A new report from Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) led by Cornell has compiled decades of high-resolution satellite imagery to document the complete destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in the Azerbaijan Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan from the late 1990s .
Moreover, the latest finding from CHW’s Heritage Watch project suggests that the same policy of cultural erasure is now threatening Armenian monuments in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. CHW recently uncovered the destruction of a historic church in Karabakh, one of hundreds of Armenian monuments in territories ceded to Azerbaijan under a 2020 ceasefire to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The destruction of the Church of St. Sargis in the village of Mokhrenes between March and July 2022 provides evidence of the first major violation of a judgment by the International Court of Justice, which ordered Azerbaijan in December 2021 to prevent such acts.
According to CHW’s report on Nakhichevan, of the 110 medieval and modern Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries that CHW has identified from archival sources, 108 were destroyed between 1997 and 2011 in what the authors describe as “a systematic, state-sponsored program of erasure.”
CHW was founded in 2020 by Lori Khatchadourian, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Adam T. Smith, Emeritus Professor of Arts and Sciences in Anthropology, both in the College of Arts and Sciences, along with Ian Lindsay , associate professor of anthropology at Purdue University.
“Cultural heritage faces greater threats than ever, from economic development to climate change. But the most serious threat to heritage comes from autocratic governments willing to turn the past into a fiction that legitimizes their rule,” Smith said. “Fortunately, there are also new tools for researchers to uncover the facts that contradict these fictions.”
The researchers built an interactive web platform that provides a detailed history for each site and also allows users to swipe between “before” and “after” images. For some sites, such as the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Ramis, satellite images captured the ongoing destruction.
Geographically, Nakhichevan is a 2,125 square mile province sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey and Iran and an enclave of Azerbaijan – which lies further east across the Armenia. The region had been inhabited for centuries by a multicultural mix of Armenian, Turkish and Persian communities. But growing ethnic tensions led to the exodus of Armenians from the province during the Soviet period, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy of historic monasteries, churches and ancestral cemeteries.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian separatists held control of the disputed region (which Armenians call Artsakh) until September 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a military offensive, retaking much of the territory.
Many cultural sites were important architectural monuments. The Monastery of St. Tovma in the village of Agulis, an important ecclesiastical center in medieval Armenia, featured exquisite frescoes and inscriptions. Saint-Nshan de Bist Monastery was a well-known medieval cultural center with a scriptorium that produced illuminated manuscripts now housed in museums.
To identify the locations of the destroyed sites, researchers have turned to scholarly surveys of the area’s architectural history. They compared this source material with declassified US satellite images from the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet maps from the 1930s to 1990s, and more recent satellite images, all of which allowed them to construct a meticulous visual timeline that shows the gradual eradication cultural heritage sites. .
“Given that these cultural heritage monuments are no longer part of the landscape and the Azerbaijani government denies that they ever existed, it took painstaking forensic work to find their precise geographic coordinates,” said Khachadurian, who noted the uniqueness. to integrate spatial data from both sides of the so-called “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War.
Of the 110 sites identified, researchers have documented total destruction of 108, or 98%. The two remaining sites – a small cemetery and a chapel – may have escaped notice because they were in such poor condition that they were not recognized as Armenian.
The satellite evidence allowed the team to establish the destruction schedule for each site in their database, with greater or lesser precision depending on the availability of satellite imagery. Evidence suggests that the erasure campaign began in 1997 and was largely complete by 2009. In some cases, such as the Saint Tovma Monastery of Agulis, buildings have been replaced with mosques or other civic buildings.
The new report on Nakhchivan, released on September 12, complements parallel efforts by CHW to monitor heritage sites at risk in real time.
From the deliberate destruction of synagogues during the Holocaust to the demolition of mosques in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, the state-organized destruction of cultural heritage has many precedents. The erasure of Armenian sites in Nakhichevan is particularly troubling, the researchers say, because Azerbaijan has gone to great lengths to keep its heritage erasure policy secret.
“Azerbaijan destroyed sites clandestinely,” Khachadourian said. “It’s a state secret. So, unlike ISIS or the Taliban, who have made a big show of their form of heritage destruction, Azerbaijan does not want to be known as a state that sponsors cultural erasure. They spent a lot of money on UNESCO trying to make Azerbaijan a land of tolerance even as they embarked on a systematic program of heritage demolition.
While the cultural erasure in Nakhichevan shows the limits of how organizations like UNESCO can respond to violations committed by member states on their own sovereign territory, the team’s “heritage forensics” method can provide a template for documenting attacks on cultural heritage elsewhere.
CHW’s research is supported by the Aragats Foundation, Cornell and Purdue Universities, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California.