A new report from the Cornell-led Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) has compiled decades of high-resolution satellite imagery to document the complete destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan beginning in the late 1990s.
Moreover, the latest finding of CHW’s heritage monitoring project suggests that the same policy of cultural erasure now threatens Armenian monuments in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. CHW has recently discovered the destruction of an historic church in Karabakh, one of hundreds of Armenian monuments in territories ceded to Azerbaijan under the terms of a 2020 ceasefire to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The destruction of St. Sargis church in the village of Mokhrenes between March and July 2022 provides evidence of the first major violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice, which ordered Azerbaijan in December 2021 to prevent such acts.
According to CHW’s report on Nakhchivan, of the 110 medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries that CHW identified from archival sources, 108 were destroyed between 1997 and 2011 in what the authors describe as “a systematic, state-sponsored program of cultural erasure.”
CHW was founded in 2020 by Lori Khatchadourian, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Adam T. Smith, Distinguished 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 more significant threats right now than ever before, from economic development to climate change. But the most serious threat to heritage comes from autocratic governments ready to reshape the past into a fiction that legitimates their domination,” Smith said. “Luckily, there are also new tools for researchers to uncover the facts that counter these fictions.”
The researchers have built an interactive web platform that provides detailed historical background for each site and also allows users to swipe between images from “before” and “after.” For some sites, such as the Holy Mother of God church in Ramis, satellite imagery captured the destruction in progress.
Geographically, Nakhchivan is a 2,125-square-mile province sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey and Iran and an exclave of Azerbaijan – which lies further east, on the far side of Armenia. The region had been inhabited for centuries by a multicultural mix of Armenian, Turkic and Persian communities. But increasing ethnic tensions led to the exodus of Armenians from the province over the course of the Soviet period, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy of historic monasteries, churches and ancestral cemeteries.
As the Soviet Union was unraveling, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenian separatists secured control over the disputed region (which Armenians call Artsakh) until September 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a military offensive, regaining much of the land.
Many of the cultural sites were significant architectural monuments. The Monastery of St. Tovma in the village of Agulis, an important ecclesiastical center of medieval Armenia, featured exquisite frescoes and inscriptions. St. Nshan Monastery of Bist was a well-known medieval cultural center with a scriptorium that produced illuminated manuscripts now held in museums.
To identify the locations of the destroyed sites, the researchers turned to scholarly surveys of the region’s architectural history. They compared this source material with declassified U.S. satellite images from the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet maps from the 1930s to 1990s, and more recent satellite imagery, all of which enabled them to construct a meticulous visual timeline that shows the gradual eradication of cultural heritage sites.
“Since these cultural heritage monuments are no longer on the landscape, and since the government of Azerbaijan denies that they ever existed in the first place, it required painstaking forensic work just to find their precise geographic coordinates,” said Khatchadourian, who noted the uniqueness of incorporating spatial data from both sides of the Cold War’s so-called “Iron Curtain.”
Of the 110 identified sites, the researchers documented the total destruction of 108, or 98%. The two remaining sites – a small cemetery and a chapel – possibly evaded notice because they were in such poor condition they weren’t recognized as Armenian.
Satellite evidence allowed the team to establish the timeframe for the destruction of every site in their database, with greater or lesser precision depending on the availability of satellite imagery. The evidence suggests that the campaign of erasure began in 1997 and was largely completed by 2009. In some cases, such as the Saint Tovma Monastery of Agulis, the buildings were replaced by mosques or other civic buildings.
The new report on Nakhchivan, released Sept. 12, complements CHW’s parallel effort to monitor at-risk heritage sites in real time.
From the deliberate destruction of synagogues in the Holocaust to the demolition of mosques in Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990s, state-organized destruction of cultural heritage has plenty of precedents. The erasure of the Armenian sites in Nakhchivan is particularly troubling, the researchers say, because Azerbaijan has gone to great lengths to keep their policy of heritage erasure secret.
“Azerbaijan has been destroying sites clandestinely,” Khatchadourian said. “It’s a state secret. So unlike ISIS, or the Taliban, which made a big spectacle out 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 brand Azerbaijan as a land of tolerance even as they undertook a systematic program of heritage demolition.”
While cultural erasure in Nakhchivan shows the limits of how organizations like UNESCO can respond to violations committed by member states within their own sovereign territory, the team’s method of “heritage forensics” may 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.