Documenting destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage

Part 3 — Total Annihilation: Aghdam / Ağdam

[Editor’s note: this is Part 3 of a series of contributions concerning preservation of Azerbaijani (broadly conceived) cultural heritage sites.]

By AzStudies Collective, December 30, 2020

Suggested citation: AzStudies Collective. 2020. “Total Annihilation: Aghdam / Ağdam.” In Documenting destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage: Part 3. Medium.com, December 30.

The city of Aghdam / Ağdam şəhəri is the administrative center of the Aghdam district (Ağdam rayonu) which prior to its occupation by Armenian forces on July 23, 1993, had a population of 40,000 people (out of a total of 158,000 people in 1993 and up to 200,000 people as of 2018 for the whole district). Azerbaijanis constituted an ethnic majority of 99.5% of the population of Aghdam. According to official statistics, (as of 2018) some 153,000 people are considered internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Aghdam district.

Aghdam city in 2020/ Source: Trend.az

Armenia had held the district for 27 years in violation of UNSC resolution 853 (1993) — which demanded the immediate return of Aghdam — until it was forced to do so following the defeat in the Second Karabakh War and the November 10 trilateral agreement. On November 20, 2020 the Aghdam district was handed over to Azerbaijan.

What happened and how to explain it:

What occurred in Aghdam — the Hiroshima-scale destruction of an entire city — is too inhumane (almost sadistic) to comprehend.

Writer Owen Vince who visited Aghdam in 2015 compares what he saw there to Carthage and Basra — and suggests the term “urbicide” (i.e. “the deliberate attempt to kill the city”) to capture the Armenian brutal policy concerning the devastated city:

Cultural cleansing carried out by Armenia in the occupied Azerbaijani lands is nothing surprising. According to a French journalist Emmanuel Dupuy, Armenian deliberate destruction of Azerbaijani cultural heritage is systematic and well-planned:

Aghdam city in 2020 / Source: Trend.az

It became clear that Agdam was looted and demolished after its occupation in 1993. The city was “captured intact by Armenians in 1993, then everything was stripped, sold off. Only the mosque remained.” — notes expert Tom de Waal who was first to refer to Aghdam as the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”.

Thomas de Waal, Black Garden, 2003, p. 6
Aghdam before the war / Source: 1news.az

Similarly, former diplomat and U.S. envoy for Karabakh Carey Cavanaugh points out the fact that the “local [Armenian] authorities had allowed all the buildings to be stripped clean for building supplies.”

Journalist Vera Mironova, who visited Aghdam in the early 2020 reported how stone bricks were stolen and used as construction material “as recently as February 2020”. Here’s a photo of a truck full of stone bricks she took in Aghdam:

Truck carrying looted stone bricks from Aghdam / Source: @vera_mironov, Nov. 22. 2020

However, Armenia’s actions need to be seen in a broader context of ethnic nationalist politics in Armenia — namely to create and consolidate a mono-ethnic Armenian statelet or province in the occupied lands. As we have seen from Part 1 and 2, Armenia’s policy with regards to Shusha was to culturally appropriate Azerbaijani heritage — through construction and proliferation of the “ancestral lands” narrative (see the quotation from Pashinyan where he clearly talks about Upper Karabakh as part of an exclusively ethnically Armenian-populated state project), negation of Azerbaijani cultural presence and labeling of the monumental Azerbaijani mosques — “Azerbaijani” in the sense that Azerbaijani-Turkic rulers built them and Azerbaijanis used them for religious rituals and ceremonies — as presumably “Persian”.

Extract from PM Pashinyan interview with tagesschau.de, Nov.7, 2020

In the case of Fuzuli, but more specifically Aghdam, the Armenian policy exhibits a more radical solution to the problem of dealing with Azerbaijani presence. Here the purpose was total eradication of the urban space in this important Azerbaijani city. Loot, demolish, and put as many mines as possible were key instruments of this hideous plan where post-war deliberate destruction of heritage was used as a weapon against the Azerbaijani nation. All this was done to make the space unlivable to make sure no Azerbaijani would ever return to live there. In addition, by demolition they wanted to maximize damage, turn the city into a depopulated wasteland. In Vince’s words,

There is also the geographic proximity factor: Aghdam was the largest and most prosperous city in Lower Karabakh, just 25 km from the Armenian controlled Xankəndi / Stepanakert. Having a major Azerbaijani-populated province at close range must have been perceived as an existential threat by Armenian authorities. Perhaps by total annihilation of Aghdam, Armenia wanted to eliminate the district with a large Azerbaijani population — bigger than the size of the entire Armenian population of Upper Karabakh (145,450 as of 1989) — from its close proximity and to make any future recovery of Aghdam for Azerbaijan as costly as possible.

Below is a snapshot of culturally-significant monuments and sites obliterated by Armenian vicious policy.

Aghdam Drama Theater / Ağdam Dövlət Dram Teatrı

The ruins of the building of Aghdam Hagverdiyev State Drama Theater /
Ə. Haqverdiyev adına Ağdam Dövlət Dram Teatrı. The fountain and the “Worker with a hammer” statue which used to stand in front of the theater was also destroyed.

Aghdam State Drama Theater before the war / Source: in public domain
Aghdam Drama Theater (ruins) / Source: Reza Photography, 2020
Statue called “Worker with a hammer”: destroyed / Photo: Reza, 2020

Aghdam Juma Mosque / Ağdam Cümə məscidi

The only surviving building in the city of Aghdam — the Juma Mosque — where Armenian kept cattle. The only reason the mosque was kept is believed to be the use of its minarets as an observation post by the Armenian military.

Juma Mosque / Source: Fatullayev-Figarov 2013
Aghdam Juma Mosque in 2020 / Source: Paul Osterlund, 2020

Giyasli village mosque (18th century) in Aghdam district / Qiyaslı kəndi -məscid, Ağdam

Giyasli village mosque (ruins) / Photo: Reza / Source: Azertag

Mothers of Martyrs’ Monument / Şəhid analarına həsr olunmuş abidə

Photographer Reza Deghati recalls: “In 1992, I was in Ağdam with two French NGOs. I remember this monument dedicated to the mothers of the martyrs. 28 years later this monument doesn’t stand anymore as a result of the Armenian forces willingness to erase memories of culture and history of Karabakh”.

Mothers of Martyrs’ Monument before the occupation/ Source: Reza
Mothers of Martyrs’ Monument after the occupation/ Source: Reza

Panahali’s 18th century Palace / Pənahəli xanın Ağdam şəhərindəki imarəti

This is historical monument built by Karabakh khan Panahali in the 18th century. It has two buildings. While under the Armenian occupation, it was used by Armenians as a barn and a military shelter.

Panahali Palace in 2020 / Source: @Anar_Karim, 2020
Interior of Panahali Palace, 2020 / Source: @SadaKhalafbayli, Nov. 30. 2020

Museum of Bread

With around 3,000 samples of bread, this museum was unique in the world and one of the first such museums in the Soviet Union.

Bread Museum in Aghdam before the occupation / Source: Qarabağ in photos
Aghdam’s Museum of Bread after the devastation/ Source: @M_Elmaddin, Nov. 29, 2020

Shahbulag Fortress / Şahbulaq qalası was built by Karabakh khan Panah Ali Khan in 1752 and is considered as one of the best examples of architectural defensive construction. The museum located on the site of the Fortress got looted before handing it over to Azerbaijan on November 20.

In addition, in an apparent attempt of cultural appropriation, Armenians installed a cross in one of its walls.

Cultural appropriation: a new cross appears on the wall. Shahbulag Fortress / Source: @anar_karim, Nov. 23, 2020
Shahbulag Museum after Nov. 20, 2020 / Source: Mirmehdi Aghaoghlu / apa.az, Dec. 18, 2020

Tea House / Çay evi (Ağdam) was a captivating architectural project designed by architect Naik Samadov. Completed in 1986, the Tea House quickly became one of the iconic monuments of Aghdam city. It was completely destroyed by Armenian forces in 1993.

Tea House in Aghdam / Source: Qarabağ in photos
Tea House in Aghdam after the occupation / Source: Qarabağ in photos

Karabakh FC is the world’s only football club that works in exile because the home city of the club Aghdam has been occupied by Armenian forces. FC Karabakh football team lost its native Imaret Stadium in Aghdam. The stadium was destroyed in 1993.

Ruins of Karabakh FC Imaret Stadium in Aghdam / Source: qol.az 2010

Ağdamın Xan Şuşinski adına Muğam məktəbi /Agdam Mugham School named after Khan Shushinski that produced the celebrated “Karabakh Nightingales / Qarabağ bülbülləri” ensemble. School was relocated to a school in Bilajari/Baku in 1993 after occupation of Ağdam by Armenia.

Rehearsal at Aghdam Mugham School before the occupation / Source: Khan Shushinski virtual museum
Aghdam Mugham School / Source: in public domain

Conclusion
Aghdam has all the elements of an intentional policy to cleanse an urban space of its previous Azerbaijani population and get rid of its built environment once and for all, in an attempt of complete annihilation of the city, producing an inhabitable wasteland devoid of Azerbaijani cultural traces. If anything, this demonstrates the level of intolerance of Armenia towards Azerbaijanis.

This scorched earth policy has been a hallmark of the way Armenians treated other Azerbaijani cities and villages — most notably Kəlbəcər / Kalbajar — where the retreating settlers set homes and forests on fire, looted and pillaged civilian infrastructure and were engaged in illegal logging before leaving the occupied areas to be handed over to Azerbaijan. Such purposeful destruction is explicitly prohibited by article 54 of Protocol No. I of the 1977 Geneva Convention, and article 55 bans attacks against the natural environment as was the case in Kalbajar.

Illegal logging by Armenian settlers in Kalbajar district /Source: M. Grigorian, Nov. 16,2020

It is important to memorialize Aghdam’s destruction as a way of showing future generations of Armenians that their forefathers committed a Hiroshima-level urbicide. For Azerbaijanis, such a monument will be a reminder of the suffering their ancestors had to go through to rebuild the Armenian occupied and ethnically cleansed wastelands.

Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly called UNESCO to pay attention to the fate of Azerbaijani cultural heritage under Armenian control. Back in 2017, Azerbaijan’s Union of Architects addressed @UNESCO, @ICOMOS, @ICCROM and other international organizations responsible for preservation of cultural heritage including to condemn the facts of “inadmissible vandalism committed by Armenia against Azerbaijan’s architectural heritage” (see Memar Magazine 2017, p. 96).

Resolution adopted by the Union of Architects of Azerbaijan, Memar Journal №15, April, 2017

Sources used

Evidence documenting mass-scale destruction in and of Aghdam: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Photos 1, Photos 2, Photos 3.

References:

Aghaoghlu, Mirmehdi. Armenians destroyed the fortress in Shahbulag and looted the museum, APA.az, December 18, 2020, Link

De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden, New York University Press, 2003

Dupuy, Emmanuel. Azerbaijan is working towards rebuilding its liberated territories, Emerging Europe, December 28, 2020. https://emerging-europe.com/voices/azerbaijan-is-working-towards-rebuilding-its-liberated-territories/

Fatullayev-Fiqarov, XIX əsr — XX əsrin əvvəllərində Azərbaycanda şəhərsalma və memarlıq, Baku, 2013, https://ebooks.az/book_VXLdbytz.html

Hikmat Hajiyev: Protection of cultural heritage is a universal obligation and should not be used by UNESCO for political purposes, Azertag.az, December 28, 2020, https://cutt.ly/cjwVYdB

Qarabağ: dünən, bu gün: foto şəkillərdə /Karabakh: yesterday and today: in photos, https://ebooks.az/book_WfbPYjNm.html

Qol.az, Ermənilərin xarabaya çevirdiyi Ağdamın “İmarət” stadionu. June 8, 2010, https://qol.az/?name=xeber&news_id=12700

Memar Journal, Special issue on Karabakh monuments vandalized by Armenia, Baku, 2017. https://t.co/WrVaTNzpBr

Photojournalist Reza Deghati: These past few days, in Karabakh, I saw cemeteries sacked, houses burned, and mosques turned into barns. Azertag.az, November 30, 2020, Link

Vince, Owen. Urbicide in Nagorno-Karabakh. Failed Architecture. October 28, 2015. https://failedarchitecture.com/urbicide-in-nagorno-karabakh/

© AzStudies Collective 2020

This site aims to publish scholarship & essays on Azerbaijan’s history, culture & politics. Managing editor: F.Guliyev