top of page

The Beautiful Potential of Abandoned Villages in Armenia

Leaving villages to search for opportunities in big cities has been a trend for decades now. What if we could reverse it?

An old monastery

Photo by Anna Grigoryan

by Alessandro Ramazzotti

8 de nov de 2023

The South Caucasus is a region of great diversity and unity at the same time, thanks to the different cultures that mixed over the centuries in this relatively small part of the world. Religions, beliefs, clothes, culinary traditions, and behavioral practices are at the same time very similar and proudly upheld by local populations. The three South Caucasian countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan share a similar history, but at the same time, the remoteness of the valleys and peaks allowed them to keep a strong attachment to their own identity.

Armenia and Azerbaijan: an old, ongoing hostility

Unfortunately, because of the pride that these differences bring and the will to keep their unicity intact – combined with some ill-planned policies of the USSR – Armenia and Azerbaijan are today like a cat and a dog: every opportunity is good to criticize, challenge, and in the worst cases use violence against the other.

Armenians feel their land has been deprived of its territories for centuries, a process that they see as ongoing and which they fear will never stop until Armenia is definitely deleted by the maps. Azerbaijani, on the other side, feel that they are entitled to more and more territories because the ethnic groups that populate them are closer to their culture.

This is not the venue to decide who is right and who is wrong. Suffice it to say that this old-rooted, ongoing hostility left some scars in both countries. In Armenia, one of these is represented by the thousands of houses – entire villages! – that were once inhabited by Azerbaijani people and are now abandoned, with no chance of being restored in the near future.

On both sides, there are so many biases that Armenians refrain from buying houses that were built by Azerbaijanis because they consider them bad. “Look how beautiful and strong it is now that I renovated it,” said an old lady in Pokr Ayrum, a village we recently visited, pointing at her house. In Pokr Ayrum, out of about 100 houses, only 20 are currently inhabited.

When we asked her why Azerbaijani left the place, she answered “Because of jobs in the oil sector in Baku, of course!”. Although we could not ascertain the validity of her claim, I am quite sure that one of the reasons, if not the main, was the hostility that ethnic Azerbaijani were facing in Armenian territory.

Remote villages in the Caucasus and elsewhere

The South Caucasus is a mountainous region, where many remote settlements are either not, or badly connected to big cities. Work opportunities are indeed scarce, and traditional ways of life are fading away due to big flows of emigration.

When we were in Pokr Ayrum, we noticed that many of the abandoned houses were used by local shepherds to keep their sheep or the hay to feed them. Children were accompanying the flocks to graze, with a speaker playing Caucasian beats.

Pokr Ayrum is one of them, but Armenia is full of such villages, which are regrettably ignored by the central government, and not adequately developed. Proper infrastructure and access to services are missing, leaving youth not many choices apart from moving to bigger cities in search of better jobs. This exodus is terrifying. When I was there, I thought that the same was happening in Italy, where remote villages are also depopulating. On the other hand, big cities are quickly becoming overcrowded, with a consequent decrease in life standards and augmented pressure on public services and infrastructure.

The Italian government came up with an initiative that became famous all over the world, that consisted in selling houses in depopulated villages for 1 euro. It worked out pretty well, as many people – especially remote workers – decided to move away from more and more unlivable cities and experience the quiet village life again.

I am sure that in Armenia, such an initiative would work great too!

Interior of a monastery all in stone

Abandoned houses near Green Camp | Photo by Alessandro Ramazzotti

Problems and opportunities: depopulation and alternative lifestyles

Young people in Western countries are increasingly suffering the stressful rhythms of cities, where competition, speed, and judgments put loads of stress on people in search of their path. During our many travels, we met many youths who had the same dream: to create their own community where to try and live a sustainable, slow lifestyle.

An Armenian friend introduced us to some friends of his, and we spent a pleasant evening discussing the possibility of getting a house together in one of these remote, abandoned Armenian villages. One girl mentioned that near Vanadzor itself there are many such places. One of them is Halavar, an old Azerbaijani settlement that is now almost fully abandoned.

In these villages, the prices to buy a house are incredibly low, due to people’s prejudices against Azerbaijani houses and to the fact that the demand is almost inexistent. This is definitely an opportunity from one point of view. For those youth who believe alternative lifestyles are possible, abandoned Armenian villages could definitely be a suitable choice.

Monastery with mountains and sky in the background

Cottages and Lunch at Green Camp | Photo by Alessandro Ramazzotti

In Pokr Ayrum, we visited Green Camp, a social enterprise launched in 2021 by a local NGO that works to promote the socio-economic development of local communities. In the region, unfortunately, mining is the main activity that provides well-paying jobs. However, it is also the main activity that pollutes the rivers and the air of these once pristine lands and damages the health of local inhabitants without their full awareness of that.

The NGO that set up Green Camp decided to do so to show that an alternative way of getting an income is possible. Sustainable tourism generates opportunities while at the same time respecting nature.

Needless to say, we also imagined how it would be to start such an activity – or to try and buy a house – in Pokr Ayrum, Halavar, or any other remote village in the Armenian mountains. After all, the landscapes and the surrounding nature are both great; people are kind; and when there is an opportunity calling, why not answer!?

Back to how it was: peace in the Caucasus is possible

I believe that repopulating Armenian villages could be a good opportunity to foster peace in the Caucasus as well, and to develop remote communities that suffer from a lack of services, jobs, and sometimes hope. The influx of people with different ideas could, with time, soften down the aversion that Armenians and Azerbaijanis have for each other.

Cultural diversity is a treasure. Culture should not be a reason for pride, something to be tightly kept away from outsiders’ interference. It should be spread, and displayed cheerfully; it should promote cohesion and fraternity. When this doesn’t happen, we miss an opportunity, an occasion to develop peaceful societies.

To achieve peace in the Caucasus is not impossible, and we all could play a part in that. A first, easy step could be to pay a visit to remote villages and see what they have to offer. They might surprise you!

bottom of page