Foreign Policy Blogs

US Ambassador denied entry to Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan

US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza has been denied permission to visit the Armenian cemetery in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan.  Bryza had promised to go to the (former) cemetery, located in the village of Djulfa, during his confirmation hearings before the US Senate last year after he had been criticized for what was perceived by some as a tardy and lukewarm response to the destruction of the historically significant site by Azerbaijani troops in 2005.

In December of that year, perhaps as many as 200 Azerbaijani soldiers—armed with sledgehammers—apparently vandalized and destroyed the ancient Armenian cemetery, which is considered a sacred shrine by the Armenian Apostolic Church and dates to the seventh century.  The cemetery was most notable for its thousands of khatchkars – intricately carved headstones adorned with icons and other designs.

Rumors of the desecration of the site began to leak almost immediately.  I was living in Baku at the time, and the government stridently denied that any kind of organized destruction took place, although Azerbaijani authorities made sure that getting into Djufla was virtually impossible.  (I was visiting an Azerbaijani ministry when news came in that a BBC crew had been detained while attempting to visit the remains of the cemetery.)

None other than Matt Bryza, the current US ambassador to Azerbaijan and then a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State issued a statement in March of 2006 calling the destruction of the cemetery “a tragedy,” although the wording was on the whole rather tepid and the statement came three months after the vandalism took place.

“We are hopeful that the guilty will justly be punished,” Bryza said.

Not much chance of that ever happening, since the vandalism appeared to be carefully planned and President Aliyev repeatedly charged that the allegations were “a lie and a provocation.”  His aide Ali Hasanov referred to an IWPR article confirming the destruction as “an absolutely lying publication and statement. Not one cultural-historical monument, not one Armenian cemetery in the autonomous Nakhichevan republic has been destroyed.”

The IWPR article was published in April of 2006 and is a convincing piece of reportage.  The authors also point out that the destruction may have begun incrementally as far back as the 19th century, although reports emerging in December of 2005 indicated that an organized group of men, most likely Azerbaijani soldiers, carried out a systematic final destruction of the site’s 2,000 or so remaining khatchkars.

This clip includes a video taken on the Armenian side of the border purportedly showing Azeris destroying the cemetery.  An Armenian web site dedicated to the Djulfa cemetery also features a clip here.

For a more objective assessment, see this study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science which analyzes satellite imagery of Djulfa that appears to confirm that there is nothing left of the former cemetery.

US Ambassador denied entry to Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan

Satellite images, before and after

Journalists and foreign delegations have been turned away from the site since the allegations, most notably an EU parliamentary delegation that was denied access in early 2006.

Ambassador Bryza’s attempted visit is symbolically important, and while the gesture sends a message to the Azerbaijani government, I think it was meant to telegraph something equally significant to Yerevan about the State Department’s priorities in the region. Whether that message is being accepted at face value is another matter, however.

The US embassy’s press release refers to “Ambassador Bryza’s immediate and deeply concerned response at the time [in 2005-06 – ed.] to senior Azerbaijani officials.”  That may be, but the perception in some quarters in Armenia was that a three-month wait before responding publicly was not “immediate.” And Bryza’s attempted visit last week was deemed “far too little, five years too late” by Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

In any case, the Nakhchivani authorities have pledged to arrange a visit to the cemetery in the not-too-distant future.  I think that means “never,” but we shall see.



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.