Heritage Monitoring: Our inventory of cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh currently includes over 2000 entries spread across an area of approximately 12,000 square kilometers. At any particular moment, we have hundreds of discrete locations under satellite surveillance, including churches and mosques, cemeteries and fields of carved stones, bridges, and other cultural properties that tell the dynamic story of centuries of life in the region. The locations that we monitor will change as conditions on the ground change. Our site inventory is the result of extensive consultations with our partners, who share our concern for heritage preservation in the South Caucasus. Our partners are fundamental to what we do, providing expertise, experience, and eyes on the ground.
Because the CHW team is composed of archaeologists with a long history of working in Armenia, thus far our partners are Yerevan-based. As we undertake the time-consuming work of developing a geospatial inventory of Azerbaijani cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh, we welcome new partnerships with specialists in Azerbaijani cultural heritage who support our mission and wish to assist in this work.
At present, our primary focus is on monitoring the condition of hundreds of Armenian historical monuments that now are under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction following a November 2020 ceasefire. As described in our summary assessment, we have determined through research and consultation that these monuments are currently under the most severe threat. This assessment is bolstered by both historical research into Azerbaijan’s erasure of Armenian monuments in the province of Nakhchivan/Nakhichevan and by explicit threats of cultural erasure issued by Azerbaijani officials, from the President and Minister of Culture to the Chairman of the Union of Architects.
CHW’s monitoring effort is specifically focused on heritage monuments. It is not within our mission to document the wider destruction of towns, villages and cities over the 30 years of conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. We focus on historic sites that have been the subject of archaeological, architectural, or art historical research and are included on Soviet or post-Soviet state inventories of cultural properties. But it is important to note that we see the wider, heart-breaking destruction that has impacted the lives of so many Azerbaijani and Armenian families. We deplore the combination of violence and poverty that has created Nagorno-Karabakh’s ravaged landscape. And we surveil these areas with a deep sense of empathy for the lives lost and futures upended. Nevertheless, we draw a distinction between the destruction and abandonment of villages over the course of this long-standing conflict and the systematic attempts to eradicate heritage properties as a means to erase communities from the region’s past and thus rewrite the region’s history. It is our hope that in the years we study this region we will see it bloom with new hope and a lasting peace.
There are some kinds of threats to cultural heritage that CHW is not well-equipped to address. Satellite imagery provides evidence of damage, but it cannot detect acts of desecration or directly combat heritage appropriation. Since the cease-fire, representatives of Azerbaijan’s government have embarked on an extensive campaign to claim Armenian heritage sites as either non-existent or as “Caucasian Albanian”. Both represent fraudulent historical claims unsupported by international research. The vast majority of experts in the region’s art, architecture, and archaeology have all rejected Azerbaijan’s revisionist claims as patently false. Nevertheless, the Caucasian Albanian propaganda has sparked some iconoclastic efforts to erase Armenian imagery and inscriptions from buildings and monuments. We are aware of these threats and track them via social media, but as these subtle but significant forms of erasure are not visible from our satellite imagery, we will have to rely on partners to document these activities.
Historical Research: In addition to monitoring current threats in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, we are also working to provide further documentation of cultural genocide in Nakhichevan/Nakhchivan and research accusations regarding the abuse of Islamic sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. This archival dimension of our research requires extensive work to create a database of sites with high precision geographic coordinates and find suitable archival satellite imagery. Hence, this work will necessarily proceed at a slower pace than our monitoring of current threats.