Agdam – A Phoenix Preparing to Rise from the Flames
Fans of ‘dark tourism’ – the idea of visiting places linked to horror or destruction – might have heard of Agdam, Azerbaijan, which has been dubbed the ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus.’ The city, with a former population of around 60,000, was essentially abandoned in 1993 when Azerbaijani residents were ethnically cleansed by occupying Armenians. The buildings were stripped of anything useful and then left to rot as the ‘world’s largest ghost town.’
In late 2020, Azerbaijan regained the territory as part of the 44-day 2nd Karabakh War. Since then, the military has been handed over to an army of de-miners, planners, engineers and logistics experts to bring the city back to life. As Stephanie Lazerte discovered in a recent visit to the site for The Caspian Post, it is a massive undertaking.
As yet, the scene that greets a visitor remains one of an apocalyptic nightmare. Stunted ruins of old houses and civic buildings still dominate the cityscape as far as the eye can see. We visited with photos from the late 1980s and early 1990s and tried to match those images of peaceable civic normality with the crumbling rubble that one sees today. It’s a movingly tragic comparison.
We visited a cemetery where the bodies of those killed earlier in the 1st Karabakh War had been buried, only to have their graves despoiled a year or two later when Agdam too fell to Armenian forces. As much as possible, grave markers have since been re-erected, but the uneven ground evidences the macabre reports of earlier grave-robbing.
We found similarly sorry sights at the İmarət Qərvənd Cemetery, the last resting place of many of the leading figures of the Karabakh Khanate.
Pre-conflict, the Ibrahim Khalil Khan mausoleum and the Natavan bust-column grave marker
While the octagonal tomb tower of Panah-Ali Khan still appeared structurally complete, that of Ibrahim Khalil Khan had partially collapsed.
Besides that, the statue-monument to the celebrated Azerbaijani ‘princess-poet’ Khurshidbanu Natavan had been toppled and left in shattered pieces, the bust nowhere to be found. Tomb raiders had burrowed beneath and removed any relics, including all of Natavan’s bones, in another heartless act of further desecration.
At the back of the graveyard lies the Panah Ali Palace, from which the graveyard takes its name - İmarət means grand villa and this residence was the first taken up by the khan in 1738 when returning from service to Persian ruler Nadir Shah. During the period of occupation, the site was used as a stable. Although today it’s only a shell, the building’s entrance and domed reception room remain substantially intact.
Directly outside, a collection of ancient grave markers have been gathered together, including tombstones with Arabic script, a couple of very eroded stone rams, and one mysterious carving with twin ‘hand-prints’ and a roughly hewn ‘head’ that looks anthropomorphic in the fashion of Kameny Baba statues found from the Altai to Ukraine.
We made our way to what was once the football stands of Karabakh’s Agdam team, who, as Qarabağ FK, have been playing as a refugee ‘team without a home’ since the cup finals of 1993.
These days it’s hard to make out where the pitch was – the site is just a scrubby area with a junkyard of rusting old car chassis. The city plans to build a new “Imaret Stadium,” though this time it won’t be next to the royal cemetery of the same name.
Of hundreds of shattered ruins, few were more poignant in their sorry state of destruction than the old theatre – once set in the heart of a vibrant urban centre. City planners propose keeping the skeleton of the theatre and some other surrounding ruins in their demolished state as a museum-ized statement of remembrance. However, once demining is complete, most of the rest will be swept away as a whole new city rises from the ashes.
So far, it appears that progress is primarily in the infrastructure and planning phases, with a smooth highway bringing us into town from Agjabedi and several detailed map plans on display. It must be an exciting prospect for a town planner to have such a vast urban canvas to work with, largely from scratch.
The road layout has been carefully designed as a pair of concentric loops accessed by a spoke-system of six major arteries to avoid future traffic bottlenecks once the population returns. A tram system is planned to provide transportation on key loops while also connecting to the train station.
Work has already begun on the industrial zone, intended to be the economic engine of the town's rebirth and whose completion is a priority – to ensure that jobs are available once the population begins to return.
A workers’ “food shop” and bank machine at the industrial park site.
As yet, there has been little attempt to build houses, and those working on laying the foundations of the future factories live in quite swanky pre-fabricated container-box units serviced by a convenience store, hardware store, medical station, ATMs and even a barbershop.
There is also a comfortably designed new residential area for government officials and administrators that comes complete with a tennis/volleyball court, fitness centre, office building and a small park.
The idea of making Agdam as ecologically sensitive as possible is already evidenced in park benches with built-in solar panels and USB ports so that you can charge your phone ‘naturally.’ Street lamps also run on solar power in both the industrial park and the administrative area.
For now, the complete rebuilding of Agdam still has a long way to go, but reconstruction projects are accelerating. If you want to see the ‘Hiroshima of the Caucasus’ in all its war-trashed horror, you’ll need to hurry. Within a few years, this should be a showcase of 21st-century urban design with an eco-friendly sense of place.