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.
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:
“In July 1993, Agdam joined a long list of other utterly obliterated urban environments, from Carthage… to New Orleans, Mostar and Basra.”
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:
"Over decades, Azerbaijani cultural artefacts in Karabakh have been systematically vandalized, misappropriated and destroyed. Cemeteries have been demolished, sacred sites desecrated, and other cultural artefacts have been ransacked or left to crumble."
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”.
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:
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”.
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,
In order to prevent its recapture by Azeri forces, and to anticipate the symbolic implications of destroying a symbolically and ethnically important city, the town was raised to the ground with only the shattered remains of the Agdam Mosque surviving, among a tatter of other facades and shells. — Vince, 2015
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 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.
Giyasli village mosque (18th century) in Aghdam district / Qiyaslı kəndi -məscid, Ağdam
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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