerbaijan finances restoration work of Christian heritage? Ms. Alieva herself answered it best of all: “Friendship and brotherhood have always accompanied the peoples inhabiting our country, and our great wealth also lies in the presence of many religious confessions.”

Don’t you think that in a country where all religions are treated with such reverence, where representatives of all confessions stand shoulder to shoulder on all national holidays, “concern about protecting the Christian heritage” seems far-fetched and unnatural, and the active promotion of this “concern. An overt means of political pressure?

I also consider it a delusion that Erin Blakemore’s opinion on the interethnic and interreligious nature of the conflict, cited in the article, is because multiculturalism is not only the official policy of our state, but also a natural way of life for the citizens of Azerbaijan, and all the above facts are its real confirmation. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Muslim Azerbaijanis get along well with Christians – Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Udis; Jews – Jews, tatami, as well as representatives of other numerous ethnic groups living in Azerbaijan.

All this once again confirms that the conflict was originally based on the territorial claims of the Armenian side, and not on religious and ethnic motives.

What is the best way to disseminate truthful information on this topic in Europe, USA, Canada?

This is a large-scale work for many years, in which all possible means must be involved. At the interstate level – diplomatic channels, among professionals – the regular participation of our scientists in foreign conferences and the organization of international conferences in our country. As for the formation of public opinion – television, electronic resources, social networks, the production of documentaries, and possibly feature films. It should be noted that the activity of our youth in social networks has yielded certain results. Fakes of the enemy were quickly calculated and exposed, and reliable information was regularly communicated to users.

Are there any plans to cooperate with the US State Department, private organizations or universities on this issue? How about journalists?

I personally do not have information about cooperation with the State Department, private organizations and universities, but I know that during the hostilities, the ambassadors of various countries accredited in Azerbaijan went to the cities of Ganja, Barda, in order to see with their own eyes how as a result of rocket and artillery shelling the Armenian armed forces destroyed entire residential areas and killed civilians. In total, during the Second Karabakh War, 94 civilians died, including the elderly, women and 11 children.

As for the journalists, the work with them was carried out quite actively, but of course, within the framework of observing their safety, since, as I have already noted, all the liberated territories were mined and moreover, mines were tied to the bodies of dead soldiers, so that new victims arose in transportation.

What is the plan for the dissemination of cultural values ​​abroad, where little is known about Azerbaijan?

Foreign cultural policy of Azerbaijan is successfully using its “soft power”: concerts, exhibitions, participation in international film festivals, book presentations, publication of magazines in foreign languages. (Unfortunately, the pandemic has made its own adjustments to these plans). On the other hand, the country regularly hosts international humanitarian forums, world cultural congresses, international music and theater festivals, a lot of work is being done by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation for the preservation and development of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, supporting cultural figures of both the older generation and young talents. Culture is one of the most important priorities in the national value system. I also believe that personal initiatives are very important and can be quite effective. Sometimes my compatriots are too modest and delicate, they do not want to look intrusive and attract undue attention to themselves. I would advise them to be bolder and talk more about their country, culture, customs, traditions … After all, we have a lot to tell.

This article originally appeared in REPUBLIC UNDERGROUND on 29 Dec 2020.