This used to be largest ghost town
in the world – formerly a city of ca. 100,000, totally deserted and in ruins, since 1994, and standing (well, only partially) as a most eerie scar left by the Nagorno-Karabakh
Then in September 2020, Azerbaijan
launched a renewed military offensive and in the process retook Ağdam. It will now be slowly repopulated with Azerbaijanis, it is to be expected. For the dark tourist this means Ağdam is now a lost place. No longer being a ghost town it has largely lost its attraction from a dark-tourism perspective anyway, and if at all possible you can only reach it now from within Azerbaijan. In fact, not long after the retaking of Ağdam, the Azeri (dictatorial) government sponsored special tourist trips that included visits to Ağdam for propagandistic purposes (see this note in which I distance myself and dark-tourism.com from such activities).
The text below was adapted from the original chapter that I had composed after my 2010 trip to Nagorno-Karabakh
. It’s now history.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Ağdam was a predominantly Azeri city in the west of Azerbaijan
, near the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh
. The figures given for the number of inhabitants vary in different sources, usually between 50,000 and 150,000, so the middle is probably a good approximation to the facts. In any case at ca. 100,000 it was a city, not just a town, in fact the largest of the region, about twice the size of Karabakh's "capital" Stepanakert
. With that size it is also twice as big, population-wise, as what is probably the world's best-known ghost town
, namely Pripyat near Chernobyl
. Furthermore, Ağdam covers a much larger area, since housing wasn't as concentrated in high-rise apartment blocks (as in Pripyat) but much more sprawling.
Unlike with Pripyat, however, the reason for Ağdam becoming a ghost town was not an industrial/nuclear accident, but war.
The entire population of Agdam had to flee in 1993 in the later stages of the original Nagorno-Karabakh war, when battle fortunes turned away from the Azeris and in favour of the Armenians. For more background info about the war see under Nagorno-Karabakh
The deserted city of Ağdam was taken in July 1993 and the Armenian military held control over it, since it fell within the "buffer zone" that in the ceasefire agreement of 1994 was set up between the front line, just on the eastern edge of Ağdam, and the territory of Karabakh proper.
The buildings of Ağdam fell into ruin. It is not entirely clear how much of the destruction occurred as part of the war (through shelling) or afterwards. One thing is certain: the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (esp. Stepanakert) used the deserted city of Ağdam as a free source of construction materials to rebuild their own houses, which is at least partly understandable. Scrap metal hunters scavenged for cables or plumbing pipes – the whole place was effectively stripped clean.
The only structure halfway intact, compared to the roofless shells of the rest of the city's buildings, was the mosque with its two intricate brick minarets. It was largely spared destruction during and after the war, but of course years of neglect have taken their toll on this structure too. I've seen images online of graffiti and even cattle inside the mosque – you can also find online videos, e.g. on YouTube, of ruined Ağdam and its mosque.
A note about the city name's pronunciation: the 'ğ' is pronounced like something in between a 'h' and a soft guttural 'r' (in Turkish it would even be silent altogether, but Azeri retains a remnant of the sound).
Since Azerbaijan’s recapture of Ağdam in 2020 there will likely be a lot of reconstruction and eventually the city will probably be repopulated by Azerbaijanis. But as the dark-tourism destination it once was, it’s history. A lost place.
What there was to see:
basically just a sea of ruins stretching to the horizon. Some house ruins are more remarkable than others, especially those that still gave an indication of two- or three-storey houses, while most of the lower-level ruins of former single-storey buildings wouldn't be much to look at individually. It's the mass that was the crucial thing here! It could be the set for a disaster movie – but of course it is quite real!
The old mosque in the city centre was probably the main focus point – also because one of the twin minarets can, or at least could in the past, be climbed to get an aerial view over the sprawling sea of ruins. The Lonely Planet guidebook ("Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan" 2008, p.301) went as far as saying that the view was similar to "photographs taken of Hiroshima
" after its 1945 A-bombing. Apparently this is what journalists have said on visiting the ghost town – it's also invoked in a short film about Ağdam entitled "Caucasian Hiroshima".
That kind of likening Ağdam to Hiroshima is, however, quite an exaggeration in my opinion, since Ağdam was not a flattened, charred desert with only the odd concrete shell in it, which is what the appearance of Hiroshima was after the bomb. Ağdam, in contrast, is actually even quite green: overgrown and with trees appearing in between the ruins (or even inside them). Nature was busy reclaiming this wasteland, while at the same time the old ruins, exposed to the elements for years, were slowly crumbling. In that respect it rather resembled Pripyat near Chernobyl
– though Ağdam was by no means as high-rise dominated.
You were actually not supposed to enter the "buffer zone" that Ağdam was located in, i.e. the Armenian controlled area between Nagorno-Karabakh
territory proper and the "front line" with Azerbaijan – the Karabakh visa did not cover those parts.
Many intrepid travellers went in all the same, though. And usually without any incident. The general advice was not to proceed any further east than the mosque, i.e. not towards the front line that went right past the eastern and northern outskirts of the ex-city. But even that could still be a bit dicey. You could have been stopped and questioned or even arrested by the military.
When I visited in August 2010, I was actually strongly advised not to go into the centre of the city at all (i.e. not even as far as the mosque), since the situation had become very tense following some recent skirmishes on the front line. And of course you'd better follow such local advice.
I was, however, driven through Ağdam up to the point where the road leading south to Martuni and Fizuli branches off.
It was already eerie enough. The closer we got to the city, the denser the rows of ruins became. The mosque's twin minarets, however, I could only see from a distance. The photos of the mosque that appear in the gallery below are thus not mine, but were passed on to me from an earlier traveller (anonymously) through the guy who organized my Ağdam trip.
Access and costs: officially there's no access at all, but it's not completely impossible to go there (by taxi – for a price).
UPDATE November 2020: all this has changed. Azerbaijan military retook the former buffer zone, so it will no longer be possible to reach Agdam coming from within Nagorno-Karabakh (but possibly from within Azerbaijan; see this note
: The official line is quite clear: you are nominally not supposed to go to Agdam, or in fact anywhere in the "buffer zone" … but some people do so regardless. There's conflicting advice on this. Some say you need to get permission and be accompanied by Armenian soldiers if you want to have a look around, and especially if you want to take pictures – although this may be possible only for a few select people such as accredited journalists. (I was talked out of even trying that approach.) Others say you could simply get a taxi, but may not be allowed to take photos – apparently depending on the disposition of your driver. The Lonely Planet "Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan" guidebook's stance (p 301 in the 2008, edition) is this: while it would be foolhardy to just "waltz in" on your own, it is possible to get a taxi there from Stepanakert – but there is "no guarantee you won't be arrested". The area is in any case heavily militarized – so army checks are not totally unlikely. How the soldiers would react on finding a tourist here, remains the crucial open question … Given that kind of status of the place it may be debatable whether going to Agdam can still be regarded as legit dark tourism or whether it falls on the other side of the demarcation line and should be classed as danger tourism (it has to be regarded as adventure tourism in any case).
Here's my own assessment/experience: when I went, in August 2010, I was merely cautioned to keep away from the city centre (around the mosque) and to be very careful when taking pictures, but I was driven at least through the western and southern outskirts of Ağdam without any problems. There was even the odd other vehicle about but no one seemed to care much about our taxi. To the south outside Ağdam we even passed a couple of military vehicles, but, again, nothing happened. So maybe it's not as dramatic as some sources make it out to be, or maybe I was just lucky. I admit, there was a certain underlying feeling of "adventure", but no palpable air of any real threat. My driver was perfectly relaxed – and didn't even care that I (surreptitiously) used a little compact digital camera … though obviously I abstained from using it when any military presence was in sight.
Another thing: as I was sitting in the front passenger seat, the views out of the window of the taxi and thus the "photo ops" available whilst driving en route to Ağdam, and then driving past it southbound, were not so good much of the time (and this shows in the photo gallery below
). My advice would therefore be: have the driver do the round trip in the other direction, i.e. from Stepanakert first head south towards Hedrut and then north, via Fizuli, to enter/pass Agdam to the right. That way you can see it much better from the car and potentially get better photos. Originally, I was meant to have an English-speaking local guide to accompany me on the tour. But when I got to Stepanakert I was told that she had just got married and thus wasn't available for my tour – good for her, but unfortunate for me. On the other hand, it made the trip – without guiding – a lot cheaper. Still, it would probably have been better with a guide. As for the costs, then: it will be a matter of negotiation. With guide and driver for a full day I was originally quoted 70,000 AMD – but in the end, without guide, it was significantly less (I think only 20,000 or so, but can't remember exactly). If you can find a driver yourself and haggle you may even get it for less.
Time required: the drive there and back wouldn't take too long, maybe half an hour each way, but depending on how far into the ghost town you can proceed and how much time you may want to, or are allowed to, spend there, it can be a couple of hours. Also: if you get as far as the (outskirts of) Agdam, you probably want to do the drive past the other, smaller ghost towns of the area too, esp. Fizuli south of Agdam. That would make it at least a half-day round trip.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Nagorno-Karabakh
– the most obvious combination was to not just go to Ağdam and back (from/to Stepanakert
), but to extend the excursion to take in more of the area out east and drive along the plain below the foothills of the Karabakh mountains. However, this involved more driving through parts of the "buffer zone", i.e. the Armenian-military controlled area which a Karabakh visa did not officially cover. Towards the south-easternmost part of the route, close to the border with Iran, you'll pass through the small town of Fizuli. Just like Agdam, this former Azeri provincial capital was lost to Armenia in the Karabakh war and remains under Armenian military control. It too is a ruined ghost town – though not on the same scale as Agdam. In addition, all around the area you'll see plenty of similarly abandoned settlements that are even smaller still, along with ruins of completely isolated former farms. There are also forlorn, crumbling Soviet (ex-)monuments as well as rusting skeletons of buses and other vehicles by the roadside. All this adds to the eerie atmosphere of an empty, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Here and there, however, there are also pockets of life – and fields that farmers work in (even growing wine again). And inside Karabakh territory proper there are little market towns such as Martuni, which have regained an air of rural normality; quiet and isolated, but without any real signs of the recent war.
- Agdam 01a
- Agdam 01b - old muslim cemetery near Agdam
- Agdam 02 - ghost town
- Agdam 03 - ruin
- Agdam 04 - severe damage
- Agdam 05 - minarets
- Agdam 06 - mosque
- Agdam 07 - mosque with twin minarets
- Agdam 08 - crumbling
- Agdam 09 - forlorn monument
- Agdam 10 - ex-railway bridge
- Agdam 11 - crumbling monument
- Agdam 12 - empty streets in the buffer zone
- Agdam 13 - deserted settlement
- Agdam 14 - near Fizuli
- Agdam 15 - scrap in old stadium
- Agdam 16 - wrecks by the roadside
- Agdam 17 - from days gone by
- Agdam 18 - highway sign