Azerbaijan’s Destruction of Armenian Heritage in Artsakh Continues Unabated

Experts’ fears regarding Azerbaijan’s accelerated destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites across Artsakh (also known by the Russian name Nagorno-Karabakh) have been realized in the last seven months since the autocratic regime forced more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from their homeland. As Azerbaijani law prevents free and independent press access to the region, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, archaeologists and anthropologists are relying on satellite imagery to monitor attacks on hundreds of important sites pertaining to Armenian culture and spirituality. 

Between December and April, the 177-year-old St. John the Baptist Church in the town of Shushi was razed alongside the entirety of the Karintak village, according to the Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW), a team of scholars affiliated with Cornell and Purdue universities that formed in 2020. In May, reports also surfaced of the complete destruction of the St. Ascension Church in Berdzor. 

The attacks on Armenian patrimony have been characterized by leading scholars as “cultural genocide” and may be in violation of the International Court of Justice’s (ICC) November order emphasizing Azerbaijan’s obligations to take “all necessary measures” to prevent the vandalism and desecration of Armenian landmarks, places of worship, cemeteries, artifacts, and monuments. Last month, the Center for Truth and Justice in California petitioned the ICC to investigate Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev for genocide against Armenians not only in Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh but in Armenia itself. 

Once a self-governed territory with a majority population of indigenous ethnic Armenians, the Republic of Artsakh experienced a mass exodus last fall after Azerbaijani forces launched a lightning military offensive on the region that yielded hundreds of casualties amid a year-long blockade of the Lachin Corridor, a critical transportation route connected to the Republic of Armenia. Following the forced displacement of over 130,000 Armenians fearing genocide by Azerbaijan, former Artsakhi President Samvel Shahramanyan moved to officially dissolve the state by January 1, 2024, a decree he said was necessary to save lives and later annulled. The mountainous territory was completely overtaken by Azerbaijani forces, leaving cultural heritage sites vulnerable to total destruction.

After being forced to join Soviet Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, Artsakh sought to unify with Armenia in the 1980s as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Facing anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan, the Armenian population within the region voted overwhelmingly to declare their independence from the majority-Shiite Muslim nation, resulting in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1988. With Nagorno-Karabakh backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan backed by Turkey, a country that also continues to deny the Armenian Genocide, the war ended in a ceasefire in 1994 after the deaths of thousands and more than a million people displaced. Intense fighting reignited in 2016, boiling over in 2020 during a 44-day war that resulted in Azerbaijan annexing a large portion of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts.

In the last 30 years, Azerbaijan has faced legal accusations of ethnic cleansing in Artsakh and has attempted to erase Armenian culture and heritage elsewhere, most notably in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, where an investigation published by Hyperallergic back in 2019 proved that over 100 monasteries, churches, and cemeteries have been demolished or blown up, the finding was later confirmed by independent US researchers. Historic monasteries are at particularly high risk for destruction as Azerbaijan seeks to expunge records of Armenian culture and spirituality and improperly reclassify various sites as originating from “Caucasian Albanians,” a small and ancient Christian population from the area that Azerbaijan attributes as an important factor in the Azerbaijani ethnogenesis. Azerbaijan has invoked the distorted theory to claim that certain Armenian heritage sites are technically of Azerbaijani origin and position ethnic Armenians as not native to the land. 

Now that Azerbaijan has full control over Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh, hundreds of Armenian cultural sites across the formerly independent territory are at high risk for either destruction or appropriation, while others have already been obliterated or are in the process of being “restored,” as the regime refers to the stripping of their Armenian identity. In January, reporters for New Lines identified a possible incarceration facility near the village of Shahbulaq and the archeological complex of Tigranakert that could substantiate fears of an Azerbaijani-built concentration camp; its proximity to culturally significant sites, the authors wrote, is “symbolic of Azerbaijani claims to domination over Armenia.”

When Azerbaijani forces took over the hilltop village of Shushi (also known as Shusha in Azerbaijani) during the 44-day war in 2020, they damaged a large portion of the St. John the Baptist Church, commonly known as Kanach Zham (meaning “Green Chapel” in Armenian). The church had been built in the early- to mid-1800s in close proximity to the renowned Ghazanchetsots Cathedral that also sustained immense damage during the 2020 war. Upon reports of the damages to Kanach Zham, Azerbaijani sources stated that the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church had laid claim to the church and said that it had been “Armenianized” from its Orthodox origin, noting Azerbaijan’s commitment to restoring the church to its “historical form” in 2021. However, satellite imagery monitored by CHW concluded that the damaged church had been completely razed between December 2023 and April 2024, as demonstrated by the depiction of rubble where the structure once stood. 

CHW reported on the Azerbaijani demolition of the Ghazanchetsots Cemetery in Shushi, less than a half-mile south of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, within the same timeframe after damages to the gravesite were documented last November

“The sites that have been appropriated to the Caucasian Albanian narrative are principally churches and monasteries, while historic Armenian cemeteries, with their inscribed tombstones and khachkars (carved Armenian cross-stones), are not regarded as Caucasian Albanian and are thus particularly threatened,” CHW co-founder and Cornell University professor Lori Khatchadourian explained in an email to Hyperallergic.

“What’s so special about khachkars and tombstones in the Armenian context is they’re often not just names and dates, but rather versus containing much more information such as testimony to individuals, their families, and generations,” said Christina Maranci,  professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University and an expert in pre-Modern Christian Armenian architecture. “They’re very rich as a literary corpus.”

At the base of the hill that Shushi sits on, comparisons between satellite imagery show that the entire Artsakhi village of Karintak, known as Dashalty to Azerbaijanis, had been razed as well with the foundation of a mosque established in the center of the area. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, CHW researcher Husik Ghulyan hypothesized that Azerbaijan was setting the former village up as a new settlement in the area.

Despite the scale and severity of the damages, the erasure of Armenian cultural patrimony by Azerbaijan remains woefully under-reported, in large part due to the regime’s crackdown on independent journalists. In 2021, Hyperallergic published a special edition titled Artsakh: Cultural Heritage Under Threat, documenting attacks on physical sites as well as the ongoing propaganda campaign to obscure Armenia’s artistic legacy and history.

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