ITHACA, N.Y. —  Given the increasing danger of the Azerbaijani government’s aggressive actions toward Karabakh and Armenia, and the penchant for falsifying history at the highest state levels of the Republics of Turkey and Azerbaijan, concerns have been raised in many quarters about the fate of Armenian cultural monuments that fall into Azerbaijani-held territory.

The threat of “cultural genocide,” in the Caucasus or as it is less-controversially termed, cultural destruction and cultural erasure, is the purview of the Caucasus Heritage Watch, a research initiative led by archaeologists at Cornell and Purdue universities.

Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) issued a new report on September 12, detailing the wholesale destruction of Armenian heritage monuments in the Nakhchivan (more commonly known as Nakhichevan/Nakhijevan in Armenian) region of Azerbaijan during the past 25 years.

The results of the report are no surprise to anyone knowledgeable of the Azeri-Armenian conflict, but had yet to be thoroughly documented in a scientific and clear way.

Simultaneously, other developments in the region over the past year, and the Azerbaijani assault on Armenia on the very same day that the report was released, gave the Mirror-Spectator good reason to check in with archaeologist Dr. Adam Smith of Cornell, one of the primary members of the CHW team, who graciously answered our questions on the organization’s recent work.

Documenting Prior Cultural Erasure

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In addition to their continuous monitoring of sites in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding areas, CHW has for the past year been compiling an extensive report on the Nakhchivan region.

The region is an exclave of Azerbaijan that lies for the most part between Armenia and Iran. The Arax River divides it from the far northwestern corner of Iran (the Maku region) while to the east of Nakhichevan is the southern section of today’s Republic of Armenia, the province of Syunik, bordering on Iran at the Armenian town Meghri, also on the Arax River. The border between Iran and the Agri Province of Turkey (the former Surmalu District of the Russian Empire, ceded by the Soviets in the 1921 Treaty of Kars), which includes Mt. Ararat, follows a tiny tributary stream on the west side of the Arax known as the Karasu, and due to the resulting panhandle, Turkey has an 11-mile border with Nakhichevan which can be accessed by a bridge over the Arax. It is this connection which gives Turkey and Azerbaijan the motivation to push for a similar “Zangezur Corridor” through southern Armenia, which would make it possible to travel by land directly from Baku to Ankara.

The above description shows why the Nakhichevan region is extremely important from the perspective of geopolitics. However, it is also important for understanding the history of Azerbaijan’s campaign of cultural erasure. Nakhichevan has been home to large Armenian communities for thousands of years and made up a part of several historical Armenian kingdoms and principalities. Famed sites such as the medieval wine-producing region of Goghtn, and the early modern mercantile cities of Agulis and Julfa were also located within its borders. (The far-flung Persian-Armenian community largely traces its roots to merchant families deported from Nakhichevan’s town of Julfa by Shah Abbas I of Persia beginning in 1604 and resettled in the “New Julfa” neighborhood of Isfahan, Iran as a way to bolster the Persian economy). The Nakhichevan region was depopulated of Armenians during the 20th century, but the last 25 years has seen the additional destruction of any proof that they were ever there; mass disappearance of the remains of churches, monasteries, cemeteries, monuments, and other traces of the Armenian past.

Without being able to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s recent history of engaging in this extreme erasure, CHW’s stated mission of monitoring the current risks to Armenian monuments might fall on deaf ears in an international community that has little understanding of the region’s history and dynamics.

“When we first started this,” Smith states, “the reason behind our monitoring program was an understanding of the historical situation in the South Caucasus. Without a clear understanding there wouldn’t be a justification for the monitoring.”

“The work in Nakhichevan seemed to be the most pressing issue,” he continues. “There had been extensive reports on Julfa and it had reached into the Western press. [in this piece in The Guardian, for example:] But we lacked the solid empirical materials to define what had actually been destroyed. Could we demonstrate, through the data, a clear program of state sponsored cultural erasure?” That was the question one the group’s mind a year ago when they started their work on Nakhichevan.

Smith goes on to detail the fact that the Azerbaijani and Turkish sponsored system of denial has included also denial of the existence of historic sites, making his job that much harder. Nakhichevan’s nearly total inaccessibility to the outside world doesn’t make it any easier, of course.

“It is extremely difficult to find these locations when they’ve been destroyed, and at the same time their existence was previously denied,” Smith stated.

The official documents of the Azerbaijani government, which administers the region, deny that the sites existed or that they were Armenian, in other words. Therefore, the group naturally turns to other, more reliable sources.

“We used American spy satellite imagery, Soviet topographic maps, and some media sources as well,” he said

Smith also mentioned that the group made use of the work of Argam Ayvazian, an Armenian native of Nakhichevan who became a scholar in Yerevan in the Soviet era and published several books on the region, describing the multitude of historical sites in detail. An English translation of one of his books, The Historical Monuments of Nakhichevan, was published in 1990 by Wayne State University Press. [Available at Abril Books, among other places:]



Of Ayvazian’s books, Smith says, “That’s also an extremely important resource, more an ethnographic description, great as a place to start, but when you are dealing with satellite imagery, you have to have precision location data.”

For that, the group uses closeups of declassified US spy satellite photos of the Soviet Transcaucasus, along with Soviet-produced topographic maps. In other words, the best geographical data on the region are from the competing superpowers of the Cold War era.

“Between these 3 sources, we were able to geo-locate a significant portion of the monuments,” Smith noted.

Out of 159 monuments under consideration, 127 were located. “We were able to do before-and-after comparisons with American spy satellite imagery with the modern commercially available satellite imagery,” said Smith.

These “commercially available satellite imagery” programs are something like a professional-grade version of Google Earth.

Out of the 127 sites, Smith says the group was able to assess 110. Out of the 110 sites (churches, monasteries, chapels, and cemeteries), 108 were destroyed.

The two that were left over? Smith guesses that because they were so small and seemingly insignificant, authorities may not even have realized that they were Armenian.

Silent Erasure

According to Smith and his colleagues, Lori Khatchadourian of Cornell and Ian Lindsay of Purdue, the evidence they collected shows that the destruction was intentional.

“What this showed us,” Smith noted, “was we weren’t dealing with occasional vandalism or looting, we are dealing with something bureaucratic and systematic that the state must have done.”

“The whole site had been scrubbed clean,” he continued. “The very memory that something had been there was very difficult to maintain.”

For that reason, he says, the report was entitled “Silent Erasure.” This type of cultural destruction is a departure from what has been depicted in other parts of the world through the Western media. Azerbaijan’s erasure is perhaps even more complete.

“It has the potential to truly devastate monuments of the human past. The typical image has been spectacular destruction, such as by the Taliban or ISIS [i.e. the Buddha statues in Afghanistan which the Taliban essentially bragged about destroying]. The type [of destruction] in Nakhichevan is silent, not spectacular; total, not opportunistic; and its’s state sponsored. It’s a worrying and deeply devastating prospect for our human cultural heritage,” Smith concluded.

Prof. Ian Lindsay

What To Do With The Evidence

Asked at whom this research was aimed, Smith replied, “Our first audience is the communities whose heritage is impacted. The descendant communities are taken very seriously.”

Smith continued, “We also recognize this is a much larger problem. What institutions globally are prepared to handle this? UNESCO is not built for this kind of program. It is organized by member states, and if the member states are conducting erasure there is nothing [UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization] can do.”

It has been widely reported that Azerbaijan has gained massive influence in UNESCO. But Smith’s point is well-taken. The structure of UNESCO is set up so that countries, as member states, gain international support for preservation of cultural heritage that they nominate within their own country. There is no mechanism for an ethnic group or another country to nominate heritage sites that exist in another country against that country’s desires.

However, Smith noted that, “The new emergent silver lining is the emergence of the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice for crimes against heritage and accountability.”

Referring to the ongoing Armenia v. Azerbaijan case, Smith mentions that one of the planks in the lawsuit is destruction of cultural heritage. The CHW’s reports were admitted into evidence at the ICJ in that case.

“The lawyers for Armenia submitted our evidence in support of their briefs,” Smith said. As a professional academic enterprise, the CHW doesn’t directly get involved in political advocacy. “Our goal is to speak for the monuments, and to speak for the human past. I don’t know how effective that injunction will be,” Smith said, referring to the ICJ’s order to Azerbaijan to desist from cultural destruction as well as torture of POWs and inflaming racism.

“That is the worrisome part of our documentation last week — of the first clear evidence since the ICJ ruling [of cultural destruction on the part of Azerbaijan]”

Last week, CHW released documentation that the St. Sargis Church in the Mokhrenes (Susanliq) village in the Hadrut (Khojavend) region of Karabakh, has been completely destroyed. Hadrut is one of the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that was captured by the Azeri forces in the 2020 war.

Because they were busy completing the full report on Nakhichevan, CHW is still working through their monitoring report that had been scheduled for July, which will now include the Mokhrenes church.

Prof. Lori Khatchadourian

Academic Integrity

CHW, though it may be viewed as a partisan of the “Armenian side” by some, is avowedly a professional, objective, and non-political organization. Their focus is on protecting historical sites from the ravages of current geopolitical conflicts, regardless of the aggressor.

Said Smith, “Part of our overall goal is to get heritage out of the front lines of the conflict. Our goals cannot be the resolution of the conflict, but it would be a worthy success to get heritage off the front lines.”

In that vein, they are also preparing information and have in the past prepared information on Islamic monuments in Karabakh.

He added, “Our next report that will come out, sometime around February is on the fate of Islamic Persian and Azerbaijani heritage on territories under Armenian administration after the first [Nagorno-Karabakh] war.”

Smith credits his institution, Cornell University, with supporting the project wholeheartedly.

“The University has been fabulous and supportive. Cornell takes academic freedom and integrity of data very seriously. Purdue [where Bocceriyan works] has also been supportive. This is the kind of work that universities are supposed to do. Policy makers can debate, but this is an ideal case of what academic research can provide,” he said.

Smith also wants to give credit to his graduate students, who have helped a great deal in the research. “Our students have been fabulous too. We keep most of them anonymous. We are ready to be the face of the project,” for the safety of the students, Smith explains.

The current uptick in the conflict has increased the anxiety about at-risk heritage sites.

“We have an extraordinarily large database of heritage sites. We would hope the ones we say are at risk would drop. But it seems that these are even more at risk,” Smith relates.

“We are always ready to monitor sites. We are very fortunate to have funding from our sponsors so far,” Smith says, adding that the group is still looking to raise funds.

In regard to the events of the past few weeks in Karabakh, Smith agrees that “The conflicts renew the need for vigilance,” but warns that “the Nakhichevan report shows that the cessation of conflict doesn’t mean [the sites will then be safe.]”

In conclusion, Smith says that “the CHW is ready for a long haul of monitoring. A lot happened over the course of the summer. It’s certainly disheartening to be releasing a report that we think is going to the truth, and have the events of this week unfold [the Nakhichevan report was released the same day as the renewed attacks]. That should be devastating to any human.”

In conclusion, says Smith, “We at CHW look forward to a time when there can one day be peace in the region.”

(Visit “Story Map” about St. Karapet Monastery of Abrakunis, one of the most prominent monuments to be destroyed:

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