Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
During the fall of 2020, while the world was busy with US elections and the pandemic, the land of Artsakh, known to the wider world as Nagorno-Karabakh, was at the center of a brutal war, an assault on its indigenous Armenian population. On November 4, 2020, the war ended with a trilateral agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. In the ceasefire that followed, a large part of the territory of Artsakh was handed over to Azerbaijan. With the open support of Turkey, the heavy use of Turkish and Israeli made sophisticated drones and the involvement of Syrian mercenaries, the assault was designed to subjugate Armenians and push them out of their homes and villages. The population of Artsakh lost their fight for self-determination, and their right to refuse to live under the dictatorial regime of Ilham Aliyev of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Following the ceasefire, as entire villages were being evacuated, lists and images of cultural heritage sites dating back to as early as the 5th century were circulating on different social media outlets and email chains. The list included churches, monasteries, cemeteries, castles, and monuments of Artsakh that would be at the mercy of Azeri forces. And, since Azerbaijan, and Turkey, have systematic and documented policies of destroying Armenian cultural heritage in their territories, there was once again total panic concerning the fate of these monuments. Different pleas and open letters were written and sent to world organizations asking for the safeguard of what Armenians were forced to leave behind.
What do we preserve?
During the forty-four days war, I was glued to my screen following the news, miles away from my apartment in Brooklyn. Away from the warzone were also Turkish ultranationalist groups who took to the streets in different cities around the world chanting slogans such as “Armenians, we will find you wherever you are” and vandalizing spaces that belong to the Armenian community. These attacks along with the military mobilization come after years of ultra-nationalist and xenophobic language used by the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments. For instance, just a few months ago, Erdogan used the expression the “leftover of the sword” to describe Armenian survivors of the Genocide, an expression that glorifies and celebrates the crimes committed against the Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire. Similar derogatory expressions such as “Armenia is not a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant” have been voiced by Ilham Aliyev. The word servant comes in the context of centuries of slavery and forced labor of minorities (including Armenians) during the Islamic caliphates and then the Ottoman Empire.
In this climate, while the world was silent and mainstream media was falling into false-equivalency reporting, inter-generational trauma of ethnic cleansing resurfaced among us, Diasporan Armenians from Lebanon to the United States and the entire world. But what followed the ceasefire felt even more familiar. Endless caravans of Artsakh’s residents fleeing their homes, towns, and farmlands on the road to Armenia. A bitter reminder of the stories and photographs of our families during the 1915 Genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
As I went through the list of monuments wondering what will happen to Gandzasar, a 13th century monastery, Amaras and its 5th century mausoleum, Dadivank, Tzitzernavank and hundreds of structures, I couldn’t help but ask: what about the houses, the schools, the villages, the vernacular architecture that were left behind? I realized how, once again, Armenians were forced to attempt to preserve a select cultural heritage, one that is perceived as the utmost testimony of their physical and cultural presence, one that dates way back and would be easier to capture world attention with, and finally, one that is deemed more worthy for preservation.
In 2013, during my trip to Eastern Turkey’s villages and towns from which my family was forced out, I was faced with the reality of displacement and dispossession. The confiscation of Armenian property, farmlands, and production centers that lay the foundation of the nation-state of Turkey was unavoidably noticeable. Entire villages deserted, new homes built with stones from destroyed Armenian monuments, and practically every trace of our culture removed. What remained were a few structures, “preserved” for tourist attraction, and often presented through a revisionist lens. But what struck me the most was that the urban and rural landscape did not look familiar to me, the skills and know-how of building were not transferred to my generation. Perpetual migrations and occupation of indigenous land not only results in alienating people from the environment they inhabit but interrupts cultural production in place and time. How does a group preserve its vernacular architecture that is rooted in the immediate surrounding, materials and resources with ongoing displacement and migration?
This reality has left us in a position where we can barely advocate for preservation. And yet, even today’s calls to save Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh are being overshadowed by a wave of revisionist claims. These claims, propagated by the Azeri government, characterize the landmarks left behind in Artsakh as “Caucasian Albanian”, a theory that has already been refuted by even Azeri scholars.
In a constant search for home
Thinking about a home cannot be divorced from having access to land, and Armenians have systematically been robbed of that right. An act of violence, a forced reality of living in a perpetual state of emergency. Land not in the sense of ownership of a plot, but as part of one’s native environment. The attempt to preserve the pillars of what can give a group a sense of safety such as language, culture, and places of cultural and religious practice is an attempt to recreate a notion of home.
During my trip to Yerevan this summer, I met many Lebanese Armenians who had fled Lebanon in the summer of 2020, some before the deadly Beirut explosion escaping the dire economic situation in the country and some right after. They came to Armenia with the hope of finding a better life, only to be faced with the deadly war in Artsakh. Most of them without any social security, home, or job. Among the people who moved to Armenia from Lebanon is my grandmother, born in a village near Iskenderun, Turkey in 1935, few years after her parents survived the Genocide fleeing from Zeitun and Sis in the Ottoman Empire. When the Turkish army took over Iskenderun, she and her family fled again and settled in Aleppo, Syria. She met my grandfather there, a genocide survivor born in Aintab. Due to political and economic unrest in Syria, they moved and spent most of their lives in Beirut, Lebanon. My grandmother, in her eighties now, despite being uprooted from her land, has tried to create a safe space for her and her family in Iskenderun, Aleppo, Beirut and recently Yerevan.
Aliyev’s caviar diplomacy at the Venice Biennale 2021
Following the victory over Artsakh and Armenia, Aliyev repeatedly emphasized that companies from countries deemed “friendly” to Azerbaijan will be invited to work on reconstruction projects; the countries include Turkey, Israel, China, Italy, Belarus, and Russia. Azerbaijan specifically thanked Turkey by awarding several multimillion-dollar contracts to construction, mining, and energy firms with ties to the Turkish President Erdogan. This practice of using capital to shape the built environment and through it the public opinion, is something the Aliyev dynasty is extremely knowledgeable of and familiar with. Oil-urbanism and real-estate boomed in post-independence Azerbaijan. Commissions such as the Heydar Aliyev Center designed by Zaha Hadid, the zero-carbon Zira Island by Bjarke Ingels Group, just to name a few, are projects that aimed to put Azerbaijan on the world map. Similarly, contemporary spaces such as Yarat, run by Aliyev’s niece, and the main outlet for foreign artists and curators to work in Azerbaijan, make the dictator and his family acceptable on the world stage; caviar diplomacy par excellence.
This practice of using art and architecture to whitewash their regime reached the Venice Biennale this year. Among the 63 national participations at the Biennale, the Republic of Azerbaijan is taking part for the first time. Azerbaijan’s participation in the Biennale titled How will we live together? comes few months after the ethnic cleansing in Artsakh, and the ongoing cultural genocide on its territories. The presence of a pavilion representing a regime that still holds over a hundred Armenian prisoners of war illegally, and that recently opened a war-themed park in Baku celebrating its victory, and dehumanizing Armenians, should raise questions as to the agenda and intentions of its sponsors.
Armenians struggle for autonomy and democracy
The war in Artsakh (like any other) was also over control of resources and brought up serious environmental justice concerns. With the recent massive land grab, Azerbaijan has now access to and controls almost two-thirds of Artsakh’s water resources. Meanwhile Russia, through its peacekeeping forces within de-facto Azerbaijani territory, has a strategic positioning and proximity to the crucial TANAP pipeline that starts in Baku and reaches Turkish Mediterranean waters and the European energy market.
Today, Armenian grassroots movements are faced with a new geopolitical order. One such movement is Save Amulsar, an ongoing campaign to stop a UK-registered company called Lydian from operating an open cast gold mine in a Southern province in Armenia. The project has long been contested as it poses a serious threat to the environment and economic livelihood of surrounding communities. The mining operations would impact major rivers in the region as well as lake Sevan, the largest freshwater source in Armenia. In 2018, following the peaceful Velvet Revolution that overthrew the kleptocratic oligarchy ruling the country since Armenia’s independence, residents of neighboring towns and villages shut down the construction works in the mine. For Lydian, one of the largest foreign investors in the country, the change of government in 2018 and blockade at Amulsar led to a chain of investigations, and audits. Now, while the project is still on hold, Lydian is using international corporate court, the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), to blackmail Armenia through a fine of up to $2 billion US dollars, a sum that is roughly half of the 2020 annual state budget of Armenia. This is a blatant cornering of the Armenian government to suppress the protestors and resume the mine’s operation. The tactic of a foreign company resorting to international corporate court undermines Armenia’s democracy and people’s resistance to protect their environment for future generations. As a result of the recent ceasefire and handover of lands, locals who have been resisting the project and facing serious threats to their drinking water, livestock, and farmlands now find themselves in a new border situation; They are 12km away from Azerbaijan.
How does a collective pursue their struggle to preserve their rivers and mountains when kilometers of land and chains of mountains and resources are grabbed and colonized in a matter of days? Efforts such as the Save Amulsar campaign that push for a more equitable ecological and social order within Armenian society are suddenly juxtaposed with the violent land grabs, capture of cultural sites and ecocide in Artsakh.
Just like the Nakba did not end in 1947, ethnic cleansing of Armenians did not end in 1915. As the Israeli government continues building illegal settlements across occupied territories, and destroying Palestinian homes, the latest in Silwan’s Al-Bustan neighborhood, the fascist regime in Ankara and the dictatorship in Baku still maintain their power. Their expansionist policies present a threat not only to Armenians, but Kurds, Alevis, Assyrians and other minorities in the region. This is not a struggle we can fight alone. This is an ongoing existential threat to a population and a culture that needs support. This is what the Armenian Diaspora around the world is seeking. Solidarity from anyone who believes in self-determination against expansionist and autocratic rules. Solidarity from anyone who believes in justice and democracy.