For centuries the sacred khachkars of Djulfa stood tall along the banks of the River Aras — hulking and ornately carved 16th-century headstones, an army 10,000 strong, steadfastly guarding the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery. Earthquakes, war and vandalism diminished their ranks, but by the middle of the 20th century, thousands of khachkars still remained.
Today, however, not a single statuesque sandstone sculpture stands at Djulfa, in the remote Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan. Despite a 2000 UNESCO order demanding their protection, evidence published in the art journal Hyperallergic this year indicated that the monuments were covertly and systematically demolished as part of an alleged Azerbaijani campaign to erase traces of indigenous Armenian culture in Nakhichevan, Los Angeles Times says in an article about the story.
The scope of the destruction is stunning: 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars and 22,000 tombstones, the report said. The annihilation of cultural heritage dwarfs the more widely reported and condemned razing of sites by Islamic State in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Simon Maghakyan, 33, a co-author of the Hyperallergic article, described Azerbaijan’s demolition of these sacred churches and monuments from 1997 to 2006 as “the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century.”
Unlike Islamic State and the Taliban, who self-promoted their destruction of historical ruins and monuments, Azerbaijani officials deny that the Armenian cemeteries and churches in question ever existed. The Times asked the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles to respond to Maghakyan’s research, and the office provided a statement from Nasimi Aghayev, consul general of Azerbaijan to the Western United States, who called the destruction of the Djulfa khachkars “a figment of Armenia’s imagination.”
Maghakyan, who identifies himself as a political science lecturer, activist and real estate agent based in Denver, said the exhaustive work he has done on the khachkars is a personal passion project.
“It’s not a job, but it is my lifelong cause,” he said in a post-presentation interview. “I can never vacation from this. I tried, but it drove me nuts. If you believe in a cause, you have to pursue it or you’re not going to have an easy time falling asleep at night. I’m stuck with this until something happens.”