Azerbaijan Escalates Attacks on Armenian Heritage Sites

Since Azerbaijani forces invaded the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, on September 19, forcing more than 100,000 Armenians from their ancestral homelands in an act that has been described as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide,” at least three Armenian cemeteries and one 19th-century church in the region have been damaged by new and expanding construction work. In addition, numerous other churches, cemeteries, and other historic structures are increasingly being threatened with damage and destruction by encroaching Azeri activities.

The recent violations add to a slew of attacks on Armenian religious and cultural heritage sites in the region in the wake of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, marking a renewed effort by the Azerbaijani government to erase the existence of Indigenous Armenians from the landscape.

Satellite monitoring by the Cornell University-based research program Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) detected that between October 5 and November 3, bulldozers paved a road through the Yerevan Gates Cemetery in Shushi, also known as Shusha in Azerbaijani, according to the group’s December report. Home to 78 tombstones with Armenian inscriptions dating from 1802 to 1913, the burial ground is obscured by thick forest, making it unclear for researchers to identify which tombstones were damaged. 

Armenian inscriptions in religious sites have frequently been targeted by the forces of the Azerbaijani dictatorship, which is seeking to erase these markers of Armenian history. Back in 2019, Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman reported on these pages about the eradication of thousands of monuments of Armenian heritage across the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, a report later verified by Caucasus Heritage Watch. Using a pseudo-scientific theory that these traces of Armenian existence are fictitious, the Azerbaijani government has supported the desecration and cultural reappropriation of churches and tombstones under the guise of so-called restoration.

CHW researchers also reported damage to another historic site in Shushi during October, the Ghazanchets’ots Cemetery. The gravesite, which already has deteriorating tombstones, was recently targeted by construction vehicles and used as a dumping ground for debris. In addition, researchers noted that satellite photos taken on November 3 showed demolition debris recently dispensed onto the original base of the Meghretsots St. Astvatsatsin Church, a Shushi religious site that was initially founded in 1838. After sustaining immense damage under Soviet rule so that only the tabernacle and altar spaced remained, the site was converted into a movie theater in the 1960s until the Artsakh Republic’s Service for the Protection of Historical Environment excavated the church’s foundation in 2017.

On top of these cases of new damage, an ongoing construction project northeast of a cemetery near Vazgenashen/Hajisamly has resulted in significant wreckage to the area. Home to carved cross stoneheads known as khachkars, the historic burial site was initially threatened by encroaching construction activities in June before sustaining additional damage from construction activities this fall.

“The strategies of desecration and erasure are very specific and very targeted,” Christina Maranci, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, told Hyperallergic recently in an interview, describing the destruction as a means to “essentially obliterate Armenian existence from everyone’s memory.” 

In Shushi, Azeri bulldozers plowed a road directly through the historic Yerevan Gates Cemetary, damaging and potentially destroying an unconfirmed number of burial plots. (Image courtesy Monument Watch)

“Now, there’s even more at stake,” Maranci explained, pointing to the “countless monuments, churches, cemeteries that serve as markers of Armenian existence for multiple millennia” that have now recently come under Azerbaijan control since the mass Armenian exodus from Artsakh in September. Notably, CHW researchers described in their December report how the Azeri military offensive has “dramatically” increased the scope of their satellite monitoring.

Maranci added that although social media can be a tool for accountability, these platforms have also transformed Azeri attacks on Armenian cultural and religious heritage into “optical forms of terrorism and violence.”

“We’re all waiting for Azeris to post something,” Maranci said. 

“It is extremely painful for Armenians and Armenian-adjacent communities. We need more people to pay attention and the world to pay attention.”

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