Armenian Cultural Heritage in Karabakh Threatened; Monitoring Group Calls on Baku for Assurances
By Luise Glum
Archaeologist Lori Khatchadourian is one of the founders of “Caucasus Heritage Watch”, a group of researchers monitoring the fate of cultural heritage in the region. In an interview with Hetq, Khatchadourian speaks about the biggest threats to Armenian heritage now and explains why it is so important to monitor all sites – Christian and Islamic.
Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries in Nagorno-Karabakh have been under Azerbaijani control since last September. Have you documented any changes in their condition since then?
Large-scale damage or destruction in the immediate aftermath of the region’s ethnic cleansing is unlikely. The threats will intensify when development and infrastructural works get underway. This is what we have learned from the past few years of satellite monitoring in the regions that were ceded to Azerbaijan in November 2020. Roadwork and development have been the primary forces behind the abuses of Armenian cultural heritage sites, particularly historic cemeteries. We just completed a monitoring mission and released our latest report last month. This mission showed that the redevelopment of Shushi (Az. Shusha) is causing (or providing a pretext for) damage to several cultural heritage sites in this historic city. A new road cut a path through the historic Yerevan Gates cemetery, densely packed with Armenian-inscribed tombstones; bulldozers dumped debris on the archaeological remains of the 19th century Meghretsots Holy Mother of God Church; and heavy machinery heaped debris on the 18th-19th century Ghazanchetsots cemetery, damaging its already fragmentary tombstones.
Are you worried about the future of Christian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Caucasus Heritage Watch has been concerned about the fate of all cultural heritage caught in the crosshairs of this intractable conflict, not only the Christian monuments. But the greatest threat right now is to the Armenian cultural heritage sites on territories that have passed to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction, because of the country’s documented policy of zero-tolerance for Armenian cultural remains.
The widespread destruction of Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan is now well known thanks to the pioneering work of researchers like Argam Ayvazyan, Simon Maghakyan, and Sarah Pickman. In 2022, CHW conducted a systematic satellite investigation, “Silent Erasure”, which documented the total erasure of 108 out of 110 Armenian churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in Nakhichevan beginning in 1997. This was a state-sponsored program of cultural erasure, and there is every reason to fear that the same policy will extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, even if erasure may take different forms. If Baku refuses to take responsibility for the destruction in Nakhichevan, the Armenian cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh will be under grave threat. Baku needs to send explicit signals that the Armenian churches, monasteries, and cemeteries will not be subjected to the same fate as the monuments of Nakhichevan. So yes, we are concerned. This is why we formed CHW the very day after the November 2020 ceasefire was signed. This is why we are engaged in such an ambitious undertaking.
What are some of your most significant findings to date?
Thus far, we have documented the destruction of eight sites since 2020, damage to twelve more, and heightened threats to an additional 24 monuments, as we detail in our reports and on our monitoring dashboard. One of the things we learned is that the destruction took place over many years. So, the threats to cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh are also long-term, and the pace and intensity of abuses we might see unfold is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, troubling patterns are beginning to emerge.
What kind of patterns?
The most striking pattern is the steady destruction of, and damage to, historic Armenian cemeteries. Thus far we have documented irreparable harm to as many as six Armenian cemeteries in Hadrut, Lachin, and Shushi/Shusha due to (or under the pretext of) roadwork and other construction activities. Bulldozers are gradually erasing Armenians’ ancestors in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian historic cemeteries in Azerbaijan are highly vulnerable. We are also concerned about the fate of small village churches. While most attention has focused on famous monasteries like Dadivank, Amaras, or Gandzasar, it is the unassuming village churches that face the greatest risk.
Can you give an example?
The most concerning example is the 18th-19th century St. Sargis Church in Mokhrenes (Az. Susanlyq), which had remained a site of active worship up until the 2020 war. The church was reduced to rubble in the spring of 2022, seven months after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had issued a provisional order calling on Azerbaijan to prevent and punish such abuses. The destruction occurred even though St. Sargis is listed on the monument list of Azerbaijan as a “Caucasian Albanian” temple. Now it seems Azerbaijan is taking steps to somehow try and remedy its violation of the ICJ’s order, as we explain in detail in a StoryMap about this case. A new construction is being erected amidst St. Sargis’s ruins, and it resembles the original Armenian church. It’s an enigmatic case that requires on-the-ground reporting. But what is clear is that modest village churches like St. Sargis are at risk.
That said, despite these troubling examples, it’s important to note that most of the roughly 270 Armenian cultural heritage sites we have been monitoring since 2020 remain, as of now, structurally unharmed. We say this not to minimize the grave threats or the real harms, including the symbolic violence of cultural appropriation through the “Albanification” of monuments. Rather, our purpose is to temper extremist and unsubstantiated claims of widespread destruction that circulate on social media.
What does “Albanification” mean?
The myth of Caucasian Albanians being the ancestors of Azerbaijanis has been promoted by the Azerbaijani state and historians since the late Soviet years and it is very enduring in Azerbaijani historiography. As part of this mythic history of Azerbaijani ethnogenesis, Azerbaijan has appropriated Armenian churches. The main claim is that Armenian churches are originally Caucasian Albanian and were later “Armenianized“. Some have postulated that this designation could protect some of those monuments from outright obliteration. To a certain extent that might be true, but it was not in the case of St. Sargis.
Could you describe your methodology in simple terms? Is it correct to say you are basically comparing before and after pictures?
Yes, it is. In the parlance of remote sensing that’s called change detection. When we receive new satellite imagery, we manually examine the condition of each site and compare it with our previous imagery. Typically, we compare new imagery with the most recent prior image, but sometimes we may go further back in our archive to reconstruct how a given landscape has changed over time. We have three different impact categories: threat, damage, and destruction. Each site is assessed against these criteria. One of the most important aspects of our methodology is consensus. When one of the analysts on our team detects a possible impact, we confer as a group and decide how to proceed. The team scrutinizes the evidence until we arrive at a shared understanding of how to interpret the image. The process is rigorous. It is designed to prevent errors.
You also documented the fate of Islamic cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control. What did you find?
This investigation was so important, given the politicized discourse of heritage in the conflict, exaggerated reports and unsupported claims that have only inflamed the conflict. The results were complicated. Our work revealed that the treatment of mosques, mausolea, and historic cemeteries under Armenian control varied widely and changed over time. Of the 109 cultural heritage sites we were able to assess for our special investigation, “Between the Wars”, 42 remained structurally unchanged since the late Soviet period, nine sustained minor structural damage, 39 sustained major structural damage, sixteen were destroyed, two were renovated, and one was restored. While the rate of outright destruction was low, the deliberate targeting of mosques and mausolea increased over time, with most destruction episodes occurring after 2011. The adverse impacts on Azerbaijani/Islamic cultural heritage were significant. At the same time, the forensic evidence we assembled showed no attempt to systematically erase the material traces of Azerbaijani history and cultural life in the troubled lands that Armenians controlled from 1994-2020.
How do you explain the destruction then?
Major damage consisted of large-scale looting, which took place mainly in the decade immediately after the 1994 ceasefire, judging by the satellite evidence. Opportunistic stripping of cultural heritage sites occurred in the context of weak legal, political, and economic institutions that also allowed for the well-documented ruination of towns and cities once inhabited by Azerbaijanis displaced by the first war. This decade of looting must also be considered in the context of post-Soviet economic collapse, which led to enormous flows of metal onto the scrap metal market driven both by the personal enrichment practices of the privileged and the subsistence practices of the poor. For instance, in some cases metal roofs were removed from mosques, exposing the domes of a traditional mosque – which was then left unharmed. Most of the mosques that were not damaged had earthen roofs. Be that as it may, Armenian authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh did not safeguard abandoned heritage properties from looters who, in most cases, damaged monuments during a wider search for tangible economic resources.
What were the actors responsible for this destruction?
It is difficult to say. We don’t know conclusively who the forces behind it were, how organized they were, or what the role of the military or civilians was. Answering these questions would require very difficult research or investigative reporting.
How do you argue that the destruction in Nakhichevan was systematic?
There are two notable features of the destruction that support this view. The first is the nature of the destruction. Armenian monuments were not just ruined, they were completely obliterated from the landscape. The satellite evidence shows this very clearly. And there are so many examples. We lay out the evidence in painstaking detail in 108 StoryMaps. Just a couple examples are the Mesrop Mashtots Monastery of Mesropavan (Az. Nasirvas), and the Karmir Monastery of Astapat (Az. Nehram). Every block of these complexes was hauled away. Such complete demolition at so many locations would not have been possible without the approval and coordination of the state. The other striking feature of the “silent erasure” in Nakhichevan was its totality. Virtually the entire inventory of Armenian heritage was targeted and expunged. The program was enacted with such bureaucratic rigor, that even the ruins of Armenian churches in remote and abandoned villages were destroyed. Some examples of this are the churches in Mijin Ankuzik (Az. Orta Anzyr) and in Nerkin Ankuzik (Az. Ashaghykand). Only the state would have known these sites as Armenian and been able to deploy bulldozers to those abandoned villages. The destruction was surgical in its precision.
Why do you think Azerbaijan implements this form of systematic destruction?
It is impossible to separate the cultural erasure in Nakhichevan from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Baku was frustrated by its losses in the first war, by its inability to regain control over the region, and the failure of the negotiations. It channeled this frustration and aggression into the program of erasure in another territory with a long history of Armenian habitation and cultural life. Azerbaijani authorities aimed to erase the traces of Armenian existence in the region and, in the process, evidence of the coexistence of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The intensification of ethnic hatred as promulgated by the government also made it possible for people to carry out the orders or turn a blind eye to the destruction. And of course, to speak out would have been dangerous.
Is it difficult to provide scientific facts in such a polarized ennvironment?
This is indeed a context where there’s so much division, falsification, propaganda, and so little fact. We rely on satellite images and allow our audiences to evaluate the evidence we present for themselves. And as you’ll notice if you look at our social media presence, we are a one-way content provider. We offer our findings, but we follow no one and we never reply. It is interesting that the critical responses we received on social media are nearly exclusively directed at the ethnic identity of some of the members of our team. But none of the critiques challenge the findings themselves. We are always open to revising our findings if new information is presented that meets the rigorous standards of our research.
(Lori Khatchadourian is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Anthropology at Cornell University. She founded Caucasus Heritage Watch together with Adam T. Smith (Cornell University) and Ian Lindsay (Purdue University) in 2020.)