Medieval Khachkars in the Cemetery of Old Jugha (Julfa) (N.307) Photograph © Argam Ayvazyan Archive, used with permission

Report by Caucasus Heritage Watch Shows Near Total Destruction of Armenian Heritage in Nakhichevan

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ITHACA, N.Y. — The organization Caucasus Heritage Watch  (CHW), in a year-long forensic investigation, using high-resolution satellite imagery, has documented the fate of Armenian cultural heritage sites in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. CHW, based in Cornell University, is also conducting research on the Armenian heritage sites in Artsakh.

A shortened version of the report appears below.

CHW’s research shows the complete destruction of 108 medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries between 1997 and 2011. This figure represents 98 percent of the Armenian cultural heritage sites we were able to locate and assess for this investigation. These findings provide, for the first time, conclusive forensic evidence that silent and systematic cultural erasure has been a feature of Azerbaijan’s domestic ethnic policies.

The long history of Armenians in Nakhichevan is well-documented in the region’s archival, architectural and archaeological records. Their numbers diminished over the course of the Soviet period,  dwindling to just under 2000 by 1989.  Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, and an outbreak of conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the number of Armenians in the region diminished to zero.

Although the destruction documented in this investigation occurred years ago and elicited little global attention, these findings remain of urgent relevance today. Ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continues to define the region’s political and cultural landscape. Following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, separatist Armenian forces ceded territory to the Azerbaijani state that they had held for 30 years, in the process relinquishing control over hundreds of additional monasteries, churches, and cemeteries — some located just 75 kilometers from Nakhichevan.

The St. Shmavon Church was well preserved when historian Argam Ayvazyan surveyed the area in the course of his fieldwork (1964-1987). An IKONOS satellite image confirms that the church was removed soon before February 3, 2000, given the visible signs of extensive earth moving in the image

There is reason to fear that the template for cultural erasure in Nakhichevan will be pursued in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, too. CHW has already  documented  the beginnings of a similar pattern, with 6 confirmed destroyed, 7 confirmed damaged, and 17 threatened just since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War began in September 2020. In December 2021, partly based on CHW’s  reports , the International Court of Justice determined that attacks on Armenian cultural heritage in Azerbaijan plausibly constitute violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; it ordered the government to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage….” (Two months later, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture announced  a plan to erase  Armenian inscriptions from monasteries and churches.) This March, the European Parliament  condemned  “Azerbaijan’s continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.”

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The destruction cataloged on this website in and our  Special Report  demonstrates how Azerbaijan’s policy toward centuries-old Armenian cultural heritage tends to unfold when it goes unobserved and unimpeded. Secrecy appears to be a key aspect of the policy. In 2005, a Scottish traveler, Steven Sim,  went  to Nakhichevan to investigate the condition of Armenian monuments there; he was detained by authorities, who insisted that Armenians had never lived in the region and then expelled him from the country. A year later, in August 2006, Azerbaijan  barred  a delegation from the European Parliament seeking to evaluate an Armenian cemetery near Jugha/Julfa (N.307). In 2011, the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, was likewise  denied access  to that same site.

Despite the government’s attempts to frustrate visits to Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan, glimpses of the destruction eventually emerged. In 2019, Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman wrote a  groundbreaking report  on the subject. Based on government documents from 2005 and key local sources, Argam Ayvazyan (an Armenian historian) and Akram Aylisli (an Azerbaijani author), they inferred a pattern of total cultural erasure. Their report of large-scale cultural eradication called for systematic assessment, a research program that, in the current political environment, can only be conducted using satellite-based observation.

In 2021, an  investigation  by Maghakyan, for which CHW provided satellite imagery, concentrated on the destruction of Armenian monuments in Agulis, a town in Nakhichevan with a deep history of Armenian habitation. In response to these findings, an Azerbaijani diplomat proclaimed, “First and foremost, we need to make it clear that there is no such thing as ‘Armenian heritage’ in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic simply because Armenians never lived there.” Continued government denial not only seeks to silence those who decry heritage destruction; it also demands that the prior existence of these monuments be forgotten. The policy of denial entraps Azerbaijani officials into an manifestly false discourse that is objectively refuted not only with available satellite imagery, but Azerbaijan’s own archive of Soviet-era topographic maps and monument lists.

This website and CHW’s  Special Report  provide the first systematic assessment of all Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries in Nakhichevan that were still extant at the end of the Soviet period. Our work draws upon declassified American satellite imagery from the 1970s and 1980s, detailed maps created by Soviet topographers between 1930 and 1990, and modern commercial satellite imagery to locate and assess the status of monuments of historical, architectural, and ecclesiastical significance, including cemeteries with thousands of burial markers. The findings from this special investigation are available in two formats. In addition to the comprehensive inventory in our Special Report, which can be read in both  abridged  and  full  versions, we have produced this online environment that presents the visual evidence for each destroyed site in an interactive format called ArcGIS StoryMaps. The StoryMaps provide historical information about every site, photographs, geolocation, and a side-by-side comparison of satellite imagery demonstrating the monument as it stood, and its disappearance.

The loss of this medieval and early modern art and architecture—among them specimens of outstanding creativity and faith—is a global one. But it also comes with profound local implications for a region in conflict. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has given way to an unstable ceasefire, tested by ongoing military incursions and martial rhetoric. Amid ethnic conflicts, the destruction of heritage sites often serves as an instrument of intimidation, terror, and insecurity—elevating the propensity for bloodshed, diminishing the possibility of coexistence. The policy of total erasure that Azerbaijan pursued in Nakhichevan, were it to be transplanted to Karabakh, risks a worsening of inter-ethnic mistrust and violence, making regional peace even more elusive.

The comprehensive destruction in Nakhichevan, now documented, also stands as a call to action for international institutions mandated to conserve the world’s cultural heritage, or to make judicial rulings on the issue. Steps must be taken to hold Azerbaijan accountable for what is one of the gravest violations of cultural heritage ever committed by a UNESCO member state and prevent continued cultural erasure in Nagorno-Karabakh. The case of Nakhichevan also raises questions about the potential role of international courts in considering violations of cultural heritage laws and conventions with the aid of space-borne evidence, such as that which we present here.

The covert, state-sponsored program of cultural erasure that we have documented in Nakhichevan reaffirms the importance of an immediate and resolute international response if the medieval and early modern Armenian monuments of Nagorno-Karabakh are to be spared the same sad and shocking fate as their counterparts in Nakhichevan.

Meanwhile, CHW’s satellite-monitoring of the region will continue, and data will be made available through an  interactive dashboard  and a series of regular  reports  that can be accessed from our website. Our next Special Report will document the fate of Azerbaijani and Islamic cultural heritage sites in territories that had been under ethnic-Armenian administration for 30 years; our preliminary assessments for that work can be found in the Ongoing Historic Research section of our report, in both the  abridged  and  full  versions.

In at least eight instances, churches and monasteries that were destroyed had been included in the April 27, 1988 monuments list of the Azerbaijan S.S.R. (Resolution 145). Two of these sites (#2853, 2854 in the figure at right) were listed as “Albanian temples”, referring to an  obscure historical group  from which, according to official Azerbaijani historiography, modern Azerbaijanis descend. Since the 1960s, this distorted history has been deployed in order to appropriate Armenian monasteries and churches to a fictional origin myth. The destruction of these two such “Albanian” temples (in fact, Armenian churches, numbered N.431 and N.446 in our database), reveals the hollowness of the appropriation. In Nakhichevan, even the government of Azerbaijan appears unconvinced by the “Albanization” of Armenian sites, and hence they too had to be destroyed.

The specific mechanisms for the implementation of this policy of erasure remain uncertain. But information leaked to Argam Ayvazyan, a prominent historian of Nakhichevan, provides the broad contours of how the campaign of destruction was carried out. In an Armenian-language pamphlet called Unpublished Interview (2009: 13), Ayvazyan notes that the government of Azerbaijan created 7-8 groups of 20-25 individuals “who had at their disposal the ammunition necessary to blow up monasteries and churches, and the machinery to eliminate the destroyed traces of the monuments….”

Timing of the Destruction

Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan had already been reduced during the Soviet era, when the region was an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan S.S.R. But it was not the target of a systematic program of total cultural erasure until 1997, six years after Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. In 1989, just  under 2000 Armenians remained  in Nakhichevan. The First Nagorno-Karabakh War and the attendant surge in anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan ensured that, by the early 1990s, no Armenians remained in the region as potential witnesses to heritage destruction.

CHW’s satellite analysis indicates that Azerbaijan’s systematic program of Armenian heritage erasure began 2-3 years prior to our earliest imagery from 2000, putting the start date sometime in 1997. This accords closely with evidence from a telegram sent by the Azerbaijani novelist and parliamentarian Akram Aylisli to then President Heydar Aliyev on June 10, 1997. In it, Aylisli reports that “recently it became known to me that in my native village of Aylis [Arm. Agulis] large-scale work is underway [by the military] for the eradication of Armenian churches and cemeteries….” Aylisli urged Aliyev to undertake “urgent measures” to end “this evil vandalism”  (Maghakyan and Pickman 2019 ;  Maghakyan 2021 ). A start date for the program of erasure in 1997 also accords with an encounter Argam Ayvazyan had with a childhood acquaintance from Nakhichevan in an Istanbul bus station in 1998 or 1999 during which he was informed that the destruction of Armenian monuments had recently commenced (personal communication, 2022).

The first direct observation of heritage destruction in Nakhichevan to have leaked out to global audiences came in 1998, when “eye-witnesses from the Iranian border zone” across the Araxes river from the Medieval Armenian  Cemetery of Old Jugha (Julfa) (N.307)  “observed tombstones being excavated by a crane and loaded onto railroad wagons on the cemetery grounds across the river Araxes. The ripped-up ground was then made even again by bulldozers. This destruction lasted for three weeks and about 800 Khatchkars [cross stones] were taken away” ( ICOMOS 2002-03 ).

 

Taken together, the evidence indicates that 108 Armenian heritage sites were all destroyed in, at most, a 14-year period from 1997-2011. In each case, the result was not simply damage to sites but total erasure. The timeline of destruction and its totality clearly indicate a systematic, coordinated state-sponsored campaign to eradicate all traces of Armenian communal and religious presence from Nakhichevan, and thus Armenians themselves from the history of the region. The satellite evidence thus corroborates the core finding of Maghakyan and Pickman’s  2019 investigation . Sustained denial by Azerbaijani officials that Armenians ever lived in the region represents the culmination of this program of complete cultural erasure. The voluminous evidence of Armenian monuments – present and then destroyed – provided in CHW’s StoryMaps both puts the lie to Azerbaijan’s historical revisionism and exposes the violence of its program of silent erasure.

 

 

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