The Ghostchaser

Thomas de Waal is a freelance international correspondent based in London. He is working on a book on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which will be published by New York University Press next year

Night falls over the monastery of Yeghishe Arakyal as a bonfire crackles in a 17th century fireplace. Far below, a river surges. An owl hoots. Then, something else: a faint patter of Armenian voices.

* In the darkness, the pale shapes of the seven monastery chapels press against one another like the hulls of ships. Three figures stand above a low stone doorway into one of the chapels, their faces close to the upper arch. One of the women holds a flashlight, and its beam falls onto the inscription above the door. Another stands with pen poised above a pad of paper. A tall man with a big, bald forehead capped by a navy-blue-and-orange wool hat reads aloud the Armenian letters, one by one.

* By all rights, Samvel Karapetian should have been exhausted. He'd spent the day hiking through a timeless forest wilderness in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region high in the Caucasus, far from the peace talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders going on half a world away. Two local guides led the way, carrying double-barreled hunting-rifles. They passed beneath the silver shafts of beech trees, picking their way over great rotting timbers. Karapetian kept pace.

As his bare head darted along, he sometimes seemed less a human being than some strange marine creature flitting through the green.

Finally they'd found the monastery: a tiny splash of pale stone standing on a rocky outcrop above a gorge, with the foaming Terter River below. But after an already punishing day, ending with a meager dinner of bread, cheese and herbs, Karapetian is still working well after dark. He is deciphering inscriptions as quickly as he can, as if time is slipping through his fingers.

And in fact, one lifetime may not be enough to accomplish the goal that Karapetian has set for himself: to document every Armenian monument--every church, tomb, tower and bridge--outside the Republic of Armenia and preserve them from destruction. For the last 23 years, he has been coming to the remote hills of the Caucasus every year, traveling only on foot. There are no unnecessary breaks, no late starts, no time for dawdling. "I count every minute," Karapetian says.

The clock is ticking loudly this April night because, in Key West, Fla., U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and an international negotiating team are talking compromise. This small, mountainous region in the southern Caucasus region is situated on an ancient fault line between Europe and Asia, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Christianity and Islam. To the north are the mighty Caucasus Mountains and the troubled region of Chechnya and Russia, to the south is Iran and the Middle East. Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by Armenians and occupied by Armenian troops, but the international community recognizes it as part of Azerbaijan.

Violence first broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, when it was a tiny southern province in the Soviet Union covering just 1,700 square miles. When the U.S.S.R. broke up, the dispute escalated into full-scale war. An estimated 20,000 people were dead by the time an armistice was signed in 1994, with the Armenians victorious and occupying not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but a wide swath of land surrounding it.

Although the fighting has stopped, the dispute goes on. Neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanis will back down from their claims to the land, and the deadlock has paralyzed the whole Caucasus region. The potential benefits of a U.S.-brokered peace deal are vast. If the Americans can unlock this conflict, it would allow hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees to go home to areas currently occupied by the Armenians. It would open up a new transport corridor for oil and gas running from Asia to Europe, through Azerbaijan and Armenia. That would be welcome news for American oil companies, including ExxonMobil Corp. and Chevron, which have invested heavily in Caspian Sea oil and fear that more fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh could hurt their investments in Azerbaijan. An agreement also would please many of the million or so Armenian Americans (almost half of them in California) who want Armenia to emerge from a desperate economic slump.

But there won't be a peace deal if Karapetian--and many other Armenians--have anything to do with it. For them, compromise is anathema. It means sharing what they regard as ancient Christian Armenian land with the Azerbaijanis, who are Muslim and closely related to the Turks. "I hope there won't be a solution," Karapetian says. "I don't even want to think about it." In his view the negotiators at Key West are simply trying to steal monasteries such as Yeghishe Arakyal from the rightful owners.

*

THE ARMENIANS HAVE HAD A DIFFICULT HISTORY, WHICH THEY LIKE to tell as one of survival against the odds. This year they are celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of becoming the first Christian kingdom in the world in 301. Since then Armenians have lived at various times in most parts of the land between the Mediterranean Sea in southern Turkey and the Caspian Sea to the east. They left behind thousands of churches and tombs all over the region. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, invaders have come and gone, and the modern republic of Armenia now occupies a small area of only 11,500 square miles--slightly larger than California's Inyo County.

Karapetian's concern is the Armenian monuments that have ended up outside Armenia, in foreign countries such as Turkey or Azerbaijan, or disputed territories such as Nagorno-Karabakh. To him, those monuments mark the true boundaries of Greater Armenia, and he has made it his personal mission to find and document them. But whether you consider him a conservator or a conqueror, Karapetian's work raises the same compelling question that hovers over so many of the world's conflicts: When does history begin?

In this region, that question hangs heaviest over Agdam--or what is left of it. The view from the mosque in Agdam looks north to the magnificent white peaks of the Caucasus range, but they are not what catches the eye. Down below is a small Hiroshima. Few now live in this Azerbaijani city, which once had 50,000 inhabitants. After the Armenians captured Agdam in 1993, they slowly destroyed it. The houses are empty. Plunderers stole what the shells didn't destroy, stripping the buildings of everything: roofs, doors, even window frames. Plant life has taken over. Thistles and brambles swarm over the wrecked houses and trees grow in the streets. The only building intact is the plum-and-white-tiled mosque. Its two minarets rise up in the middle of this ghost town, a chilling symbol of the Armenians' obsession with preserving historical monuments above everything else. Looking out from the minaret onto the devastation, one wonders what could possibly justify such an apocalypse.

Towns and villages like Agdam in the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh were home to about 600,000 Azerbaijanis--and many of them remain destitute and yearning for their homes in camps, crowded student hostels and crumbling beach hotels. Armenians consider Agdam part of a "buffer zone" that protects the highlands of Karabakh from attack. Armenian President Robert Kocharian has made it clear that he is prepared to give these "occupied territories" back to Azerbaijan if the rest of a peace deal looks good--if, for example, the Karabakh Armenians get full self-rule.

But Karapetian is not interested in modern diplomacy and the modern city of Agdam. He sees there only an old village of 200 Armenians who lost their land to interlopers over the last two centuries. Armenians have at last reclaimed it, he insists, and the hidden monuments are historical proof of Armenia's rights to the land.

And the displaced Azerbaijanis? He says they cannot be trusted to conserve Armenia's history and that, where they can, they try to erase it. As proof he recalls his experience in the remote Kelbajar region on the Azerbaijani border, captured by the Armenians. "In 1987 [before the fighting began] I had seen 13 Armenian inscriptions at the 12th and 13th century monastery of Surp Astvatsatsin, the Virgin Mary," says Karapetian. "I wrote an article and published it in the Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences. When the territory was liberated in 1993, I went back and there was nothing left, not even fragments. Everything had been destroyed."

Karapetian, who had braved land mines and sporadic fighting to check on the monuments, was convinced that the Azerbaijanis had been systematically destroying the Armenian artifacts.

Karapetian even rejects the international community's description of Agdam and surrounding areas as "occupied territories." No, cities such as Agdam have been "liberated" by soldiers such as his own brother, who was wounded three times while fighting in the region.

*

HOW DID ARMENIA "LIBERATE" A TERRITORY IN which no Armenians lived? Those who have watched similar expulsions and deportations of whole communities in the former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia or Kosovo, call it "ethnic cleansing." In Azerbaijan, the government goes a lot farther. On May 9 its president, Heydar A. Aliyev, compared the Armenian aggression to that of Nazi Germany.

"Invented history has been taught in Armenia for decades, and the Armenian people themselves are the hostage of myths and lies which rank as national ideology and propaganda," Aliev advisor Hidayat Orujev said last year while claiming that Azerbaijanis, not Armenians, are the biggest victims in this region. In Azerbaijan recently there have been aggressive calls to resume war and "liberate" Karabakh from the Armenians. The passions in this dispute are still running high.

Karapetian defers to his stones and inscriptions, saying the bigger claims of history take precedence over the rhetoric of today. He says that, in contrast to the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis--even the city dwellers of Agdam--were recent immigrants. "The people who lost their homes are third generation or fourth generation maximum," he says. "They were nomads; the tsar forced them to settle in those villages."

Karapetian dismisses the argument that the population of the region has always been a mix of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. "Every Turk or Azerbaijani asks you for a little land and says, 'Just give me a little land to live in!' But in a few years you end up with a tiny piece of land and he gets the lot." Even when he has traveled on buses in Azerbaijan, he says he has always ended up losing his seat.

Although the Azerbaijanis lost their land, Karapetian insists his conservation efforts are not an effort to justify an inhumane policy. It's simply a matter of self-defense, he says. And so he walks on, passionately convinced that the truth is out there in the hills and forests, available to anyone willing to seek it out.

*

KARAPETIAN UNLOADS HIS HEAVY RUCKSACK ONTO THE GRASS, pulling out two cameras, a tripod, notebooks and measuring tapes. The first feathery leaves of spring are coming out on the trees in the graveyard of Hurekavank. This medieval church and graveyard in another part of Nagorno-Karabakh are an important stop in the researcher's latest architectural expedition. He likes to make his journeys in late spring when the weather is mild, and there are fewer leaves on the trees that can obscure inscriptions and block the monuments he wants to photograph. If he had come a few weeks later, a jungle of foliage would have hidden the vault of Hurekavank.

The war may be over, but Karapetian and his two assistants work with military efficiency. Because of Karapetian's grueling, self-imposed schedule, they have only one day. First, Emma Abrahamyan and Narine Hasratian undrape a long tape and measure the dimensions of the church. Then, using twigs and pencils, the three researchers scrape the dirt of centuries from the long, cold tombs inside so they can read the inscriptions. Underneath are several bishops and princes from the Beglarian family. Like nearly half of the estimated 1,200 other churches in Karabakh, it dates from a golden age of Armenian art during the 12th and 13th centuries. These architectural treasures and their fine stone carvings are almost unknown in the West because first the Soviet Union and then the war kept foreign scholars out.

The team sets to work on the outside of the church. Karapetian pulls away the brambles clinging to the masonry while Zarmik Dalakyan, his elderly host from the nearby village, hacks down saplings with his ax. His work reveals old khachkars (elaborately carved cross-stones) and Armenian inscriptions underneath, set into the wall. "And now you tell me this is Azerbaijani," Dalakyan says with a loud cackle.

Karapetian and his assistants move through the graveyard like a film crew scouting a location. Every tomb is measured, cleaned of moss and dirt, its inscription copied down. Then, while Abrahamyan or Hasratian hold an improvised measuring stick with three paper numbers above it, Karapetian captures each one on film using his still camera. They work until the sun goes down.

The cease-fire line running through the middle of this region has a big impact on Karapetian's research. On the other side is Azerbaijani territory, including areas he explored in Communist times that are now out of bounds. On the Armenian-held side, including Nagorno-Karabakh and the "liberated" territories, he can now wander as he never could before--although there are new dangers of unexploded ordnance and land mines.

The road back from Hurekavank shows the scars of war. Here a row of burnt-out houses, there the rusting carcass of an armored car. Everywhere young soldiers in dusty olive-green uniforms patrol the front line with Azerbaijan. The village of Talysh in the valley below is still in ruins seven years after it was captured by the Azerbaijanis and then recaptured by the Armenians. Most of its inhabitants are old people, scraping by on tiny pensions and what their cows, sheep and hens provide.

Later that evening, Karapetian sits in the warm front room of Dalakyan's house, at a table lit by two oil lamps. A rusty wood-burning stove serves as the house's central heating system, stove and toaster. Karapetian had stayed in this house 21 years before, when he was 19. "There isn't a village in Karabakh where there isn't a house that I can call my own," he says.

His gaze is as strong as a searchlight--all the more compelling because his eyes are set in a completely bald head--as he explains how his unusual mission began. "When I finished 10th grade, I tried for the university history faculty, but I failed the first history exam," Karapetian says. That was in 1978, when he was 17 years old. "A few days later I was in the mountains. So my university was the mountains, the forest and the monuments."

Karapetian says he spent his childhood listening to his grandfather, who had come from a village on the northern shore of Lake Van in the Armenian part of eastern Turkey. All the Armenians were driven out of that region during the massacres of 1915. In Soviet times, Turkey was closed territory, so Karapetian decided to walk through neighboring Azerbaijan.

In 1980 he was already starting to systematize what he saw. That year he walked 700 miles across Nagorno-Karabakh--then firmly a part of Azerbaijan. He camped or stayed in village houses like this one and used his Smena camera, the cheapest Soviet model, to take shots of all the Christian monuments he found.

Back then it was dangerous work. The KGB detained him several times, and he once spent seven days in a police cell. "There isn't a regional center in Azerbaijan where I wasn't in the police station or the KGB headquarters more than once," Karapetian says.

He also began to understand why they were so suspicious: He became convinced that the Communist Azerbaijani authorities were deliberately destroying Christian monuments. He says that as he came back each year he often discovered monuments he had already documented wrecked or ruined, including a 9th century cross-domed church in the Getabek region of northwest Azerbaijan. "I came there for the second time in 1982--I'd been there first in 1980--and it was half ruined. I saw a shovel and pickax lying on the ground, as if someone had left them there during their lunch break. The only thing I could do was throw the tools into a gorge."

By the time he was in his mid-20s Karapetian had become a walking encyclopedia. He kept an archive on hundreds of churches, inscriptions and tombstones in his apartment, and spent his spare time doing research. "If I had a choice between camera film and something to eat," he recalls, "I would choose the film."

Karapetian, now 40, has compiled the largest database in the world on Armenian monuments outside Armenia. He is employed by Research on Armenian Architecture, the architectural history organization, which opened an office in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, last year and also has offices in Glendale and Aachen, Germany. Only then was Karapetian able to move his archive from his home into a set of filing cabinets in RAA's Yerevan office.

Armen Haghnazarian, the founder of RAA, who has worked with Karapetian for the last 12 years, says Karapetian has done something of unique importance to the field of Armenian architectural studies. "It's very difficult to [talk about]," Haghnazarian says, struggling for words. "It means everything for me. There is no other Samvel and there can't be. That's all."

*

THE MONTH AFTER KARAPETIAN'S visit to the monastery of Yeghishe Arakyal, the team of U.S., French and Russian mediators on Nagorno-Karabakh negotiating team visits Agdam to show a group of journalists the extent of the problem facing them, and the benefits that would come from making peace. As they drive onto the ruined streets, Carey Cavanaugh, the main U.S. negotiator, calls it "the largest Home Depot on the planet." Standing in the shadow of the Agdam mosque, Cavanaugh explains that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are well ahead of their populations in their desire to forge a peace agreement.

"I think in their two-year dialogue they have come to understand the importance of compromise," Cavanaugh says. "They have come to understand that this region will only work if the two countries can live together and cooperate economically and get past the security situation they face today. But I think in the population at large there is much more rhetoric, there is much less contact from one side to the other and less of an understanding of compromise being needed. I think there's an understanding among both peoples about the need for peace. But if you talk to both peoples about compromise, they are much less forthcoming."

The negotiators say any agreement will include a protocol on the protection and preservation of cultural monuments. The two presidents have already discussed a document that would require them to respect the historical landmarks in their territory.

For Karapetian, though, signatures on such a piece of paper would mean nothing. His office on the sixth floor of the Institute of Art in Yerevan is one of the most industrious workplaces in Armenia. He goes there seven days a week, sometimes toiling until 11 p.m. He has edited four books based on his research and is working on 16 more. The RAA office in Yerevan has already assembled 2,600 photographs of khachkars from Nagorno-Karabakh and more than 300 maps of the province. The Glendale office has digitized all the images and stored them on CDs.

Karapetian keeps a drawer of filing cards in his office that catalog Armenian churches in countries around the world. He flips through them, calling out the countries in alphabetical order: "France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland--"

Iceland?

There are three Armenian churches there, he explains, and it's clear that Samvel Karapetian will pursue his quest as far as the human frame allows. It's not hard to imagine him striding across the volcanic soil of Iceland, tape measure in hand, pursuing the past, trying to stop the present from crowding back in.

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