Bastien Varoutsikos

About Bastien Varoutsikos

Bastien Varoutsikos is a PhD student in Archaeology at Harvard University. He focuses on questions of transition in Prehistory in the Near East and the Caucasus, which led him to work in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Israel among other places. In parallel to his research, he's been particularly active in outreach work, integrating local communities in the development of his research, and documenting destruction of cultural heritage in the Levant, South Caucasus and Africa. He is particularly interested in management of cultural items in periods of conflicts, and supports both an adaptation of the legislation at an local and international scale, as well as an evolution of the practices of professionals in the course of their fieldwork, to develop a more inclusive understanding of cultural heritage and how to protect it.

Khachkars and Icons: Looting in pre- and post-Soviet Armenia

Located on the piedmont of the Caucasus mountain range, the country of Armenia illustrates an interesting paradox. It is, on one hand, a nation-state born out of, and partly modeled by, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it is also a country that dogmatically identifies itself with civilizations more than 2000 years-old, and defends the idea of an evolving yet continuous Armenian identity.

Armenia is a country with changing borders as it underwent several episodes of invasions by Ottomans, Russians, Persians. Overall, its modern situation is structured around several antagonistic claims with neighboring countries that have their roots both in long-term historical processes and recent geopolitical development. A recent war and conflicting territorial claims with Azerbaijan, political unrest with Turkey over the recognition of the 1915 Genocide and its support of the Azerbaijan as well as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and, despite, an exit from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, a complex and ambiguous relationship with Russia, are all factors that impacted Armenia’s cultural identity and heritage management.

Landlocked Armenia Landlocked Armenia
Google Earth

Amidst those invasions and torn territories, the Armenian identity was created and preserved through the development of specific features, i.e., religion and script. In 301 AD, Grigor Lusarovich (the “Illuminator”) made Christianity Armenia’s official state religion. This historical event placed Armenia at the heart of Christendom’s history, and the Christian religion at the core of Armenian identity. Consequently, increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a known and widespread phenomenon with particular meaning in Armenia as its Christian heritage has been predominantly emphasized, and, as such, the target of specific attacks.

More generally, changes in regime and social structure impacted the safeguard of cultural and historical objects, either because of their association with a particular ethnic/religious group, or simply as the object of international antiquities trade (and the ensuing looting activities), both aspects that have been going on for almost a century.

Destructive Ideologies

A particularly telling example is the fate of Armenia’s cultural heritage during the 1915 Genocide in modern Turkish territories. If the cost of the cultural destruction that occurred is still unknown several sources report destruction of books, and religious artifacts, using the term “cultural genocide”. Beyond such an expression is a desire to express a large-scale and institutionalized effort to erase Armenia’s presence from a given geographical space. Today, some websites (and even a youtube channel ) specialize in finding “treasures” in Armenian houses on Turkish territory that Armenians supposedly left while fleeing the country .

During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, damages occurring to cultural heritage, and looting/destruction of cultural artifacts were reported by both sides of the conflict. When Armenian news media described the looting of Armenian museums during the pogrom of Sumgait, Azerbaidjan media were denouncing the destruction of Azerii-associated heritage, archaeological artefacts, historical monuments, libraries, and even suggesting the organization of large-scale non-professional excavation of graves and burial mounds throughout Karabakh, and particularly Shusha. However, both sides widely publicize efforts to preserve any type of cultural heritage, although sometimes while modifying slightly the identity of the creator. Thus, the destructions occurring are a bilateral process, and both individual actions and institutionalized programs have been involved in destruction and preservation of South Caucasus heritage.

A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin
armenica.org

The destruction of Khachkar in Nakhitchevan exemplifies a large-scale, institutionalized case of destruction. While not objects subject to the international antiquities market, the destruction and looting of those sculptures in Djulfa (or Jugha) calls for public awareness. Khachkars are situated at the border between artifact and monument. Part of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010, khachkars are carved stone steles representing crosses and closely associated with Armenian communities. In Armenia itself, there are more than 50,000 of those steles , bearing witness to more than 1500 years of transmitted traditions and know-how. The cemetery of Djulfa in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhitchevan was a medieval site with more than a thousand khachkars (up to 10,000 thousands). Despite denials by the Azerbaijani authorities, this destruction has been documented through testimonies, videos, and satellite imagery, as a recent study carried out by the AAAS showed the deliberate progressive destruction of the site since the early 2000s . The study was supported by amateur videos showing soldiers destroying the steles with a sledge-hammer. Despite support from the ICOMOS, the position adopted by UNESCO is unclear at best, and the Azerbaijan authorities have not only made any fact-finding mission in the area impossible, they’ve also denied the very existence of Armenian cultural heritage in this area which was, following their version, previously inhabited by Caucasian Albanians.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the looting and destruction of Armenian (and non-Armenian goods on Armenian territory) that took place during several episodes of unrest in the region. They resulted from the ideological struggle of conflicting nationalisms. However, other sources mention the existence of a different type of looting and destruction– one motivated by economic, financial imperatives, and aimed at providing Armenian cultural artifacts to the international antiquities market.

Icons for sale

The most prominent aspect is the traffic of religious icons that has been taking place for at least 40 years. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, several sources revealed the existence of an almost institutionalized traffic, connecting western art dealers with local mafia across the USSR.

Michel van Rijn makes mention of this system in his autobiography, that stands out for its absolute lack of remorse, and by its insights into the world of the international antiquities market. That market relied both on the structures developed by the USSR to acquire some currency, and on the fate of church property during the XXth century in this part of the world.

Novoexport (Новоэкспорт) was an enterprise set up by the government to sell goods from the Union to foreign visitors. This initiative was developed during the Perestroïka in order to keep the state reserves afloat by selling “overpriced rubbish” (Van Rijn 1991) to westerners. As with most other Soviet institutions, Novoexport shops were accompanied by a tedious bureaucratic system that provided each item with excessively stamped paperwork certifying its origin, authenticity, mode of acquisition, etc… Art dealers who bought the worthless items sold by Novoexport were provided with valid documentation to carry objects out of the Soviet Union.

Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat'an The Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat’an, 17th century
Melkianicollection.com

Van Rijn met Dergazarian, an icon dealer in Beirut, Lebanon, at some point in the 1980s. Dergarzarian, an Armenian, introduced to the art dealer the infinite business possibilities offered by the “treasure trove” Armenia was, both in terms of its cultural wealth and the ease with which they could be smuggled out of the country. Soon, the two collaborators flew to Yerevan in order to meet with the local intelligentsia, diplomats, and local KGB agents largely involved in the traffic. Business, it seems, was done with “rubles and French brandy”. At this point van Rijn not only realized the potential for business, but also the scale of the traffic. The scheme was fairly simple. First, van Rijn needed to acquire a valuable icon. This was done through his contact with the Armenian mafia whose members he met through Dergazarian. In order to gain their trust, van Rijn also starts dealing with human trafficking, smuggling people out of the Soviet Union. Let’s note here that it is not unexpected to see antiquities associated with other “items”like (as it is the case in Cyprus) heroin. In Armenia, this dual trade was managed by the local mafia. Through them by the time of the Perestroika, van Rijn had access to an extensive and efficient network and stock of different types of artefacts, mostly icons. He would find an icon with equivalent features (size, theme) in one of the Novoexport shops and simply use the official license to launder and export the illicit goods to Europe (another technique consisted in modifying custom declaration forms in Poland)

This was far from being an isolated case. During the economic reforms of the 80s, dealers bought private antiquities that they exported through diverse methods in western countries, as people seemed willing to sell their family treasures– mostly 18th- 19th century icons– on the black market. Officials at all levels of the hierarchy were involved in this trade including Russian administrators and foreign diplomats. Van Rijn mentions the case of a Finnish diplomat stopped at the border where Russian customs, neglecting the diplomatic status of the suspect, found undeclared antique goods in his luggage. In Russia, the smuggling of cultural contraband is a criminal offense under the Part 2 of Art. 188 of the Criminal Code.

Religious icons are still the object of an intense traffic– especially from the Caucasus region. Last year, an Israeli citizen was caught at the Armenian-Georgian border , trying to smuggle out eighteen undeclared, unlicensed icons. A few years earlier Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev gave to visiting President Medvedev five russian icons confiscated by the customs. In 2009, in the region of Krasnodar, the customs police arrested an Armenian citizen who was trying to smuggle two “ancient icons” into  Ukraine after covering them with a layer of mastic .

These are only a few examples of a long-lasting traffic. If national and international regulations have improved the situation, much is left to be done, both at the level of local protection and on the international antiquities market. Furthermore, this market creates a demand for Armenian antiquities, and a structure for its illicit exportation, thus encouraging destructive behaviors in museums and archaeological sites.

Treasure hunt

Indeed these institutional issues have an impact at another level. In parallel to the smuggling of religious art, other types of destruction take place resulting in damages to the archaeological sites themselves.

The development of archaeological projects in Armenia led to the emergence of treasure hunting. A UCLA news report noted that, after the discovery in Areni cave of the world’s “oldest shoe”, some reporters said that they were looking for shoes filled with gold, “which sparkled a wild looting spree throughout the country” . Indeed, whether related to this particular case or not, several cases of looting of archaeological sites have been witnessed in Areni by the project team and at least at two other locations by the author. At one of those sites, a group of people from the neighboring village explained that they were looking for burial, gold, and old objects in order to sell them. On two occasions, archaeological artifacts (bronze daggers, prehistoric pottery) were identified on the stands of the “Vernissage”, the flee market of Yerevan.

In any country this phenomenon would be an unfortunate yet possible outcome of the development of archaeology and broader access by the public to its results. However, the UCLA news highlights some of the outreach projects planned by the international team in Areni to sensitize the local communities to the value of their heritage.

Several types of destruction have been presented here. Some are the result of nationalism and ideological struggle, while others answer to an international demand for antiquities. In parallel with a more systematic enforcement of international laws and an adaptation of legislation regulating existing loopholes in local criminal codes, cultural heritage professionals, art historians, and archaeologists need to keep developing projects which integrate local communities in their research and encourage an ever-increasing commitment of the public to the protection of its history.

Update: Mali’s cultural heritage in danger

Mali is one of the few countries in Western Africa where evidence of human occupation from the Middle (and possibly Lower) Palaeolithic to the modern day can be found (Mayor et al. 2005). The intense exploration of the Sahara has built a clearer picture of the expansion of modern humans, from around 100,000 to 50,000 BP, moving westward through the continent, crossing into countries such as Niger, Sudan, Chad and Libya. It is in the Ounjougou site complex in the Dogon Region where the longest prehistoric sequence in western Sub-Saharan Africa has been documented (Robert et al. 2003; Truman 2006). Mali has also provided some key sites regarding the spread of Neolithic people in Western Africa (Gallay 1966). At sites such as Kobadi, the adaptation of the population in changing environments has been observed (Georgeon et al. 1990; Raimbault and Dutour 1990).

The Bronze Age in Mali is a particularly interesting period as it raises the question of whether there were long-distance relationships between the sub-Saharan region and Europe. The area of Adrar des Iforas is home to a number of petroglyphs, the majority dated between the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some of the forms depicted here are similar to petroglyphs found around Italy, England and Portugal, among other countries (Dupuy 2010).

© OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
Tomb of Askia

Archaeologically renowned, some of the oldest cities in western Africa are situated in this country. A series of different kingdoms (Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Mossi and Segou) have evolved throughout the past two millennia, leading to the creation of cities such as Djenné, Timbuktu or Gao. The Arab conquest of this area seems to have happened as early as the XIth century but became widespread under the Kindgom of Mali and specifically during the reign of the XIVth century ruler Kangan (or Kankan) Moussa. After coming back from Al hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca, Moussa launched a program of construction throughout the country, having architects from Al-Andalus and Cairo building mosques, madrasas and palaces. He enlisted Abu Ishaq Es Saheli to construct the Djinguereber Mosque in 1327, which then became an important centre for the diffusion of Islam knowledge in the region. Most famously, Moussa is known for initiating the construction of the Sankore Madrasah in 1324. In 1495 the Songhai Empire, adopting Soudan-Sahelian Islamic architecture, erected a monument by Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla (known as Mohammed Askia) – the Tomb of Askia.

Another feature of Mali’s cultural heritage worth mentioning is the Hediab, a collection of thousands of manuscripts, theological and scientific treaties dating back as far as the pre-Islamic era and written in Arabic or the Peul language. These are usually kept at the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba, but Malian officials say that most of these manuscripts have now been relocated to a safer area.

© UNESCO Auteur Francesco Bandarin
Djenne

The previous list is not meant to be exhaustive but instead aims at highlighting some of the key heritage features of the country. Since the late 1980s, UNESCO has submitted four cultural sites to its World Heritage List:

  • The Old Town of Djenné in 1988, with its 2000 traditional toguere-built houses.
  • The City of Timbuktu in 1988, covering the three main mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, as well as 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, considered as “essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief; they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune. “
  • The Tomb of Askia in 2004.
  • The Cliff of Bandiagara, a mixed natural and cultural landscape, in 1989.

Furthermore, nine other locations of great importance have now been submitted to the World Heritage List, a move that acknowledges and protects more than 2,000 years of history as recent geopolitical developments are endangering the unique culture of the Malian Heritage.

The Political Situation and Main Players Involved in the Conflict

© UNESCO Auteur F. Bandarin
Timbuktu

Earlier this week, the UNESCO World Heritage Collection (WHC) put the city of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia, Mali, on the list of World Heritage in Danger. The original request was conducted by the Malian government following a series of insurrections that took place in the northern part of the country and ultimately led to the establishment of an unrecognised Islamist State in the region of Azawad.

Since the times of French colonization, people in the northern part of Mali, the majority made up of Tuareg and Arabic populations, expressed their desire for an independent state as they considered themselves more oriented towards a sub-Saharan culture. The current events that have taken place since the start of 2012 represent the most recent development in a series of uprisings commencing as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was heavily criticized for his handling of the crisis in northern Mali. Indeed, after the fall of the Libyan official army, for which many Tuaregs and members of the future National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were fighting, the unrest in northern Mali was reignited by a series of declarations and armed actions taken by the MNLA and an Islamist movement known as Ansar Dine (or Ançar Dine) against several cities of the region. In March, President Touré was ousted by a coup led by several groups in the military. The transitory council, presided by Amadou Sagono, suspended the constitution and aimed to restructure the territorial integrity of the Malian Sate. However, in April, the MNLA unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the state of Azawad. It is not yet recognized by any other states. In May, the MNLA officially announced its merging with the Salafist group Ansar Dine to create the Conseil Transitoire de l’État Islamique d’Azawad. It is important to keep in mind that despite some allegations by the Malian government, the MNLA denies any connection with Al Qaeda and aims at the restoration of a laic republic in Azawad. On the other hand, Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, aims at the application of Sharia law throughout the state of Mali, and has been suggested as a potential ally of the Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) movement. These divergences, along with others, have led to the dissolution of their previous agreement. After several clashes between the two groups, Ansar Dine declared full control of the North of Mali.

Today, the conflict involves three groups: the elected government, still led by the council of transition, presided by Amadou Sagono; the Salafist group of Ansar Dine and the MNLA, currently led by the president of the Executive Committee of the State of Azawad, Mahmoud Ag Aghaly. The situation is currently unstable and no international actions have been taken so far. However, the worsening of the humanitarian situation in northern Mali, as shown by UNICEF Anthony Lake’s declaration mentioning in this area the spread of rapes and recruitment of child soldiers, calls for a rapid decision from the international community.

Damages to Cultural Heritage in Mali

Damages to the cultural heritage of Mali started before the attacks carried out against the mausoleums of Timbuktu. As early as April this year, the offices of the Hediab were ransacked several times, although no damages to the manuscripts have been reported. Reports also mentioned the damages done in late April to a mausoleum of the 16th century Sufi Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar by Ansar Dine, including “breaking windows, [and] burning the cloth surrounding the tomb of the saint.” On June 2nd, the New York Times reported the destruction of possibly another saint shrine, although no further information was available.

Concerned by these developments, UNESCO issued a decision on June 28th aiming to put Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Two days later and possibly as a reaction to this decision, the destruction of the mausoleums were reported in some newspapers. Sanda Ould Boumama, Ansar Dine’s spokesman, let the media know that the goal of his organization was to get rid of all the mausoleums in the city without any exception. The purpose of this is to install Sharia Islamic law across Mali. Let us here recall the Salafist group’s version of Islam, who believe that God is unique and who forbid the very existence of saints, and a fortiori their representation. On Saturday 30th, several press agencies received the confirmation of the destruction of three mausoleums:  the Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha MoyaLe Monde reported the destruction of seven mausoleums in total, adding Cheikh el-Kébir to the list, a site located on the grounds of Djingareyber. The Agence France-Presse notes:

“Islamist rebels in northern Mali took hoes and chisels to the tombs of ancient Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu for a second day, ignoring international pleas to halt their campaign of destruction. A local journalist said dozens of Islamists had swarmed the cemetery of Djingareyber in the south of the ancient city of Timbuktu.”

The Independent quotes Aboubacrine Cissé, a local resident,

“This morning, the Islamists continued breaking the mausoleums. This is our patrimony, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are continuing to destroy all the tombs of all the saints of Timbuktu, and our city counts 333 saints.”

It has now been a few weeks since the destruction of the mausoleums started, and an eighth building has possibly been destroyed. In addition to these irrecoverable damages, the dispersion of historical manuscripts as well as artifacts might “become the object of looting and trafficking for profit” in the turmoil. Additionally, the location of other precious cultural sites in the region now controlled by the Salafist group, whether they are on the World Heritage List, such as the Tomb of Askia in Gao, or not, should be a cause for concern for countries around the world.

What Is Currently Being Done? 

Beyond the destruction carried out against cultural heritage sites, a broader control issue has arisen by the current geopolitical situation in northern Mali. West Africa called for an intervention supported by the UN Security council in order to regulate the situation in this area and take action against the armed forces controlling the North of the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS) is favouring negotiation while planning on sending 3,300 men into the country, although needing international support to legitimize this action. The UN, African Union and European Union are however requesting more details about the ECWAS’ plan of action. More recently, the UN Security Council called for sanctions against the individuals related to Al Qaeda in Northern Mali and asked the rebel groups in this area not to associate themselves with AQMI.

In terms of cultural heritage, the Malian Minister of Arts, Tourism and Culture, Diallo Fadima, is asking the UN to take concrete measures to stop the destruction of Mali’s patrimony. Fatou Bensouda, procurer for the International Criminal Court, declared on Sunday 1st July in Dakar that destruction of these mosques and madrasas was considered a “war crime” and exhorted the groups involved to stop their actions immediately. On Tuesday 3rd, in St Petersburg, UNESCO and Diallo Fadima produced an appeal to governments and “all people of goodwill” to prevent the destruction of these monuments. The World Heritage Committee is, on the other hand, asking the UNESCO President, Irina Bokova, to create a special fund “to help Mali preserve its cultural patrimony from attacks” with financial aid from UNESCO members and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

CONCLUSION – Why Should We Care?

Reuters recalls how these attacks have been inline with other events throughout the Arab world for the past few years, as, for example, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyian in Afghanistan in 2001. However, a new line was crossed this year when attacks started being focused directly at symbols of Islam. Reuters mentions that “experts are comparing the Timbuktu tomb destructions to similar attacks against Sufi shrines by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya.” If there is indeed a history of unrest between the different Islamic groups, this type of behaviour seems like a new phenomenon. As mentioned earlier in this article, Salafists are defending their own version of Islam, defining legal systems based on the Sharia, and imposing iconoclasm throughout their territories. From this perspective the Sufi Shrines of the “333 saints” of Timbuktu have to disappear to make space for a “purer Islam.”

There is here a dangerous desire to standardize and homogenize Islam throughout the world by the destruction of its unorthodox (again from these groups’ perspective) cultural components. Therefore, beyond the protection of these monuments, it is freedom of religion, of cultural expression, of consciousness that has to be defended. It is also the right of self-determination, to the free construction of one’s own identity and the safeguard of a people’s memory that is here at stake.