Among the soft shadows and gentle hills of eastern Turkey lies the medieval city of Ani. For centuries, the city of the Kamsarakan kings faded into obscurity between the ravines and rivers which fortify the site, a victim of the westward shift in the centre of global events. Today, however, the architectural legacies of the culture, commerce and religion of what was once one of world’s largest cities are slowly re-emerging against a backdrop of dispute and neglect.
Sprawled over a plateau at the convergence of the Akhurian river and Tsalkotsajour valley, Ani functions as one of the most visually eclectic monuments to civilisation. Behind the huge blocks of the 10th century double walls lies a rich mosaic of churches, mosques and fire temples interspersed with houses, palaces, baths, commercial houses, workshops and caravanserais for the envoys, missionaries and traders who would travel along this key artery of the Silk Roads. Such variety bears witness to the Christian, Islamic and, now, Turkish governments who have held stewardship over this cultural entrepôt since its zenith during the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia a thousand years ago.
The approach to Ani frames the experience of the ruins. Dislocated from the population centres and commercial neurones of modern Turkey, this fortress city is perched against the modern Armenia border. After a 40-minute drive east of the regional capital Kars, the agricultural settlements of eastern Turkey form a sharp contrast against the glass and steel of President Erdoğan’s urban projects. The tarmac road surface serves as one of a scant few reminders that the sparse landscape and simple lifestyle of the province’s millennia old pastoral communities intermingle with the mechanisms of the modern nation state.
A small village, yet to take full advantage of Ani’s commercial potential, sits aside the massive walls. Barely two hundred people now live in its shadow, but the extension of ruins beyond the walls points to a time when its inhabitants would have sprawled outwards in a diverse social milieu.
Moving beneath the stumped towers of the Lion Gate, you can’t help but be intrigued by Ani’s curious status; a city which once was the centre of everything, is now in the middle of nowhere. As remote as Machu Picchu, as architecturally significant as Iran’s Gonbad-e Qabus and as visually impressive as Angkor Wat, the ruins of a civilisation scrape against the vast, open skies and wide views of the Armenian Highlands. Poppy-rich grassland floods through the city like the colours of a Seurat painting, following the contours of the land up to its apex – a Bagratid palace on Citadel Hill which commands a king’s vantage over the surrounding area. From here, the broken walls and towers of churches and mosques serve as impressive gravestones for the remains of Ani’s commercial and residential core.
It’s not only the ruins that stand out but also the dark spots that swallow the steep valley sides. Dug into the soft strata of rock, hundreds of caves dot the area outside the city walls with a scope as astonishing as the city’s terrestrial efforts. Most surprising of all, these caves are inhabited. Flocks of firm-footed sheep can be seen wandering through these, navigating the sharp descents, the wire-mesh fences and the scree slopes with remarkable dexterity. While the sheep make it look easy, reaching these caves is an undertaking in and of itself. However, the natural beauty of these yawning caverns strikes a sharp and splendid contrast to the domes and ochre shades of the surrounding churches.
Most visually impressive is the Church of Kizkale. The church is perched on a narrow and picturesque outcrop, extending past the vertical cliffs which fold into the Akhurian River below. The past domestic and religious occupations of this promontory, Ani’s very own miniature Masada, is a reminder of the scale of this fortress city and the lives of the tens of thousands who once walked its paths.
Hidden by the slopes leading to the Akhurian is the 13th century Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents. Geometric ornamentations border its decorative arches, animals carved into the surfaces on either side of the keystones. While at first glance, it appears a quintessential Middle-Eastern church, its architectural features are vaguely reminiscent of Gothic European cathedrals, potentially inspiring a style half a world away. The very presence of such a building, in all its vertical grandeur, points to the greater religious tolerance following the end of the Muslim Shaddadid Dynasty.
In a moving illustration of the inter-regional interaction and connectivity which marked bygone eras, the broken bridge over the Akhurian River casts its shadow from two stone abutments – all that remain standing on either side of the river’s 30-metre span. These can be accessed by the remains of a covered walkway winding down to the now closed border between Turkey and Armenia.
On the ravine’s edge above, the octagonal minaret of the Mosque of Minuchir was juxtaposed with a more recent reminder of the external threats which Ani has faced. The rusty steel latticing of an Armenian guard tower points to the past decades when this site was a forbidden military zone. Barriers of rubble, once millennia-old buildings, still bear the pockmarks of bullet holes from this historic site’s time as an army training ground. It was unfortunate that amid such ambiguity my phone switched country zone pinging the automated message, ‘Welcome to ARMENIA’. The irony of so simply demarcating this disputed border while standing within Turkish territory was not lost.
If art functions as an enduring record of self-expression for past generations, their voices are under serious threat. Despite surviving, in the face of ardent Turkish nationalism – the 1921 order to wipe Ani ‘off the face of the Earth’ – it is a city which features more recent scars of neglect and mismanagement. The whitewashed walls of the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents points to possible state-sponsored damage in the 1990s in order to remove visible evidence of an Armenian population in the Kars region.
The church has also had its sepulchre floor smashed by the activities of treasure hunters taking advantage of the inadequate protection of the site. Frequent earthquakes have ravaged the region causing the collapse of half a dozen churches at Ani in the prior century, while petty vandalism is scarring their remains.
In recognition that the importance of this site goes beyond establishing an oppositional collective identity, Turkey finally nominated Ani for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015. Its rapid ascension to the status of an inscribed UNESCO World Heritage site is testament to its international significance and an enhanced ability to provide the resources and funding necessary to protect the quality and integrity of Ani.
Recently erected internal scaffolding is helping to support the stalactitic columns and rounded dome in the remaining half of the Church of the Redeemer, at risk of imminent collapse. In the Cathedral of Ani, substantial work is underway to help preserve the polychrome masonry of the western facade and maintain a building of global architectural importance.
As we departed, a lonely souvenir wagon closed its shutters for the evening. Opposite, two local boys raced around the empty car park of a brand new multi-story tourist facility, ready to open. In a land of subtle gradations and cultural synthesis, it seems that this realisation of the economic dividends that can be gained from cultural heritage tourism may, ultimately, be what helps this ancient ghost city to remain standing a little while longer.
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