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Last Days for Azerbaijan's 'Albanians'

TOL slide show: High up in the Caucasus, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited settlements may be destined to disappear.

by Abbas Atilay 28 September 2011

KHINALUG, Azerbaijan | With the peaks of the Greater Caucasus providing a spectacular backdrop and a history stretching back 5,000 years, it's little wonder Khinalug has become a tourist destination. But while ethnographers and adventure travelers have come to prize this remote mountain village in northeastern Azerbaijan, daily life in Khinalug seems to be slowly dying out.



Situated at an elevation of 2,300 meters (7,546 feet) among precipitous cliffs about 225 kilometers (140 miles) north of Baku, this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth, with a lineage descending from the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania. Today about 1,800 people live in Khinalug (though fewer than half stay year-round), about a tenth of the number 20 years ago.


Both isolation and assimilation have played a part in the decline. Living standards have fallen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sending thousands of Ketish – as the village and its descendents are called in their own tongue – to cities to find work, cutting ties to their old culture and traditions. Of the estimated 30,000 ethnic Ketish in Azerbaijan, only about 5,000 still speak the language.


For those who stay, breeding sheep and cattle are about the only industry. The rocky surroundings preclude farming. The village has not been plugged into the national power grid and has no pharmacy or hospital; people who get ill are taken to the nearest hospital, 57 kilometers away in the regional capital of Quba, via dangerous mountain routes. Already remote from other communities in the region, Khinalug is virtually cut off in winter, when the village is buried in snow and temperatures plunge to -20º C (-4º F). More than half the population leaves in November, trekking 150 kilometers with their livestock to wait in the lowlands for spring.


The government has taken steps to invest in Khinalug, with an eye toward developing commercial and tourism prospects as well as preserving the village. A new school was built in 2009, with dormitories so students can board and continue their classes during winter when their families are in the lowlands. (Education for girls remains a problem, as per custom parents do not leave them unattended at the school.) Khinalug families are getting training on running guest houses and providing other visitor services. There is also a new paved road to Quba, built under a 2006 decree from President Ilham Aliyev. But it is narrow, dangerous in winter, and, according to local media accounts, prone to damaging landslides in heavy rain.


According a local nongovernmental organization that promotes tourism in Khinalug, there are about 370 remaining households here. Even with the recent investment, villagers say that each year about a half-dozen more families depart for good, leaving behind abandoned flat-stone dwellings. In a few generations, one of Azerbaijan's most historic places might be an ecotourism resort or an open-air museum, but it seems less and less likely it will be anyone's home.


Abbas Atilay is a correspondent in Baku for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service.
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