Azerbaijanis navigate their homecoming to Karabakh

The stated views of Azerbaijanis and Armenians on the history and heritage of Karabakh differ wildly. Opiinion.

Diana Cohen Altman ,

Eastern cuisine in Baku, Azerbaijan
Eastern cuisine in Baku, Azerbaijan
iStock

Azerbaijanis today face the homecoming predicament following their recent victory in a six-week war over the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 30 years of Armenian inhabitation has literally changed the landscape of Azerbaijani life in Karabakh (“Nagorno” simply means “mountainous”).

The Azerbaijani homecoming to Karabakh has a Jewish side, in that Muslim-majority Azerbaijan has been home to Jews for centuries. Jews such as Daniel Zarbaliv from the all-Jewish town of Krasnaya Sloboda in the city of Quba have long lived, worked, and fought alongside their Muslim compatriots.

Zarbaliv exudes pride in “liberating lands that were conquered more than 30 years ago.” His sentiments echo those of Albert Agarunov, the Azerbaijani Jew who was killed in May 1992 while trying to save his fellow soldiers as they defended Karabakh. Agarunov posthumously received his government’s highest military recognition, the National Hero of Azerbaijan. Before his death in battle, he had said, “This is my land. I don’t have another motherland. It’s natural for me to defend my home.”

Azerbaijanis worldwide, even those with no family roots in Karabakh, are rejoicing at what they see as finally returning home. Many Azerbaijanis consider Karabakh to be the heart of Azerbaijan’s rich, sophisticated cultural heritage that endured for centuries. The loss of Karabakh, beginning in 1988, came as a shock to many. The younger generation may not remember life before Azerbaijan’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, but they carry a passion for Karabakh.

To what, exactly, are Azerbaijanis returning home?

Remembering the Karabakh that was

For the more than 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were forced to flee Karabakh for Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, the homecoming signifies returning to their family and childhood roots. Karabakh may invoke a maelstrom of deeply unhappy and deeply happy memories.

To many other Azerbaijanis, returning home invokes visions of artists, musicians, and poets in Shusha, the city known as “the conservatory of the Caucasus.” Some might remember museums in Karabakh established in honor of those beloved cultural figures. But according to the Azerbaijan National Committee of the International National Council of Museums (ICOM), “As a result of the conflict in Karabakh, a total of 900 settlements, 150,000 houses, 7,000 public buildings, 693 schools, 855 kindergartens, 695 medical institutions, 927 libraries, 44 temples, 9 mosques, 473 historical monuments, 22 museums, more than 100,000 museum exhibits, and other infrastructure facilities were destroyed.”


Destruction of cultural property is one devastating consequence of war, but what about the uprooting of culture? What happens to the children’s choir that honed its skills on Karabakh’s soil? Or to the artisans and production facilities that created the Karabakh carpets so prized by oriental carpet collectors worldwide? As too many know too well, uprooting traditions has consequences.

Protecting the artifacts

In recent weeks, UNESCO, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others, have issued impassioned appeals for artifacts in post-war Karabakh to be accorded respect. The Azerbaijan Ministry of Culture, ICOM’s Azerbaijan National Committee, and others have been quick to respond how “too little, too late” these appeals come across to Azerbaijani stewards of culture. The ICOM committee has provided the Met with a comprehensive account of Azerbaijani culture in Karabakh to address.

To understand this dialogue about cultural property protection, Western onlookers must accept a premise that is at the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The stated views of Azerbaijanis and Armenians on the history and heritage of Karabakh often differ wildly. Generally, Azerbaijanis consider Karabakh a cradle of Azerbaijani culture and civilization and an integral part of Azerbaijan. Armenians largely feel Karabakh is an Armenian republic with a rich Armenian history and culture.

Smithsonian magazine, in its most recent appeal on behalf of Armenian cultural property in Karabakh, opened with, “The fate of Armenian cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh is unknown.”

Going home to Karabakh

One of Karabakh’s cherished cultural figures of old may inspire resilience in those returning to Karabakh. Azerbaijani poet Khurshidbanu Natavan (1832-97) channeled personal tragedy into lyrical poems, or ghazals, that came to be revered. She also created Shusha’s first literary society and implemented a water source that solved the town’s biggest engineering challenge.

Today, visitors to Baku may spend time with the statue of Natavan in front of the Hard Rock Café in the central outdoor mall. Tomorrow, with the reopening of Karabakh, the world may find new ways to know Natavan and other Azerbaijani heroes of Karabakh. And no doubt Azerbaijanis will find new ways to build on the heritage they hold so dear.

Diana Cohen Altman is principal of Cultural Diplomacy Associates, LLC, a former exhibition editor at the Smithsonian Institution and former executive director of the Karabakh Foundation, a cultural charity organization that preserves the heritage and traditions of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus area. She also directed the B’nai B’rith National Jewish Museum and Archive.



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