Rediscovering Armenia Guidebook- Artsakh
Thanks to Brady for his advise on this section, as well as Samvel Karapetian, Patrick, and Nigol for their assistance.
Karabakh is an area of <A HREF=armo5_nk-landscapes.html>beautiful green rolling hills, pastures, farmland and forests</A>. The war that was fought over it a decade ago is still apparent in many places, and the effort to rebuild has been intense. The capital city of Stepanakert, really just a town, bears virtually no scars after intensive rebuilding efforts. The people are very proud, and their dialect very thick. The road from Armenia to Stepanakert is brand new and was funded by the Armenian diaspora. The interior roads are very poor, and it is almost always faster to go in a circle on the Stepanakert-Aghdam-Mardakert-Dadivank road and the Stepanakert-Aghdam-Martuni-Hadrut road rather than go straight - no matter what the maps show. A new interior highway is being built by the <A HREF=http://www.himnadram.org/>Armenia Fund</A> that should make traveling much faster and smoother, but completion is years away. It is perfectly safe to visit Karabakh, and see the main sites. Staying away from the front lines and sticking to the paths often traveled is not difficult and will avert unnecessary risk. The best rule of thumb is to not venture east of the Martuni-Aghdam-Mardakert Road, and again, stay on the roads that are more traveled. The occasional <A HREF=armo5_nk-landscapes.html>blown out tank</A> or burnt out village is common in Karabakh, leftovers of the war that are incredible for the average western tourist, but are not interesting to locals except for salvage/recycling purposes.
The de-facto independent government of Karabakh requires citizens of non-CIS countries to obtain a visa at the Karabakh Representative Office (GET NEW INFO). If you do not have one at the border post you will usually be asked to obtain one upon your arrival in Stepanakert. Cost is $25 for 2 weeks. If you may visit Azerbaijan using the same passport in the future, ask that the Karabakh visa not be attached to your passport, for you will be forbidden entry to Azerbaijan if they see a Karabakh visa.
The people of Karabakh emerged from a slow fusion of Armenians and Caucasian Albanians. By the 7th century A.D. they had formed an Armenian Principality known as Artsakh. The Arabs conquered the area in the 8th century, followed by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century and Mongol/Tatar's in the 13-15th centuries. There was some settlement by Turkic Tartars in the lowlands of the region, which restricted the Armenians mostly to the highlands. This Turkic population was boosted by the arrival of Ottoman forces, and rule went back and forth between Persian tributaries and the Ottoman Empire, though the Armenians usually had some kind of autonomy or self-rule until the 1805 annexation by Russia. Ethnic fighting broke out in the region one hundred years later between Armenians and the Tatars. A Tsarist census of Karabakh and its outlying lowlands in 1917 showed that 72% of the greater Karabakh population was Armenian (the borders of Karabakh at the time included much of the surrounding areas as well). After a great deal of post WWI conflict, massacres, and diplomacy including Britain, Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, the Soviet Union was formed and handed a redrawn Karabakh, now completely detached from Armenia, as well as Nakhichevan, with its 50% Armenian population, to Azerbaijan. This was presumably decided by Russia to get on Turkeys good side, since Azerbaijan is a Turkic, Muslim country that Turkey has an interest in. In 1935, then almost continually beginning in 1960 there were occasional petitions, protests, and appeals until the massive protests broke out in 1988. These unprecedented demonstrations of up to 1 million people in Yerevan were the first such tests of Glasnost and Perestroika, which eventually led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the Karabakh war. The Karabakh region first expressed its desire for unification with Armenia, and then eventually fought for outright independence. The fighting began after pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait and Baku, and then spread into full-scale combat. The fighting went back and forth a great deal until May 9, 1994, which marked the capture of Shushi. A cease-fire was established soon after, although no peace treaty has been signed. The war left an estimated 30,000 dead, Shahumyan Region in the hands of Azerbaijan, and all the land W of Karabakh until Armenia, as well as all the land S until Iran under the control of Karabakh. (History was condensed from "The Karabakh File", a 1988 Zoryan Institute publication.)
This is how the vast majority of visitors arrive in Karabakh. The smooth new highway, from Goris to Stepanakert passes through the Lachin corridor. You can enter the corridor until you reach a small round check post, where you must stop and register. Just after the bridge and before the first post, if you turn onto the road going up the Aghavnaget (Zabukhchay) River, you can visit the 5th century Tsitsernavank* =45= (39 38.60n x 046 24.52e). There is only one road going straight up the river for about 30-45 minutes directly to the monastery, which appears on your left. Tsitsernavank is currently seeing some restoration and excavation. Named either for the nearby swallows or else for a piece of the little finger of the Apostle Peter which was supposed to have been kept here. The long, narrow, three-nave basilica is thought to date from as early as the 5th c., with a small bell-tower added in late medieval times. Continuing about 2km further north along the Aghavnaget River, lies the village of Gharaghshlagh, above which to your right, about 1km NE of the village is a nameless cave church now known as Jhayrapor Yegeghetsi, consisting of a big unornamented entrance, and two windows. Inside you enter a rectangular church with a nook, and steps leading up the altar. It is all carved from the rock, and unornamented. Less than two more km up the Aghavnaget River (2km SE of Merik) is yet another monastery on an outcropping of rock on across the river to your left. The small XIII century Mknatami Khach Monastery has some nice ornamentation. Beyond, approx. 2km up the river, and 2 km east of the riverbank lay the ruins of Varazgom Church, of the IX-XI cent. (Although I am uncertain about the exact location, so asking locals is worthwhile.) The top of the dome has fallen in, but a large part of the church still stands. This church is the only known example in Armenian architecture of a double altar on the eastern side, in addition to a double altar on the northern side.
Back on the main Goris-Stepanakert highway, after passing the check post, the road winds through the town of Lachin, now renamed Berdzor. The town is being resettled, and has a brand new church, just off the main highway, with traditional Armenian architecture. From Lachin the road continues to wind its way into Karabakh proper, on its way to Shushi.
Shushi and Environs
The approach to Shushi is marked by a hill that is topped with a massive, long rock. It is on this rock that Shushi is built, and below it that the village Karintak ("Below the Rock") is located. Just past the electricity substation with the ArmeniaFund sign, you should make a sharp right, almost turning all the way around, to begin the 20 minute descent to Karintak. Since Shushi was just above this village, and was the last Azeri stronghold to be captured, this village saw a great deal of destruction during the war. Many villagers died, and most of the town was rebuilt since the war ended. The old town square is pretty well preserved, and shows some of the traditional pre-Soviet architecture of the region. There is a plain village church that was restored by Land and Culture Organization volunteers in 1999-2000, as well as beautiful scenery, hikes, a stream, and friendly villagers. The stream has some swimming holes and a mossy waterfall (one hour hike downstream) and the whole area is great for camping. The massive vertical rock above Karintak (below Shushi) seems perfect for rock-climbers. There are some trails up to Shushi that will get you there in under an hours hike.
Shushi* =65= (39 45.66n x 046 45.33e), the long-time cultural capital of the area, can be entered by either driving up the road that ascends from the main highway just after the Karintak turnoff (this road is in poor condition), or by continuing past the old city walls and gate to the traffic "triangle" at which you should turn right. Shushi saw a lot of destruction and looting after its capture, and now is split between burnt out homes, and restored homes in which the Armenians reside. It was one of the few mixed Armenian and Azeri towns in Karabakh before the war. The town has a large and beautiful white stone Ghazanchetsots Cathedral*, built from 1868-1887 and recently restored, as well as the smaller Kanach Jham (Green Church), which also saw post-war restoration. This is the religious center of Karabakh, with the Archbishop residing across the street from the Cathedral. Along with the two churches are at least two mosques. Although these have been vandalized, they have otherwise been preserved, and present a great opportunity to climb the minarets for a birds-eye-view of town. Above the town, near the cemetery is access to the sheer rock that Shushi is built atop. This spot provides sweeping views of the lower Karintak river valley, and the opposite mountains equally impressive stone cliffs. There is nice architecture throughout Shushi, and around it in the form of an old city wall. Shushi now has nice accomodations (see http://www.shoushihotel.com for details)
Askeran and Environs (Stepanakert)
Stepanakert (Named after Stepan Shahumian, leader of the 26 Baku Commissars) is the capital of this small country, which is reflected in its small size. There is not much to see or do here, but it makes a good base for day trips with its central location and choice of hotels. There is a small museum, all