Ani: mediaeval Armenian capital on Turkey’s eastern edge

On the afternoon of July 15, 2016, the world heritage committee of the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO made a remarkable decision. It approved the remains of the former mediaeval Armenian capital of Ani in Kars province of northeastern Turkey as one of its World Heritage Sites. It was a rare moment when Armenia and Turkey, foes to this day, could see eye-to-eye and there was rejoicing that the site would now be given greater protection.

View of Ani, Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents, in autumn.

But not for the first time in its over millenium-old history, Ani’s timing was cursed. That night, plotters tried to oust the Turkish president from power in a failed military coup, leaving some 250 innocent people dead. The UNESCO meeting in Istanbul was hurriedly wound up, its landmark decision on Ani all but forgotten by the outside world. But the resolution still stands, and few sites in the world can be so deserving — and above all so in need — of the accolade.

Ani in late winter viewed from its castle

I’d wanted to visit Ani all my adult life. The romance of the ruins of a once great city, strung out over a vast site on the bank of the Arpaçay river (Ahuryan River) that marks the border between modern day Turkey and Armenia. I’d spent hours as a teenager leafing through an ancient edition of the Rough Guide to Turkey, planning a visit in my head. Back then, in the 1990s, its position on the border meant even a tourist visit requited a special permit from the military police in Kars city. But such obstacles only added to the allure.

These days, it’s incredibly easy to visit Ani. A two hour flight, one of the longest domestic connections in Turkey, takes you from Istanbul out east to Kars, itself a former Armenian capital. From there, any local taxi driver is more than happy to rumble down the country road towards the ruins where the road ends and eastern Turkey also reaches its culmination. The final village, Ocaklı, is quiet save for a local population of donkeys and geese, the latter a local delicacy in the Kars region. The famous permit is no longer required, you just buy a ticket from the caretaker in his booth and Ani is yours while the taxi driver enjoys a sandwich and tea with the security guards.

View of city walls, Ani.

Ani is still guarded by the imposing mediaeval walls which majestically stretch round the site, concealing the interior from view. Entering through the gate, the stubborn magnificence of Ani becomes clear. Strung across a surprisingly large area are a succession of churches, a mosque and a castle, as well as the ruins of other secular buildings. Armenia stretches out ahead, Turkey behind. No amount of reading or looking at pictures can prepare for the impact of the moment the first image of Ani collides with the retina.

That anything still remains of Ani, even these ruins, seems like an act of historic defiance, even impudence. The city reached its peak back in the 10-11th centuries when it was the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in succession to Kars, boasting a population of some 100,000 and nearly rivalling Constantinople in importance. Its position on the Silk Road boosted it as a trading hub. What is now simply a grassy expanse were once thriving streets, those tumbled down stones once shops and houses.

Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents, overlooking the river and border.

But Ani was then battered by fate, century after century. There was pernicious infighting between the Armenians themselves as the Byzantines loomed in search of local hegemony. The Muslim Seljuks came, then the Mongols with the latter leaving waves of destruction in their wake. Earthquakes added to the destruction of war. By the 13th century, Ani’s time had already passed and was largely unknown to the outside until travellers again brought its attention to the world in the 19th century.

Autumn view of Ani monuments by the river cliffs.

A boon, at least for Ani, came when Russian forces seized control of Kars province and other areas of northeast Turkey for just a few — but critical decades in — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This led to a resurgence of interest in Armenian Ani, led by the remarkable Georgian enthnologist Nikoloz Marr who took part in annual archaeological campaigns at the site. New remnants were uncovered, existing structures given extra protection. A limited mount of tourism even began. Two museums were set up, one in a newly-built structure, the other inside the Seljuk-era mosque. This came to an end with Russia’s defeat in World War I, although Ottoman commander Kâzım Karabekir, one of the key allies of founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is said to have ensured the site was preserved in the fighting. Ani’s future destiny was sealed in the 1921 Treaty of Moscow — later confirmed by the Treaty of Kars — that gave Kars and the surrounding area to Turkey. The Soviet Union long regretted this agreement and Stalin was still making murmurs about the return of Kars in the wake of World War II.

Church of St Gregory and Cathedral, Ani

Ankara’s control of the greatest Armenian archaeological site anywhere in the planet has not been comfortable either for Turkey or Armenia. The two neighbours have no diplomatic relations and the borders are closed. Armenians believe Turkey carried out the first genocide of the 20th century with the mass killings and deportations of their ancestors by Ottoman forces from 1915: Turkey refuses to countenance the use of the term. The seizure by Armenian separatist forces of the Nagorno Karabakh region of Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union added an even more insurmountable obstacle to normalisation. Just the river, flowing in a steep gorge, divides Turkey and Armenia from where Ani is easily, even painfully, visible. Occasionally border guards patrol on vehicles on the Armenian side. The activity on the Turkish side is nowadays very low key and even if guidebooks mention a high military presence, there is no indication of this now. A sign before the castle warns visitors not to cross into a military zone but it seems no more than a rusty relic, and it’s possible to climb the hill for a fantastic view of the whole site. While the hopes fuelled by 2009 reconciliation that normalisation between Turkey and Armenia was within grasp have long since faded, visiting what is after all a Turkish border zone is a surprisingly placid experience.

Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents

I’ve heard people say that Ani is a desolate and mournful site. The ruined buildings battling to survive as nature encroaches can be seen as a symbol of many things, and above all of the tragedy of Armenians in the 20th century, their uprooting from historic homelands in Anatolia. But I see it more as a place of hope as given the brutal blows of history Ani experienced, it’s remarkable anything has survived at all. Surveying the cityscape of Any from the top of the castle, it seems as much a symbol of historical endurance against the odds as much as tragedy.

I love especially the Church of St Gregory of Abughamrents, one of the most perfect single buildings anywhere in Turkey, whose conical dome pops up from almost every single vantage point at Ani, as if to say ‘Ha! Despite everything I’m still here! And will always be!’

Church of St Gregory of Abughamrents.

A steep slope goes down to the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents — with intricate stone carvings and frescoes on its exterior. Nothing prepares for the glory of the interior, with seemingly every inch of the wall covered in gorgeous frescoes whose colour and vivacity have survived untouched. The Church perches on the edge of the gorge. Below is the river and the other side Armenia. Even more precarious is the tiny but perfectly formed Convent of the Virgins which seems to balance magically on a rocky outcrop but seems way too close to the border/river to make approaching desirable.

Painted fresco, Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents, Ani

More desolate is the Cathedral where no paintings have survived and the empty shell does feel mournfully empty. The Church of the Redeemer is like something from a film set, the well-preserved front facing exterior hiding the fact that absolutely nothing lies behind, the back end obliterated by a lightning strike, The Menûçihr Camii mosque — the one Muslim building in Ani — is memorably distinctive with its early minaret still standing and large windows opening out onto the gorge.

Menûçihr Camii, with cathedral and Church of the Redeemer in background.

Despite the political tensions Armenia, the Turkish locals take immense pride in the site and dream of the day that the border is finally opened and Armenian tourists will finally be able to easily visit. Like Mount Ararat — known as Ağrı Dağı in Turkish — Ani is a place special to Armenians clearly visible from their country but on the other side of the border and wholly inaccessible. It’s up to the individual visitor to decide what this site — for many simply the single most evocative archaeological attraction in all of Turkey — symbolises. Looking at the ruined buildings, the bare fields that once hosted a thriving city it is hard to escape thoughts of the historical tragedy that befell Armenians in the last century. But Ani can also be a place of hope that can unite people by showing that the past is shared and the future can be secured through mutual respect and honesty about history.

Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents

Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.