Dispatch

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."
The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

SHUSHA, Nagorno-Karabakh—Above a valley carpeted with dense pine forest, the rocky cliff that leads to the town of Shusha is riddled with scars left by the impact of thousands of bullets. It is so pockmarked that the damage looks like residue left by heavy summer rain—it is here that last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war was won. 

The hilltop town, the showpiece of Azerbaijan’s victory, was the site of one of the last and bloodiest battles of the brutal six-week war with Armenia, which left more than 6,000 people dead across the two sides. Some 2,000 are thought to have died here in just two days of fighting, and smashed windows and war-damaged walls still line the empty streets. Yet today, nearly a year after the end of the war, Azerbaijan is bent on turning Shusha into a tourist resort.

The immediate area has been cleared of ordnance, and transport links from Azerbaijan are being built at breakneck speed. In places where Armenian volunteers in fatigues huddled to refuel against the cold during the fighting last year, Azerbaijani laborers in reflective vests now gather to take smoke breaks. The enclave’s first airport was formally inaugurated this week in the district of Fuzuli, and over the last 10 months, a 60-mile “Victory Road” has been built connecting Fuzuli to Shusha. Two hotels have also been renovated, and work on a new rail line began this month, even though Shusha is still only accessible with government permission.

SHUSHA, Nagorno-Karabakh—Above a valley carpeted with dense pine forest, the rocky cliff that leads to the town of Shusha is riddled with scars left by the impact of thousands of bullets. It is so pockmarked that the damage looks like residue left by heavy summer rain—it is here that last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war was won. 

The hilltop town, the showpiece of Azerbaijan’s victory, was the site of one of the last and bloodiest battles of the brutal six-week war with Armenia, which left more than 6,000 people dead across the two sides. Some 2,000 are thought to have died here in just two days of fighting, and smashed windows and war-damaged walls still line the empty streets. Yet today, nearly a year after the end of the war, Azerbaijan is bent on turning Shusha into a tourist resort.

The immediate area has been cleared of ordnance, and transport links from Azerbaijan are being built at breakneck speed. In places where Armenian volunteers in fatigues huddled to refuel against the cold during the fighting last year, Azerbaijani laborers in reflective vests now gather to take smoke breaks. The enclave’s first airport was formally inaugurated this week in the district of Fuzuli, and over the last 10 months, a 60-mile “Victory Road” has been built connecting Fuzuli to Shusha. Two hotels have also been renovated, and work on a new rail line began this month, even though Shusha is still only accessible with government permission.

Shusha—known as Shushi to Armenians—is thought of as the beating heart of Karabakh, itself part of an enclave long disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. A natural fortress surrounded by sheer cliffs, the town has strategic significance: Overlooking the vital city of Stepanakert, Shusha is held by both sides to be the key to Karabakh. The city’s fall in the last war allowed Azerbaijani troops to march into the outskirts of Stepanakert; Armenia almost immediately agreed to peace terms. 

Young Azerbaijanis who lost their fathers in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war scrawl their names on the walls of a bombed-out residential building in Shusha, Azerbaijan, on Sept. 26. For many of them, this commemoration trip to Shusha is the first time they have seen their homeland—the area was under Armenian control since the first war in the 1990s.

Young Azerbaijanis who lost their fathers in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war scrawl their names on the walls of a bombed-out residential building in Shusha on Sept. 26. For many of them, this commemoration trip to Shusha is the first time they have seen their homeland—the area was under Armenian control since the first war in the 1990s.

Pogroms in the 1920s cleared Shusha of most of its Armenian population, until the town was retaken by Armenia in the 1990s war—a big victory, since Shusha had housed rockets that rained down on Stepanakert in a six-month siege. But it’s more than a fortress. It has been home to poets and musicians of both ethnicities since it was established by a Turkic Persian khan in the 18th century. In May, Azerbaijan declared Shusha its cultural capital.

Shusha was previously a resort in Soviet times. But the new development is so close to Armenian territory that it almost feels like an open instigation. Shusha’s transformation from battlefield to tourist playground is part of Azerbaijan’s plan to cement its hold—irreversibly, it hopes—over territories it wrested from Armenia in last year’s war. Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions—all of which are recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan—had been under Armenian control since the first Karabakh war in the early 1990s. While much of the enclave itself is still administered by ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijan aims to reintegrate the areas it reclaimed by connecting them to its power grid and road network, making the gains irreversible. 

A couple looks at the guns displayed in the Military Trophies Park in Baku, Azerbaijain, on Sept. 23. The park glorifies Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, presenting tanks and weapons from the conflict.

A couple looks at the guns displayed in the Military Trophies Park in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Sept. 23. The park glorifies Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, presenting tanks and weapons from the conflict.

A woman sits in the Military Trophies Park in Baku on Sept. 23.

A woman sits in the Military Trophies Park in Baku on Sept. 23.

Armenia has had to accept that the city is lost with little chance of getting it back, said Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Center, a think tank in Yerevan. But plans to turn it into a tourist resort, he said, are seen in Armenia as “gloating.”

“For the Armenian government, the stark postwar reality necessitates a painful yet clear acceptance of the losses, including the city of Shushi,” he said. “As with the acceptance of the Russian-imposed cease-fire that ended the war, for Armenia, there is no alternative and little recourse.”

The project, starting from almost nothing, is a testing ground for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s ambitions. Some of the land lies entirely derelict, scattered with the ruins of the first war, as well as the burned-out remains of the houses Armenians set fire to as they fled last year. Development is being hampered by the presence of landmines and unexploded weaponry, but foreign investment from sources such as the gas giant BP—particularly active in the region—is expected to help. 

A sign warns about mines Fuzuli, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, on Sept. 25. Military experts from both Azerbaijan and Armenia say the ground in those areas is covered with "carpets of land mines" left behind in the first war in the area in 1993.

A sign warns about mines near Fuzuli on Sept. 25. Military experts from both Azerbaijan and Armenia say the ground in those areas is covered with “carpets of land mines” left behind in the first war in the area in 1993.

According to Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, some of the 750,000 Azerbaijanis displaced from Karabakh in the first war will be able to start returning next year. It might take a little longer to resettle residents in Shusha. Aydin Karimov, Aliyev’s representative to Shusha, said it could take a year and a half for residential buildings to be ready to receive returning residents, but tourists are expected to arrive as early as next year. 

“Our current plan is to rebuild infrastructure such as power supplies, but we are thinking about development in terms of giving opportunities for Shusha’s residents. We have prioritized setting up a school and a hospital,” he said. The tourist development, he hopes, will serve as an economic anchor for a region that otherwise lives off agriculture and remittances. 

“We began by working with what we have so we can receive tourists—when you receive tourists, then you need people to serve them. It means the future residents will have plenty of work opportunities,” Karimov said.

Green cladding surrounds the Ghazanchetsots, an Armenian Apostolic cathedral damaged in the war, during construction on the building in Shusha on Sept. 25.

Green cladding surrounds Ghazanchetsots, an Armenian Apostolic cathedral damaged in the war, during construction on the building in Shusha on Sept. 25.

The changes in Shusha are brought home most clearly by the fate of Holy Savior Cathedral, also known as Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which is very significant to Armenians. During the war, Azerbaijani shells partially collapsed the cathedral’s roof. Now, it is wrapped in green cladding, with the crucifixes removed from the entrance and the dome. Baku plans to scrap the last three decades of Armenian restoration work and rebuild Holy Savior using what it calls “original” plans for the building. Few things bring the changes in the area into sharper focus than the Muslim call to prayer echoing through streets that for three decades were exclusively inhabited by Christians.

The rejuvenation of Shusha has been welcomed across Azerbaijan, where nationalism is a tonic. But no one is happier than the long-term displaced. Before the first war, the town had 16,000 residents, and many have been living in temporary accommodation for decades since fleeing. Now they are trickling back.

Ersham’s father died on the day Armenian forces took Shusha in 1992. (Ersham, 32, asked not to be identified by his last name.) He and the rest of the family fled, ending up in Baku in recent years, and had not been back since—until a recent visit to plant a memorial tree for his father. 

“Baku is nice, but nothing is as important to me as Shusha. To know it is with our people gives me great comfort,” Ersham said on the sidelines of the planting ceremony. 

“We have waited long years to return. These are not just our damaged home—sthey are our childhoods and our memories.”

Update, Oct. 29, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify Azerbaijan’s plans for the Holy Savior Cathedral.

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?