Is the Destruction of Armenian Heritage Not Important Enough for the Getty?
A 1915 photograph of researcher Aram Vruyr’s son with one of many thousand cross-stones at Djulfa, enhanced by Judith Crispin’s Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project (courtesy Aram Vruyr archives)
By Simon Maghakyan
When asked why Azerbaijan’s ongoing assault on Armenian heritage was excluded from a major Getty publication, a co-editor responded with appalling condescension.
At a World Monuments Fund (WMF) panel featuring the authors of a new Getty publication on Thursday, February 23, a prominent New York professor and former diplomat belittled an audience question on a topic that had been left out of the conversation: the destruction of 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments — exposed in Hyperallergic in 2019. The objects in question, the panelist said in part, are “not Palmyra, [nor] the mosque in Aleppo.”
Thomas G. Weiss’s derisive comments likely stem from ignorance. He must not know of Djulfa, the world’s largest collection of exquisite khachkar stelae, each of which was a masterpiece: museums from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Russia’s Hermitage have displayed one of the handful surviving Djulfa khachkars smuggled out decades before their erasure in late 2005. He must also be unaware of Agulis, the magical town dotted with a dozen churches, each matching their backdrop polychrome mountains, founded by apostles and rebuilt by medieval merchants, sacred sites that outlived centuries of natural and man-made disasters, including the WWI-era Armenian Genocide.
For someone who co-edited Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, Getty’s 2022 publication that the namesake WMF event was based on, one would expect Weiss to have at least a surface knowledge of the 1997-2006 destruction of Djulfa and Agulis, along with all traces of Armenian existence in the territory of Nakhichevan. Systemically and systematically, this was probably the worst cultural genocide of our time: The flattening was so surgical that in 2008 Azerbaijan published a newly-vetted inventory of every Nakhichevan monument with zero Armenian sites or artifacts included. This physical and theoretical erasure of an estimated 22,000 tombstones, 5,840 khachkar cross-stones, and 89 churches became part of an ongoing International Court of Justice case in late 2021, as a result of which a precedent-setting provisional order offered protection against cultural destruction under the United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
For his apparent lack of knowledge of this monumental loss and its global implications, Weiss could thank, in part, the people sitting with him on that very stage: individuals with prominent roles in combating cultural erasure.
One of them, Irina Bokova, has been a major collaborator in the international cover-up of Nakhichevan’s erasure. When she was the Director-General of UNESCO, the global heritage protection agency, Bokova never acknowledged, let alone condemned, Nakhichevan’s expungement. Instead, adding insult to injury, she participated in a propagandistic “Azerbaijan — a Land of Tolerance” photo exhibition, hosted at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to interfaith-wash Azerbaijan’s crimes. She didn’t stop there. Among other favors Bokova did for the Aliyev dynasty of Azerbaijan, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, was a 2010 bestowment of the “UNESCO Mozart Gold Medal” upon Azerbaijan’s First Lady-Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva for her “services to strengthening of dialogue among cultures.”
At first, observers assumed that Bokova’s rapport with Azerbaijan was due to a lack of options: Following the US’s dramatic 2012 defunding of UNESCO, oil-rich Azerbaijan had fiscally supported it with a $5 million contribution. But her lavish lifestyle — including properties in Manhattan, London, and Paris — kept raising questions. In 2017, the Guardian investigation revealed that Bokova’s ties with authoritarian Azerbaijan went far deeper than official donations for the cash-strapped UN agency: Her spouse had received “consulting fees” from Azerbaijan’s billion-dollar influence-buying laundromat, something that Bokova has defended as legitimate work.
In 2019, likely aware of these controversies, Getty — the world’s wealthiest art institution — invited Bokova to influence its framing of cultural erasure as it announced a $100 million cultural heritage protection program. Getty’s former executive director and CEO James Cuno, who co-edited the new publication with Weiss, has been aware of what transpired in Nakhichevan; in 2019 he and the author of these words communicated on this issue.
Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities is one of the most tangible outcomes of the 100 million fund. Getty released the book in 2022 (the 648-page volume is available for free online), at a time when the world’s attention was on the immediate threats to Nagorno-Karabakh’s (Artsakh’s) Armenian heritage following Azerbaijan’s 2020 conquest of much of the region, which included dual air strikes on a major cathedral that Azerbaijan further damaged upon capture. The ongoing threat is referenced in the publication’s final chapter, but without recognition of the historical realities in which the threat is rooted: particularly, Azerbaijan’s complete purge of Indigenous Armenian presence in Nakhichevan.
Los Angeles-based Getty’s proximity to the largest Armenian diasporic community renders this omission all the more pronounced. This sidelining isn’t unprecedented. Save for a few initiatives (a webinar, two books, and a statement), Getty has not shined in its engagement with and representation of the Armenian community. It has not devoted a major exhibition to Armenia and has overlooked the dubious provenance of some Armenian treasures in its possession. In fact, it took a lawsuit and investigative scholarship to compel Getty to acknowledge Cilicia’s Catholicosate (Western Armenians’ church-in-exile) as the grantor of the illustrious 13th-century Zeyt’un Gospels, which came into its possession as a result of the Armenian Genocide.
Leaving Nakhichevan out of the new publication, however, is a new low. The author of these words privately informed Getty’s leadership of this concern in 2022. This knowledge makes the further suppression of Nakhichevan from the Thursday lecture and panel intentional. What results is a dystopian mise en abyme: the erasure of Nakhichevan’s erasure from Getty’s work on cultural erasure.
As I watched Weiss pronounce Armenian culture inferior to others, it was not the smirk of the irredeemable Bokova sitting to his right but the silence of Getty’s former CEO on that stage, still a major figure in the institution despite his recent departure, that left me speechless.
An institution running a $100 million fund on heritage protection must assess how it impacts the most vulnerable and overlooked victims of state-sponsored cultural destruction. “[T]he continued existence of people targeted for annihilation,” as Los Angeles-based artist and professor Mashinka Firunts Hakopian explains Armenian resistance to erasure, “constitutes a kind of victory.” This existence will become even more threatened if influential stakeholders like Getty keep taking their cues from crooks like Bokova.