Hovhannes Sukiasyan, mayor of Zorakert, bared his gold teeth and squinted at a gravestone overlooking frozen Lake Arpi. Running his fingers over the coils of the Arabic inscription he stood back to admire the handiwork of another century. ‘It's probably stood there for over a hundred years... but it looks as though it were painted yesterday.’ Reaching this Muslim cemetery in Zorakert, in the extreme north-west of Armenia, took a four-hour journey from the capital, Yerevan, along poor, frosted roads. In late 1988, the descendants of those buried here began to flee the village for neighbouring Azerbaijan, as Nagorno-Karabakh slid into war. In 2014, Zorakert (named Baliqli until 1991) has some 190 inhabitants, all of them ethnic Armenians. Zorakert, on the shores of Lake Arpi, was known as Baliqli until 1991
First for culture, first for poverty
This is the mountainous Shirak Province, described by its governor in January as Armenia's first province for culture, as well as its first for poverty. On the walls of local houses, the words Vadjarvum e (For Sale), are a common sight, the same as in many Armenian villages. Shirak's fortunes never really improved after a devastating 1988 earthquake, with high unemployment and emigration blighting the region. The small lip of Armenia around Lake Arpi is particularly isolated. Where the Armenian, Turkish and Georgian borders meet, some 15km from Zorakert, one can theoretically travel visa-free if walking anti-clockwise but be arrested – if not shot – walking clockwise into Turkey.
I had come to Zorakert with an Armenian friend to find out more about Armenians' attitude to these monuments, carrying memories of a people who now have a state that is technically still at war with Armenia. The reality of this varies from village to village, with vandalism and neglect in some areas, and immaculate attention in others.
Zorakert's cemetery is particularly beautiful. Brightly painted Arabic calligraphy adorns the older stones cut from distinctive Armenian red tufa. Those from the Soviet period bear bright red stars (with or without crescent moons) and Bayati, poems of loss, in the Azerbaijani language. Square holes in the top of newer stones once held pictures of the dead, presumably removed by the living to keep as mementoes. 'It could have been painted yesterday' - Mayor of Zorakert Hovhannes Sukiasyan at the Muslim cemetery, on the shore of Lake Arpi
Many local residents around Lake Arpi are migrants, ethnic Armenians from Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti province to the north. They arrived in 1989 and 1990 to find mostly empty houses, knowing none of their former residents. We weave our way through the gravestones and acquaint ourselves with the inhabitants of old Baliqli – an abacus and book are carved for the grave of a teacher or student, a tractor for a farmer, and even scissors and a sewing machine for women. I stop to admire that of a Mr Alaverdiev (1907-1972), showing a huge green mosque beneath a starry sky. The mountains of the nearby Turkish border enclose the lake on three sides. Such gravestones show that traditions must have lingered on here, in the land of the hammer and the chisel.
In the shadow of Julfa
There are probably hundreds of Muslim cemeteries and monuments scattered across Armenia in various states of decay.
There are probably hundreds of Muslim cemeteries and monuments scattered across Armenia in various states of decay. The modern Armenian attitude to them is overshadowed by the vanished Khachkars (cross-stones) of the medieval cemetery of Julfa in Nakhichevan, modern-day Azerbaijan, systematically destroyed between 2003 and 2009, to international condemnation. Whatever has happened to these monuments, stress many Armenians, it pales in comparison to the fate of Armenian churches and cemeteries across eastern Turkey and modern Azerbaijan. Official Azerbaijani propaganda’ wrote Vicken Cheterian, ‘is unchanged since Soviet times – Armenian Churches and tombstones in Azerbaijan are not Armenian, but ‘Caucasian Albanian,’ and therefore Azerbaijani. ‘What is puzzling is that Azerbaijani soldiers pulverise their own historic heritage with heavy hammers.’
Gravestone of Mr. Allahverdiev, (1907-1972), Zorakert cemeteryWith frozen feet we walk through the village to its ruined mosque, closed under Soviet rule, and converted into a warehouse. The four stone-built walls are open to the elements, the faded Arabic inscriptions and a Mihrab still visible. In an obscure gesture, local Armenians occasionally light candles in its walls. Sukiasyan, himself a native of the village of Tsalkha in Samtskhe-Javakheti, has served as mayor of this village since 1992. He never met his predecessor, who fled to Azerbaijan. As long as Hovhannes is mayor, nobody will touch Zorakert’s mosque. Except, that is, for the Iranians. A few months ago, he recalls over lunch, a caller from Iran asked him about the village’s ruined mosque, and expressed interest in rebuilding it, ‘as some kind of museum.’ Not that the mayor minds: ‘We still have churches over there, so why not?’
Yet to call Zorakert’s oldest graves Azerbaijani would invite confusion. Ethnic identity was infinitely more fluid, and people identifying as Karapapakhs, Turks and Persians among others, lived alongside Armenians in this corner of what would become the modern Republic of Armenia. To identify as ‘Persian’ could have signified Shiite Islam; and in the 1926 Soviet census for the village, 178 people called themselves 'Osmanli Turks', or 'Ottoman.' To make sense of what Tsarist-era administrators had sometimes termed 'various Turkic-speaking peoples,’ Soviet officials simply renamed all these groups 'Azerbaijani.' Karapapakhs, for example, numbered some 6,311 people in the South Caucasus in 1926. By the time of the next census, the designation had disappeared. In 1989, these Azerbaijanis still comprised 73% (down from 81% in 1979) of the Amasia Region of the Armenian SSR, which includes Lake Arpi. They would then flee to Azerbaijan, a foreign land, which happened to bear their name.
As long as Hovhannes is mayor, nobody will touch Zorakert’s mosque.
Though he hints that not all residents may share his views, Sukiasyan’s approach to conservation was informed by hearing of the survival of some Armenian monuments in his ancestral village in eastern Turkey. Treating the graveyard with courtesy is therefore paramount. ‘It’s just how I was brought up’ he adds, matter of factly. In 1989, a small group of Armenians arrived in the village, drunk, at night, and vandalised several gravestones, though their motives – or whether they had had any – were unclear. ‘Hooligans, vandals… you have them everywhere’ sighs the mayor; ‘after all, you don’t build prisons for just anyone.’
Mourning by proxy
For Hranoush Kharatyan, veteran ethnographer and former government adviser on minority affairs, our conversation on the subject must begin – and end – with the destruction of the cemetery in Julfa. Having researched the subject in over 30 villages, she notes that Armenians’ attitude to Muslim – and therefore ‘Azerbaijani’ – monuments is tied into the chronology of the Karabakh War. The death of a local boy at the front; news of the destruction of an Armenian monument, or the trauma of ethnic Armenian refugees returning from Azerbaijan, says Kharatyan, all contributed to vandalism. Accordingly, treatment of cemeteries varied widely. For example, in the Yegheghis region, Armenian village elders immediately demanded the restoration of vandalised cemeteries. Treatment of Azeri monuments in Armenia is linked to the chronology of the Karabakh War, notes ethnographer Hranoush Kharatyan
Kharatyan was intrigued by the village of Mastara, most of whose inhabitants descend from refugees who settled after the Armenian Genocide. Mastara’s Muslim cemetery stands intact – and not far from a statue of Soghomon Tehlirian; a potent symbol as the centenary of the Armenian Genocide approaches. Though there may be no love lost between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Kharatyan is adamant that public opinion in Armenia looks upon the vandalism of cemeteries, with disdain, if not disgust. Many of Armenia’s religious monuments (including mosques), added Kharatyan, had been destroyed in the first decades of Soviet rule, long before the Karabakh War. ‘The Armenian government’s attitude towards preserving historic monuments – whether Muslim or Christian - has been shameful,’ remarked one researcher.
The living, have found ways to care for their dead.
The living, have found ways to care for their dead. Informal agreements between Armenians who fled Azerbaijan, and Azeris who fled Armenia, guarantee mutual protection of cemeteries. Armenians and Azerbaijanis working in Russia have sometimes made those promises in person, reinforced by photo and video evidence that their loved ones’ graves remain intact. Sukiasyan knows of no such agreement regarding Zorakert – probably as none of its Armenian residents today are refugees from Azerbaijan. Online, some Azerbaijanis reminisce about Ağbaba Mahali – as they call the Lake Arpi area – in song and in YouTube videos. Decorated gravestone in Ardenis. Many show the profession of the deceased, depicting books, abacuses and even sewing machines
Hovhannes suspects that some local Azerbaijanis now live in ethnic Azeri villages, in southern Georgia. ‘In 2003 or 2004,’ he recalls, ‘a mechanic from our village drove with his bus to Marneuli [in southern Georgia] on business […] and this Azeri guy – apparently from Armenia - approaches him in the market, looks at the bus, and claims that it’s his.’ Some also moved to Samtskhe-Javakheti, adds Hovhannes. Perhaps, he laughs, near his parents in Tsalkha.
A 2012 report by the Heinrich Böll Foundation drew on the example of villages – Kerkendj in Azerbaijan, and Dzyunashokh (formerly Kyzyl-Shafag) in Armenia. The Azerbaijani cemetery in Dzyunashokh – though no longer ‘functioning’ – ‘serves as a reminder to local [Armenian] villagers of the cemetery they lost in Kerkendj, of the historical process which forced them to leave it, and of Kerkendj itself.’ As Kharatyan looks at photographs of the Muslim cemetery in Zorakert, she notes that the designs of older headstones are reminiscent of Armenian Khachkars. She doubts that such communities had highly skilled artisans. They must, she presumes, have employed Armenian craftsmen.
Only the past keeps changing
‘God gave you a tongue, so tell me why there had to be war?’ asks the mayor of Zorakert. In a rough translation, Zorakert’s former name ‘Baliqli,’ means ‘fishy’. It is a fact that Sukiasyan finds grimly ironic; he points out that Lake Arpi’s water level is decreasing. These days, the best fish are found in mountain streams to the west of the lake, though access is restricted by border guards. Since the dairy factory closed down in nearby Paghakn, there has been scant employment too. There is all the potential for tourism here, sighs Hovhannes, but no money, no resolve – and no road. Shattered gravestone, Ardenis Muslim cemetery. At the mayor’s suggestion, I left Lake Arpi via the nearby village of Ardenis, known as Göllü until 1991. Behind a low stone wall lies a large Azerbaijani cemetery, open to the elements – and the villagers’ cattle. The headstones here appear older – and more numerous – than those in Zorakert. A significant number of them have been either destroyed, seemingly vandalised. Mergel Garibyan has been Mayor of Ardenis for six years; and understands the need to protect the cemetery. Yet good intentions rest better on a full stomach; and there is little money for the project. As in Zorakert, most residents of Ardenis are Armenians who relocated from Samtskhe-Javakheti. I note that pictures of the deceased have been removed from the gravestones. Was it due to cattle, wonders an Armenian friend, or perhaps subsidence? Garibyan isn’t entirely sure why the gravestones lie shattered. Neither – for all my desire to draw conclusions – am I.
In an old Radio Yerevan anecdote a listener asks, ‘Is it possible to foretell the future?’ To which the radio host replies, ‘We can predict the future with complete accuracy, it is only the past that keeps changing.’
All photos courtesy of the author