Recently I finished reading Robert Bevan’s captivating if sad work The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, a somber meditation into the nature of ethnic conflicts but on a level rarely discussed in the literature on ethnic conflicts. His work is primarily dealing with the destruction of age old (usually) architectural edifices as a method of erasing the very historical memory of an unwanted ethnic group with previous existence in those lands. The book was part of a class I teach at a Texas university on nationalism and ethno-political conflicts. What makes however the book special and gripping is the author’s background. Bevan is a trained architect who writes for popular architecture related magazines in English speaking countries about … well, architecture. His passion about buildings and all things architectural brings to bear on his scholarship. Where a sociologist or a historian looking at ethnic conflicts would simply mention the destruction of this or that building as part of an ethnic conflict or war Bevan sees the destruction of buildings, apart from the destruction of human lives, as an end in itself for the destroyer, a deliberate rather than a collateral damage. Bevan argues that the destruction of human lives in wars and ethnic conflicts either is preceded by or follows the destruction of their architectural and broader cultural heritage, and in many cases it both precedes and concludes an ethnic conflict. Why destroy buildings and other cultural artifacts? The simple answer is that they are symbols and communicate a certain message about the culture a product of which these buildings and artifacts are, an uncomfortable reminder to the “triumphant victors” of their victims and their culture, both naturally deemed hostile. But lamentably, this symbolization and subsequent destruction have been the part and parcel of ethnic conflicts since time immemorial, inseparable from the human experience.
While reading Bevan’s book I was inevitably reminded of the destruction of the medieval Armenian cemetery in Jugha, presently in Azerbaijan. Azeri soldiers at the command of their superiors without as much as blinking an eye would embark at destroying and erasing the last vestige of the Armenian civilization in that territory as if the Armenians had never as much as existed there, as if Armenians had never as much as created anything, something to celebrate their faith and commemorate their dead. I was also reminded of something that is much more actual – the destruction, perhaps not yet on a physical level but certainly on a metaphysical level, of Armenian churches in Georgia. These churches physically are there, but the spirit that indwells those churches has long been departed, exorcised by Georgian nationalists.