The protection of the religious heritage of Karabakh: UNESCO grappling with the spectre of Caucasian Albania

Since the February 4 meeting between the Armenian, Azerbaijani, French and Council of Europe leaders, the prospect of a UNESCO mission in the protagonist countries of the Karabakh conflict seems to be becoming clearer. Armenia and Azerbaijan dispute the ownership of several Christian religious buildings in the region. Numerous and lively exchanges of declarations between the two countries have followed one another in recent months, which resulted in a resolution against Azerbaijan by the European Parliament on March 9. Indeed, Azerbaijani claims are based on their heritage from the former Zoroastrian and then Christian Caucasian Albania. Some historical clarifications relating to this patrimonial quarrel are necessary to better understand the nationalist representations at stake in these two South Caucasian countries.

In 1990, at the time of the fall of the Soviet bloc, an article written by Farida Mamedova [1] devoted to the problem of the Albanian-Caucasian ethnos which appeared in France in the Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique was the subject of a discussion by Patrick Donabédian [2]. The latter was particularly critical about the origin of the writing and the inscriptions on many Christian monuments as presented by the author. This doctrinal opposition alone sums up the Armenian-Azerbaijani historical debates which have not really evolved since that time. And it perfectly illustrates the endless historiographical battles that underlie nationalist representations throughout the Caucasus.

It is precisely this debate which has just rebounded this month of February 2022 which has seen the dispute over the national affiliation of Christian buildings in the Karabakh region take on particular importance in the perspective of a planned mission of UNESCO. This would aim to protect the religious heritage of the region and would be part of the process of resolving the conflict between the two countries.

News of the dispute

Thus the declaration of the Azerbaijani Minister of Culture on February 3 according to which a “
working group composed of specialists who know Albanian history and architecture has been set up to remove the so-called traces written by the Armenians on the Albanian religious temples” was rectified by him on February 7, citing “false information issued by biased foreign media in recent days”, to clarify the Azerbaijani state project. He thus spoke of a “working group in charge of studying this heritage” by advancing that “if falsifications are identified, they will be documented with the participation of international experts and presented to the international community”.

The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly reacted reacted on February 8 through the voice of its spokesperson Vahan Hunanian who declared: “This once again demonstrates the fact that the cases of vandalism and destruction of the Armenian historical, cultural and religious heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh during the 44-day war and the following period are deliberate and pre-planned, and are part of the policy of annihilating the indigenous Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh”. Many Armenian NGOs have appealed to the authorities to notify the measures taken by Azerbaijan to the International Court of Justice of the United Nations and to address the competent bodies of the United Nations including the UNESCO to organize a visit to “Artsakh”.

After the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan welcomed , on February 9, the forthcoming arrival of the UNESCO mission, while listing the elements of Azerbaijani heritage in Armenia, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reacted on February 9  and then on February 11 by denouncing Armenian attempts to circumvent the agreement concluded on February 4 concerning the visits planned and accepted by the two parts of UNESCO missions. He pointed out that Azerbaijan has been requesting this body for 20 years for this mission precisely prevented by Armenia and that he expects this body to also investigate Azerbaijani cultural heritage in Armenia.

Indeed, on February 4, a meeting by videoconference in line with that of December 14 in Brussels, between the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinian, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel addressed a number of humanitarian issues. It had allowed both the release of 8 Armenian prisoners of war and an agreement to send a UNESCO mission to the two countries. Despite everything, a new controversy controversy relating to a request from the Azerbaijani State concerning the location of the mass graves of 3,890 Azerbaijani civilians who went missing during the first Karabakh war (1988-1994) and which reportedly received no response by the Armenian side.

On February 16, representatives of NGOs and public figures gathered in front of the UN office in Armenia to demand the prevention of the destruction and transformation of Armenian cultural heritage and to denounce a “cultural genocide“. While Azerbaijani NGOs also appealed  to UNESCO to “investigate the cultural genocide committed by Armenia against the heritage of the Azerbaijani people on the territory of this country“, an appeal stating that “following the mass deportation of Azerbaijanis from their native lands, which began at the beginning of the 20th century […] Armenia deliberately erased all traces of the residence of Azerbaijanis who are indigenous to these territories, destroyed, appropriated and changed the cultural heritage of the Azerbaijani people, also replacing the old toponyms of these regions with Armenian toponyms”. Azerbaijan is said to have already started to rebuild the Gazantchetsots Cathedral in Choucha, judging that it had been unauthentically modified in the 1990s.

As a reminder, Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO,  met the two Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on 18 November 2020, and called on them to respect the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflicts whose two countries are signatories, as well as to UN Security Council Resolution 2347 (2017) 

And on September 13, 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a report highlighting “
the catastrophic consequences for the cultural heritage and assets of the region, in respect of which the responsibilities of Armenia like those of the Azerbaijan are engaged“. It condemned both “the destruction and looting committed by Armenia in the former conflict zones returned to Azerbaijan” as “the transfer of elements of cultural heritage“, as well as the destruction by Azerbaijan of elements of the Armenian cultural heritage “especially in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic” or “what appears to be the intentional bombardment of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral“. This report also expressed concern about what might happen to “churches, monasteries, including Khutavank/Dadivank Monastery, from stones to crosses…“. Beyond that, it pointed to the “development in Azerbaijan of a discourse that promotes a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to replace that which is considered an ‘Armenian’ cultural heritage” and called on UNESCO to “examine the discourse that is developing to promote a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to ensure that it is not manipulated by either side“.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague has taken several provisional measures against Azerbaijan in this matter in its order of December 7, 2021, following the request filed by Armenia on September 16 for violations of the international convention against all forms of racial discrimination. Azerbaijan is thus obliged to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of degradation and desecration of Armenian cultural heritage, including, but not limited to, churches and other places of worship, monuments, sites, cemeteries and artifacts“.

Several elements for the interpretation of the maps established according to the Armenian sources

  • Many abandonments and degradation of churches in isolated sites, denounced by the Armenian side, at a time when Azerbaijan had the responsibility, precede the fall of the Soviet bloc which advocated atheism and more or less repressed violently the religious practice according to the periods. Destruction also occurred during the first war (1988-1994). It should be noted that the destruction of the Julfa cemetery would have continued after the 1st war and ended in 2005, probably largely in retaliation for the occupation of NK by the Armenians.
  • For the part now under Azerbaijani control, Armenia claims a total of 161 churches and monasteries, 591 khachkars, 345 tombstones with inscriptions, 108 tombs, cemeteries, burial mounds and shrines, 43 fortresses, castles and palaces, and 208 other monuments . In the regions of Askeran, Hadrout, Kashatagh, Martakert, Martouni, Chouchi, and Nor Chahoumian.
  •  The degradation of Armenian “cultural sites” during the “44-day war” concerns a monument in honour of Vazgen Sargsyan, adorned with the title of sparapet (Armenian military title whose origin dates back to antiquity) former Minister of Defence of Armenia and the most important Armenian commander during the first war and who regulated military operations in the war zone until 1994, a cross bearing the image of the victims of the first war, a targeted World War II memorial, some unlocated tombstones, “cultural monuments” in Talish (whose photos are dated 2016) and a “cultural monument” in Choucha, which are neither described nor documented, and a few other monuments not geographically located. And finally a monument not located geographically in honour of Garegin Njdeh presented as “hero, commander and philosopher”. This former member of the Dashnak who was at the head of the Armenian militias in Zanguezour engaged in unspeakable massacres against the majority Azeri civilian populations in the region who had to flee at the beginning of the 20th century and leave the region to Armenia in 1921 (Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh remaining under Azerbaijani sovereignty). It is therefore essentially a contemporary Armenian cultural heritage and the destruction of which shows above all Azerbaijani attacks on warrior symbols of Armenia.
  • The only ancient cultural site which is the subject of a request for increased vigilance from Armenia is the site of Tigranakert, an old Hellenistic city comprising two walls, towers and a so-called Armenian basilica. However, this site only had to deplore the destruction of two construction huts.
  • In fact, the Christian religious monuments that have been degraded are a total of 4 khachkars (stone crosses), the destruction of the dome and bell tower of the Church of St John the Baptist in Choucha, and the roof of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral also in Shusha and currently under renovation by the Azerbaijani side. As well as a cross in front of an unlocated church.

The signing of the November 10, 2020 ceasefire put an end to the “44-day war” which saw the reconquest by Azerbaijan of a large part of its territories lost to the fall of the Soviet bloc and on which the country had de facto lost sovereignty [3]. But it is far from having established peace or having allowed the resolution of a large number of latent conflicts which seem to decline in infinity. These require a bet on time, the will of the two States concerned, the resumption of commercial exchanges and the implementation of joint projects between the communities likely to re-establish links broken 30 years ago. This frozen situation has maintained on both sides ignorance, resentment, hatred, rejection, distrust, desire for revenge and a whole range of morbid feelings, the reciprocal nature of which it would be absurd to deny. These feelings are particularly strong among the younger generation, which did not experience the inter-ethnic cohabitation preceding the fall of the Soviet bloc, made up of matrimonial alliances and sustained commercial relations.

In these circumstances, the expectations of Armenia and Azerbaijan vis-à-vis this UNESCO mission in the two countries are particularly strong and likely to fuel further disappointment on both sides, if that this mission can see the light of day and work in complete serenity.

But this debate also raises many questions about the heritage of Caucasian Albania. What is it exactly?

What is Caucasian Albania?

We find the first mentions of Caucasian Albanians following the battle of Gaugamela [4] in -331 BC. Component of the satrapy of Media until the partition of the Macedonian Empire at the death of Alexander the Great (– 321 or – 323), it is, during the Hellenistic period which begins at his death, a confederation of several tribes forming a unitary state under the authority of a foreign king of Parthian origin. This state arose at the end of the 2nd century, in order to
rule the region in the context of the war between the Arsacid Parthians of Mithridates II (123 BC – 88 BC) and the Armenians of Artavad I.

The official language of power may have been Iranian because of the origin of the sovereigns or the one whose alphabet was found in 1938 on tablets buried in the region of Minguetchevir, and composed of 52 characters. There are thus several descriptive sources of Caucasian Albania from different authors: Teophanes of Methylene, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy. Much later, Alexandre Dumas refers to the Udis in “Voyage au Caucase“.

The Christian religion, which competes with Zoroastrianism, made its appearance, early and from its origins, in the region through two disciples of Christ. Bartholomew, a pupil of Thaddeus, another disciple of Christ active in the region, is its propagator in Albania as in Armenia. There were already several Christian centres around 200 AD, evangelization being done from the Jewish communities residing on the ancient trade routes of Albania, while Pope Clement, exiled on the coasts of the Black Sea, began to spread the Christianity in Iberia (ancestor of Georgia). In 301, the king of Armenia Tiridates II converted to Christianity with Grigor (or St Gregory the Illuminator), son of a Parthian prince exiled from Persia. The king of Albania Ournayr goes to his court to be baptized in 313 and Grigoris, grandson of St Gregory, bishop of Iberia and Albania founded a Church in Tsri before being assassinated in Derbent and being buried in the monastery of Amaras in Karabakh.

In 36 BC, Caucasian Albania became a Roman protectorate until 340 AD, in a period that saw the permanent opposition of the Romans and Persians for the control of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean regions. In 387, the Roman emperor Theodosius and the Sassanid king Bahram IV shared the region: several regions came under Persian suzerainty, such as Outik and Artsakh (right bank of the Kura later called Arran then Karabakh) and Vaspurakan ( or Atropatene, western part of Iranian Azerbaijan, part of which included present-day Nakhitchevan) which became marzpanats, administrative regions entrusted to Persian governors perpetuated in dynasties.

The king of Albania Vatché had to abdicate in 461, following which Albanian sovereignty receded in the eastern part, developing a separate power loyal to Persia, defending the Derbent pass against the Huns, and which took the name of Shirvan with a dynasty of shirvanshahs, which will continue until about 1550, and which at that time espouses state Zoroastrianism.

But at the end of the 5th century, with Vatchagan, nephew of Vatché, an Albanian monarchy was also re-established on the western territories (Artsakh, Utik and northern banks of the Kura) and which saw the return of Christianity: drafting of a code of laws, opening of schools, construction of churches, transfer of the capital of Kabala to Barda which welcomes the Catholicate. In 525, the Council of the Three Churches at Dvin in Armenia proclaimed the Monophysite doctrine as the only Orthodox creed, in opposition to the Council of Chalcedon. Some see it as a Persian manipulation to separate these peoples from the Roman Empire.

At the end of the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire became the rival of Persia in the region. In 607, at the Second Council of Dvin, the Church of Iberia separated from the union of the three Churches to join the Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople and the Albanian Church did the same.

Armenia, isolated theologically and subjected to the persecutions of Byzantium which reconquered them in 624, will try to bring the Albanian Church back into the Monophysite fold and it will be helped in this process by the Sassanid power: Albania again adopts the monophysitism against the Persian recognition of the princes of the Mihranid dynasty as “lord of Gardman and Albania”. The first Varaz-Grigor is dedicated to Ctesiphon and some of these dynasts will bear the title of arranshahik (little shah of Arran).

In 642, the Arabs arrived at the gates of Albania, at the time of Prince Djevanshir (636-680), following their victory against the Persian Empire at Nivahand. At the time, it was a vassal principality of the Zoroastrian Sassanids, endowed with relative political autonomy, a secular and ecclesiastical nobility dominating political and economic life, master of the central administration, constituting a council of the prince, and recruiting troops. The prince has his own domain which he must defend against his vassals. A new period of struggle between the Byzantine and Arab empires then began in the region, against a backdrop of regular and destructive incursions by the
Khazars since the end of the 6th century [5].

Caliph Abd-el Malik will then put Albania under direct administration and entrust the responsibility of his Church to the Armenian Catholicos, Ilya, who saw with a dim view the Albanian Church still doubting Monophysitism. Albania is at this time deprived of the direction of its country by the Arabs and the direction of its Church by the Armenians. The region was even redefined administratively at the beginning of the 8th century under the name of Arminiyya before dividing again into several entities.

The ethno-religious division in Karabakh from the Arab conquest


The Islamization of the Caucasus region, and therefore of Azerbaijan, thus only began in the 7th century with the conquest of the Arab Umayyads who imposed themselves against the Persian Sassanids, whose state religion was Zoroastrianism, and their local vassals of the Christian Mihranid dynasty, ruling Caucasian Albania.

Before this period, Caucasian Albania, ancestor of Azerbaijan, Zoroastrian then Christian, cohabited with Armenia. It is commonly accepted that Albania stretched from the Caucasus Mountains to the Araxes River and the Caspian Sea, the western limit devoid of any real border having been much more blurred.

But Armenian and Azerbaijani interpretations differ regarding the exact territory of Caucasian Albania. Indeed, for the Armenians, the space contained between Kura and Araxes is part of historical Armenia while for the Azerbaijanis, this space is part of Caucasian Albania, of which Azerbaijan is the heir. For the Armenians, the space between Koura and Araxes was only attached to the Albanian kingdom from 387 (date of the division between Theodosius and Bahram IV) whereas before Albania only occupied the left bank of the Kura. For the Azerbaijanis, these lands were cut off from Caucasian Albania in the 2nd century BC and, before that, Albania would also have included some tribes of present-day Dagestan.

After the Arab conquest, Christians who did not wish to convert to Islam had to join the Armenian Church and gradually become Armenian. Zoroastrians emigrated en masse at this time and found refuge in India where they were given the name “Parsis”. A large part of the Albanians was therefore Islamized and assimilated to the peoples of Turkic languages ​​who rubbed shoulders with them in the Karabakh region while another part remained in the mountains, which the Arabs did not penetrate, remained Christians of Monophysite dogma. and gradually became Armenianized.

The persistence of a Christian Armenian population in the heights of Karabakh (later named Nagorno-Karabakh at the beginning of the Soviet period) is explained by the fact that the highlands of Karabakh were also not affected by the Islamization under the waves of Seljuk invasion in the 11th century. This therefore resulted in Karabakh with a mixed population, nomadic for some and sedentary for others, and a mixed system of government: the Muslim
khanates and the Christian meliks [6], the latter probably being more or less nested in the first.

Indeed, this situation continued during the successive waves of Islamization of Azerbaijan by the Persian Shiite Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, following a long hiatus under Mongol rule between the 13th and 16th centuries. This situation of imbrication in Karabakh continued until the conquest of the South Caucasus by Russia and until 1813, date of the treaty of Gulistan which fixed the border between Persia and Russia, and incidentally cut the Azerbaijan in two parts by separating it from Iranian Azerbaijan under Persian sovereignty. And this intertwining continues today.

Despite everything, the Albanian Church has continued to survive until the present day, after a period of renaissance in the 12th century which notably saw the construction of numerous churches, including the Khatiravang and Khutavang monasteries.

Historiographies and irreconcilable identity representations


Two historiographies are opposed concerning the Christian heritage of Karabakh. These feed on the conflicts that have marked the common history at the crossroads of the empires of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On the Azerbaijani side, one can find examples of this in the historical version of Armenian attempts to regularly bring Caucasian Albania back into the Monophysite fold.

In addition to the recovery of the leadership of the Albanian Church entrusted to the Armenians by the Arabs, one can mention the Armenian
manoeuvrers following its conquest by Byzantium in 624. The Sassanid power will help him to bring the Albanian Church back to Monophysitism. Albania agrees to relinquish diophysism again in exchange for Persian recognition of the princes of the Mihranid dynasty as “Lord of Gardman and Albania”.

More recently, it should be noted that the Russian conquest allowed the gradual numerical expansion of the Armenians who had previously been a minority in this region, long without a state for centuries, and whose national embryo had essentially evolved within the Ottoman Empire. In 1836, when the Armenian Church was placed under the authority of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which then interfered in the procedure for appointing the Catholicos, the ancient Catholicate of Caucasian Albania, which had survived until then and whose seat was in the monastery of Gandjasar in Karabakh, is attached to the Armenian Church and subordinate to its hierarchy. It becomes one of the six dioceses of the Armenians of Russia formalizing its assimilation by the Catholicate of Etchmiadzine. As early as 1815, the last Catholicos of Albania had been lowered to the rank of archbishop-metropolitan at the head of a simple autonomous bishopric. In 1909-1910, the Armenian clergy destroyed the archives of the Church of Albania and the library of the Patriarchs of Albania in Gandjasar, with the permission of the Russian Synod and the testimonies of its language and its writing disappeared definitively.

It was in 2003 that the Azerbaijani state recognized the “Udin-Albanian Christian religious community” and Albanian churches were also restored in Kish, near Sheki, or in Nij, near Gabala. Linguists believe that the Udine language, Ibero-Caucasian, still used in western Azerbaijan, is similar to that of Outik, one of the provinces also subject to Armenian claims. It is likely that the Udine people were part of this ancient Albanian confederation. It was, following the “44-day war”, the subject of unprecedented media coverage.

Thus this community of approximately 3,800 adherents residing mainly in the districts of Gabala and Oghuz, and directed by their leader, Robert Mobili, was, for example, associated with a joint declaration of the religious leaders of Azerbaijan distributed by the Bureau of Muslims of the Caucasus led by Allahshükür Pashazade, and arguing in particular that “
for many years Armenia has carried out not only a policy of ethnic cleansing, genocide and occupation against Azerbaijan, but also a policy of aggression against the cultural and spiritual heritage of our country which is distinguished by its diversity”. It was also during this period that many press titles multiplied to highlight the patriotic solidarity of both the Oudine and Jewish communities in the country.

On the Armenian side, it is rather highlighted the Albanian recovery of territories held by Armenian families and it is easy to assimilate Caucasian Albania to a simple instrument without legitimacy in the service of Persian power. Just as it is reproduced today in the Armenian discourse about Turkish-Azerbaijani relations.

In 372, a war opposed Persians and Albanians to the Armenians: despite the Albanian defeat against the Mamikonian family, the Albanians recovered the provinces of Outik, Chakachen (Siounie), Artsakh, Kelt and Gardman. Similarly, in 387, the Roman Emperor Theodosius and the Sassanid King Bahram IV shared the region: several regions passed under Persian suzerainty such as Outik and Artsakh (right bank of the Kura later called Arran then Karabakh) and the Vaspurakan (or Atropatene, western part of Iranian Azerbaijan, part of which included the current Nakhitchevan) which became marzpanats, administrative regions entrusted to Persian governors perpetuated in dynasties.

But there is little emphasis on the fact that when the Persian king Yazdegerd II (438-457) forced Christians to adopt Zoroastrianism, an alliance between Armenians and Albanians took place. Defeated at the battle of Avaraïr in 451, they were nevertheless able to keep their religion of Monophysite dogma (while the regions south of the Araxes are rather under Nestorian influence). Similarly, we forget that during the war between Byzantines and Persians between 603 and 628, the Albanian nobility and the movement inspired by Catholicos Viro (593-630) rebelled against Persian domination.

In the same way, the Azerbaijani version of the death of the last Mihranid prince Varaz-Tardat II, assassinated by a prince of Siounik in 822, will insist on the fact that this prince had supported Babek, an eminent Azerbaijani national symbol who had by marriage obtained to reign on this region, while the Armenian ben-Sumbat family had united Arran and Sheki. This family would thus have delivered Babek himself to the shirvanshah appointed by the caliph to be tortured there in Samarra.

But little emphasis is placed on the fact that the ben-Soumbat at that time refused integration into Armenia and Grigor Hamam, son of Sahl decided to bear the title of “King of Albania” while effectively advancing the Armenianization of the region through the generalization of the Armenian language and marriage strategies, distinguishing itself in poetry, theology and music.

In these quarrels over heritage, the Azerbaijani State seeks to take advantage of exemplary multicultural management by trying to display the image of an ideal cohabitation of ethnic and religious minorities living on its territory, and of an assumed Christian heritage, which is illustrated by Azerbaijan’s recent request to Pope Francis for mediation in the conflict between it and its neighbour and the recent meeting of Allachukur Pashazade with the pontiff on January 13, or by the numerous funding restoration of Christian heritage throughout the world by the Azerbaijani State: the Vatican catacombs, Romanesque churches in France or the stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral.

For its part, the Armenian State, whose population is much more ethnically homogeneous (98% of the population), relies on an argument drawing on the seniority of the Christian presence in the region and on the persecutions to which it has been subjected, as a minority without its own state for centuries, perpetuating its traditions in a predominantly Muslim environment. This construction of identity, which is both a victim and an opposition to Islam, requires appropriating everything that is closely or remotely related to local Monophysite Christianity.

However, this centuries-old history rather reflects an ethno-religious intermingling and phenomena of reciprocal acculturation on a territory shared for centuries, which has moreover induced divergent toponymies also subject to debate, which make illusory, inextricable and almost absurd the debate on the national belonging of a built heritage in periods when the paradigm of the nation state did not exist and when the religious sphere evolved in complete autonomy. Proof of this is the long-term survival of the Udine community, centuries after the disappearance of Caucasian Albania. Rather, it would be necessary to speak of “Gregorian churches”.

As Jean Pierre Mahé, an orientalist, expressed it in April 2021, during an online meeting online meeting organized on the initiative of the National Heritage Institute: “
Is this the time to engage in such a debate, the day after of a painful conflict […] Culture has its own arguments, which are based, not on obligation or coercion, but on persuasion and the free consent of everyone. […] Certainly, we can only bow to the case law of the International Court of Human Rights, which recently sanctioned, as a war crime, the destruction of historical sites and monuments. But this kind of repressive measures is, basically, an acknowledgement of failure, which does not repair the damage caused and sometimes risks deepening the conflict. […] The first effort this [respecting the “heritage of others”] entails, and arguably the most trying, is to disregard, as a matter of principle, all known instances of destroyed heritage. […] each of the three sub-Caucasian states can blame itself for deliberate damage or total destruction at the expense of its two neighbours”.

Approximate distribution of Azerbaijani population by religious affiliation (2019-2021)


Total population

Rounded percentage


6 600 000



3 100 000



282 411









Atheists and undetermined



10 119 100

Source: Figures freely taken from estimates by the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Statistics of the religious situation in Azerbaijan, Arif Yunusov, 2019.

* The percentages are calculated based on the estimate of the total population at the beginning of the year 2021 established by the State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan (10,119,100 inhabitants):

** Some official figures are considered underestimated by some religious communities. Conversely, some figures based on the ethnicity of individuals are overestimated and do not reflect the reality of adherence to a religion or its actual practice.

Approximate distribution of the Azerbaijani Christian population according to religious affiliations – 2019

Christian affiliation

Total population

Rounded percentage

Orthodox Church

155 000

55 %

Armenian Apostolic Church

120 000

42,4 %

Catholic Church



Spiritual Christians


0,2 %

Protestant Churches



1,7 %



7th Day Adventists




International Presbyterian Church




Jehovah’s Witnesses


0,5 %



282 411

Source: Figures freely taken from estimates by the Institute for Peace and Democracy, Statistics of the religious situation in Azerbaijan, Arif Yunusov, 2019.
* Some official figures are considered underestimated by certain religious communities. Conversely, some figures based on the ethnicity of individuals are overestimated and do not reflect the reality of adherence to a religion or its actual practice.

Ethnic distribution of the Azerbaijani population – 2009


Total population

Rounded percentage


8 172 800



180 300



120 000



119 300



112 000



49 800



38 000



25 900



25 200


21 500


12 300















8 922 400

Source: Population Census 2009 – State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan –

Distribution of the Armenian population according to religious affiliation – 2011


Total population

Rounded percentage


2 884 145





Other religions



Other, refusal to answer ans undetermined

121 587


3 018 854

Source: 2011 Census – Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia:

Distribution of the Armenian Christian population according to religious affiliations – 2011


Total population

Rounded percentage

Armenian Apostolic Church

2 796 719


Evangelic Church

29 280



25 204


Catholic Church

13 843


Jehovah’s Witnesses



Orthodox Church






2 884 145

Source: 2011 Census – Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia:

Ethnic distribution of the Armenian population – 2011



Total population

Rounded percentage


2 961 801



35 308



11 911



















Refusal to answer


3 018 854


Source: Population Census 2011 – Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia –

The issue of Islamic heritage in Armenia:

“Persianization” versus “Albanization”


It is also necessary to mention a difference to be made between the debates on the Christian heritage of Karabakh and that on the Islamic heritage in Armenia which refer to different polemics although closely associated. Indeed, it was from the Russian conquest at the beginning of the 19th century that the ethno-religious composition of present-day Armenia began to reverse due to a Russian policy already inspired by Prince Gregori Potemkin (1739- 1791), as part of the struggle of the Russian Empire with the Ottoman and Persian Empires. The strategy of creating two buffer and Christian states in the South Caucasus around reconstituted Georgia and an Armenian state around Yerevan and Christian Karabakh, will rely, under Catherine II, on the khanates [7] where Christian minorities live (Gandja, Yerevan, Nakhitchevan, Karabakh).

Thus in 1828, a new oblast of Armenia was created. Also, according to the Russian censuses of 1830, the Armenian population counted only 20% of the individuals of these regions: they are less than 20,000 in the region of Yerevan to reach the figure of 700,000 at the end of the 19th century. From 1832, with the arrival of Armenians from Persia and the emigration of Muslim populations, they represented approximately 50% of the khanates of Yerevan and Nakhitchevan. There are 35,000 Muslim families in Karabakh in 1830 for 19,000 Armenian families. In 1897, there will be 75,000 Armenians for 62,000 Azeris, named at that time Caucasian Tatars. In the same way, the Armenian population will increase very strongly in Baku at the time of the oil boom and in 1872, their shares taken in this trade will even be ten times higher than those taken by the Azeris.

Under these conditions, it is obvious that the Muslim heritage on the sovereign territory of Armenia also arouses debates between the two countries. Thus, on February 23, the two Azerbaijani parliamentarians, Tahir Mirkishili and Soltan Mammadov, came to Yerevan to attend meetings of the bureau and committees of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, which was the subject of protest demonstrations  the two previous days. On this occasion, they went to the Blue Mosque, the first describing it as “the only Azerbaijani monument that has survived in Yerevan” and declaring that “the real owners of this mosque will soon be able to offer their prayers there […] Despite the fact that there are inscriptions on its walls referring to another state, its walls, its architecture, its spirit belong to us“.

Which was the subject of an immediate reaction from the Iranian Embassy in Armenia declaring: “The Blue Mosque, a symbol of Iranian art, has been active again in the last 3 decades as a place of prayer and gathering of Muslims residing in Armenia and as a tourist attraction. A great pleasure that its centuries-old Persian epigraphy has been preserved! Who can read them? “.

The “Albanization” of Christian sites in Karabakh denounced by Armenia is therefore opposed to the “Persianization” of Muslim sites denounced by Azerbaijan, which also complains of the disappearance of numerous mosques and Muslim sites on the current territory of Armenia: notably the Shahar, Hadji Novruzalibek, Hadji Imamverdi, Hadji Jafarbek or Hadji Ilyas mosques in Yerevan. There were thus, in 1879, 269 Shia mosques in Yerevan Goubernia and in the middle of the 19th century, there were 8 mosques in Yerevan.

For its part, Armenia also claims several Islamic monuments in Karabakh by presenting them as constructions carried out thanks to the know-how of Armenian builders.


What about UNESCO’s mission in light

of the anthropological implications

of the heritage dispute?


The dispute over the Christian religious heritage of Karabakh holds a very exceptional place in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. First, it multiplies the emotional dimension of the conflict by touching on the sensitive nature of the “sacred”. Then because it engages deep existential implications relating to the national identity of the two countries whose symbolic constructions explain certain conflicts of values. Finally, the history of this dispute reflects a “mirror game” of two brother peoples, full components of the Turkish-Iranian world, having evolved in the bosom of the Russian Empire which maintains its tutelage to the detriment of all possible emancipation on their part. This game includes a form of violence emanating from a “mimetic desire” so well described and analyzed by René Girard [8].

There are elements of anthropological reflection there, likely to feed the theoretical contribution of the field of research on the construction of peace. These shed light on the difficulties of fixing the material border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, their relationship is under the influence of a mechanism marked by permanent interference between me and the Other, carefully maintained, more or less consciously, by the tutelary and paternalistic figure of Russia, interference whose territory mysterious and mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh is the perfect geographical embodiment.

This dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan echoes that on the demarcation and delimitation of borders and that on the “preconditions” alleged and denounced by the Azerbaijani side. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Djeyhun Bayramov said on January 19, when meeting with OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmidt at the opening meeting of the Forum for Security Co-operation of the OSCE that “the position adopted by Armenia on this [delimitation] issue and the presentation of a number of preconditions for the start of the delimitation process, is absolutely unacceptable“. The Armenian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary replied that there was a misunderstanding on the matter and that the side had no “preconditions” but that there were “discussions on the agreements” between the two countries.

It seems that these same obstacles and “word games”, revealing the will of both parties to ensure that they only play if they are sure to win, must occur before the hypothetical arrival of the mission of UNESCO. Thomas Mallard of UNESCO’s press service  said on February 15: “
We continue to work on sending the independent technical mission of UNESCO to Nagorno-Karabakh within the framework of the 1954 Convention. We hope that this will be possible in the near future, but at the moment the necessary conditions are not met. That’s why the discussions are continuing.”

This concern can be confirmed by European Parliament résolution 2022/2582 (RSP) of March 9, adopted by 632 votes for, 2 against and 42 abstentions. It strongly condemned a “systematic state policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities“. While welcoming the “central role played by UNESCO in the protection of cultural heritage and the promotion of culture as an instrument of rapprochement and dialogue“, it requested that the mission be sent “without delay “.

By asking Azerbaijan to “
ensure that no intervention on Armenian heritage sites takes place before a UNESCO assessment mission and that Armenian and international cultural heritage experts are consulted before and closely involved in interventions on Armenian cultural heritage sites“, it makes no mention of any participation of Azerbaijani experts and judges, paradoxically and before any expertise, the Armenian national affiliation of controversial heritage assets. Moreover, it does not at any time mention the arrival of a mission on the territory itself and internationally recognized by Armenia.

Furthermore, it wishes to link this issue to the resolution of the conflict by stressing the “need to address the issue of the protection of historical and cultural heritage within the broader framework of resolving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan“. By evoking a “final definition of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh” and calling on Azerbaijan to “abandon its maximalist goals, its militaristic approach, and its territorial claims on Armenia“, it ignores international law. [3]

The committee for international and inter-parliamentary relations of the Azerbaijani Milli Majlis responded on March 11 stating that this resolution was “entirely based on false information provided by Armenia and the Armenian lobby in the European Parliament and [distorted] the realities emanating from the period of occupation of Azerbaijani lands for 30 years“. The statement even argues that “this resolution could safely be called yet another collapse of European democracy“. And it concludes “The European Parliament resolution in question will not succeed in clouding the high national, moral and cultural values ​​of the Azerbaijani people. This is just a piece of paper. We strongly condemn the European Parliament’s attempt to spread false statements in the most one-sided manner and call for avoidance of provocations that could harm the normalization process in the region.”

It is a safe bet, under these conditions, that such a resolution will be counter-productive, that it will not allow the UNESCO missions mentioned on 4 February to be deployed rapidly, or that it will only blow on the embers of conflict! This resolution also illustrates the instrumentalization of Europe in a binary game which consists for the protagonists, the Armenian and Azerbaijani States, of playing only by being sure of winning and without consulting the various communities directly concerned by the conflict and without the involvement of “civil society” actors favourable to inter-community reconciliation on a shared territory. Democratic maturity, a sense of creativity and the political will to project together into a common future are the essential elements for moving the cursor on what must currently be sacred, what is still sorely lacking in this debate to enable these countries to extricate itself from the tutelage of the powers which surround it.

[1] Farida Mamedova is an Azerbaijani historian, disciple of Ziya Bunyatov, who died in 2021 and specialist in former Caucasian Albania.

[2] Patrick Donabédian is an art historian specializing in medieval art in Armenia and Georgia.

[3] Resolutions n°822, n°853, n°874 and n°884 reaffirm in 1993 the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh:  ;;; In addition, the UN General Assembly also called on March 14, 2008 for the “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”: en/2008/AG10693.doc.htm

[4] The Persian Achaemenid dynasty, founded by King Cyrus who had vassalized Persian Media, and led by Darius III, collapsed following this defeat against the armies of Alexander the Great. General Atropates, satrap of the province of Media, pledges allegiance and remains in office: he reigns over Media Atropatene, territory of present-day Iranian Azerbaijan.

[5] Originally a rather nomadic people, a Turkish-speaking shamanist clan, which became a formidable military force between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, having initially adopted the Jewish religion as its official religion but including Christians and Muslims in their troops, the Khazars, who built up a vast kingdom from the Volga delta to the mouth of the Don, regularly rush through the “Iron Gates” of Derbent to engage in destructive plunder in the region.

[6] The Karabakh melikats represent an old institution created by the Kara-Koyunlu Turkomans of Djahan Shah, i.e. the creation of a chain of five small Christian principalities with a strong Armenian presence (the “Khamsa” or “the Five”) in the border marches of the realm. These vassal entities of the Persian central authorities are confirmed by Nader Shah since they had fought alongside him against the Ottoman armies. This union, made independent at his death, was divided by dissension and succession disputes before a Turkish-Ottoman tribe imposed itself in Karabakh and took power there.

[7] The khanates are Persian administrative divisions headed by khans and which had been set up in the southern Caucasus at the death of Nader Shah in 1747. The Christian melikats of Karabakh were vassals of the khan of Karabakh there. The khanates of the South Caucasus as well as the melikats will disappear from 1820. From 1841, an administrative reform abolishes the military governments and a new division of new administrative districts appears which abandons any reference to the old khanates.

[8] La Violence et le Sacré, René Girard, Grasset, 1972.

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