Preserving Cultural Heritage Panel Conveys Urgency of Protecting Armenian Heritage Sites at Risk
Washington, D.C. - The second panel of the Armenian Assembly of America’s (Assembly) Virtual National Advocacy Conference and Advocacy Week, on Monday, March 8, focused on “Preserving Armenian Culture and Heritage,” a timely discussion as thousands of Armenian religious and cultural heritage sites are currently at risk of being expropriated and erased by Azerbaijan, especially in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Panelists included Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Professor Lori Khatchadourian of Cornell University, and Professor Christina Maranci of Tufts University, while Jeff King, the President of International Christian Concern, provided a written statement. Professor Rachel Goshgarian of Lafayette College served as moderator. Emphasizing the importance of cultural heritage, Archbishop Derderian noted that “culture is born with a nation” and by learning the culture and heritage of the Armenian nation, “we see the layers of our history and aspirations of our ancestors, which have left a notable impact.” He noted that culture and heritage are the “bridges” between the past and the future of nations, and that the creative life of the homeland is reflected in the unique Armenian cultural heritage. Archbishop Derderian stated that critical academic findings and studies, as well as the ongoing dialogue with political leaders and international cultural organizations, are key to helping find a resolution to the Armenian cultural heritage sites in peril. Professor Khatchadourian, an archaeologist who teaches at Cornell’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, launched the Caucasus Heritage Watch to monitor, through high-resolution satellite imaging, the damage being done to Armenian cultural heritage sites. The project, which is in its early stages, documents the conditions of the monuments and may help hold perpetrators accountable in the future. She underscored the fact that UNESCO “shirks from calling out governments from which it depends for funding,” therefore there are “few tools for preventing state actors from damaging cultural heritage under their sovereign control or holding such actors accountable.” Khatchadourian noted that over 1,000 Armenian cultural heritage sites fall under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, distributed across former provinces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ranging from Armenian monastic complexes to khatchkars (cross-stones), cemeteries and fortresses, among other relics. “The threats to these sites are real,” she said. “Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan sought to fully erase traces of Armenians, destroying thousands of khatchkars and tens of thousands of historic tombstones in unprecedented acts of destruction in Nakhichevan. Those grave threats loom once again.” Satellite imaging has proven to be an “effective tool” to monitor cultural heritage at risk, according to Khatchadourian, who cited countries such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and China, which have implemented this method of using geospatial technologies. Professor Maranci, the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture, as well as Department Chair of the History of Art and Architecture at Tufts University, has researched Armenian heritage loss and destruction, which she remarked is not only “material” culture but “gets to the very root of” Armenian spiritual culture. She cited the horrible consequences of war on heritage sites, such as the damage of the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in Shushi, while noting that far worse would be the “complete erasure of sites.” Preserving cultural heritage, Maranci noted, brings together intellectuals, such as historians and archaeologists, who can use applicable tools and resources to address the problems of cultural destruction in Nagorno-Karabakh. Panel moderator and Professor Rachel Goshgarian highlighted the importance of the Armenian American community becoming more aware of the destruction of cultural heritage and engaging as grassroots advocates. As President of International Christian Concern, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that serves the persecuted church around the world, Jeff King, in his written statement, focused on the unprovoked attacks on Armenians by its neighboring countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey, who invaded Nagorno-Karabakh “as a promotion of Pan-Turkism.” “At ICC, based on what we have seen and covered, we take the position that recent conflict was a genocide against Armenian Christians due to this messaging of Pan-Turkism against Armenia and Christianity as a whole, and the brutality employed by Azerbaijani forces against soldiers and civilians alike,” said King. “The demolishing of Christian heritage sites is just one example of the religious underpinnings apparent throughout this conflict.” A thought-provoking question and answer session followed the presentations, during which the panelists elaborated on civil society building, the impact that preserving Armenian cultural heritage can have on the world, and the potential of using satellite imagery as a forensic resource to hold perpetrators accountable and influence policy. “On behalf of the Armenian Assembly, I would like to thank our distinguished panelists for their informative and insightful remarks, as well as the important work ahead to ensure that these treasured cultural sites referenced are protected as well as safeguarded against further expropriation," stated Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny.
Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.