QUBA, Azerbaijan — If this city’s main tourist attraction bears a striking resemblance to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, there’s a good reason: underneath the site are the bones of as many as 60,000 victims of a mass murder that allegedly took place more than 100 years ago.
The Guba Genocide Memorial Complex is located in Quba (also spelled Guba), a city — and district — located 160 kilometers north of Azerbaijan’s booming capital, Baku.
Ziyaddin Aliyev, Quba’s mayor, said his mountainous, apple-producing district has 172,000 inhabitants living in 149 towns and villages throughout its 2,600 square kilometers. That makes Quba the largest of Azerbaijan’s 75 districts.
“Quba is the best example of tolerance in our country,” Aliyev, 58, said in an interview at city hall, noting the presence of more than 70 mosques and two synagogues. “We have more than 20 ethnicities in our district, and we all live with each other in an atmosphere of friendship.”
But in 1918 — only three years after 1 million ethnic Armenians died in what they say was a genocide committed at the hands of Turkey — something terrible allegedly happened here: the mass murder of tens of thousands of Azerbaijani men, women and children at the hands of Armenian Bolsheviks. The deaths occurred during a series of ethnic and territorial conflicts between the newly established states of Armenia and Azerbaijan following the Russian Revolution that saw a large number of civilians killed.
“The precise number isn’t known, but 60,000 is the minimum. It’s probably more than that, because bones of up to 100,000 people were found,” said Aliyev. “These bones were found by accident in 2007. A businessman was building a house for himself, and the workmen were excavating. The government took control of the site and found even more bones. Eventually, it was decided to build this memorial complex.”
The bones are believed to be those of Muslims who lived in the area and were murdered in April and May of 1918, when 167 villages were completely destroyed and Quba itself was set on fire.
With its minimalist triangle-shaped design, long underground exhibit halls and black granite tombstones, this Genocide Memorial Complex looks very much like Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
“Brutal cruelty of the genocide is heartbreaking and causes severe pain,” states a pamphlet that’s handed out to visitors at the entrance. “Because of the serious and dramatic tension, heaviness and sorrow of the genocide, the architects specifically avoided the use of decorations and ornaments, as a sign of honor to the victims of the tragedy.”
The museum was commissioned by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and inaugurated in 2013 by President Ilham Aliyev, who has governed this country ever since the 2003 death of his father, Heydar Aliyev.
Dozens of black-and-white photographs adorn the walls of this solemn museum complex, including those depicting ordinary life in the early 20th century, before the 1918 upheavals.
Tour guide Aygün Agamirzayeva said 83,000 people visited the genocide complex in 2019, of which 60% were from Israel. Most of the remaining 40% came from Iran, Georgia, Turkey and other nearby countries.
That’s not exactly a surprise, considering Azerbaijan’s close friendship with Israel. The two countries enjoy strong diplomatic and economic relations, and Azerbaijan — despite its predominantly Muslim population and long border with Iran — is a major customer of Israeli weaponry. It also supplies an estimated 40% of Israel’s crude oil needs, with 2018 bilateral trade exceeding $1.3 billion.
In September 2018, Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s minister of defense, planted an apple tree at the Quba Genocide Memorial Complex, accompanied by Aliyev and other officials.
“People from Israel feel sorry, of course, because they somehow connect with this history,” the mayor said, noting that religious leaders — including those of the Eastern Orthodox Church — have also paid their respects here. “Even the patriarch of Russia visited our memorial, even though they were from the same religion as the Armenians who committed this genocide.”
Recognizing One Genocide, But Not Another
Yet it’s unclear if Armenian citizens would be welcome here. Foreign passports are checked at the entrance, and people with Armenian-sounding surnames routinely face intense scrutiny, if not downright hostility.
Still, Aliyev insisted “the complex is open for everyone. Those are the facts, and it’s a sad chapter of our history. If they want to come and visit, they can come. We hope that one day, Armenians will admit what they did and apologize, the way the Germans did after the Holocaust.”
Unlike Germany and Israel, however, which are not at war with each other, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a bitter territorial dispute for more than a century. In 1992, the two former Soviet republics went to war, and Armenian troops moved into the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia has occupied Nagorno-Karabakh ever since — leading to charges of ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses and atrocities on both sides.
The bitterness on each side runs so deep that in some ways, the Arab-Israeli conflict seems quite manageable by comparison. Yet thanks to offshore oil and gas deposits in the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is doing far better economically than Armenia. The Aliyev government is using its energy windfall not only to buy Israeli weaponry, but also to resettle an estimated 700,000 internally displaced persons in 106 new settlements scattered throughout Azerbaijan.
The Israeli government has so far declined to recognize the mass killings of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as a genocide. On Dec. 17, a week after the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to do exactly that, the State Department said it didn’t agree.
“The position of the [Trump] administration has not changed,” it said, directly contradicting Congress in a statement that was praised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — as well as Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally.
Asked about Trump’s refusal to go along with Congress, Quba’s mayor said that, speaking as a government official, he’s not allowed to comment.
“But on a personal level, I agree with Trump,” he said.
NOTE: This reporter’s visit to Azerbaijan, as well as transportation within the country, was organized and financed by the country’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel-Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.