Armenia at a Crossroads? Musings on my visit to Yerevan this Easter. Alyson Wharton-Durgaryan. 19th April 2024.

Since the 2020 Forty-Four Day War, as an academic working on topics connected to Armenia and Turkey, in regular contact with colleagues in Armenia and in Turkey (and, as UK-based academic, constantly under pressure to develop new grant bids and developing yet more contacts!), I did think I was sensing an increased reticence to engage in collaborative endeavours, particularly from the Armenian side. Enthusiasm that once would have been expressed to join Turkey-based academics to hold workshops, or develop heritage-related projects, had dried up. Even some funding bodies seemed to decide that Turkey-Armenia relations were no longer a priority. Of course, this is all perfectly understandable. If you’d have witnessed the atrocities of that war, in all the technicolour and seeming real-time videos of telegram, interspersed amongst the usual mundanities of Facebook, – or even just hearing about the many beheadings, the sexual assaults, the horrific loss of young lives and shelling of hospitals and even cultural monuments like Shushi Cathedral, you’d have been feeling despondent in the years following. You’d also have felt considerable anger against those who had expressed their solidarity in times of peace and that “we are all Armenians”, but who had remained silent in the face of this barrage of extreme violence being inflicted on your compatriots. This situation didn’t look likely to change with the revival of hostilities in the 2023 Azeri offensive leading to the surrender of Artsakh, evacuation of its Armenian population, dispossession of Armenian properties, and dissolution of the political entity in 2024. Immediately, heritage experts were fearing the worst for Armenian monasteries like Dadivank and Gandzasar- cultural treasures that are amongst the most beautiful sites in the world (I know, I have visited many of them). It would only be a matter of time before their Armenian-ness would be whitewashed into a Caucasian Albanian proto-Azeri invented history.


In this context, I was pleasantly surprised by my experiences at the international conference “Armenia as a Civilizational Crossroad: Historical and Cultural Ties” from March 28 to 30 2024 in Yerevan. The joint initiative of the Armenian Academy of Sciences and Yerevan State University, along with two newly founded civil society organisations, Orbelli Center and Geghard Scientific Analytical Foundation, organised by and partly the brainchild of the talented YSU specialist on cultural heritage, Haykuhi Muradyan, the conference was unabashedly politically progressive. It opened with a speech by President of the Republic of Armenia Vahagn Khachaturyan on the “Crossroads of Peace” diplomatic initiative, which specifies opening borders and redeveloping transport infrastructures, to better connect Armenia not only with its “friends” Georgia and Iran (and to some extent Russia as well), but also to reconnect Armenia with roads and railways leading to its very recent “enemies” Turkey and Azerbaijan. Although reopening the border and redeveloping these routes has been talked of for decades, communicating such a bold move to push through all of these crossings and checkpoints at once, in the wake of such a horrific war and such dramatic scenes of Artsakhsi’s fleeing, seems a dramatic move for the current administration. Conference delegates were given brochures with maps and an explanatory text by PM Nikol Pashinyan about “creating channels” and hopes for “long-term peace and stability”.


The conference itself and its tone was guided by several key figures. Robert Ghazaryan, Direct of Geghard Scientific Analytical Foundation, spoke of the aim of the foundation to counter Azeri propaganda, particularly on cultural issues. Hranush Kharatyan gave a paper on the so-called “deportation of Azerbaijanis” from Armenia in 1947-50. Many papers focused an individual acts of destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Turkey and Artsakh, memories of massacres in Sumgait and Baku, Soviet historiography and identity politics, and aspects of falsification of history in Azerbaijan. Despite its progressive political aims, therefore, the conference did not shy away from drawing attention to, and analytically documenting, past and ongoing wrongs. There was also a strong showing from Hamlet Petrosyan’s Monuments Watch team, who were, and continue to be, involved in documenting the archaeological sites and built heritage of Artsakh and placing it online in their interactive map.


However, there was also a heavy weight of papers devoted to political optimism. Many of these were delivered by international visitors. Speakers from China spoke on various diplomatic and modernization-related issues (from Russo-Chinese financial cooperation to one paper entitled mysteriously: “Another possibility of international relations”). There were some brilliant papers by Japanese academics, including one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever heard about the ‘trompe l’oeil sweater’ designed by Schiaparelli, inspired by an Armenian village woman, she encountered by chance, then made in factories staffed by diasporan Armenian workers in France (in a paper by Shinnosuke Matsui). There were some wonderful papers by Armenian students and junior academics, such as a comprehensive study of khojas palaces in New Julfa by Ivet Tajaryan and Greta Gasparyan, and of Artsakh monuments of independence by Anush Safaryan. It was also a joy to listen to senior scholars like Hamlet Petrosyan in person, having followed him for years: I used to show videos of him excavating Tigranakert to my students back in Mardin, over a decade ago. Another highlight is the variety of papers documenting the layers of history in Artsakh (such as a paper on Armenian industrialists in 19th century Shushi) and other places around the Caucasus and the Black Sea (Armenians in Abkhazia; Armenians in Rostov and so on), even a very enthusiastically received paper on the role of Armenia in the spread of Christianity in Dagestan. Papers by Armenian, Russian and Georgian academics openly addressed foreign policy directions in the wake of the Artsakh war, papers by Iranian, Indian and Egyptian academics discussed cultural diplomacy amongst other topics, and a strong cohort of PhD students from Hungary delivered papers on aspects of imperial and Soviet Armenian history. To my surprise, after delivering my paper (on Armenian-Ottoman antiquities dealers) I was invited to be interviewed on camera!


The two days of almost-exhausting variety of papers and nationalities was intense but somehow intellectually invigorating. The complete absence of academics from Turkey (and of course even less possible, Azerbaijan) was perhaps not surprising. It is early days for that. Will 2025 bring a follow up event that will go a step further on the Crossroads of Peace?