Newswise — ITHACA, NY – A new report from Cornell-led Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) has compiled decades of high-resolution satellite imagery to document the complete destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan beginning in the late 1990s.

Moreover, the latest finding of CHW’s heritage monitoring project suggests that the same policy of cultural erasure now threatens Armenian monuments in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. CHW has recently discovered the destruction of an historic church in Karabakh, one of hundreds of Armenian monuments in territories ceded to Azerbaijan under the terms of a 2020 ceasefire to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The destruction of St. Sargis church in the village of Mokhrenes between March and July 2022 provides evidence of the first major violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice, which ordered Azerbaijan in December 2021 to prevent such acts.

According to CHW’s report on Nakhchivan, of the 110 medieval and early modern Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries that CHW identified from archival sources, 108 were destroyed between 1997 and 2011 in what the authors describe as “a systematic, state-sponsored program of cultural erasure.”

CHW was founded in 2020 by Lori Khatchadourian, associate professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Adam T. Smith, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Anthropology, both in the College of Arts and Sciences, along with Ian Lindsay, associate professor of Anthropology at Purdue University.

“Cultural heritage faces more significant threats right now than ever before, from economic development to climate change. But the most serious threat to heritage comes from autocratic governments ready to reshape the past into a fiction that legitimates their domination,” Smith said. “Luckily, there are also new tools for researchers to uncover the facts that counter these fictions.”

The researchers have built an interactive web platform that provides detailed historical background for each site and also allows users to swipe between images from “before” and “after.” For some sites, such as the Holy Mother of God church in Ramis, satellite imagery captured the destruction in progress.

To identify the locations of the destroyed sites, the researchers turned to scholarly surveys of the region’s architectural history. They compared this source material with declassified U.S. satellite images from the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet maps from the 1930s to 1990s, and more recent satellite imagery – all of which enabled them to construct a meticulous visual timeline that shows the gradual eradication of cultural heritage sites.

Of the 110 identified sites, the researchers documented the total destruction of 108, or 98%. The two remaining sites – a small cemetery and chapel – possibly evaded notice because they were in such poor condition they weren’t recognized as Armenian.

Satellite evidence allowed the team to establish the timeframe for the destruction of every site in their database, with greater or lesser precision depending on the availability of satellite imagery. The evidence suggests that the campaign of erasure began in 1997 and was largely completed by 2009.

For more information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Media note: Satellite images of the destruction can be viewed and downloaded here.


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Caucasus Heritage Watch