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What it Means that Artsakh's Ancient Amaras Monastery Has Fallen Under Azeri Control

Situated in the heart of the South Caucasus, amidst the Artsakh Valley, surrounded by orchards and vineyards, built block by block from white sandstone extracted from the foothills of  Mt Hazaz stands one of the oldest Christian monuments, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Amaras Monastery. Intimately tied to the propagation of Christianity in the eastern reaches of Armenia during the 4th century AD, Amaras was founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator who founded and was the first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Amaras Monastery

Amaras Monastery has been a center for the foundations of Armenian culture, literature, and history. The monastery holds the remains of St Gregory’s grandson, St Grigoris. This sacred site is also renowned as the place where St. Mesrob Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian Alphabet, opened the first school in 406 AD, where he taught the Armenian Alphabet to pupils. For nearly 1,700 years, Amaras served as a pivotal ecclesiastical center in Christian Armenia. Initially, it housed the headquarters of the Katholicosate of Aghvank of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Following the recent attacks by Azerbaijan on Armenians in Artsakh the Amaras Monastery has fallen under Azeri control. For the Armenians, losing a significant portion of their cultural and historical heritage to an adversary presents a deeply troubling and ominous prospect, intensifying an already perilous situation.

As one of the oldest Christian monuments of the world, this is not the first time Amaras has suffered in the crossfires of attacks on Armenians.  In the annals of history, Amaras suffered during Armenia's struggle for religious freedom against Sassanid Persia. It weathered invasions, Mongol raids, and the ravages of Tamerlane. 

Since the inception of the Karabakh liberation movement in 1988, aiming to separate Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan and incorporate it into Soviet Armenia, Amaras has emerged as a pivotal hub of religious resurgence within the autonomous region. Following over seven decades of Soviet neglect, dating back to the early 20th century, the ancient Amaras experienced a re-consecration in 1988. This revival marked a significant turning point, restoring Amaras to its former glory as a central sanctuary for the Armenian Apostolic Church, reinforcing its spiritual and cultural importance in the region amidst shifting political landscapes.

Azerbaijan firmly rejects the Armenian Apostolic heritage of the ancient Amaras Monastery, opting to categorize it as "Caucasian Albanian." This classification underscores a deep-rooted divergence in historical and cultural narratives. 

 “Between 1997 and 2006, the Azerbaijani government undertook a devastating campaign against Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the main part of the country by Armenian territory: Some 89 churches and the thousands of khachkars, or carved memorial stones, of the Djulfa cemetery, the largest medieval Armenian cemetery in the world, were destroyed. And since the recent cease-fire, images circulating on social media suggest that some Armenian monuments and churches in territory newly claimed by Azerbaijan have already been vandalized or defiled,” excerpt from  an article written for the New York Times in November 2020.

A report published by  Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) in 2022 identified 108 medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries in Nakhichevan that were destroyed between 1997 and 2011.

The report’s authors described it as a “striking portrait of cultural erasure that, in its surgical precision, totality, and surreptitiousness, has few parallels.”

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has put forth a false assertion, denying Armenians any historical claims to the region. According to President Aliyev, these sacred sites were allegedly "Armenianized" during the 19th century, presenting a differing historical narrative that further deepens the longstanding dispute over heritage and territorial rights in the region.

With more lands falling under Azeri control, concerns rise about preserving Armenian heritage in enemy-controlled areas. This looming threat exacerbates the psychological and emotional toll on Armenians, underscoring the critical need for ongoing dialogue, international involvement, and a sustainable resolution to ensure the safeguarding of Armenian cultural legacy.

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