By 2009, the St. Hovhannes Church of Chahuk (Jahri) had been razed. (© Argam Ayvazyan Archive; all images courtesy CHW)

A yearlong investigation by a team of scholars affiliated with Cornell and Purdue universities has documented a pattern of deliberate obliteration of Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan, a historically Armenian region that became part of Azerbaijan following the Sovietization of the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan between 1920 and 1921. The new report by the Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) identified 108 medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries in Nakhichevan that were completely destroyed between 1997 and 2011 — an eradication described by the report’s authors as a “striking portrait of cultural erasure that, in its surgical precision, totality, and surreptitiousness, has few parallels.”

Of all the Armenian cultural heritage sites that CHW was able to locate and assess for this investigation, 98% have been completely wiped out. For all practical matters, destruction has been complete: the percentage has been noted for the sake of statistical accuracy, as the ruins of some very few monuments have escaped the attention of Azerbaijani authorities only because they are in such advanced state of disrepair that they were not able to identify them as Armenian, the researchers believe. “By 2011, all physical traces of Armenians in Nakhchivan were effectively gone, with rare exceptions appearing to have resulted from oversight rather than intent,” the report says. Proportionally, the degree of destruction is greater than the elimination of mosques by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uyghur region.

Nakhichevan is now an exclave at the intersection of Armenia, Iran, and Turkey, separated from Azerbaijan by the southern Armenian region of Syunik.

Azerbaijan’s 44-day war against Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh (the official name of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan claims) in 2020, when roughly 5,000 Armenians died and Artsakh lost 75 percent of its territory to Azerbaijan, was followed by continued aggression against Armenia by the Azerbaijani regime of Ilham Aliyev — including an unprovoked attack against Armenia this week, on September 13 to 15, that left at least 135 Armenians dead — heightening concerns about the fate of Armenian heritage.

Entitled “Silent Erasure: A Satellite Investigation of the Destruction of Armenian Cultural Heritage in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan,” the report was produced by Lori Khatchadourian, Adam T. Smith, Husik Ghulyan, and Ian Lindsay. It is the first time that conclusive evidence is presented about the systematic cultural erasure as part of “Azerbaijan’s domestic ethnic policies,” the authors of the document add. 

“The program of silent erasure that we documented in Nakhchivan took place many years ago, but the outcome of the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh gives it new urgency,” said Khatchadourian, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “As a result of that war, hundreds of Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries were ceded to Azerbaijan, the very state that perpetrated systematic cultural erasure in Nakhchivan.”

There are reasons to “fear it could happen again,” she added. 

The release of “Silent Erasure” could not have been more timely. Just this week, CHW released satellite imagery showing the destruction of a historic Armenian church in the village of Mokhrenes (Susanlyq, in the Azerbaijani nomenclature) in Nagorno-Karabakh between March and July of this year, Khatchadourian said. “This was the first major violation of the December 2021 International Court of Justice ruling that called on Azerbaijan to prevent and punish such acts.” 

CHW documented the destruction of the St. Sargis Armenian church in the Mokhrenes village between March and July 2022.

Last year, a report by Simon Maghakyan based on satellite imagery provided by CHW alerted about the destruction of churches by Azerbaijan in occupied Armenian territories. The report also acknowledged the groundbreaking work by Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman, who in 2019 identified “a pattern of total cultural erasure” in Nakhichevan.  

Between 1998 and 2005, more than 3,000 khachkars (cross-stones) were removed or destroyed by Azerbaijani soldiers in Old Jugha (the Azerbaijanis call it “Djulfa”), in “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century.” In comments for Hyperallergic, Maghakyan said that “CHW has compiled a truly monumental report that confirms, yet again, Azerbaijan’s complete erasure of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past.”

The “meticulously collected data” explains “why so many of us are continuously alarmed about Azerbaijan’s genocidal plans concerning the fate of medieval Armenian monuments that came under its control in 2020,” Maghakyan added. He noted, however, that the CHW report does not present convincing evidence that the destruction campaign in Nakhichevan lasted until 2011. “The administrative deadline, decreed by local autocrat VasifTalibov, for the official ‘passportization’ (cultural erasure) of the region’s monuments was December 31, 2006.” Talibov has ruled the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic since 1993.

In 2005, a Scottish specialist in Oriental Art History who visited Nakhichevan to investigate the condition of Armenian monuments was told by a local policeman that “there never were any Armenian churches anywhere in Nakhchivan.” It was towards the end of a short visit through a landscape of desolation, with very few Armenian ruins left: “There were no Armenians ever living here —so how could there have been churches here?,” the policeman added.

A tombstone at the Cemetery of Paraka, one of the razed sites documented by CHW (image © Argam Ayvazyan Archive)

The population of Nakhichevan became majority Azerbaijani following massacres in the early 20th century. The 2,000 Armenians still left in Azerbaijan by 1989 fled following the beginning of Azerbaijani ethnic cleansing campaigns as the Soviet Union was unraveling.  

“Silent Destruction” applied a combination of traditional cartography and modern technology to archeological forensics.

“Methodologically, the most significant issue in this kind of heritage forensics is geolocation,” said Smith, distinguished professor of Arts and Sciences at Cornell. “Simply finding sites whose very existence is denied is challenging.” Yet declassified American spy satellite images and archival Soviet topographic maps allowed CHW to determine the locations of sites. “A fascinating collaboration of former Cold War rivals,” he added.

As field research was not possible, the report draws upon declassified American satellite imagery from the 1970s and 1980s, detailed maps drawn by Soviet topographers from 1930 to 1990, and modern satellite imagery.  

“Given the wide range of archival and geospatial data that we pulled together for this report, and just the large number of sites, one of the big challenges was finding an effective way to communicate the range of our datasets to the public,” said Lindsay, associate professor of Anthropology at Purdue University. “The new generation of web-based GIS tools, including interactive web maps, dashboards, and story maps, allowed us to present a really challenging topic in an engaging way for different kinds of audiences and stakeholders.”

The now-destroyed New Armenian Cemetery of Nakhchivan (image © Argam Ayvazyan Archive)

Another challenge was the omission of Armenian cultural sites from Azerbaijan’s heritage databases. Researcher Husik Ghulyan, a specialist in Urban and Environmental Studies, was tasked with making an inventory list of churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in Nakhichevan. He relied for this on Armenian historian Argam Ayvazyan’s works. 

“After compiling the inventory list, I tried to precisely locate those objects using Russian Imperial and Soviet military topographic maps, descriptive locational information of those objects found in Ayvazyan’s works, archival images of those objects as well as declassified US satellite imagery of the 1970-1980s,” Ghulyan told Hyperallergic. “While the topographic maps and descriptive locational information allowed me to locate the objects under consideration with approximate location, the archival photographs and declassified US satellite imagery of the 1970-1980s allowed me to locate those objects within meters of precision and have visual proof of those objects on the declassified imagery.”

After this initial inventory compilation and geolocation, the team reviewed the inventory and geolocation, matching it with imagery obtained from commercial satellites in the last 20 years to assess the fate of those objects and calculate with more accuracy the date of monuments and artifacts’ destruction. 

The report justifies alarm over the fate that awaits what is left of traces of an Armenian presence in territories controlled by the Azerbaijani regime.

“The destruction of Armenian heritage in Nakhchivan highlights a worrying new model of cultural erasure,” said Smith. “Driven by an exclusionary political ideology, it embeds heritage destruction in the policy of the state, enrolling the institutions of government in order to ensure that erasure is total, secret, and then denied.”

Yet, he said, “our report also demonstrates the fragility of state-sponsored historical revisionism.” Representatives of the government of Azerbaijan hold that there were never Armenians in Nakhichevan, but “decades of satellite imagery, not to mention historical and ethnographic documentation, easily unravel the official fiction.” 

What the report “clearly demonstrates is that the global concern for Armenian monuments under Azerbaijani jurisdiction is extremely well-founded,” Smith said. It justifies CHW’s program of heritage monitoring in Nagorno-Karabakh and shows that the targeting of Armenian heritage sites is not a policy of the past. “It is ongoing,” he said.

Editor’s note 9/18/22 2:45pm: This article has been updated with comments from Simon Maghakyan.

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