For days now, Armenians have been bidding tearful farewells to the ancient Dadivank monastery in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is in Azerbaijan.
Russian soldiers were due to take formal control of the monastery Wednesday in accordance with a Kremlin-brokered cease-fire, which ended six weeks of fierce fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over ownership of the landlocked mountainous redoubt. Built between the ninth and 13th centuries, the monastery houses the grave of St. Dadi, a disciple of Thaddeus the Apostle, who spread the Christian Gospel to Armenia — commonly considered to be the first state in history to adopt Christianity.
Despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers, Armenians are fearful for the monastery’s fate, and they worry also about hundreds of other Armenian Christian churches, monuments and graveyards, which will now fall under control of Muslim Azerbaijanis.
In the days leading up to the Russian peacekeepers’ arrival, devout Armenians lit candles in the main church and four adjoining chapels, and they prayed before medieval frescoes and Armenian script engraved in the walls. Many of the Armenians said they were planning to flee the region, abandoning their homes and joining thousands of others. On November 10, the monastery’s abbot ordered an evacuation to Armenia of significant Christian art, bells and khachkars, or cross-stones.
“I can’t believe we came here to say goodbye,” one woman, who was accompanied by her daughter, told Russian reporters. Another middle-aged woman said, “I am sure that in a week, a month or three, we will return to Dadivank.” A priest told reporters, “I can’t believe Dadivank has to be surrendered to the Azeris.” Armenian soldiers have been among the leave-takers in the southern Caucasus, angry about their defeat in this round of a conflict that has been fought on and off since 1918.
In an interview with the BBC earlier this month, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, dismissed concerns over churches and other cultural monuments as Armenian fear-mongering.
“You are here in Baku, probably you have seen Armenian church in the city center which we restored and we keep thousands of Armenian books," he said. "If we are destroying churches as Armenians say, why didn’t we destroy it here in Baku?”
Also earlier this month the Azerbaijan leader gave assurances to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that churches would be safe. According to a Kremlin readout, Putin “underscored the importance of securing safety and normal church life of these shrines.” According to the Kremlin, Aliyev said “that was how Azerbaijan will act.”
Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians know as Artsakh, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has a largely ethnic Armenian population.
Under the terms of the cease-fire, Russia is to deploy 2,000 troops as peacekeepers. The agreement requires Armenia to give up some contested areas it held outside the borders of the disputed enclave and for Azerbaijan to maintain control of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh that their troops recently seized. Thousands of people, including civilians, were killed after Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, launched a surprise offensive in September. More than 100,000 have been displaced.
The Kremlin says the deal is “a victory for the peoples of two countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia.” That is not the way Armenians see it. Angry mobs protested in the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, as celebrations broke out in Azerbaijan on the announcement of the cease-fire.
In a national address, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev described the truce as Armenia’s military surrender. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan dubbed it a “painful” settlement and “a big failure and disaster.” Pashinyan said he agreed to it under pressure from army chiefs, who feared if the fighting continued, Azerbaijan might seize the whole enclave.
But hundreds of Armenian churches, gravesites and monuments are contained in the territory now falling under Azerbaijan's control. Azerbaijan has given assurances Armenian cultural and religious sites will be preserved, but Armenians and academics say Azeris have razed churches and sought to erase traces of Armenian heritage before. During the recent fighting, Azerbaijan’s forces struck a 19th century cathedral in Shushi, causing extensive damage, and bombed archeological sites, say international observers.
Azeris say the cathedral and other sites were not purposely targeted. They have also accused Armenians of vandalizing Muslim graveyards and defiling a mosque.
Earlier this month, dozens of academics, drawn from the United States and European countries, issued an open letter warning of the dangers posed to Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. They noted that between 1997 and 2006, more than 89 medieval churches, 5,840 khachkars, and 22,000 tombstones were destroyed by Azeris in Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani enclave bordering Iran. They raised fears about the future of Dadivank and other important sites.
“Is the monastery of Gandzasar, a crown jewel of 13th-century Armenian architecture, fated to similar oblivion? What about the fourth-century Amaras Monastery, the location of the first school to use the Armenian script and the burial place of Saint Grigoris, grandson of the patron saint and evangelizer of Armenia, Gregory the Illuminator? Grigoris’ fifth-century tomb is one of the earliest Armenian Christian funerary structures surviving,” they warned.
They added, “These are only a few examples of the thousands of sites across Artsakh that are now vulnerable to destruction. Once they are gone, it will be too late.”
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has joined the international appeal for Armenian monuments and churches in Nagorno-Karabakh to be preserved. The museum has raised special concern for a major archeological site at Tigranakert, a ruined Armenian town dating to the Hellenistic period and named in honor of Armenian king Tigranes the Great.