Still Under Siege: Armenians and the Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.
July 7, 2021 Updated: July 9, 2021

In 1965, I was an eighth grader at Virginia’s Staunton Military Academy, a school now long defunct.

One day a classmate, Thomas A., told me the story of his Armenian grandmother, how some Turkish troops had entered her village, how she had hidden away either in a cellar or under a bed (that detail has vanished from my memory) while neighbors and family members were either shot or bayoneted, and how she and a few others had escaped and eventually made their way to the United States.

I was too young and ignorant at the time to understand that Thomas was relating to me a detail of the Armenian genocide, when in World War I and afterward the Ottoman Empire murdered around 1.5 million Armenians. The reasons behind this genocide were both religious—the Turks were Muslims, the Armenians Christians—and political. In the latter case, the Turks feared that the Armenians might attempt to rebel against the empire as had some of its other subject peoples. By means of mass executions, death marches, and forced emigration, the Turks obliterated their Armenian subjects.

They also erased Armenian culture. Several thousand churches, schools, and libraries were destroyed—either leveled to the ground or converted to some extraneous use. The remains of the ancient monastery of Varagavank, for example, are now used as a shed for fodder for domestic animals.

And this destruction continues today.

A Brief History

In late June, the Museum of the Bible, an outfit with 430,000 square feet of exhibits and various collections in Washington, D.C., began featuring a virtual exhibition titled Ancient Faith: The Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh. Here we learn that Armenians have long claimed that two apostles of Jesus—Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus—were the first to introduce Christianity in this region. The people fervently embraced this new religion, and in A.D. 301, Armenia under the rule of King Tiridates the Great became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

Over the next millennia, Armenians built thousands of churches, monasteries, schools, and scriptoria, which produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Sacred sites and khachkars, or “cross stones,” dotted the cities and the countryside.

Khachkars in cemetery
Khachkars of Noratus, an old cemetery. The oldest khachkars (Armenian cross stones) are from the ninth and tenth centuries, but most of them are from the 13th to 17th centuries. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because Armenia was a crossroads between Europe and Asia, the land suffered from wars and invasions, with the most significant being the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. Even then, the Armenians managed to practice their faith, surviving all of these assaults on their traditions.

Then the 20th century arrived.

Khachkar1_Gyumri
A beautiful “khachkar” or “cross stone” in Gyumri, Armenia. (Crispin Semmens/CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Slate Wiped Clean

From 1915 to 1922, the Armenian genocide and the destruction of many buildings and artifacts wiped out much of Armenian culture and religious practices. Later, in those areas under the thumb of the Soviet Union, authorities clamped down on Armenian Christianity, imprisoned some priests, and closed many of the remaining churches, allowing them to fall into disrepair.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought new conflicts to the region. The Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum and declared that tiny country an independent state, breaking away from Azerbaijan. A bloody war ensued, leaving the Armenians in control of the region and holding parts of Azerbaijan. In 2020, war again erupted between the two countries, which resulted in the Azeris controlling about half of the Karabakh territory.

As the team of scholars who contributed to “Ancient Faith: The Churches of Nagorno-Karabakh” point out, this conflict has brought additional destruction of churches, monasteries, and religious shrines, with the Azeris apparently intent on eradicating all signs of Armenian culture. Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, for instance, though meaningless as a military target, was heavily damaged by missiles fired by the Azeris, as was Tigranakert, a city dating back to the Hellenistic period, where the ancient ruins were also targeted.

Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan itself, from 1997 to 2006, exhibition researchers have “documented the destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, using satellite images to track the destruction of the sites, showed the phased disappearance of Christian monuments in the Djlufa cemetery of Nakhchivan.”

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, a cathedral in the city of Shushi in Nagorno Karabakh. (Martin Trabalik/Shutterstock)i
Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, a cathedral in the city of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Martin Trabalik/Shutterstock)

Worthwhile Visits

When we take the virtual tour offered by the Museum of the Bible, looking at these buildings, many of them now tumble-down and broken by the ravages of time and war, we may experience several emotions: a wonder rising from the beauty of these structures and those long-departed men and women who gave their treasure and toil to create them, a sadness that the violence and turmoil of the last century has damaged or even eliminated them entirely, and anger that some people intend to continue this destruction.

If we open the link to the ancient monastery and cathedral at Dadivank, for example, we find ourselves visiting a church “believed to have been founded at the end of the first century.” Here in the main church are frescoes from the 13th century, intricately carved khachkars in the bell tower that left me wondering how anyone ever crafted such marvels, and beautiful illuminated pages from the Bible. During your visit here, be sure to watch the video of the teenagers producing 3D images of the monastery.

Dadivank_fresco
A fragment of a fresco in Dadivank Monastery, 13th century, from Shahen Mkrtchian’s book “Treasures of Artsakh.” (Public Domain)

Or take in the village of Tsar, “once home to a fortress, a vaulted cathedral, churches, cemeteries, and a medieval bridge.” Over time, vandals damaged many of these monuments. During the Soviet period, stones from some churches and headstones from graveyards were stripped for use in new buildings, including a school in which many of the tombstones embedded in the walls can still be read.

Our tour of the cathedral of Ghazanchetsots introduces us to a newer building, once a gem in the city until the bombing two years ago. The accompanying video gives us an introduction to the beauty of the land, but, even more, grants us a glimpse of the culture when we meet a young couple married in the cathedral just days after missiles hit the church. In the words and faces of the bride and groom, we find the tenacity that has so long sustained the Armenians through their many ordeals.

A Cultural Impoverishment

Human beings have a long history of iconoclasm, the destruction for political or religious reasons of monuments, libraries, houses of worship, statues, and shrines. The loss of the ancient library of Alexandria with its tens of thousands of scrolls, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders and later by the Muslims in 1453, the attacks on artwork and statues during the time of the Protestant Reformation: These and many other assaults in the past have left our culture poorer.

Modernity has also wreaked havoc on art and culture. The Nazi book burnings, the Soviet Union’s destruction of churches, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in which the communists tried to sweep away all evidence of China’s past, the Khmer Rouge’s wholesale attempt at demolishing ancient Cambodian arts: Modern totalitarianism is as capable of inflicting cultural ruination as any ancient warlord. Even in the United States, the last few years have seen statues of those we once regarded as heroes toppled or removed from the public square.

The rage behind some of this desecration is understandable. During the American Revolution, for example, New Yorkers tore down a statue of George III. And during the collapse of the Soviet Union, mobs tore down statues of Stalin.

But when some indulge in cultural genocide, seeking to wipe out an entire culture, they are destroying not just that culture but also a part of humanity’s historical record, its great art, its books, and even its music.

Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, recently issued this plea to the world: “I pray that the world will awaken to this call, standing up to protect this small piece of land and its significant contribution to universal human culture.”

Agreed.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.