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Artsakh – A museum under an open sky

H.E. Dr. Tigran Balayan, Ambassador of Armenia.

By H.E. Dr Tigran Balayan, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Located at the crossroads of East and West, North and South, Armenia has long been a strategic point and a melting pot for various civilisations. Its unique geographical location has enormously contributed to richness of our marvellous culture, which, along with Armenian church and language has long been a pillar of our identity and existence, even in those times when we lost our statehood and our people were subjected to persecution, massacre and genocide.

One cannot underestimate the power and importance of culture, as a determinator of national identity for the future generations. Thus, it is the collective duty of mankind to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of our ancestors.

This Article is dedicated to one of the epicenters of Armenian culture, Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Artsakh is home to more than four thousand historical and architectural monuments. These include 370 churches, 119 fortresses and other historical and cultural monuments and antiquities, such as temples, bridges, palaces and cross-stones. The cultural and religious monuments of Artsakh provide material evidence for the millennia-long undeniable Armenian presence in the region.  On the walls of those monuments and on the gravestones there are hundreds of inscriptions in the ancient Armenian language known as Grabar.

According to estimations there is one cultural monument per each 1,4 square kilometers in Artsakh, which is a significantly high figure internationally. This number may be much higher if we take into consideration that every year excavations reveal new historical monuments. For the Armenian people cultural heritage has always been more of a spiritual and emotional significance. For them it manifests the spiritual richness of their homeland, and thus the preservation of cultural and historical heritage is considered as an important element of identity that enriches humanity.

Among the most famous of monuments are the medieval monasteries of Dadivank, Gandzasar, Tsitsernavank, Amaras, Gtchavank, Orekavank and the Vankasar Church, as well as the fortresses in Askeran, Shoushi, Martakert, Hadrout and Kashatagh regions. In the 19 – early 20th centuries Artsakh’s former capital Shushi was a well-known cultural and educational center in the Caucasus. The city of Tigranakert, founded in Artsakh by Armenian king Tigran the Great in the first century BC had been a cultural and trade hub of the region for more than 14 centuries. The city is known as the “best-preserved city of the Hellenistic and Armenian civilizations” in the Caucasus; it is also a home for a iconic ​​Govhar Agha or Upper Mosque.

Artsakh is also rich with fascinating prehistoric sites. One of them, the Azokh Cave, located in the southern part of the country, is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world. Excavation results demonstrate that ancient humans appeared here about two million years ago, in the period of pebble culture. A mandible of a Neanderthal man and bones of prehistoric animals such as the cave bear, the saber-toothed tiger were discovered in the cave. Moreover, Azokh and its environs served as an important link and hub for the movements of ancient humans from Africa to Asia and Europe.

Today, almost two years after the end of the cessation of hostilities in Artsakh, the fate of these monuments, religious sites, and museum exhibits remains unclear as they are facing a constant threat of deliberate destruction, acts of vandalism, and desecration. Since 2020 the international community has shown an unprecedented unity and mobilized to preserve the Armenian heritage in Artsakh:  In December 2021 the International Court of Justice issued an interim measure to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including, but not limited to churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries and artifacts”;  On 10th of March the European Parliament by an overwhelming majority adopted the a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s systematic destruction of the Armenian heritage and calling the EU to act immediately to halt the destruction and alienation. The resolution was endorsed by the largest Pan-European cultural heritage protection organization Europa Nostra. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a special statement for the preservation of the Armenian heritage under Azerbaijani control.

To preserve and cherish the world heritage under danger, the like-minded countries should further consolidate and take practical steps for the implementation of the ICJ orders and numerous resolutions of National and European Parliaments. Only with joint efforts can we make sure the centuries-old heritage regardless of its origins will be transferred to the new generations and only the  proper protection of that heritage from the physical and spiritual perspectives, can create conditions for peace and reconciliation in the region.

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