While the Iranian state renovates the Armenian churches in Northern Iran and submits them to the World Heritage List of UNESCO, some hundred meters further on, on the other side of the boundary river they do everything so that theirs disappear without a trace.
The Araxes became a boundary river in 1828, when the expanding Russian Empire conquered Northern Azerbaijan, and then Armenia from Persia, to where they had belonged for two and half millenaries. The new frontier cut in two the town of Julfa laying on the two banks of the river, at the stone bridge which had been sung of – pontem indignatus Araxes – also by Virgil. At this time, however, the town did not even remember its golden years when it had been the main hub of commerce between Persia and Europe.
The map of Wikipedia traces in black the boundary of 1813. The official boundary since 1828 is the prolongation of the former one, following the Araxes along the southern border of Armenia.
In the 16th century the Armenian merchants of Julfa were the buyers of row silk, the most precious product of Persia, and it was delivered by them to all Europe. They had commercial houses from Aleppo through Venice to Amsterdam. European travelers described Julfa as an astonishingly rich town with seven churches and three thousand stone houses. The richness of the town has been attested most of all by its cemetery where ten thousand beautifully carved, man-high tomb stones, khachkars have been counted.
The golden years ended abruptly. During the late 16th-century Turkish-Persian wars Shah Great Abbas has soberly gauged that in the frontier zone open to the Ottoman Empire he would not be able to defend the town, this goose laying golden eggs, and therefore in 1604 had the complete population of the Armenian province of Nakhichevan moved in a forced march – a hundred thousand people died on the way – several hundred kilometers southward, to Isfahan and its confines. There Armenian merchants have made flourish the still today Armenian suburb of New Julfa, and the hands of Armenian masters converted the main square of Isfahan into one of the wonders of the world. Julfa in Nakhichevan has never recovered. Its ruins still can be observed to the west of the little town bearing its name today. Only the cemetery has remained intact at the western end of the ruined town, on the river bank, with ten thousand beautifully carved tomb stones.
The cemetery of Julfa around 1910 seen from the west. The town once stood on the left bank of the Araxes, at the feet of the mountains. On the right, Iranian bank, on the top of the rock at the riverside still there is standing the small Armenian church called “Shepherd Church” (Kelisâ-ye Chupân), built in 1518. – Below you see the probably oldest photo of the cemetery from B. Chantre: A travers l’Arménie russe (Paris, 1893), from here.
The name of Nakhichevan means in Armenian “the place of the descent”, for it was here that Noah, his sons and all the animals of the earth descended from the Arch which had stranded on the top of the nearby Ararat. It was a pure Armenian province until 1604, the great migration. The place of the deportated Armenians was occupied by Turkish population. The shah sent later some more Turkish tribes here for the defence of the frontiers. Since then the Armenians who remained there and those gradually sneaking home have remained in minority in respect to the Azeri Turks. In 1920 the region was annexed to Azerbaijan as an autonomous province. In 1979 only 1.4% Armenians lived there, where a century earlier they were 40% of the population. After the Karabagh war even they disappeared. Only the cemetery has remained.
The first photos – thirty-eight – were made in 1928 by Jurgis Baltrušaitis, the great art historian (“Le Moyen-Âge fantastique”), poet and Ambassador of Lithuania in the Soviet Union. It has remained the most detailed photo documentation of the cemetery laying in this severely controlled frontier zone of the former Soviet empire. His photos were published with accompanying text by Dickran Kouymjian in 1986 in Lisbon. Its PDF version can be downloaded from the djulfa.com site dedicated to the cemetery.
Photo by Baltrušaitis
The last one who saw the cemetery was the Scottish architect Steven Sim in August 2005. While visiting the Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan, he found that all the medieval Armenian churches of the province had been completely destroyed, and only one or two years earlier, because their fresh ruins were not yet covered by the vegetation. However, he still found the cemetery of Julfa intact as the train passed by it on the river bank. The train guards prohibited him to take photos of it, and later he was even arrested and expelled from the country.
While wandering in Iran and approaching the Armenian monuments from the south, I thought that on my next journey I would also cross the bridge and take photos of the tombs. I came too late. The cemetery of Julfa was destroyed precisely on my 40th birthday. It is strange to consider that while an international company of friends was celebrating in our house and my friends surprised me with a show of Italian and Spanish wines, the Azerbaijani army on the bank of the Araxes was just smashing to pieces one of the richest monuments of Armenian culture, carrying away the fragments by lorries from 15 to 17 December in 2005. The destruction was videotaped from the Iranian side of the river by local Armenians. The video below was made on the basis of their recordings by Sarah Pickman, who was also the first to report on the events in Archaeology.
The European Parlament condemned the destruction in a resolution on February 16, 2006, and wanted to send a delegation to the place, which has been hitherto prevented by the Azerbaijani government. “Lie and provocation”, declared Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev. “No Armenian monuments were destroyed, for never any Armenians lived in Nakhichevan.”
The Nakhichevan and Azeri members of Institute for War and Peace Reporting published the first spot report in April 2006, in which they rendered account of the complete destruction of the cemetery. A military shooting range was established on its place.
The memory of the khachkars has been preserved by the Djulfa Virtual Memorial Museum.
Hasmik Harutyunyan: Lullaby of Tigranakert (5'53"). From the album Armenian Lullabies (2004)