Cycling a High Plateau
Visiting a City of Ghosts - Ani
The old Armenian city of Ani is not on our way precisely. In fact, it is so far off the beaten tourist track ın Turkey that it receives few visitors. A shame since, with more visitors, more excavation and restoration of the site may happen. Ani in its heyday in the 9th and 10th centuries rivalled Constantinople and Baghdad in importance and was home to around 100 000 people.
There has been a settlement here for millenia but Ani began to increase in importance around the fıfth century A.D. due to its location on an east-west trade route. Then in 961 Kıng Ashot III of the Armenian Bagratid dynasty moved his capital from nearby Kars. For three generations Ani experienced great prosperity, but in 1045 the Byzantines annexed the city as a result of religiously-driven enmity: the Armenian Apostolic Church was deemed heretical by the Christian Orthodox Byzantines. The Byzantines themselves were not doing so well by this stage and the Seljuk Turks easily took Ani from them ın 1064. Although the Armenians were able to regain Ani in the 12th century with the aid of neighbouring Georgia, the Mongols swept through pursuing their usual destructive itinerary in the 13th century. A terrible earthquake in 1319 and changing trade routes sealed Ani's fate: It was abandoned and has been a city of ghosts and rubble for the past 600 years.
It is easy to see why a city prospered on this site. On one side of a plateau, more or less in the form of a triangle, the Arpa Cayi (Arhuran River) has carved a gorge and on two more sides run deep tributaries. The northern side is the only exposed side in need of fortification. Defence looks impregnable although looks are often deceivıng, as in this case! The buildings left standing are churches. Armenians were the first to create a Christian state around 301 A.D. (Kıng Trdat III beat the Roman Emperor Constantine by a few decades), and they were quite fond of Saint Gregory. Three of the remaining churches at Ani were dedicated to this particular saint. It seemed that, before his conversion, Trdat III was not particularly kind to Gregory and tortured him for being Christian.
So, ever since Trdat saw the error of his ways, repented and converted to Christianity, Armenians have been Christian. The Byzantines did not see it this way, considering the Apostolic Church to be heretical, but the Armenians traditionally see themselves as descendants of Noah's grandson, whıch is fair enough: Noah crashed into a mountain on their doorstep after all.
Considering their proximity to Islamic empires, the Armenians have done well negotiating a degree of autonomy, and have usually had access to Ani as well as other churches dotting the nearby landscape. Armenia was a part of Persia, for example, although Russia took Armenia from the Persians ın the 19th century, lost the small country again after the Bolshevic revolution/World War I, regained it after World War II, and then lost it again when the USSR crumbled. The Armenians are now independent but they still appear to rely on Russia to help with hostile neighbours and have a Russian military base inside their borders, at their request. They also retain cordial relations wıth the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Arpa Cayi is now the designated Turko-Armenian border, so Armenians can no longer access Ani. The area down by the gorge is mined, indicating the hostility surrounding this decision. But at least the Turks are not destroying what is left of the citadel: In the nearby Turkish town of Digor, whıch we also visited, four out of five Armenian churches have been destroyed. These churches were built around the 11th century and restored ın 1878, but between 1920 and 1965 explosives and boulders were used to destroy them.
The little that is left of Ani is beautiful. The Armenians are historically renowned for their masonry (Shah Abbas - the Shah who built Esfahan in Iran - rounded up the whole Armenian town of Jolfa and brought them down to work on his new city. There is now a suburb in Esfahan called Jolfa because many of those Armenians subsequently stayed). Armenian churches are made of dark volcanic rock and warm red sandstone. They are well-proportioned, usually with blind arcades, Armenian inscriptions, long rectangular recessed vaults and ornate crosses. The stones are cut extremely straight and are fitted together seamlessly. Domes are also in evidence and there is an interesting mix of curves and the squared edges of so many European churches. Frescos, mainly of saints, adorn inside walls, although these have often vanished, and only vague shadows of human figures wıth halos remain.
Finally, walking around Ani, we think about the fate of cities. Constantinople, a Christian city, was taken by the Ottomans and now thrives as Istanbul. Baghdad is currently taking some hard knocks, but is still nominally ruled by Moslems, though occupied by Judeo-Christians. And Ani? Ani languishes all but forgotten on a windy, treeless but breath-taking plateau.