Religious Heritage of Azerbaijan In Occupied and Historical Territories Threatened by Erasure




Azerbaijan – An Overview

The Republic of Azerbaijan is situated in the South Caucasus. It borders Iran and Turkey to the south, Russia to the north, Georgia to the north-west, and Armenia to the west.  Azerbaijan has been a secular state since 1918.

Azerbaijan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This feature significantly affected people's religious beliefs and historical formation of tolerance. Ninety-six percent of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim, 4 percent includes Christians, Jews, Bahai, Hindu, and other faiths. About 60-65 percent of Muslims of Azerbaijan are Shia, while 35-40 percent are Sunni. Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant churches live alongside the historical Albanian church in Azerbaijan for centuries. This multicultural population has encouraged tolerance in Azerbaijan for generations, and resulted in major government-led projects to protect ethno-cultural diversity in the society. [1]

In contrast, Azerbaijani lands occupied by Armenia today are losing their multicultural heritage under the direction of the Armenian government since the beginning of 1990s. Since 1991 Armenian armed forces invaded Nagorno Karabakh (Daglig Garabagh), which is an integral part of the Azerbaijan Republic, and makes up 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.

Armenia was soon joined by Soviet troops stationed in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. They invaded Nagorno-Karabakh, and seven adjacent regions (Lachin, Kalbajar, Gubadli Zangilan, Fuzuli, Jabrail, Agdam), including 13 villages of the Tartar region, 7 villages of the Gazakh region and 1 village of the Sadarak region of Nakhchivan.[2]

By the early 1990s, more than one million Azerbaijanis were expelled, becoming refugees and IDPs by Armenia, The UN Security Council adopted four resolutions - 822 (1993), 853 (1993), 874 (1993) and 884 (1993) recognizing the land as Azerbaijan’s, and demanding complete withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from these territories of Azerbaijan[3].

However, Armenia ignored these resolutions, culminating in a genocide by Armenian extremists in Khojaly between February 25 and 26, 1992. A total of 613 people, including women, children and elderly, were tortured to death.[4]

Serzh Sarkisian, who served as Armenia’s president when Khojaly was attacked, stated after the incident, “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened.”[5]

This summary was “more honest and brutal,” as British journalist Tomas de Waal notes in his book Black Garden, adding that prior to Khojaly, “the Azerbaijani people, who had lived in eastern Armenia for centuries, had become its silent guests, marginalized and discriminated against. The Armenians asserted their rights to their homeland at the expense of these people. In 1918-1920, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were expelled from Zangezur. In the 1940s, tens of thousands more were deported to Azerbaijan to make way for incoming Armenian immigrants from Diaspora. The last cleansing in 1988-1989, got rid of the rest…”[6] .

Today there remain 403 historical and religious monuments in the occupied territories, including 67 mosques, 144 churches and 192 sanctuaries .[7] But, these religious edifices, which also hold cultural and historic importance, are under threat of being demolished or converted to other uses. Precedent highlights this risk. In 1902, the Statistics Committee of Iravan governorate published the “Commemorative booklet of Iravan governorate for the year 1902”. According to the booklet, there were 310 mosques in Iravan governorate, 7 of which were in Iravan city.  Six survive today: the Zal Khan Mosque, Novruzali Bey Mosque, Sertib Khan Mosque, Hussein Ali Khan Mosque, Haji Imamverdi Mosque and Haji Jafar Bey Mosque.[8] 

Protection of the monuments is of international importance as the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict, the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972, and the 1992 European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage all memorialize by international diplomatic agreement. Yet, not enough is being done. 

Sites like the cloisters in Kelbajar district belonging to the ancient Albanian Christian heritage of Azerbaijan has already been altered.

 The Yukhari-Upper Govharagha Mosque in Shusha has also been the victim of revisionism by being re-labeled a “Persian Mosque,” rather than the Azeri work it is[9]. Under the pretext of “care” or “preserving” Islamic heritage they are falsifying the ancient history that the main purpose is erasing of Azerbaijani presence in these territories. It’s peak of cynicism and hypocrisy. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church in the territory of Shusha was Armenianized and renamed the “Kanach Cam” or Green Church.[10]



Russian Orthodox Church in Shusha, renamed the“Kanach Cam” or Green Church.[11]


The Yukhari – Upper Govhar Aga mosque was, named after the daughter of Karabakh Khanate Ibrahim Khan, Govhar Aga (Govharnisa beyim). It was built in the twin minaret format by the Shusha architect Safikhan Garabaghy in the place of the damaged Mosque with the material support of Govharnisa in 1883. Images of Yukhari before and after occupation and “renovations” by Armenia: [12]





"Yukhari– Upper Govhar Aga" mosque

Before the occupation                                                                        After Armenian occupation


  After “renovations” the holy mosque is being desecrated by aggressors




Other Historic Sites At Risk of Conversion:


  1. Ashaghi Govharagha Mosque

The last ruler of Karabakh khanate Ibrahim khan’s daughter Govharagha (real name Govharnisa) was the famous philanthropist of that time. Ashaghi (Lower) Govharagha Mosque was built by the architect Karbalayi Safikhan Garabaghi at the expense of Govharagha in the years 1874-1875.The mosque was included in “The list of the immovable historical and cultural monuments of state significance” by the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan No.132, dated August 2, 2001. During the occupation of Shusha in May, 1992, the building and minarets of Ashaghi Govharagha Mosque were severely damaged by being exposed to fires of the armored vehicles. Before and after images of the mosque:[13]




  1. Saatli Mosque

Saatli Mosque was built in 1883, by the prominent Azerbaijani architect Karbalayi Safikhan Garabaghi at the place of the mosque and madrasah built by Panah Ali Khan in 1759.



Before and after images of the mosque: [14]


  1. Agdam Juma Mosque


The Agdam Mosque was built by the architect Karbalayi Safikhan Karabakhi from 1868 to 1870 at a time when Agdam was an important trading center in the region. The architecture of the mosque has all the characteristic features of the Karabakh region: two minarets and two floors made of stone and brick.  Four columns support the dome, and create a two-story square balcony in the middle and sides of the interior, reflecting the hallmarks of traditional Islamic architecture from the era. In July, 1993, like other buildings, Juma Mosque was also demolished during the occupation of Agdam region. Today, it is literally used as a pigsty.[15]

Agdam Juma Mosque After Occupation

Demolished mosques in the city of Iravan.

Haji Jafar-bey or “Demirbulag” mosque.

 In the early 20th century, three mosques were registered in the Demirbulag housing estate, which was once exclusively inhabited by Azerbaijanis. These mosques are: Haji Novruzali bey, Haji Jafar bey and Demirbulag Mosque. Demirbulag Mosque is also called Korpugulagi Mosque because it is located near the bridge over the Gedar River. Two of them - the Haji Novruzali bey and Korpugulagi mosques - fell victim to the general plan of Yerevan in the 1930s. The only mosque in Yerevan that operated until 1988 was the Chatyrli or the Demirbulag Mosque, named after its place which was built by Haji Jafar-bey. The inscription read, “The mosque was built in 1909”. A certificate published by the Council of Armenian Churches under the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR on August 17, 1981 read, “Babayev Akbar Jafar oglu was the chairman of the executive body of the Demirbulag mosque which was located at 145 Narimanov Street (now Vardanans Street), Myasnikyan District.

After the strengthening of Armenian separatism in Nagorno-Karabakh in February 1988, Demirbulag mosque and Azerbaijani secondary school No. 9 named after MF Akhundov was set to fire by Armenians in Yerevan on February 23. However, in order to demonstrate to foreign journalists their goodwill towards Azerbaijanis, they painted the burned down walls of the Demirbulag Mosque to hide the traces of the fire. Later, in 1990s the mosque was erased by Armenian “well-wishers”.






The British journalist Thomas de Waal described it: “Yerevan has many secrets. Not far from the city center. Here, I was pretty sure, had been a mosque, used by Yerevan’s Azerbaijanis, that had had the misfortune not to be classified as “Persian” and was demolished. At the foot of the steps, an old woman in a floral dress, sitting on a camp stool with a cloth laid on the ground before her, was selling grapes, beans, and onions… “Was there ever a mosque up there?” I asked her, pointing up the steps. Yes, she answered, there had been. “What happened to it?” “When there were problems with Azerbaijan, our Armenians came and destroyed it in three days. They brought a special machine, I don’t know what it’s called, which goes like this . . .” She made a flat rolling motion with the palm of her hand, miming the path of a bulldozer.”[18]

Sardar or Khan (throne) Mosque

The names of “Sardar Mosque” or “Abbas Mirza Mosque”, in the vicinity of Sardar palace within Iravan fortress were mentioned in the works of travelers and researchers at different times. Analyses show that though presented under different names, in fact, the talk is about one and the same mosque which mentioned in recent researches and official documents as Sardar mosque – a unique architectural monument of that time. It means the mosque was given different names at different times.
Some documents related to the period of occupation of the Iravan fortress by the Tsarist Russia make mention of the mosque as Abbas Mirza mosque; apparently because the mosque was rebuilt in honour of Abbas Mirza, the successor to the throne in the early 19th century.

German researcher August Haksthauzen who was in Iravan in August 1843 noted that, one of the two mosques, that’s to say the Rajab Pasha Mosque had become the Russian-Greek church, and the other–the Sardar mosque an ammunition depot. After putting an end to the use of Iravan fortress as a military fortification by the Russian troops in 1864, the historical and architectural monuments inside it, including Sardar or Abbas Mirza mosque were subjected to serious destructions. In the early 20th century the Armenian refugees from Turkey were settled in Sardar mosque. In the period of Soviet Armenia Sardar mosque was gradually demolished. Until recently, one wall 2-3 meters high of Sardar mosque remained standing. It is worth to note that in 2007, the Armenian government presented the visible part of the mosque ruins in photo to the Council of Europe on the list of “protected historical monuments”. Nevertheless, the Armenian vandals razed to the ground even the “protected” remainder of wall of Sardar mosque in mid-November, 2014. [19]




The Sardar Mosque. Artist Dubois            

de Montpereux, Engraver Nicolet Hercule.[20]  

The Abbas Mirza Mosque. At the end of the XIX.

Photo by Shervinsky. Berlin State Museum.[21]


Now[22]- Ruins of Sardar mosque


The Blue Mosque, which is considered a rare example of Oriental architecture, was constructed in 1760-1766, during the reign of Husseinali Khan. Mosques were hung flowers made of Cashmere fabric. Armenian historian Tadevos Hakopyan in his book “The history of Iravan (1500-1800)” referring to the Bishop of Echmiadzin Hovhanes Shahkhatunyans writes: “… In the inscription on the southern portal of the mosque were engraved Hussein Ali Khan's name and the date of construction.” But at present, the Armenian officials introduce the Blue Mosque as the “Persian mosque” to foreign guests. [23]

A part of the Blue Mosque[24].


All these are the consequences of the systematic destruction of Azerbaijani traces in the occupied territories.

If Islamic monuments are subjected to a policy of terrorism, the other part of Azerbaijani cultural heritage – the Christian architectural inheritance of Caucasian Albania – is also under threat of being destroyed or armenianized.

Christian churches and temples, built by Albanian princes and part of the history of Caucasian Albania, are becoming “Armenian”. Armenian scholars carry out so-called “restoration” work on these monuments in order to Armenianize them. This work is illegal as it is being carried out on foreign monuments in occupied territories and without the participation of scientists from Azerbaijan. The traces of their connection to Albanian culture are being erased. Under the guise of “restoration” work, they are falsifying and destroying the characteristic features of Albanian Karabakh architecture. Unfortunately, they sometimes involve foreign experts in this work, and their participation, the occupiers believe, gives “scientific validity” to their fabrications.

Despite social problems emerged in the aftermath of the Armenian occupation, the Armenian Saint Gregory Church in downtown Baku is fully refurbished and under State protection. In 2010, Catholicos Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Gregorian Church and his Russian counterpart, Kirill I, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ have visited the Church and made the prayer. [25]






Armenian Church in Baku, Azerbaijan then and now


The need to withdrawing of Armenian armed forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno Karabakh and seven adjacent regions is urgent. The cultural heritage of multiple faith communities in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan as well as in Armenia itself is at risk.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of this publication.

Ali Haziyev

The author is the head of the Department of International Relations at the State Committee on Religious Association of the Republic of Azerbaijan.





[3] , , ,,


[5] De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and war. NYU Press.2003, 172.

[6] Ibid, p.80.

[7] ,


[9] ,



[12] ,



[14]  , ,






[18] “Black Garden” Tomas de Waal, p. 79.

[19], p. 18

[20], p. 11


[21] ibid, p.19

[22] ,, p. 43

[23], p. 26-32



[25], p. 43,_Baku



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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