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Artsakh Almanac:Ancestral History, Memory and Place in Subjugated Artsakh

“If the world chooses to look away and not take action to save lives and challenge the Aliyev regime’s weak claim to the historically Armenian territory of Artsakh, the only “peace” to celebrate will be the peace of the graveyard – populated by generations of Artsakh Armenian families successfully erased by Ilham Aliyev’s genocidal regime and forgotten by the international community." - Statement of the Raphael Lemkin Institute

Though a second-generation American-born citizen of Armenian ethnicity, I am no stranger to the lands of Armenia and Artsakh. Like those before us, my generation was raised in exile by nature of genocide and expulsion. Today’s headlines are a continuation of that trajectory. To provide a backdrop in a nutshell, Armenian lands have historically been battlefields and prizes for hordes, marauders and competing empires for centuries on end. Both regions’ Armenian origins harken back more than 3,000 yearswith Artsakh being the 10th province of Great Armenia in ancient and medieval times.

If we fast forward to the present, it must be noted that the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, where the two signed the 43-point Declaration of Allied Interaction that guaranteed mutual support between the two countries across a variety of sectors. This alliance should explain Russian inaction regarding recent Azeri and Turkish invasions of Armenia and Artsakh in spite of corporate media’s eager insistence that Russia is Armenia’s closest protector from hostile neighbors in the region. While Russia tolerates ̶ and in some cases relies upon ̶ Azerbaijan’s relations with the West even though Azerbaijan is squarely in Russia’s sphere of influence, Russia does not permit Armenia that same latitude. Thus Armenia is held captive to regional strongmen whose objective is to keep it weak and dependent or eliminate it altogether.

While Artsakh has no shortage of fresh stories of heroism and loss to share with the world, the following first-hand account from a decade ago (and with updates to the present wherever possible) seemed a way to express solidarity with the Artsakh people who have been a beacon light to exiled Armenians the world over.

Exactly ten years ago, amid one of my many trips to Armenia to help renovate heritage sites from antiquity to modern times, I made a pilgrimage to historic places of living memory in the Armenian Republic of Artsakh. A 2013 report from the Artsakh authorities noted that around that time, the number of foreign travelers had been increasing by the thousands. We were but four: two journalists from the US, an attorney from Yerevan and an IT manager from Boston-Yerevan-Dubai who organized our trip…all of Armenian descent. This journey led us to many important monuments and sacred spaces of Armenian origin.

As of this writing, these sites live in the shadow of Azeri domination following their invasion of Artsakh on 2020, a 9-month Azeri starvation campaign of the Armenian population this year, followed by massive attacks by the Azeri military on civilian Armenians on the eve of Armenian Independence Day. Some of these holy sites are likely destroyed. Others are at the very least defaced to obscure their ancient Armenian provenance. But all of them by nature of conquest are subject to the whims of Azerbaijan. St. Ghazanchetots, also known as the Holy Savior Cathedral, has had its conical dome blown off twice by the Azeris in 2020 and from all appearances has been replaced with a qubba; the historic Armenian city of Shushi, now in Azeri hands, has seen the dismantling of Armenian cultural features; the Tigranakert Fortress, Museum and Church complex where my two paternal uncles remains are buried has been partly transformed into a barbecue restaurant; the 4th century Amaras Monastery where the Armenian alphabet was first taught and the 9th century Dadivank Monastery both face uncertain futures.

Grandma and Grandpa Monument (Tatik u Papik) “We Are Our Mountains”. []

For this Armenian-American, the 2013 pilgrimage managed to combine many objectives into one: To be enveloped by the rugged mountains which have given our people their enduring nature, even inspiring a monument that embodies the Armenian national slogan, “We are our mountains.” To personally interact with the resilient people of the land. To pay homage to our 1700 year-old Christian faith for which we have so often been persecuted. To marvel at holy structures that are accepted precursors to European Gothic architecture. To appreciate the value of endangered cultural traditions and a 3000-year continuous presence on our indigenous soil. To honor those Armenians who made the ultimate sacrifice of life while defending their indigenous lands so that their compatriots could live out their lives in peace, dignity and freedom and raise future generations there.

In 2013, every person we encountered had been touched by the First Artsakh War(1988-1994). The courage and moral fiber on display seemed to come straight out of the history books we had read, describing centuries of Armenian resistance against pillage, plunder and decimation. Least of which was an Artsakh Armenian who had been struck by lightning three separate times and lived to tell of his survival.

As we pilgrims drove southward in a rented SUV from Yerevan, Armenia, stopping at notable locations along the way, we eventually approached the checkpoint beyond the Artsakh border. Signs such as “Arstakh Welcomes You” appeared, along with the names of patrons who donated to the All-Armenian Artsakh Highway Fund. Among the most powerful was a poster reading “Support Our Freedom Fighters.” Another was a large billboard with a photo of martyred Artsakh army commander Monte Melkonian and the words, “Our Unity is Our Strength” below it.

The evening of our arrival, we dined outdoors on a balcony of a private home that housed a casual restaurant. As we arrived after dusk, the lights of Shushi glistened along overlapping mountain ranges in the distance. There was one other group sitting outside. As we ordered a feast of dolmas, soujoukh, cheeses, khorovadz, lobi with scrambled eggs, we began to hear spoken Armenian. I approached a young boy sketching by the balcony rails and told him, in Armenian, how impressed I was with his drawings of cross engravings on volcanic stone we call khatchkars and other Armenian emblems he saw in his travels that day. An elder came over to translate for us. As it turned out, the boy did not speak Armenian. As the wine began to flow, so did the toasts. Everyone introduced themselves and we discovered that this group was one large extended family. The men had origins in Artsakh, but had migrated to Russia to find work. Some had married and had families there. This was a big family pilgrimage – they drove from Moscow to Stepanakert – so that their children could see first-hand where their parents came from. Then, quite unexpectedly, a man named Artin* stood up and toasted us. He said that his migration out of Armenia helped him realize what a challenge it was to convey his Armenian identity to his children. And so Artin toasted those in the Armenian Diaspora who, since the Genocide, still knew their history, still spoke the language, and still came to honor Armenian Artsakh. Little did Artin know that ten years later, his Artsakh compatriots could soon be exiles themselves.

St. Ghazanchetsots [Save Armenian Monuments]

Built on an Armenian basilica from the 1700s and expanded in the 1860s, the name St. Ghazanchetots comes from Ghazanchi, a village in historic Armenian Nakhichevan,where the church benefactors, the Armenian Khandamiriantz family, originated.  Back then, Shushi was an Armenian cultural center even greater than Baku or Yerevan. Azerbaijanis damaged this Cathedral during the 1920 attacks on Shushi’s Armenians massacring 20,000 and exiling 20,000 more. Turkish and Azeri jihadists pillaged the city and torched the remains to the ground. Later, during the First Artsakh War, Azerbaijan used the Cathedral as a missile armory. The Armenians, who were able to liberate their territories in 1994, restored the Cathedral in the aftermath of the First War and reconsecrated it in 1998. Ghazanchetsots became a symbol of Armenian liberation and in 2008, a mass wedding of 500 Armenian couples took place there as a show of commitment to Armenian Artsakh. However, the Cathedral was bombed by Azeri aerial artillery again in 2020 and today is under Azeri control. Satellite images show us that the Azeris have begun to convert the structure into a mosque. A highly touted “renovation” reveals a qubba where the destroyed conical dome emblematic of Armenian church architecture used to be.

Interacting with the local population ̶ living history, as they were ̶ was as important as visiting the holy sites themselves. At the immaculate St. John the Baptist Armenian Church in Shushi, we spoke with a caretaker distributing headscarves at the entrance. Seta Minasyan* had roots in Artsakh, but economic hardships caused her to move to Baku in 1988. There, she fell victim to Azeri pogroms against Armenians. She survived an Azeri-launched explosion and lives with shrapnel embedded under her skin. At the same time in Baku, Seta’s daughter’s ear was cut off by an Azeri mob. “If I lent my Azeri neighbors something,” said Seta of her time in Baku, “after two days, they considered it theirs.” At the time of the government-sanctioned Azeri pogroms, the family fled to Yerevan and in 1989, returned to Artsakh with their children. Like so many others, Seta wore khaki to blend in with the environment in case of Azeri attacks. Seta’s overarching message? “If you leave your homeland, you cannot stay Armenian. You lose your language. You lost your connection to your land and identity. I refuse to do it.” In light of the 44-day Azeri War on Artsakh in 2020, the 9 month-long Azeri starvation blockade of Artsakh followed by the military bombardment of Armenian civilians in 2023, I wonder where Seta is today (assuming she is alive) and what we the bystanders and even the engaged could possibly say to a woman and nation who have already sacrificed and suffered so much.

We later met with veterinarian Ashot Navasardyan*, the Mayor of Shushi at the time. The city flag’s coat of arms was emblazoned with the sculpted angel found on the bell tower of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. While Mayor Navasardyan spoke of the growth potential in Shushi, he emphasized that the greatest need was a water filtration system for the community [something the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund had since taken on.] Navasardyan, who had 7 bullets lodged inside his body from Azeri attacks during the First Artsakh War, said, “Azeris teach their children from birth to kill Armenians.”Foretellingly, he added back in 2013, “if Azeris try to take this land, it will lead to another war or worse.”

On the road to the Amaras Monastery, we passed signs indicating that the HALO Trust had cleared landmines in the area and continued their important work. As we met wild turkeys on the road, I rolled down the window and gobbled at them. Several got excited and gobbled back. “Share the road” is a popular sign aimed at motorists and cyclists in many US cities. All over Armenia and Artsakh, that term has a different meaning. It was late spring and animal newborns could be found all along the motorways. Baby sheep, goats, donkeys and horses were all bleating with joy and innocence, urging us to believe in the power of renewal.

Amaras [Armenian Ariel]

Located in the Martuni district of Artsakh, Amaras was known as one of the most prominent religious and educational centers in medieval Armenia. We entered the Amaras Monastic Complex, one of the oldest Christian structures in the world, and made our way to the St. Grigoris Church. Once inside, we approached the shrine, said our prayers and climbed down to a tomb chamber directly beneath the altar. It was the burial place of Grigoris, the grandson of Armenia’s patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator. Grandson Grigoris was bishop of the Eastern Lands of Armenia, which included Artsakh. Grigoris preached the Holy Gospel on the territory of modern Dagestan and was martyred there in 348 AD after which his body was brought back to Artsakh and buried at this Monastery.

Grandfather Gregory ̶ who evangelized Armenia’s King Tiridates III (Drtad) around 300 AD and which ushered in mass conversion of the Armenian nation ̶ taught Christian doctrine at Amaras. At the beginning of the fifth century, theologian and linguist Mesrob Mashdots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet (406 AD), established in Amaras the first-ever school that used his script. Mashdots taught the alphabet to scribes, scholars and monks, after which students would go to Oshagan, Armenia, for further instruction. The monastery was built with 36 rooms to match the number of letters in the original Armenian alphabet and many times withstood mortar fire from the Azeris. The idea that a holy site so ancient and essential to the Armenian identity had been preserved after so many attempts at wilful destruction was mind-boggling.

Stylized Armenian Alphabet Letters [Ruben Malayan]

All around the inside of the fortified complex were fertile mulberry trees. The clergy harvested and derived income from them. We were encouraged to eat the savory white berries and did so with gusto. Our guide, Bartev*, like so many other caretakers of our national monuments, was wounded in the First Artsakh War. Though he did not speak of himself, he walked with a heavy limp and his eyes did not align. His aura carried the weight of the nation on his shoulders, at once despondent yet modest and proud.

Once back in Stepanakert, Artsakh’s capital, we enjoyed the peaceful energy that surrounded us as locals of all ages safely strolled in the evening along the main square directly in front of the Armenia Hotel. According to an Artsakh military officer Vahagn Zarougian*, “the Armenian Christian identity has made a comeback ever since the fall of Soviet institutions and the shelling of Armenian churches by Azerbaijan. These days, our churches are packed on Sundays and you will see great reverence among the people during the Divine Liturgy.”

Artsakh soil is very fertile. Whatever is planted seems to thrive. Fruits such as mulberries, pomegranates, walnuts, figs, dates and persimmon are prevalent in Artsakh. As for harvesting the farms, the produce first went to feed the army, then to the local populations. The national dish of Artsakh is jingyalov hats, stuffed, toasted flatbread with 20 or so locally grown herbs. Astghik*, our pilgrim from Yerevan, recalled her growing up years in an Armenian village in Georgia. She knew her ancestors came from Artsakh, and for the first time, witnessed customs in Artsakh that her family had practiced in Georgia. She saw the same fruits that her parents planted in their gardens, as well as the practice of animal husbandry. She remembers learning how, in the early 19th century, to escape Tatar persecution, the entirety of her ancestral village migrated to Georgia, which would explain why the traditions and customs they knew had lived on in Astghik’s generation. It was a profound feeling for Astghik to discover this and feel a direct spiritual connection to Artsakh.

The site of the Tigranakert Fortress, Museum and Church (Western Armenian spelling: Dikranagerd), found in the Askeran province, was named in honor of the Armenian king Tigranes II (Dikran the Great; r. 95–55 B.C.) and is part of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia.  Historic records indicate that King Dikran II founded four capital cities identically named and strategically located around his empire to function as regional administrative centers.

Family Tombstone [Lucine Kasbarian]

On the path leading up to the Vankasar Church, the trail was lined with sharp thistle flowers as if to protect the site from raiders. Hiking up to the Church, we came across a tombstone my family had installed with the blessings of the Artsakh authorities. Our family’s paternal side hailed from Dikranagerd, Western Armenia. Since our ancestral lands there have long been under Turkish domination, my father expressly wished to bury the remains of his late brother in the Dikranagerd locality that was in Armenian possession. His second brother’s remains are also buried there. The inscription on the tombstone is as follows:

Sarkis Haroutiun Kasbarian was born in the USA in 1929 and died in 2006. He was the son of Hagop Der Kasbarian, a native of the Alipounar village outside the Western Wall of Dikranagerd in Western Armenia. He was also the grandson of Der Kasbar, the village priest of Alipounar, who was martyred in the Hamidian Turkish Massacres of 1895. Sarkis Haroutiun is a son of Armenia, and his ashes rest here in Karabakh near a historic site representing one of the four capital cities of ancient Dikranagerd built by King Dikran the Great.

Vankasar Church in Tigranakert [Matthew Karanian]

As providence would have it, one day before the Azeri invasions in 2020, a journalist traveling in Artsakh stumbled upon this curiosity and captured it on film. Upon discovering that the deceased were my relatives, he emailed me his snapshot. Although I intended to bury the remains of my late parents in this plot per their wishes, it seems highly unlikely given that the area is now under Azeri occupation. Moreover, theseinvaders have developed a track record of defacing or demolishing Christian Armenian cultural heritage, so it would come as no surprise if the tombstone were destroyed.

Nayiri Demirchyan*, one of the principal caretakers of the Tigranakert Fortress and Museum noted that as of 2013, more than 60,000 people ̶ including tourists and archaeologists ̶ had visited the Tigranakert site, then 27 kilometers from Azeri border.

Excavations began after the 1994 Armenian liberation of Artsakh and the Museum showcased many archaeological finds. During King Dikran’s time, this fortress was a high-escalation observatory that overlooked the entire city. In the 7th century, the Armenian church was built. According to Demirchyan, since the 1950s, the Azeris and Russians plundered many treasures found underground. The basilica behind the Museum was ransacked and the most valuable items ̶ gold crosses and silver chalices ̶ were looted. Raiders also destroyed a great deal of evidence that detailed the Armenian provenance of the site and dumped cement to seal and disguise any Armenian trace, very much like the balkanization of Armenian Nakhichevan. Even so, during the Armenian excavations of 2008–2010, a fifth century Armenian basilica was uncovered, as were silver coins of the Parthian monarchs Mithridates IV (r. 57–54 BC) and Orodes II (r. 57–37 BC).

What message did Demirchyan have for the Armenian diaspora? “Every Armenian has his/her role to play, all over the world, in the strengthening of our nation. You are our voices abroad. Do your part wherever you see that you can do some good. Bring honor to your people wherever you can.”

Now in 2023, we can only insist that every Armenian around the world heed that call.

Our second guide, Beglar Hayrapetyan* was a veteran of the First Artsakh War. “Our heroic people deserve the very best and history has handed them the worst,” he said. Back in 2013, Hayrapetyan resided in the Tigranakert Museum complex and was three times bitten by poisonous snakes, each time curing himself through natural remedies. He was also presumed dead when he and four fellow resistance fighters went out on a mission during the First Artsakh War, not expected to return. Gravestones were crafted for each of them. All were martyred, except for Hayrapetyan, who survived his fatal wounds. His name remains on his tombstone and as of 2013, he would visit his departed comrades to pay tribute. Hayrapetyan’s attitude was stern: “We Armenians can endure anything: poverty, earthquakes, genocide, and every other sort of indignity. But the one thing we will not endure is treachery. If even one inch of Artsakh is given to the Azeris by Russia or even our own government, we will not stand for it.” In November 2021, following the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Artsakh, Armenian sources reported that Azerbaijanis not only shelled Tigranakert but that after seizing it, turned a section of it into a barbecue restaurant. Now, in 2023, when Azeris claim to have subsumed Artsakh and no one is preventing them from massacring disarmed Armenians, what do we tell defenders such as Hayrapetyan?

On Sunday afternoon, we began an uncertain trip to the remote Dadivank in the Karvajar district. I say uncertain because the winding roads were nearly impenetrable. I wished to lay eyes on one of the greatest medieval churches of Armenia. I also intended to honor my relatives, the Dadoyan clan, who descended from the church’s patron, St. Dadi, one of 70 disciples of Thaddeus the Apostle who spread Christianity in Eastern Armenia during the first century AD.

Dadivank [Shutterstock]

En route, people were tending to and cherishing their animals, whom they treated like members of their own families. While the living conditions were spartan, nature and resourceful natives had blessed the villages with every variety of flora – roses, pomegranate trees, lavender, chamomile – not to mention the imposing mountains, some verdant and some bald, and jagged cliffs that reach from great heights to all the way down to gurgling brooks. Visually, the American Grand Canyon, the travertines and hidden caves of Pamukkale, and the red canyons of Armenia’s Noravank came to mind.

As we approached a winding mountain bluff, it became impossible to continue by vehicle. We got out to complete the pilgrimage on foot. The inaccessible placement of this monastery, like so many others, was deliberately constructed to protect it from plunderers. As we followed a path of spirals towards our destination, it felt as if we were peeling away the layers of an onion... and with each turn, the anticipation was building to see this 9th century wonder.

We finally made out the monastery in the distance and were not disappointed. We had stumbled on a world that time had forgotten, one of the eldest, most eclectic structures Armenians have, and also one of the most time-worn. It was dusk when we finally arrived. To pray in this medieval church was transcendental and otherworldly. In July 2007, the grave said to belong to St. Dadi was discovered under the holy altar of the main church, named Holy Mother of God.  Gazing at Dadivank was like looking at an old Armenian who has suffered every indignity and yet still stood tall, proud and wise.

Renovation work financed by Armenian sources fortified the cathedral, chapel and interior frescoes starting in the early aughts and additional work was underway until the Azerbaijani attacks and occupations of 2020. While Russian peacekeepers were said to be stationed at Dadivank in the 44-Day War’s aftermath, their status and that of the monastic complex are imperiled today. In 2021, the Azeri authorities of Baku erected a “Spoils of War Theme Park,” glorifying the subjugation of Armenians replete with mannequins of caricaturized Armenian soldiers sporting grotesque expressions along with seized artillery and military objects. If such demonization is an everyday practice in Azerbaijan, what chance do Armenian holy sites, much less Armenians, have for survival?

We met the caretaker of Dadivank, a young man named Harut Hajar*. One could see that shell shock had affected him deeply. As it turned out, his parents joined the Armenian resistance movement during the First Artsakh War and lost their lives when he was a baby. Harut lived a solitary life in a small shack beside the church in this remote outpost, again given this job by the Artsakh government. I fought back tears and gave him a contribution to spend on himself in memory of his parents, St. Dadi and Dadi’s descendants.

Indeed, with every interaction, excursion and prayer, we felt the beauty and sufferings of the Armenian people on our skin and the amazing strength of these valiant people who have defended the homeland that is every Armenian’s birthright.

Incredulously, the hospitable people of Artsakh often asked us “What can WE do for YOU?” to which we four pilgrims replied, “You have already done it, and continue to do it every day in defending these lands on behalf of the entire Armenian nation.”

Lucine Kasbarian: Wilful Neglect

Now, 10 years later, Azerbaijan threatens to finish off the Armenian presence in Artsakh with sovereign Armenia itself the next target in its scope. As nations idly stand by while race extermination is underway, just as they did 100 years ago, we must find a way to defend and support these brave, heroic people who righteously cling to their one and only historic homeland. Whittled down in size and number by massacres practically once every generation and dismissed by the world, how much can one nation take?

On September 24, former Artsakh Foreign Minister David Babayan stated that the entire 120,000 indigenous population of Artsakh may relocate to Armenia to avoid persecution, torture and death at the hands of the Azerbaijani government. Whether the people of Artsakh plant their feet on their native soil and face execution, or flee, the Azeri ethnic cleansing of Artsakh is the intention.

This is not the first time Armenians have cautioned the world about subhuman tormentors in Asia Minor. Alas, global citizens will one day awaken to discover that if they stand up for liberty and their sovereign nation, they too shall be labeled terrorists and eliminated. But by then it will be too late.

*All names of interviewees have been changed to protect the innocent.


(c) 2023, ATour


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