Azerbaijan: Cultural Destruction

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

Another year has passed since the 1994 ceasefire put the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh on hold, but a lasting peace remains elusive. However, both countries continue to accuse the other of destroying cultural and historical monuments.

But, while the issue of the destruction of an ancient Armenian cemetery in the exclave of Nakhichevan is frequently raised, less is known about the cultural loss suffered by Azerbaijan. Gələcək Gün [AZ] details some of the destruction.

In Shusha alone, 8 museums, 31 libraries, and 8 cultural houses were destroyed. More than 300 items at the Hajibayov museum, 400 at the Bulbul Museum, 100 from Navvab, 2,000 from the Agdam museum, 3,000 from the Gubadli history museum, 6,000 from the Zengilan museum as well as 1,000 exhibits from the Karabakh History and Carpet museums were destroyed or sent to Armenia.

ƏN SON XƏBƏRLƏR, MƏQALƏLƏR [AZ] provides its readers with a list of Azerbaijani soldiers captured by Armenians during the war who were forced to participate in the destruction of monuments and graveyards in Shusha.

Mammadov Vugar […]: We were forced to destroy the Muslim graveyards, carrying [stone] by car to sell. All Muslim graveyards were destroyed. They wanted to destroy Shusha.

Kazimov Karim […]: Along with other captured soldiers, I was forced to destroy Ibrahim Khan's grave, Molla Vagifs graves […] and the Bulbuls and Hajibayov monuments and graveyards.

Gafarov Rauf: All the graveyards are destroyed. Probably they intended to take the gold teeth from the dead. They also put a church sign on the mosque.

Bagirov Sahib […]: The materials from the destruction were used to build a house for Samvel Babayan [formely imprisoned Karabakh Armenian military leader].

Mehdiyev Nazim: The materials were used to make a monument for [Armenian] General Andranik. In her interview to the Azartamartik newspaper, Nagorno Karabakh's Cultural Ministry Department Director, Janna Aleksanyan, said “we will destroy all the monuments belonging to Azerbaijanis during their occupation of Shusha.”

Salam, Xoş Gəlmisiniz [AZ} also comments on archeological digs conducted in the Azix cave, one of the earliest proto-human habitations in the region. The blog notes that the site is situated on Azerbaijan's territory.

“In 2003, on the Arminfo news site it was written that “archeological diggings continue in the Azix Cave.” It is one of the most ancient findings in Azerbaijan that dates back 1.5 million years. Armenians digging with other country scientists from Britain, Ireland and Spain violate national and international law with their unauthorized excavation.”

A Facebook page has been set up to protest the work while the Council of Europe's Secretary General, Terry Davis, visited the capitals of both countries in December 2008. However, an international mission to investigate the state of historical and cultural monuments in the region has been delayed.

I am very disappointed by the losses,” Davis is reported as saying. “Both Azerbaijan and Armenia suffered, and it is not only yours, [but also European] cultural heritage. […] They are our common values and we should protect them.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.


  • Thanks David and Onnik i fully support your proposal.thanks for John and Bobby also for time and energy spent on reading and commenting but sorry guys im not replying to emotional comments.West of Igdir,your curiousity is appreciated.There were 326000 librarires in USSR for total population of 293 makes 1 library for 898 people.Besides Shusha was not just an ordinary district.It was a cultural center of the region and beatiful city.Most of the Azerbaijan musicians and many writers were born in Shusha.It has a special place in my heart as my father and mother met for the first time there.I didnt write the long list of the names of the museums and all the list of destroyed monuments just to make it short and interesting to read.if somebody is interested i can give the fotos and list of all.

    Cultural destruction started long before the war.Yerevan was Azerbaijani majority city and Baku was Armenian majority city but how many monuments do you see now?

    I fully accept the destruction of Armenian monuments by Azerbaijanis and condemn them equally as well.i ask everybody to cooperate and stop this process in both countries.Historical monuments,graveyards are dying and crying but we dont hear their voice.

  • Bobby


    I *am* interested in the full list, photos, any (preferably independent) information about the monuments undergone deliberate destruction by Armenians after Shushi was captured. I have been there and I can’t imagine Armenians would damage already destroyed by the war city even further. Not to mention that Shushi’s mosque is standing unharmed. In short – nothing compared to deliberate destruction of Jugha 2000 khachkars.

    What I am protesting against is disinformation and propaganda – and I really don’t care if it comes from Armenian or Azeri sources. Unfortunately, it seems to me that propaganda war resulted in such huge quantity of outright lies, speculations and exaggerations, that I refuse to believe in anything until I see an independent proof.

    I also think that forcibly “balanced” approach is as wrong as forcibly black & white. For example – comparing Yerevan and Baku. Yerevan grew into city after the 2nd World War, before that it was a large village with one main street. Baku was the opposite – the city which prduced most of the World’s oil at once. Armeanians were concentrated in Baku and Tiflis in XIX and beginning of the XXth century, before Soviets decided to “invest” into Yerevan to make it comparable city to Baku and Tiflis. In sum, there was really nothing in Yerevan to remain today, 95% of the city is built after 1945. What Muslim monuments you expect to see there? (actually, a Blue Mosque is well-preserved and.. served as Yerevan city museum for most of the time)

    Saying “this is bad, but… the other side is no good either” (because, hey, we want to seem objective!) – results in justification of the original bad. And I see your posting as an attempt to justify what Azeris are doing.


  • Bobby, Tom de Waal doesn’t say what you imply he did. In fact, he talks of the changing position of Russia during the conflict, and some say that it is changing even today:

    The Armenians’ victory in 1994 can be attributed to three factors: the Armenians were better organized and prepared militarily; Azerbaijan was in more or less permanent chaos between 1991 and 1994; and the Russians, after initially helping both sides, began to help the Armenians more.

    In the early phase of the war, most of the Russian troops fighting – never a large number – were Soviet army officers based in the Caucasus and looking for work on either side.

    In perhaps the most bizarre phase of the conflict, the Azerbaijanis pushed deep into Karabakh in June and July 1992, using Russian tanks and crews from the Soviet 4th Army. The Armenians then persuaded the Russians to send in a helicopter squadron, which repulsed the Russian tank attack and halted the Azerbaijani advance on Stepanakert.

    By 1993, Moscow was taking a more strategic interest. Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s president between 1991 and 1996, now reveals that he received arms shipments from Russia, which were personally approved in writing by President Boris Yeltsin. This admission contradicts what has been for many years the official Armenian version of the war. Ter-Petrosian insists, however, that Russia only helped Armenia because it wanted to “preserve the military balance” and close the arms gaps between the two countries.

    “It turned out that there were more three times more weapons in Azerbaijan than in Armenia,” Levon Ter-Petrosian said. “And when we talked to the Russian side, we came to the conclusion – and I managed to get them to agree to this – that we should be compensated for this. And Yeltsin agreed to this and agreed that the balance should be preserved.”

    Russia now plays a much more positive role in the dispute, and has a more balanced relationship with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Along with France and the United States, it is one of three main mediators in the conflict. Yet, despite high-level involvement, including from President Jacques Chirac himself, the mediators have failed to engineer a breakthrough.

    Ironically, while some analysts are signaling closer ties between Moscow and Baku, there are still those in Armenia AND Azerbaijan who believe that Russia would support Armenia in case of any new war.

    This is especially the case after South Ossetia although I’m not too convinced of that as Moscow used the issue of South Ossetians holding Russian passports as one excuse for a military response. Nobody in Karabakh has been issued Russian passports there.

    Incidentally, agreed about Operation Ring (Koltso) although that would be better attributed to Soviet and OMON (Ministry of Internal Affairs) rather than simply “the Russians.”

    It’s also interesting to note that Tom de Waal — the MOST OBJECTIVE journalist with expertise on Karabakh (and I personally believe this because he’s a friend and we spent months together on the Karabakh leg of his research for Black Garden) — is specifically mentioned in relation to Operation Ring:

    Operation Ring (Russian: Операция Кoльцo) was the code name given to the May 1991 military operation conducted by Soviet Internal Security Forces and OMON units in the region of Shahumyan, north of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR. Officially dubbed a “passport checking operation”, the stated goal launched by the Soviet Union’s internal and defense ministries was to disarm Armenian militia detachments which were organized in “[illegally] armed formations.”[1] The operation involved the use of soldiers who accompanied a compliment of military vehicles, artillery and helicopter gunships to be used to root out the self-described Armenian fedayeen.

    However, contrary to their stated objectives, Soviet troops and the predominantly Azeri soldiers in the OMON and army forcibly depopulated many Armenians living in the twenty-four villages strewn across Shahumyan to leave their homes and settle elsewhere in Nagorno-Karabakh or in the neighboring Armenian SSR. British journalist Thomas de Waal observed Ring as the Soviet Union’s first and only civil war.[2] Some authors have also referred to the actions of the joint Soviet and Azeri force as an act of ethnic cleansing.[3]

    Anyway, we seem to be going off the point here. I would simply conclude that the destruction of cultural and historical monuments happened on both sides. What needs to be determined, perhaps, was to what extent, and how much was official policy or the act of independent units. However, I would also say that Djulfa is perhaps the worst example.

  • Bobby, there are three mosques in Shushi. One is intact and being restored, but is referred to as Persian. However, there are two others which are destroyed and not spoken about. I have photos somewhere. I’ll try to dig them out.

    Regarding Shushi, most of the damage was done after it was taken. During the war, both sides destroyed towns and villages inhabited by the other — but especially Armenians in the territories surrounding Karabakh — for example, Fizuli is leveled, as is Zangelan, Qubatli etc.

    Aghdam is the best example of capturing a town intact and then destroying it afterwards, although yes, in this case, one mosque still stands. Not sure how many were there or if this was the only one, but anyway, one stands.

    Anyway, regarding independent verification, I think that CE monitoring mission is the best approach with return visits. What does concern me, however, is why everyone says “the mosque” in Shushi, when there are two others.

    I think the important thing is for verification and monitoring on both sides as the point once again is that both sides destroyed monuments and sites. The matter is not who did more, perhaps, but to prevent any further destruction.

    Djulfa was a terrible loss (although once again, I find myself more concerned with the razing of villages and towns where people used to live), for sure, but that is not to say Armenians didn’t destroy historical sites either.

    Indeed, Fizuli and Aghdam were pretty much destroyed after they were taken and there’s nothing standing there. Moreover, I know Armenians from Shushi who tried to prevent the destruction of the town after it was taken, but who were instead kicked out and had to move to Yerevan.

  • In fact, one of those Armenians was Mher Gabrielyan who I personally knew when Tom de Waal interviewed him. He was then working with Vardan Hovannisyan, the cameraman who was arrested and imprisoned during Operation Ring and who recently won an award for his film on Karabakh.

    I remember Mher’s stories about the destruction of Shushi after it was taken, and Tom also details some of his recollections. I’m assuming the two 19th century mosques he’s talking about are the two that I’ve seen which are fairly damaged in Shushi. It also backs up the fact that Shushi was taken intact and destroyed afterwards.

    But for the efforts of a few brave Shusha Armenians, much more might have been destroyed. Mher Gabrielian, an Armenian artist, told me how he came back to his native town on the morning of its capture on 9 May 1992 and saw with horror that marauders and vandals were burning it to the ground. Mher and a couple of his friends stood in front of one of Shusha’s two nineteenth-century mosques to stop a group of young men in an armored personnel carrier firing tank shells into its facade. They barricaded themselves inside the town museum for several days, preventing looters from stripping its collection of carpets, pots, and paintings. As one of the Armenian minority in Shusha, a largely Azerbaijani town, Mher had many Azerbaijani friends. He wanted me to understand how the burning of Shusha grieved him as much as it did them: “I know it’s very painful for them, and it is for us too. I personally do not consider myself the victor of the this town. The town as such is dead.,M1

    (Incidentally, there’s also reference to the looting of both Armenian and Azerbaijani cultural and religious items by both sides from Shushi in that chapter).

  • Actually, just found pics of one or both of the two destroyed mosques in Shushi here:

    Need to dig my own pics out which might be more difficult as they were on slide film and stored away from years ago, but anyway.

    Point is, I’ve seen two destroyed mosques in Shushi and it’s possible that the two pics on this page are just from one of them.

    Only one other has been allowed to be restored because it’s being used politically. Armenians say it is Persian so one can suppose the other two weren’t?

    Interestingly, Armenians always point to Arabic script as proof that something is not Azerbaijani. However, like Turkey, Azeri transferred to Latin script only in the 1920s.

    Unfortunately, both sides continue to manipulate and distort history. Ironically, rather than appreciate cultural monuments for their beauty, both sides also use them for nationalist and political purposes.

    That also goes so far as both denying they ever existed in the first place. Personally speaking, I wish Djulfa still existed. I also wish Shushi hadn’t been destroyed after Armenians took it.

    Even now, walking through the town you can imagine how beautiful it must have been before the war.

  • Bobby


    You got me wrong – I actually think TdW’s book is one of the best in this subject – in terms of the original information put there and the amount of work done by the author (and believe me, you don’t need to explain me what was the point here and there). So there was no way for him to avoid the topics of Koltso or Sumgait without losing the credibility altogether.

    However, what I am having trouble accepting (but perhaps no problem understanding the motives) is the “forced balancing” of facts. In fact, many other readers had this same impression – and they describe the “phenomena” far better than I do – for example see the first 3 reviews on

    Carefully read these and hopefully you’ll get my point.

    I must confess – it’s the first time I am learning about “two other mosques” Armenians destroyed after capturing Shushi. One question I had – since the “third one” was spared because it had Persian” on it, were the other two inscribed in… Cyrillic? Just asking…

    Now, and if Armenians did destroy mosques – I am deeply ashamed – but like in TdW’s case – I can understand the rage of Stepanakerts against Azeris bombarding the *civilian* population in *town* for weeks (I wonder, is it something our Azeri friends would disavow?). As to Azeris ex-houses… Onnik, at least *you* who has been to Karabakh should know – most of it was done to retrieve the desperately needed building material to restore Armenian houses, schools, hospitals razed by Azeri fire. Somehow, Home Depot hasn’t opened a branch in Karabakh yet, so you do what you have to do…


  • Interesting discussion going on there.
    I just want to highlight one more time my point about the number of libraries, etc. in Shusha/i. I understand that it was a cultural town so we may make allowances there, but it doesn’t explain the similarly high number of cultural institutions the Azeris claim were destroyed by Armenians throughout the region. I am not saying it didn’t happen, clearly, but anyone who has been to Karabakh knows it is a collection of villages. The Azeri sources give similarly high numbers of libraries etc. for all of the villages throughout Karabakh. I don’t have a list on hand but I’ve seen enough in my research to know that when 26 cultural institutions are said to have existed in each random Azeri villages of a couple hundred to a thousand people something is up. Not to say Karabakh is some wasteland devoid of culture, but it is just hard to believe that one of these said villages (Shusha aside) had 18 libraries, 27 museums, etc. etc.
    I know I am undercutting my arguement by not seeking out one of these lists to give real examples but I don’t have time at the moment. Perhaps they aren’t too hard to find or Emil can provide us with a link to one.

  • Bobby, two mosques were destroyed in Shushi. I’ve seen them. As to why, well, this is kind of a subjective argument. Maybe someone in Azerbaijan decided, well, if they destroyed Shushi, we can destroy Djulfa. Who did what first is irrelevant and doesn’t enter into the minds of people on any side.

    Maybe someone wanted the stone in Nakhichevan for their own construction project, right? Maybe not, but you get my point. Besides, as many who fought in the war will tell you, they razed the villages and towns to prevent the population from returning just as they did in Bosnia. Agreed, however, Aghdam was different. Much was destroyed after it was taken before it quickly became, as someone said, the “largest Home Depot in the Caucasus.”

    Anyway, I think you can’t justify or rationalize one case of destruction when it’s “your side” that did it and then condemn the other. As Terry Davis said, both are concerning. Of course, there is the issue of who might have done more, but that’s an issue for an independent study and report.

    As for Tom’s book, I often joke with him about criticism from BOTH sides that it’s “too objective.” Indeed, just as those critical reviews you link to were subjective and from Armenians, he has his detractors in Azerbaijan too. Perhaps that’s the sign of a very good book when neither side really likes it, but can’t criticize it as much as the want.

    There are one or two points in the book I’m unhappy with, and have raised them with Tom, but ultimately, the book as a whole is an excellent resource. Incidentally, Mher Gabrielyan gave the reason for the burning and destruction of Shushi after it was taken was jealousy. Regardless, it was a cultural center and what happened was regrettable.

    Yes, as a military target it was one of the main objectives to prevent the GRADs from hitting Stepanakert. However, somewhat interestingly, there’s some speculation that Shushi was taken to derail peace talks in Tehran. Anyway, I kind of don’t like decrying cultural destruction on one side and then justifying it when done by another.

    It’s either part and parcel of armed conflict by both sides, or it’s not. Of course, all countries are guilty of taking subjective and conflicting positions when it is their soldiers or populations that are involved. Regardless, I would like to see that CE group visit the region and report on the extent of damage on both sides.

  • emil mammadov

    I realized that there is a lack of information what the cultural monuments mean so here is the link about that and recent amendments.

    second here are some fotos of the monuments in Shusha

    Cultural monuments dont have to locate in big cities.Even small village can contain lots of monuments.
    I used the word destructed for not only removing all but destructed also mean to take everything from the building leaving the stones.Not all the monuments were destructed purposefully on both sides but lack of information about international rules and perhaps using those for some other reasons like military, business, construction.And also i dont want to turn this discussion to another forum where Azerbaijanians and Armenians accuse each other passionatley on right to posses Karabagh or who started first,who killed more.I want to keep this discussion only about cultural monuments.the whole list of monuments are in European Council.I dont know how many Armenia presented but Azerbaijan presented 1890 monuments to be possesed before the war.i have links by districts but there are only in Azeri so you guys will not understand it.But if you want to ask me about the situation of Armenian monuments in Azerbaijan i would be glad to check not in Azerbaijan now but i can ask my friends to check.i felt really bad when i heard about the destruction of Djulfa.Its pity but i cant hear that kind of information in Azeri media as well as you guys dont hear about the reverse.i dont doubt that Armenians lived in Djulfa before.They moved to Iran 1601 by the invitation of Iranian king to settle a new district there.(correct me if im wrong)

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