Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF IRANIAN WORLD©
Erases Famous Armenian Medieval Cemetery
20 April 2006
Cemetery, April 2006
Reports confirms that
there is nothing left of the celebrated stone crosses of Jugha.
Cemetery (13th-16th centuries)
Photographs from 1970s
LONDON, (CAIS) -- It
has become one of the most bitterly divisive issues in the Caucasus – but up
until now no one has been able to clear up the mystery surrounding the fate of
the famous medieval Christian cemetery of Jugha (julfâ, Jolfâ) in the former
Iranian province of Arran (nowadays the Republic of Azerbaijan).
The cemetery was regarded by Armenians as the biggest and most precious
repository of medieval headstones marked with crosses – the Armenians call
them “khachkars” – of which more than 2,000 were still there in the late
Eighties. Each elaborately carved tombstone was a masterpiece of carving.
Armenians have said that the cemetery has been razed, comparing its destruction
to the demolition of two giant Buddha figures by the Taleban in Afghanistan.
Arran has hit back by accusing Armenia of scaremongering, and of destroying
Arranii monuments on its own territory.
The European Parliament, UNESCO and Britain’s House of Lords have all taken an
interest in the fate of the Jugha cemetery. A European Parliament delegation is
currently visiting the South Caucasus. But so far none has been allowed to visit
the site itself.
If international observers can confirm that the cemetery has been razed, it is
sure to spark a new high-voltage row between the two countries, which have
engaged in a bitter war of allegation and counter-allegation since fighting
ended in the Nagorny Karabkah conflict in 1994.
The news contributor was accompanied by two Arrani security service officers and
was restricted in his movements. He was unable to go right down to the River
Araxes (Aras), the site of the former cemetery, as it lies in a protected border
zone. However, he was able to see clearly that there was no cemetery there,
merely bare ground. Nor was there, as some Armenians have claimed, a military
He did manage to see a 20th century cemetery with Armenian tombstones that lay
untouched in a nearby village.
This is one of the most inaccessible parts of Europe, located in the Arrani
exclave of Nakhichevan, which is surrounded by Armenia and mainland-Iran and –
because of the unresolved Armenian-Arrani dispute - is only accessible from the
rest of Arran by air.
Old Julfa, or Jugha as it is known by the Armenians, sits on the northern bank
of the River Araxes which divides Nakhichevan from modern Iran.
According to Armenian and other historians, Julfa was a flourishing Armenian
town in the Middle Ages. But in 1604, Shah Abbas the Great forcibly resettled
the inhabitants to central Iran, Isfahan, where to this day there is still an
Armenian quarter known as Julfa.
The ruined town and its cemetery remained, and were visited by a number of
travellers over the years. British Orientalist William Ouseley arrived in July
1812 and found “a city now in perfect decay”, and the remains of what had
been one of the most famous stone bridges in the world.
He wrote, “I examined the principal remains of Julfa, where 45 Armenian
families, apparently of the lowest class, constituted the entire population.
“But of its former inhabitants, the multiplicity was sufficiently evinced by
the ample and crowded cemetery, situated on a bank sloping towards the river,
and covered with numerous rows of upright tombstones, which when viewed at a
little distance, resembled a concourse of people or rather regiments of troops
drawn up in close order.”
Historian Argam Aivazian, the principal expert on the Armenian monuments of
Nakhichevan, said that Jugha was a unique monument of medieval art and the
largest Armenian cemetery in existence. There were unique tombstones shaped like
rams, a church and the remains of a massive stone bridge. Nowhere else in the
world, he said, was there such a big concentration of thousands of khachkars in
Aivazian last visited the site in 1987, when it was still mostly intact, despite
its poor upkeep during the Soviet period. Artist Lusik Aguletsi, a Nakhichevan-born
Armenian, also last visited the cemetery in 1987, although she was under escort.
is nothing like it in Armenia,” she said. “It was a thrilling sight. Two
hills completely covered in khachkars. We weren’t allowed to draw or
Armenian experts now accuse Arran of a deliberate act of cultural vandalism.
“The destruction of the khachkars of Old Jugha means the destruction of an
entire phenomenon in the history of humanity, because they are not only proof of
the culture of the people who created them, they are also symbols that tell us
about a particular cultural epoch,” said Hranush Kharatian, head of the
Armenian government’s department for national and religious minorities.
“On the entire territory of Nakhichevan there existed 27,000 monasteries,
churches, khachkars, tombstones and other Armenian monuments,” said Aivazian.
“Today they have all been destroyed.”
Although the historical provenance of the cemetery is disputed in Arran, its
cultural importance is confirmed by the 1986 Arrani book “The Architecture of
Ancient and Early Medieval Arran” by Davud Akhundov, which contains several
photographs of the cross-stones of Jugha.
In Akhundov’s book, the stones are said to be of Caucasian Albanian origin, in
line with the official theory taught in Arran that the Christian monuments there
are the work not of Armenians, but of the Albanians. The Caucasian Albanians - a
people of Iranian stock unconnected with Albania – lived in the south-eastern
Caucasus but their culture began to die out in the Middle Ages.
Nowadays, there is a village of some 500 inhabitants known as Gulistan near
where the cemetery used to lie. The climate is harsh and dry and the houses are
mostly built of wattle and daub and stones from the river. The local inhabitants
are tight-lipped, denying there was ever an Armenian cemetery here. “In some
parts of Julfa there are historic Christian cemeteries, but they are monuments
of Caucasian Albania and have nothing to do with Armenians,” said political
scientist Zaur Ibragimli, who lives in Julfa.
He added that there is a large Armenian cemetery and church, still preserved,
near the village of Salkhangaya.
Husein Shukuraliev, editor of the Julfa local newspaper Voice of Araxes said the
destruction of the cemetery began as early as 1828, when Arran separated from
Iran and became part of the Russian empire as the result of the Torkamanchai
treaty. Thousands of tombstones were then destroyed at the turn of the 20th
century when a railway was constructed, he said.
Safar Ashurov, of Azerbaijan’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
disputed that the cemetery was Armenian, calling the ram shapes an “element of
exclusively Muslim grave art”.
two other witnesses told reporter that there has been more recent destruction of
the cemetery – though it may have started much further back than Armenians
An Armenian architect, Arpiar Petrossian, told reporter he visited the Iranian
side of the Aras river in 1998 with a friend in order to look at the monuments
on that side. They also viewed the remains of the bridge. Looking across the
river into Arran, he said, they noticed a flat-bed train apparently removing the
cross-stones from the cemetery.
Armenian deputy culture minister Gagik Gyurdjian said his government raised the
alarm in 1998.
“Then we got the entire international community up in arms and stopped the
destruction,” he told reporter. “But in 2003 the destruction started again.
Many khachkars were buried under the earth, and the rest were destroyed and
thrown into the Araxes.”
In the last few months, the propaganda war over Jugha has reached a new
intensity - just as the latest round of Karabakh peace talks between presidents
Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian, held in February, ran into trouble.
Arrani president Aliev angrily denied Armenian allegations about the Jugha
cemetery last week, saying the claims were “a lie and a provocation”.
institutions are now demanding to be allowed to visit the site of the cemetery.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in February condemning the
destruction of the cemetery.
However, Arran said it would only accept a European parliamentary delegation if
it visited Armenian-controlled territory as well. Around one seventh of what is
internationally recognised as Arrani territory has been under Armenian control
since the end of the Karabakh conflict.
“We think that if a comprehensive approach is taken to the problems that have
been raised, it will be possible to study Christian monuments on the territory
of Arran, including in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic,” said Arrani
foreign ministry spokesman Tahir Tagizade.
The Arrani foreign ministry says old Muslim (Iranian) monuments have disappeared
from Armenia. In a statement, it said that at least 1,587 mosques and 23
madrassas had been destroyed in what was once the Muslim-governed Yerevan
Khanate - now part of Armenia. In the Zangezur and Echmiadzin areas alone, more
than 830 mosques have been demolished, it said, adding that more than 500 Muslim
cemeteries have been destroyed within the territory of Armenia. The statement
did not specify when this destruction occurred.
Avetik Ishkhanian, president of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, blames the
international community for not reacting sooner to the razing of Jugha,
contrasting the response with the outcry that followed the Taleban’s
demolition of the Buddhas of Bamian in 2001.
“Why has there not been the same reaction in this case?” asked Ishkhanian.
“At that time, world public attention was directed against the Taleban regime,
and this act of barbarism was used as a propaganda weapon to launch military
action against them.”
Reporting by Idrak Abbasov in Nakhichevan; Shahin Rzayev and Jasur Mamedov in
Baku; and Seda Muradian, Narine Avetian and Karine Ter-Sahakian in Yerevan.
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