Stepanakert / Khandendi
formerly - darkometer rating: 3 -)
The ex-"capital city" of the former internationally unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh
Republic. Apart from serving as a base from where to explore the region, Stepanakert used to offer the dark tourist a couple of small, idiosyncratic museums relating to the Karabakh war of the 1990s.
It has to be assumed that the latter will all have disappeared (or maybe altered beyond recognition) since
in September 2023 Azerbaijan
took over the city and the entire region in its military offensive and the originally Armenian population was forced to flee.
With this the city has also largely lost its appeal from a dark-tourism perspective; although it may well be that Azerbaijan will now add its own commodifications
of its “victory”. But whether they should be supported is questionable. The first pioneering tourists are apparently already lured back – as they have been in Shushi/Şuşa
even earlier, and that even under the dubious label of “black tourism” (a less common synonym for ‘dark tourism’). But see this note
in which I distance myself and dark-tourism.com from such propagandistic activities, and also see this longer Blog post
Stepanakert has now been given its Azeri name again, which is Khankendi
” in Azeri spelling), but what exactly will happen with it is unclear. After the Armenians of Artsakh left (or: were ‘ethnically cleansed’) it was at first a complete ghost town
. I can imagine, though, that the Azerbaijani government will be keen to repopulate the place, now with their own people, and will probably pump a lot of money into it as well.
For the purposes of this website, however, it is no longer of the same interest it once was.
The text below is an adapted version of the original chapter that was written after my visit to the city in 2020 – and it is now totally outdated and merely of historical interest.
>More background info
>What there was to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Stepanakert used to have an almost exclusively Armenian population of ca. 50,000, and under that Armenian name served as the de facto capital city of the de facto independent, but unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh
. But internationally is was regarded 'de jure' as part of Azerbaijan,
where the city is known as Khankendi (Xankəndi in Azeri spelling). Now that Azerbaijan has militarily captured the city (in September 2023) it is also de facto part of that country again and has been given back its Azeri name.
This disputed international status notwithstanding, Stepanakert was to all intents and purposes an Armenian regional capital city in every practical way. In particular, it served as the administrative and transport hub of the Karabakh region. The only indication you got as a visitor of the officially disputed status of the place was the presence of a larger number of soldiers on the streets than you would usually get in "normal" cities – but even that was hardly a dominant feature of the Stepanakert experience.
Instead it was just a small but industrious provincial town with lots of construction work going on and a fairly well-functioning infrastructure in place. This included facilities for foreign tourists, such as hotels and restaurants, where there is even some degree of English-speaking service (see below
Overall, however, the feel of the place was more Russian than elsewhere in the Caucasus – and Russian served as the default lingua franca, even more so than Armenian, it seemed.
The level of reconstruction in the city left very little indication that it was a war zonein the 1990s and that it had suffered so severely from being shelled by the Azerbaijani military back then. The main base from which GRAD missiles were fired at the city was the nearby town of Shushi
, whose location high on a hill overlooking the plain that Stepanakert sits on proved a vital strategic position. With the capture of Shushi by the Armenian Karabakh army, in 1992 the shelling from there was stopped, but at that point virtually every building in Stepanakert had suffered at least some damage. But by the time I visited in 2010, most of that damage had long been repaired.
In fact, Stepanakert had become a little boom town – apparently most of the money that reached the "republic" (be it from Armenia or from the moneyed Armenian Diaspora abroad) was spent in this city … as well as on the road network that links it with the western, northern and southern parts of the region.
The only direct indication of the war in the 1990s that I saw when I visited Stepanakert (in August 2010) were images on a construction site's fence on Shahumian Hraparak roundabout showing wrecked tanks as well as military parades.
Apart from that, Stepanakert simply served as the most useful base in the region from where to visit its principal dark "attraction", the vast ghost town of Ağdam
– or neighbouring Shushi
roughly in the very heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh
region, at the eastern end of the Goris-Stepanakert road that once connected Karabakh to Armenia
via the Lachin corridor. The "north-south highway" of Karabakh also passes through Stepanakert.
Access and costs: only accessible by road via Armenia, but without too much hassle; not too expensive.
Details: the "border" (rather frontline/ceasefire-line) with Azerbaijan remains closed and extremely sensitive; and the former railway line to the east is disconnected and derelict. So the only way to get to Karabakh is via Armenia. A paved road in comparatively good condition connects Stepanakert to the eastern Armenian town of Goris – and onwards to Yerevan. There are bus/minibus (marshrutka) services from both Goris and Yerevan, or you can get a taxi. The former are cheap (between 2000 and 6000 AMD) but uncomfortable, esp. with luggage, the latter more expensive, but still not too crippling. I had a car sent by my hotel to pick me up in Yerevan, and it cost 40,000 AMD. There is talk about the airport to the east of Stepanakert being prepared for reopening; it was closed for civilian air traffic during the war and only remained in use as a military airfield. If it does reopen, then there should be the alternative of flying in, presumably only from Yerevan, which would cut travelling time. Whether it will also be a competitive alternative price-wise remains to be seen. If you haven't obtained your Karabakh visa in advance (in Yerevan) you can do so on the spot in Stepanakert at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (28 Azatamartikneri Poghota), where you have to register anyway on arrival, or, when arriving outside business hours, the next day at the latest)– see under Nagorno-Karabakh for more info on this. Getting around in town is easy – most of it is walkable, otherwise local taxis are cheap. Orientation is simple too – most tourists will normally only have to negotiate the main squares and the central thoroughfare that is Azatamartikneri Poghota. This runs in a diagonal south to north-eastern line from the central roundabout, Shahumian Hraparak. Further north past Victory Square (another roundabout) the name changes to Mesrop Mashtots Poghots. The furthest distances one has to cover within the city do not exceed about a mile and a half, e.g. if you're staying at one of the hotels at the northern edge of the city and walk to the central square. There's a fair range of accommodation options in Stepanakert, from the No. 1 hotel in town, called Hotel Armenia, located right on the main square, Hraparak Vertsnound, next to the parliament, down to simple guesthouses and homestays. In between there are a couple of good mid-range hotels. During my visit in August 2010, I stayed at the Hotel Nairi, housed in a converted ex-school building on the north-eastern edge of town. I had a lot of help from the hotel manager in arranging excursions and transfers.
A day or two should suffice for Stepanakert itself. But extra time is useful for excursions to places outside of town.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see Nagorno-Karabakh
. Stepanakert has never offered much for the mainstream tourist – other than serving as a jumping-off point for day excursions to the region's cultural sights (i.e. esp. Gandzasar Monastery). The only possible exceptions, other than a quick look at the reasonably well-kept main square with the government buildings, may be the carpet factory showroom on the main boulevard or the art gallery Kartinnaya (N Stepanyan Poghots).
What the status of the city and the sights mentioned in the previous paragraph is now that Azerbaijan
has taken all of Nagorno-Karabakh over I do not know. One thing is pretty sure, though: the street and place names will all have reverted to their previous Azeri alternatives.
- Stepanakert 1 - view over the city
- Stepanakert 2 - typical housing
- Stepanakert 3 - parliament
- Stepanakert 4 - government building
- Stepanakert 5 - flags
- Stepanakert 6 - amusement park
- Stepanakert 7 - telling fence
- Stepanakert 8 - image of tank wreck
- Stepanakert 9 - construction site fence
- Stepanakert 9b - get your visa here
- Stepanakert 9c - Ministry of Foreign Affairs