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Vankasar Church, a 7th-century Armenian cathedral in the town of Aghdam in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The church has been under threat since Azerbaijan gained control of the region in 2020. (all images courtesy the Caucasus Heritage Watch)

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For decades, the Azerbaijani government has been waging a methodical erasure of Armenian heritage sites in areas under its control. This campaign has extended to new territories after Azerbaijan took over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) in a Russian-brokered ceasefire in November of 2020, after weeks of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.  

Since last year’s armed conflict, over a dozen Armenian churches, cemeteries, sacred cross-stones (Khachkars), and other cultural properties have either been destroyed, damaged, or threatened by Azerbaijan, according to a June report from the Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW). The majority of the listed attacks have occurred after the ceasefire.

Using high-resolution satellite imagery, the CHW monitors and documents endangered and damaged cultural heritage sites in the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan (an Azerbaijani autonomous republic since 1991). The organization was founded in 2020 by a team of archaeologists: Lori Khatchadourian and Adam T. Smith from Cornell University; Ian Lindsay from Purdue University; and specialists Salpi Bocchieriyan and Husik Ghulyan. The group also conducts research on Islamic heritage sites, primarily mosques, that had been under Armenian control in Nagorno-Karabakh in the decades preceding the 2020 war.

In addition to historical research and periodical reports, the CHW’s website features a Monitoring Dashboard with up-to-date assessments of sites at risk. The group also posts “threat alerts” on its social media platforms to spread the information to the public and possibly save sites from destruction.

The Caucasus Heritage Watch’s Monitoring Dashboard of at-risk Armenian heritage sites

“There are real and present threats to the integrity of the heritage landscape of Nagorno-Karabakh that result from a range of factors from development work undertaken without sufficient attention to heritage sites to intentional acts against Armenian monuments,” warned the CHW’s report.  

The report was conveyed to UNSECO, the US State Department, and several other relevant international agencies and governmental bodies. However, there is little hope that these bodies would be able to affect any change on the ground.

“The unfortunate reality is that there are very few mechanisms available to international players to restrain state bad actors who are making decisions in their sovereign territory,” Khatchadourian told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “International organizations are relatively powerless to encroach on the sovereign prerogative of the nation-state.”

Satellite footage of a cemetery in the town of Mets Tagher that was completely erased by Azerbaijani forces

With an analysis of before-and-after satellite images of Armenian heritage sites, the report shows that a surge in construction by Azerbaijan, especially of roads, has led to either partial or full destruction of several cemeteries and cathedrals in the area of Shushi, a town with significant cultural importance to Armenians. Several other Shushi landmarks, like St. John the Baptist church (locally known as Kanach Zham), were damaged during the war. In the town of Mets Tagher, which was majority-Arminian before the 2020 conflict, the main cemetery has been completely erased. These are just a few of the targeted sites mentioned in the report. But the scope of the damage extends beyond the CHW’s data, which excludes the targeting of modern Arminian cultural sites and acts of desecration which cannot be detected through satellite imagery.

According to Khatchadourian, cemeteries have been especially targeted in recent months as Azerbijan rapidly develops a road network in the area.

“We’ve observed the complete destruction of two cemeteries with historic burials and the partial destruction of a vast cemetery in northern Shushi,” the archaeologist said.

Before-and-after images of Ghazanchets’ots’ Cathedral in Shushi show a shell hole in the structure’s roof and damage in other parts of the building

Since the ceasefire, another type of threat has emerged, and that is Azerbaijan’s attempts to rewrite the history of the region by labeling Armenian heritage properties as “Caucasian Albanian” or claiming that had never existed at all. In March, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev ordered the removal of medieval Armenian inscriptions from churches, calling them “fake.” Azerbaijani officials have also attempted to rebrand some Armenian sites as “ancient Azerbaijani” landmarks, according to Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman’s investigation on Hyperallergic in 2019.

Images showing the destruction of Sghnakh cemetery in Nagorno-Karabakh due to road construction

“The vast majority of experts in the region’s art, architecture, and archaeology have all rejected Azerbaijan’s revisionist claims as patently false,” said the CHW’s report. “Nevertheless, the Caucasian Albanian propaganda has sparked some iconoclastic efforts to erase Armenian imagery and inscriptions from buildings and monuments.”

According to Khatchadourian, it may take many years to see the full impact of this concerted campaign of cultural erasure. That’s why the CHW hopes to continue monitoring the region for the long run.

“This is a long-term threat that requires persistence and a long-term vision for monitoring,” she said. “We will do this work for as long as we can.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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