Archaeologist Raises Alarms Over Azerbaijan’s Shelling of an Ancient City

This article was originally published on Hyperallergic on 3 October 2020. The original can be found here.

By Simon Maghakyan

Archaeologist Hamlet Petrosyan says a major Hellenistic and Armenian archaeological site, Tigranakert, has been shelled several times in Azerbaijan’s ongoing attack on Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), the unrecognized republic populated by indigenous Armenians that is fighting a battle for self-determination.

In an interview today, Petrosyan explains that he learned that Tigranakert, “the best-preserved city of the Hellenistic and Armenian civilizations” of the Caucasus “is in the area of intensive war activity” and “has been shelled several times.” Petrosyan, who heads the archaeological expedition in Tigranakert and is a department chair at the Yerevan State University, stated that “as of four days ago, the [onsite] museum has not been damaged.” Due to the ongoing fighting, the archaeological team is finding it largely impossible to get regular assessments of the sites, though they maintain contacts with individuals who have infrequent access to the locations. Neither Armenian nor Azerbaijani militaries have released any information about either site.

The archaeological team examining an early Christian architectural detail.

Situated in the de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan considers part of its Soviet-era territorial inheritance, the site of Tigranakert is near the frontlines of the ongoing war that, according to media reports, Azerbaijan launched on September 27. The offensive was decried by a Washington Post editorial today that explains, “what seems clear is that Azerbaijan’s autocratic ruler, Ilham Aliyev, has launched an offensive to regain the territories his country lost in the 1990s — and that he is doing so with the direct support of Turkey.” The Armenian side has been reporting Azerbaijan’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure in the region, including a shelling of Stepanakert’s electric station earlier today that left the Republic’s biggest city without power.

The archeological team working at the site of Tigranakert, also known as Tigranakert of Artsakh.

“The Tigranakert of Artsakh is one of the cities founded by Tigranes the Great in 95–55 BCE,” explained Petrosyan. The city has ancient fortifications that occupy seven hectares, surrounded by sophistically-planned urban districts of 70 hectares. According to him, Tigranakert was built to guard the eastern frontiers of ancient Armenia “to prevent invasions by [east-of-Kura] Caucasus tribes.”

While researchers initially expected Tigranakert to be a predominantly pagan and Hellenistic site, excavations have shown it to also be a major hub for Early Christianity. “The city was the center of the [region’s] first Christians, we have excavated the Early Christian square with two churches,” Petrosyan says. “Over 10 inscriptions have been discovered in Armenian and Greek, dating to the 5th and 7th centuries CE.”

A view of the on-site Tigranakert museum.

Another historical site, Amaras, which is a major Early Christian site, “is also in the war zone but has not been shelled,” according to Petrosyan. The site includes the foundation of a 4th-century church, established by the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic church, St. Gregory the Illuminator, and it appears to be spared for now. “Amaras also preserves the St. Grigoris [grandson of Gregory] mausoleum built in the late 5th century, which is one of the best-preserved monuments of early Christianity in the entire Caucasus region,” explained Petrosyan.

One of the reconstructed clay objects from the Tigranakert of Artsakh site.

If the war continues then the preservation of Amaras, Tigranakert, and numerous other Armenian monuments is likely to be seriously impacted based on Azerbaijan’s history of cultural genocide. As a major investigative report published in Hyperallergic last year revealed, between the years of 1997–2006 the government of Azerbaijan systematically and covertly destroyed approximately 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan (Naxçıvan), another region of Azerbaijan which had an indigenous Armenian population until the last few decades. The Azerbaijani dictatorship has used its wealth, largely derived from its oil resources, to influence and silence organizations charged with preserving global heritage, including UNESCO. In 2017, a Guardian investigation found a cozy relationship between the organization and the autocratic government. They reported:

The revelation that her husband consulted for an Azeri company might prove awkward for Mitrev’s wife, Irina Bokova, who is the director general of Unesco. Bokova has bestowed one of Unesco’s highest honours, the Mozart Medal on Azerbaijan’s first lady and vice-president, Mehriban Aliyeva. She also hosted a photo exhibition at Unesco’s headquarters in Paris, entitled Azerbaijan – A Land of Tolerance. The Heydar Aliyev foundation organised the event.

Two years later, Azerbaijan hosted UNESCO’s 2019 session.

The recently unearthed mausoleum of Saint Grigoris, built in the 5th Century CE, at the Amaras Monastery in Martunti, Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (which is claimed by Azerbaijan to be part of its territory).

Azerbaijan’s 1997–2006 erasure in Nakhichevan also targeted the ancient city of Djulfa, once the world’s largest collection of medieval cross-stones. Even though last year’s Hyperallergic report received considerable international media coverage, an Azerbaijani diplomat told the Los Angeles Times that those monuments never existed and called the investigation “a figment of Armenia’s imagination.”

Azerbaijan does not allow ethnic Armenians, regardless of citizenship or passport, to enter Azerbaijan. Recently it also banned international journalists from entry to cover the conflict, igniting a warning to media from the Committee to Protect Journalists.