When The World Looked Away: The Destruction Of Julfa Cemetery

Fifteen years after the erasure of one of humanity's most unique monuments, many wonder why the world’s institutions failed to stop its destruction.

In early December 2005, Nshan Topouzian, an ethnic Armenian bishop living in Iran, received an alarming tip-off. According to Iranian border guards, a demolition crew had arrived at the Armenian cemetery of Julfa, in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan.

The Armenian cemetery of Julfa. This is one of several photographs of the ancient cemetery that were taken by Aram Vruyr while on assignment for Christian East magazine in 1915.

After driving through Iran’s rocky northern landscape to the Azerbaijani border, Topouzian was able to capture video footage of the final destruction of a cultural monument that, in its scale and artistry, was unlike anything else.

Bishop Topouzian offers a tearful requiem from Iranian soil as the destruction of the Julfa cemetery takes place in Azerbaijani territory in the background. The bishop died in 2010.

Over several days, hundreds of ancient cross-stones, or "khachkars," were broken into rubble by men in military uniforms and dumped into the river between Azerbaijan and Iran.

Men working with sledgehammers at the Julfa cemetery in December 2005.

The site was the burial ground for the city of Julfa, a prosperous medieval trading center. Julfa's mostly Armenian population was evicted in 1605 during a conflict between the Ottoman and Persian empires.

A photo taken from Iranian territory of the 2005 destruction.

Khachkars are stone slabs historically used by Armenian Christians as memorials to the dead or to mark the location of significant events.

Khachkars in the Julfa cemetery in 1915

Armenian tradition holds that no two khachkars are alike and all are sacred. They are often carved with lace-like details and fantastical creatures whose identity is lost to time.

A young man poses among khachkars and a stone ram in the Julfa cemetery in 1915.

Many believe the cross-stones serve as a kind of mediator between heaven and the soul of those buried beneath.

A man leans on a khachkar topped with a winged creature in the Julfa cemetery in 1915.

Since the first war for Nagorno-Karabakh broke out between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the late 1980s, people as well as monuments have fallen victim to furious debates over who has the strongest historical claims to disputed land.

A section of the cemetery during the Soviet era

In the Armenian capital, Yerevan, an Azerbaijani mosque was demolished in the early 1990s and remaining Islamic monuments were labelled "Persian." In the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, authorities destroyed a historic Armenian church, while inside the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan authorities began a systematic erasure of Armenian heritage.

One of several mysterious stone rams in the Julfa cemetery, photographed in 1915.

Despite extensive documentary evidence of the Julfa cemetery’s destruction, Azerbaijani officials have either denied the cemetery was Armenian or that it ever existed in the first place.

The Julfa cemetery photographed from Iran in 1976.

In 2006, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared, "As you know, some Armenian circles, the Armenian lobby, and some influential politicians have recently raised a clamor against the alleged destruction of Armenian tombstones in Naxcivan; this is absolutely false and slanderous information; one more Armenian's invention."

A detail of a Julfa khachkar photographed in 1915.

The Armenian that Aliyev was referring to may have been Simon Maghakyan, who has written extensively about Armenian heritage in Naxcivan. The U.S.-based researcher told RFE/RL that the destruction of the Julfa cemetery "was the largest single case of erasure" of Armenian heritage in the tightly policed Naxcivan region.

A detail of a Julfa khachkar

But the 2005 destruction, which was only the final and most brazen demolition of the cemetery, went largely unnoticed by the outside world despite shocking Armenians and some Azerbaijanis.

A boy poses next to one of Julfa’s rams in 1915.

An Azerbaijani historian who grew up in Naxcivan and remembers passing by the cemetery as a child on the railway that runs alongside the site, spoke with RFE/RL by telephone.

Members of an expedition to Julfa pose in 1928. A part of the cemetery is visible on the right.

The Azerbaijani academic, who asked not to be named, says the destruction at Julfa offended not only Armenians but also many Azerbaijanis in Naxcivan: “They saw it as a part of their history, too,” and says school groups would often be taken to explore the historical site.

An undated photo showing a section of the cemetery. On the right side of the riverbank is Iran. The Aras River serves as the international border.

Many people have criticized the silence from UNESCO after the 2005 razing of Julfa and contrasted it with the organization’s strong response to the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and of the ancient city of Palmyra by Islamic State militants in Syria in 2015.

The road in Iran that runs alongside the border with Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan exclave. The site where Julfa stood is visible in the background on the right of the photo.

Maghakyan believes senior UNESCO officials were effectively bought off with the so-called "caviar diplomacy' that oil-rich Azerbaijan is known for.

Chunks of broken khachkars being dumped during the 2005 demolition.

An investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that in 2012-14, shadowy companies linked to Azerbaijan paid $468,000 to Kalin Mitrev, the husband of then-UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. Mitrev has said the payments were legitimate fees for consultancy services (Bokova's Twitter account was temporarily deactivated on December 9, the same day this report was issued).

Photos before and after the 2005 destruction of the cemetery at Julfa shows the ancient tombstones had been replaced with a shooting range set up on the site.

In 2013, after a $5 million donation from Baku, UNESCO held a photo exhibition called Azerbaijan -- Land Of Tolerance, at its Paris headquarters. In 2019, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee held its annual meeting in Baku.

A 2020 satellite image showing a patriotic Turkic phrase (top left), meaning “everything for the motherland,” is written in six meter-high letters near where the Julfa cemetery once stood.

In response to an e-mailed query from RFE/RL, UNESCO Chief of Communications Matthieu Guevel did not directly address the organization's lack of response to the 2005 Julfa destruction, saying only that UNESCO "has expressed on several occasions, in public and via diplomatic channels, its concern for the protection of cultural heritage everywhere in the world."

A soldier poses next to a Julfa khachkar in 1915.

Guevel, however, pushed back against accusations of corruption, saying Azerbaijani donations represent only a fraction of contributions from UNESCO members.

A dove depicted on the fragment of an ancient stone ram in Julfa, photographed in 1915.

In light of reports of the possible destruction of cultural heritage sites by soldiers during the most recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Guevel says UNESCO is "now working with all concerned parties to dispatch a mission on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, with a view to assessing the situation and protecting the cultural heritage of this region."