Response to the Smithsonian Magazine

The Karabakh Foundation greatly values the role of the Smithsonian, which is why we proudly co-sponsored the Continuum Ensemble’s concert at the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries in 2011 that featured music of the Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Georgian composers, and then sponsored and spearheaded the “Tastes and Sounds of Azerbaijan” at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival – where our cuisine stand beat all the records in those hot summer days. Which is why we experience great regret reading Nora McGreevy’s “Why Scholars, Cultural Institutions Are Calling to Protect Armenian Heritage” (, November 24, 2020).

While we all agree that cultural heritage must be protected, the fatal flaw in this article is that it is one-sided, completely ignoring Azerbaijani cultural heritage, and at the same time promotes cultural appropriation, where heritage of Azerbaijan and its ancestors is presented as Armenian. For good measure, the author cannot resist the temptation to throw Stalin into the mix, which always backfires spectacularly as it reveals that the writer does not know history, does not do scrupulous research, and thus does not know what she is talking about and/or is biased and thus just wants to perpetuate this ‘fake information.’

To begin with, Stalin did not make “fateful decisions” as he did not vote on the issue, whilst several Armenian Bolsheviks did in 1921. They decided to ‘retain,’ that is leave as is, the Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan – where it has been and where it was, before Azerbaijan was Sovietized, during the existence of the first predominantly Muslim parliamentary democracy in the world – the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in 1918-1920. Moreover, the entire Karabakh region used to be its own independent kingdom – the Karabakh Khanate – which in 1805 decided to sign an international treaty – the Kurekchay Treaty – with the Russian czar to join the Russian Empire, where the Azerbaijani khan continued to rule and where Karabakh Khanate continued its existence until 1822. How would Ms. McGreevy explain this easy to verify fact, that Azerbaijanis signed international legally binding treaties and ruled all of Karabakh, as well as other parts of Azerbaijan that Armenians claim, long before Stalin was even born?

Moreover, while Nagorno-Karabakh, or more precisely Mountainous Karabakh, as a concept was fashioned around 1918 with artificially drawn borders that kept changing until 1923, the historic Karabakh region, which included plains, pre-mountainous and mountainous areas that were inseparable economically and politically for centuries, always had an Azerbaijani majority. For example, in 1810, after Karabakh Khanate was made part of the Russian Empire, an Armenian general Tormasov reported that “Christians” made up 21% of the population, whilst “Tatar Muslims of Sunni and Shia sects” were 79%. By the 1897 Russian Imperial Census the Armenian population jumped to 39.5% in three Russian uezd that are commonly accepted to closely match Soviet borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, with Azerbaijanis continuing to being a majority of 59.5% even then, despite Tsarist policies of resettlement of Armenians into Karabakh and other Azerbaijani regions, and Azerbaijanis immigrating to the Qajar Empire (Iran) and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

Ms. McGreevy’s decision to insert Turkish role in the 44 day liberation campaign by Azerbaijan against Armenia’s occupation of its lands is peculiar, especially considering that Turkey’s role simply pales in comparison to the unstated role of Russia which stations 5,000 soldiers and 30 MiG-29 jet fighters in Armenia, with the latter enjoying military protection from Russia, weapons purchase credit lines worth at least $300 million in recent years, and free weaponry worth well over $3 billion since 1994. Moreover, the world witnessed ample proof of ongoing military support during the 44 day liberation campaign as video and photo evidence poured in, admissions from Russian Lt-General Netkachev, and admission from President Putin that Armenia “was receiving all necessary military-technical aid.” There is simply no comparison – Russian backing of Armenia is many times greater than Turkey’s backing of Azerbaijan, yet there is no mention of Russian, or Iranian, backing. Is that not another example of deep-seated turcophobia?

Ms. McGreevy mentions the nearly one million Azerbaijani refugees only once, in passing, totally downplaying their suffering – despite them being by far the biggest victims of this Armenian aggression and occupation. The region of Nagorno Karabakh and seven adjacent districts (Kalbajar, Lachin, Gubadly, Zangilan, Jebrayil, Fizuli and Agdam), including seven villages of the Kazakh district and the Karki village of Nakhchivan – all of which have been occupied by Armenia since 1991 – contained a total of 738 historical monuments (including Caucasian Albanian churches), 9 mosques, 927 libraries, over 83,500 artifacts in 28 museums, 4 art galleries, 14 memorials and 1107 cultural institutions comprising 1891 cultural resources. All of these have been either destroyed or robbed, constituting an immense loss for the culture of Azerbaijan and the world. No word of this is mentioned anywhere in Ms. McGreevy’s article, yet these statistics are easily found online.

Not only there is no mention of Armenia’s destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage in the occupied Azerbaijani territories, but there is no mention of systematic destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage on the territory of today’s Armenia. For example, according to the primary sources, in 1870 there were 269 Azerbaijani mosques in and around modern day Yerevan. Today, only one mosque remains – and only because it was sold and rebranded as Iranian (even though it was built by an Azerbaijani khan during the existence of an Azerbaijani Irevan khanate in the city of Irevan that had a majority Azerbaijani population). None of this would excuse any damage or destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Azerbaijan – but this shows that only balanced and neutral approach that is honestly analyzing facts from both sides can lead to positive results. To detail Armenian allegations against Azerbaijan, but not much more damning Azerbaijani assertions against Armenia(ns) only adds to bias, turcophobia and Islamophobia.

Now let us tackle the elephant in the room – the subject of cultural appropriation by Armenia and armenophile historians and writers of the Azerbaijani Christian heritage that was built by the Caucasian Albanians, who, according to admissions of even Armenian professor Ronald Suny, were the ancestors of today’s Azerbaijanis. According to professor Vladimir Minorsky, “The territory of the present-day Soviet republic of Azarbayjan roughly corresponds to the ancient Caucasian Albania,” which means Karabakh was part of Caucasian Albania. Caucasian Albania was inhabited by 26 different ethnic groups, including the Udin’s and Gargar’s who lived in Karabakh region, was distinct from Armenia and Georgia, and existed from the II c. BC till 705 AD after which it existed as smaller semi-autonomous principalities during which the complex process of ethnogenesis with Turkic and Iranic people transformed Caucasian Albanians into modern day Azerbaijanis. Caucasian Albania converted to Christianity as its state religion already in 313 AD – one year ahead of the Parthian-ruled Armenia.

In modern times, especially during the period of Armenia’s occupation of 16% of Azerbaijan, several key ancient Caucasian Albanian churches and monasteries have been culturally appropriated and turned into Armenian churches by defacing their original inscriptions and making various architectural changes to the domes and roofs. It would have been harder to believe had this pattern of cultural appropriation by Armenians not affected other Christian heritage – most peculiarly even a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in Shusha has been culturally appropriated by the Armenian government and turned into an Armenian church after some architectural changes. Another 19th century Russian church in Khojavend (Martuni) district was vandalized, defaced and left rotting. Same fate was predetermined for a Caucasian Albanian church of Gtchvank in Hadrut – which Armenians consider theirs. If it is Armenian, then why is it defaced, vandalized, and the only part being repaired is the roof of the dome to make it appear Armenian? An example of Armenian “restoration” of any church in occupied Karabakh region of Azerbaijan included crude replacements of key engraved stones with new stones with Armenian inscriptions and symbols like on this Hadrut church. Another Caucasian Albanian monastery, Ganjasar, built around 13th century, which is virulently claimed by Armenians as theirs , has received this “repair and reconstruction” in 2011 – its ancient walls were covered in modern polished travertine by Armenian church authorities. Because of this travesty this historical treasure stands no chance of inclusion into the UNESCO list of World Heritage List. Where is the outcry of the international community that has been repeatedly blind to such transgressions by the Armenian authorities?

Ms. McGreevy is specifically mentioning three ancient churches not in Nagorno-Karabakh, but in the greater Karabakh region, that are somehow at risk – according to this false narrative, they were not in any danger from Armenian occupation, but somehow at risk from Azerbaijan which liberated its lands and invited UN agencies like UNESCO and UNHCR into the freed region: Dadivank (Khudaveng) Monastery, Tsitsernavank (Agoglan) basilica, and Amaras monastery.

Regarding the Amaras monastery, the Armenian 5th century historian of Greek origin Pavstos Buzand clearly wrote in his History: “Then the people who arrived with him from Khaband gavar took his body and transported him to their Khaband gavar, located in the country of Albania, on the border of Armenia, to a village called Amaras.” This one sentence from an Armenian historian should settle the debate: Amaras was in Caucasian Albania, and it was a Caucasian Albanian church. Not only was it a Caucasian Albanian church in Caucasian Albania, but, according to renowned historian Minorsky, it served, for a time at least, as the seat of the Caucasian Albanian catholicos – the spiritual head of the autocephalous Caucasian Albanian Apostolic Church: “The ancient residence of the catholicos of Albania, near the sources of the Khachen river, see Alishan in S. Orbelian, ii, 152.” (Caucasica IV, Cambridge University Press, 1953, p. 508.)

The Khudaveng (Dadivank) monastery must have been founded in ancient times, but in the form we know it today was built in the 13th century. According to 19th century priest Makar Barkhudariants, Khudaveng monastery was the final burial for three Caucasian Albanian catholicos: Zachary, Atanas, and Gregory. Is it a norm for an “Armenian” monastery to allow the burial of the spiritual leader of another church in its grounds? Similarly, would Caucasian Albanian church followers agree to bury their spiritual leaders in a foreign church? While Armenian Gregorian Church shared many similarities with the Caucasian Albanian Apostolic Church, they had a key schism – Caucasian Albanians were monophysite (although for a brief time in antiquity it was, like the Georgian Church, dyophysite), while Armenian Gregorian Church is miaphysite.

Barkhudatiants continues, “As early as 1828, according to eyewitnesses, the monasteries were inhabited and flourishing. But, as you know, after the termination of the Albanian Catholicosate, i.e., after 1828 the monasteries gradually began to decay, lose their monastic groups, and, being left unattended, for the most part began to collapse.” The 1828 the priest is referring to is the year of the Turkmanchay Treaty, which concluded the wars between Russian Empire and Qajar Empire, and separated the historic Azerbaijan along the Araz river, with the territory to the north, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, being recognized as part of Russia. Ironically, once more we see that Christian heritage was better preserved under Muslim Qajars, who were Azerbaijani Turks, than under Christian Russians – or Armenians, since the 1836 Russian Imperial decree made all of the Caucasian Albanian churches property of the Armenian Gregorian Church.

The Agoglan monastery (Tsitsernavank) is another interesting case. Geographically it is in the Lachin district, which is outside of Nagorno-Karabakh region, although both regions are very much parts of Azerbaijan today, as they were in Soviet times, as well as in the times of the First Republic (ADR) in 1918-1920, in the times of the Karabakh Khanate, and before it, when it was part of the Caucasian Albania. And like with other monasteries, Agoglan was a religious site long before a monastery was built in 6th century by Caucasian Albanians and then again in the 9th century and since then probably rebuilt more times. According to historian Zelik Yampolski, writing in 1962, “Near the holy site Ag oglan (White boy) was built monastery Spitak (White).”

It’s interesting to note that while is an Azerbaijani word, spitak is an Armenian word, both of which have a similar meaning – white – which was and continues to be the color of choice associated with holy places in the region and worldwide. It would seem that this holy site was and continues to be equally revered by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis (case in point is a postal stamp issued by Azerbaijan in 2006). Azerbaijan’s promise is on the record, from the president to several ministers, historians and intellectuals, that all cultural heritage, especially Christian and Muslim, will be preserved, protected, inscribed into UNESCO World Heritage List, as well as restored to its former glory and accessible to tourists, scholars and religious followers, especially those of the Armenian Gregorian Church and Caucasian Albanian Apostolic Church. We hope this monastery can serve as a healing ground for both nations, and entire world will be able to visit and enjoy the hundreds of cultural sites throughout Azerbaijan.