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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.