A region in the southern Caucasus that until 2023 was an Armenian enclave inside the territory of Azerbaijan
. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a bitter war was fought over the region, which for Armenians is known as Artsakh
. This war ended with a situation in which Artsakh declared itself independent and, with support from Armenia
, established a relatively stable truce in which the traditionally Armenian population of the territory could live relatively peacefully, surrounded by a “buffer zone” guarded by Armenian military. This situation held for almost three decades. And during that time Nagorno-Karabakh also became an especially “exotic” dark-tourism destination.
Then in 2020
, right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic (!!), Azerbaijan
took to arms again, supported by its big ally Turkey
(and with modern Turkish weaponry) and launched a military “operation” into the region and retook the territory that was the “buffer zone” (including Ağdam
) and also the town of Shushi
inside Artsakh until a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal ended the open hostilities. The Armenians felt betrayed by this deal and there were angry protests and even a storming of the parliament building in Yerevan
. Moreover, Azerbaijan blocked the former “corridor” for supplies into Nagorno-Karabakh, causing a dire situation that saw the local population on the brink of famine.
Yet things were to get much worse still. In September 2023
launched another full-on blitzkrieg-like offensive, and this time pushed out the entire Armenian population from their traditional homeland of Artsakh. Azerbaijan claimed they did not carry out any ‘ethnic cleansing
’, but that’s exactly what it effectively was. The Armenians of Artsakh rightly feared reprisals, repression and worse, and so had to flee, namely to Armenia
. This time around Russia
did not intervene (probably too distracted by its own war against Ukraine
) and basically left the Armenians in the lurch.
So Azerbaijan “reintegrated”
the entire territory and repopulated formerly Azeri places like Shushi/Şuşa
. What will happen with the former Artsakh capital Stepanakert/Xankəndi
, left behind as a ghost town
, is at the time of writing unclear.
What’s also quite despicable in this context is that Azerbaijan even exploited its military success with propaganda using tourists. “Free” government-organized tours to the “liberated” territory were offered and a good number of tourists, including so-called “influencers”, fell into the trap and posted positive messages about their trip on social media, some even posting selfies dressed in Azeri fatigues and posing with weapons. What riled me in particular was that Azerbaijan advertised such trips as “black tourism”, which is one of the synonyms of dark tourism
sometimes used. That’s why I had to put a note in my Azerbaijan chapter
distancing myself and dark-tourism.com from such propagandistic activities.
The upshot, from the perspective of this website, is that Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh is no longer a dark-tourism destination
. It may be visitable again, now as part of Azerbaijan
, but it’s just not the same any more and I see no reason to go back there when all its character has been taken away together with the original population and all the former dark-tourism attractions.
Hence, for the first time ever, I had to move an entire country into the lost places
section, likewise all the subchapters for it.
The text below is an adapted version of the original chapter that I had compiled after my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2010. But it’s all history now. Completely outdated.
Nagorno-Karabakh self-declared itself an independent republic in the early 1990s, but remained internationally unrecognized. For the intrepid traveller it was a special thrill simply to be in such an "exotic" place. But there were also many reminders of the recent dark history of the place, not just in the form of poignant memorial museums. Physical scars from the nasty Karabakh war were also still visible – including the world's largest ghost town
>More background info
>What there was to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Geographically, and "de jure", the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan
, but "de facto" it' was part of Armenia
, which towards the end of the Karabakh war of the 1990s took control of the entire region – plus "buffer zones" of Azeri territory around Nagorno-Karabakh. This also included the Lachin "corridor" with the road to Armenia, so that Karabakh was, from a practical point of view, no longer the enclave it used to be, but a direct neighbour of Armenia.
To make matters even more complicated for outsiders to get their heads round, the "country" also has a different name, namely: Artsakh. The name Nagorno-Karabakh, under which it is better known in the rest of the world, is, in turn, a confusing linguistic mix itself: "nagorno" meaning 'mountainous' in Russian, "kara" meaning 'black' in Turkic languages such as Azeri, and "bakh" meaning 'garden' in Persian (also in Turkish/Azeri).
The region had long been traditionally Armenian. Though during its years as part of Soviet Azerbaijan, the formerly predominantly Armenian population was slowly joined by an increasing proportion of Azerbaijanis. During, and in the wake of, the conflict in the region in the early 1990s, most of the Azerbaijani population fled ... or were pushed out, depending on which side you ask. There are still a large number of 'internally displaced persons' ('IDPs') in Azerbaijan
who have been hanging in limbo since 1994, many still living in refugee camps.
Crucial roots of the conflict lie, as so often in these parts of the world, in divisions and map-redrawings that stem from times when the Caucasus countries became part of the Soviet Union
. Apparently it was Stalin
himself who gave the Karabakh region to the Azerbaijani SSR. Even before the collapse of the USSR
, however, the internal tensions between the different ethnic groups were heating up, especially from ca. 1987/88 onwards, and developed into a full-scale war from 1991.
Initially fortune seemed to be rather with the Azeris, while Karabakh's militias of Armenian descent often had to make do with largely home-made and improvised weapons. With increased support from Armenia, battle fortunes turned against Azerbaijan, especially with and following the decisive retaking of Shushi
by Armenian-Karabakh forces in May 1992, from where the Azeri military had been shelling the region's capital city Stepanakert
The earlier war only ended in a ceasefire in 1994, finally putting a stop to several years of increasingly bloody fighting – with Armenia de facto the "winner", and Karabakh "free" and "independent". This status, however, has never been official and the international community and especially the UN
still regard the region an integral part of the territory of Azerbaijan
. So this became one of the "frozen conflicts" on Earth (see also e.g. Transnistria
acted as the main mediator ... ironically, as it had been heavily involved militarily on both sides in the early 1990s. And the "Minsk Group" was established by the international organization OSCE
to work for a lasting resolution of the conflict. However, a true resolution seems about as far away as one for the never-ending conflict in the Middle East over Palestine
But since Azerbaijan
’s military “recapturing” the territory in September 2023 and with the Armenian population all having fled to Armenia
, the situation has been completely turned on its head, with a “victory” for Azerbaijan and a complete loss for the Armenians. And the same now applies to the place as a dark-tourism destination. It is no more. Simple as that and very sad.
What there used to be to see:
These were the individual subchapters for particular places in Nagorno-Karabakh as I had seen them in 2010:
(Museum of Fallen Soldiers
, Museum of Missing Soldiers
, Artsakh State Museum
In addition there were also many scars from the 1990s conflict still visible, even wrecks of military vehicles.
And all over the region you could see cemeteries with headstones showing engraved images of soldiers – typically clutching a gun and dressed in camouflage fatigues under which that typical black-and-white striped T-shirt shows, which seems to have been part of the Karabakh fighters' obligatory "uniform". What will happen to these cemeteries now is unclear – what is clear, though, is that they are no longer accessible for the relatives.
Just east of Stepanakert by the road towards Mayraberd/Askeran and on to Ağdam
stands Karabakh's number one landmark: the Mamik & Babik monument, sometimes also referred to as Papik Tatik (e.g. in the Lonely Planet guidebook). It's a reddish-brown tuff sculpture of a bearded man (grandfather) and a veiled woman (grandmother – who appears to be gagged too) gazing determinedly over the land. The "official" name of the sculpture is "we are our mountains" and even before you could see it in the flesh you would have encountered it adorning map covers, stamps, your visa, wine bottles, almost everything. Supposedly it's to symbolize the indomitable spirit of the Armenians of Karabakh. It's highly unusual in style, but very Soviet at the same time, at least in its oversized scale … What the future of this monument may be is also unclear, but for now I assume it’s still standing, only out of reach for those whose national symbol it was.
in the remote eastern part of the Lesser Caucasus, wedged in between Azerbaijan
to the east and north, Iran to the south, and Armenia
to the west. Now officially a western province of Azerbaijan’s national territory.
Access and costs: used to be surprisingly easy, (for the most part) safe, and not too expensive either.
Details: Because of Nagorno-Karabakh's unrecognized status, there are no embassies or consular services – i.e. if something does go wrong, or you get into trouble with the authorities, you're on your own. Your country of origin will not be able to help you in the usual way though its consular/embassy services. The thrill of travelling to such a place thus comes with the price of a somewhat greater risk (legally speaking). So it's really important to tread carefully here and avoid any kind of risks that might get you into the sort of trouble where you might need such outside assistance. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, Armenia (which effectively runs the country) is never far away and it has all the embassy networks of a "proper" country.
The border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan – i.e. the 1994 ceasefire line – remains closed, just like the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in general. So access is only possible from Armenia, namely through the (former) "corridor" that is the Goris-Stepanakert highway. Strictly speaking this traverses Azerbaijani territory, but it's the one exception to the rule that you shouldn't venture out of Nagorno-Karabakh "proper" and into the "buffer zone" (but see Agdam). There are even regular minibus services using the route. You can also just get a taxi to take you there, either from Goris, which is the closest town in Armenia, or get one from Stepanakert to pick you up in Armenia – your hotel may be able to arrange this for you. Tourists are required to obtain a special Karabakh visa available either on arrival in the "capital" Stepanakert (from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 28 Azatamartikneri Poghota, the central north-south boulevard), or in advance in Nagorno-Karabakh's "permanent representation" in Yerevan, Armenia (17 Zaryan Poghots). Prices seem to have fallen in recent years – and esp. with the assistance of your hotel in Stepanakert you may be able to get the lowest available price for a tourist visa, for a few days, on the spot. This was just 3000 AMD (ca. 6 EUR) when I went in August 2010. Even if you already have a visa when you arrive, you still need to register at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so you could just as well get your visa there. Note: a visa for Nagorno-Karabakh in your passport means you will be refused entry to Azerbaijan – so either insist on having the visa issued separately from your passport, or visit Azerbaijan first if you want to be sure of getting into that country. The other way round, i.e. having an Azerbaijani visa in your passport when entering Nagorno-Karabakh will not preclude access, but it may result in some extra questioning by the border soldiers – as I experienced when I got there. There's no need to be too defensive but it may be advisable not to play up what a great time you may have had in Azerbaijan. Legal tender in Karabakh is the Armenian Dram (AMD), i.e. though "independent", the "country" does not have its own currency (unlike Transnistria!). Hotels may also accept EUR or USD. Accommodation options are surprisingly plentiful for such a remote place, ranging from homestays to proper hotels, mostly in Stepanakert. There are even a couple of wholly eccentric "folly" resort hotels by the road towards Gandzasar, which were built by rich Diaspora Armenians from Russia. Getting around is easy enough. Taxis can be hired to chauffeur you just about anywhere in the region and it won't cost a fortune. For those on a shoestring budget, there are cheap marshrutka (shared minibus) services as well as a few buses between the main settlements, though they may not be particularly frequent (except to/from Shushi). Costs for food and drink, including meals at restaurants/cafes, are quite low. However, choice-wise, the culinary experience is also at least as limited as in Armenia, unless you are an undiscerning carnivore. Vegetarians will mostly have to make do with salads and soups – or pizza: I found quite agreeable ones at a cafe near the smaller of Stepanakert's two quaint "funfairs" – one variety was called "pizza gorgonzola", which, though sans any gorgonzola, featured the unusual extra topping of tinned peas. The number of foreign visitors, mind you, is also extremely low! It really is quite an exotic destination for tourists to pop up in. I encountered only one small Italian tour group and a couple of American backpackers at Gandzasar, but no other foreigners in the streets of Stepanakert. So expect to get stared at by the locals… It helps to have some grasp of Russian (or Armenian, of course) in order to get around or get served in cafes etc. – although I found a few places where English was understood to some degree and even featured on menus. But don't rely on English being the universal lingua franca here that it is in so many other places. Some tour operators in Armenia offer fully guided, organized Karabakh tours, or at least packages that include at least a stopover there. However, these are of little use to the dark tourist, as they concentrate almost exclusively on the cultural/mainstream sights and/or nature trails. One local agency called "Asbar" used to offer tailored tours, some of which included the darker sites, but it was no longer in operation when I visited in 2010. But who knows, maybe it (or some equivalent) will come back … However, hotels may be able to help too with finding drivers and even a guide. I found the manager of Hotel Nairi in Stepanakert exceptionally helpful.
Time required: two full days should suffice for covering all the dark sites described here as well as a bit of mainstream sightseeing. Add extra time for getting there and away, though, so you may need at least three nights' accommodation.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
the nearest proper dark-tourism attractions are in Yerevan
, about a day's drive from Stepanakert
. Although I found Sisian
in south-eastern Armenia to have a somewhat darkish (of sorts) "appeal" too.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
the No. 1 mainstream, cultural sight within the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is the monastery complex of Gandzasar – which is indeed a fine example of such Armenian architecture, if you're not already "monasteried out" from the many similar places within Armenia
proper. This is also the easiest to get to. There are other (ruins of) ancient monasteries and fortresses, but getting to these may require a good guide and even a special permit from the military.
En route from Stepanakert
lie the great fortress walls of Mayraberd/Askeran, which are also worth a look.
One special sight is the enormous plane tree of Skhtorashen, said to be 2000 years old and over 50m (165 feet) tall. What makes it really special is that it's hollow, and the space inside is as big as a chapel and could hold dozens of people!
The tree lies on the Janapar Trail, which in itself is Nagorno-Karabakh's main attraction for dedicated hikers: it's a 190 km (120 miles) long marked trail crossing Karabakh taking about a fortnight to complete in its entirety.
Even if you don't want to invest that much time and hiking energy, the scenery can be thoroughly enjoyable to behold from various viewpoints. Nagorno-Karabakh is for the most part not only mountainous but also very green. Whereas most of Armenia's forests have (literally) fallen victim to excessive logging, in Karabakh there are still vast stretches of pristine woodlands. There's also interesting wildlife, including wolves and bears, though you are not very likely to encounter any.
- Nagorno-Karabakh 1 - green mountains
- Nagorno-Karabakh 2 - grand scenery
- Nagorno-Karabakh 3 - Gandzasar
- Nagorno-Karabakh 4 - cemetery
- Nagorno-Karabakh 5 - war grave
- Nagorno-Karabakh 6 - eccentric hotel
- Nagorno-Karabakh 7 - flags
- Nagorno-Karabakh 8 - one of the tank memorials