In Nagorno-Karabakh, too, cultural reconciliation is still possible. Despite the dismal record of the past three decades, both sides have demonstrated awareness of — and admiration for — heritage that is not their own. In 2019, Armenians restored a prominent 19th-century mosque in Shusha (though they pointedly failed to note its previous use by Azerbaijani Muslims). And in his recent address, Mr. Aliyev acknowledged the importance of the region’s churches — even as he denied their Armenian origin.
Security must come first. Russia has already deployed peacekeepers at Dadivank Monastery and has pressed Azerbaijan to protect other Armenian monuments now under its control. The European Union should make similar demands as part of its offer of humanitarian aid, as well as insist that Armenians’ access to important churches is assured. The Azerbaijani government, which already has obtained much of what it wanted in the cease-fire, would have a strong incentive to comply.
But a durable future for Armenian sites — especially the numerous less well known medieval churches and ornate khachkars — will require direct engagement by Armenians and Azerbaijanis themselves.
In fact, the two communities have coexisted at many points in the past. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was once home to an Armenian population, and there were a number of mosques in Armenia. In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the strategic town of Shusha, now under Azerbaijani control, has important 19th-century monuments from both nations — including the distinctive mosque with twin minarets that was controversially restored by the Armenians and a large cathedral, which was damaged by Azerbaijani forces during the recent fighting.
Despite centuries of regime change, many of the most important monuments in the region, including Dadivank and other early Armenian sites, have endured — a reminder that the supposedly ancient and intractable differences driving the current conflict are of recent manufacture. Like the beleaguered civilians around them, these buildings need the world’s immediate attention. But their very survival — like that of the Pantheon or Hagia Sophia — so far points to a hopeful truth: It is the natural inclination of human beings to preserve; destruction takes special effort and motivation.
Hugh Eakin, a Brown Foundation Fellow, has reported on endangered cultural heritage for The New York Review of Books and other publications.