Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ani Fades Away in the No Man's Land between Turkey and Armenia

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
We pass by Ocakli, the last Turkish village before the border with Armenia. The mythical Armenian capital Ani, which at the end of the ninth century outshined Constantinople, Cairo, and Baghdad with its splendour, lies somewhere before us. Chronicles called it "City of 1,001 Churches" and a replica of Istanbul’s Saint Sophia used to stand in its centre.

For the time being, however, nothing on the road speaks of grandeur. We are travelling across Turkey's most provincial backwater.

Large, desert-like areas and settlements as if from some prehistoric age alternate along the road on which we are alone.

Ocakli seems to be inhabited exclusively by sheep. We see a group of them observing us from behind a low pen wall. Then we notice that they are engaged in wrecking it by pulling out the straw from the bricks. Judging from their matter-of-fact look, they have been working at it for a long time.

The only person around – leaning on a wall, smoking a cigarette, eyes us with surprise. We slow down to make sure we are on the right path and find out that he speaks French almost without any accent. "I live in Paris," he leisurely waves his hand. "I work for Renault, came to see my parents for the holidays."

This time we get over our shock more quickly than the first time, 120 miles to the south, when a woman wearing salwars and a psychedelically bright headscarf astounded us with her Californian drawl.

We may be the only people on the road for the day. The reason is that the tarmac ends where the country ends too. Ani, one of the least known but most intriguing tourist destinations on the globe, is a mile ahead.

We approach it along the Silk Road. If Marco Polo had not been a fraudster, as an increasing number of historians claim, our car tires are treading the ruts of his horse’s hoofs.

Today, it is impossible to retrace his steps across Asia due to political as well as geographical reasons. One of the obstacles is nearby – the same bridge that the Venetian traveller crossed was detroyed. Centuries ago...

Ani has been in ruins for the last seven centuries. After the First World War, the ancient city’s remains fell into a zone of considerable political tension. Three conflicts of Kemal Atatürk's Turkey – with the Soviet Union, Armenia, and the Kurdish separatists, led to severe travel restrictions being imposed in the course of decades. The Soviets enforced a 700-meter "security zone" into Turkish territory, similar to the one still that’s still in place in southern Lebanon. Nobody was allowed here, including journalists.

The Quarrymen

Ani is one of the symbols of the contemporary Armenian nation just like the Ararat Mountain 150 kilometers to the south. To commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia in 2001, the Armenian government funded the construction of a cathedral in Yerevan. The stones for this cathedral, St. Gregory the Illuminator, came, symbolically, from Ani. Well, from as close as possible: the other bank of the river which is Armenian territory. For this purpose, not far uphill from Marco Polo's bridge, a huge quarry, still functioning today, was built. In a way, the quarry adds to the surrealism of the scenery. The Kamaz trucks and numerous cranes there make incredible noise which the wind blows in waves to the old Armenian capital, now in Turkish territory.
After the disintegration of the USSR things took a more liberal turn, to an extent. Only a year ago, it was more difficult to penetrate into the ancient Armenian capital than to pass the JFK Airport immigration. Tourists were allowed through the castle walls only after coming to blows with Turkish bureaucracy in the town of Kars, which required three different permits to be issued in three different offices. Then, at the gate, they were forced to either leave their passports and cameras with security or to write explanations on why, while taking pictures of the cathedral, they had "captured" the borderline behind it too.

We are lucky. Pass permits as well as photography bans were repealed in 2004. Tickets are now sold from a caravan at the castle walls.

Apart from the moustached clerk, there isn’t a soul around. We enter a corridor between the two belts of reddish stone which used to guard the city and look for a gate onto the plateau.

We find it after 200 meters – the Lion's Gate, a tall, well-preserved arch, with the wind blowing through it at nearly the speed of a hurricane. It’s as if all the hot air from inside the castle is trying to escape and shave off the flat plateau covered with long-untrimmed grass.

We manage to overcome Ani's untraditional fortification and a surreal view opens out before our eyes: a steppe with halves of monumental buildings scattered all over. On the left we see half a church, behind it we can make out half a turret, and at the end of the plateau there is half a chimney of a severed mosque.

A thousand years ago the capital of the Armenian kingdom, comprising present-day Armenia and parts of Iran and Eastern Turkey, was a mediaeval metropolis. Its 1,001 churches were technologically and architecturally avant-garde at the time. Its wealth and splendour attracted an increasing number of people, and at the end of the tenth century its population reached 100,000 people.

Turned into a capital by Ashot III, Ani reached the height of its glory with the Bagratids, an Armenian dynasty which declared themselves descendants of King Solomon and King David. Its apogee was during the reign of Gagik I (989 – 1020).

In 1045 the city, named Anahid, after the Persian counterpart of Aphrodite, fell under Byzantine rule. Only 20 years later it was taken over by the Seljuk Turks. For almost a century the founders of the Ottoman Empire fought for control over Ani with the Georgians. The beginning of the end came in 1239, when the Mongol tribes attacked. They had little use of city life and made no effort to restore Ani after a big earthquake in 1319 destroyed it almost to the brick.

The final blow was dealt by the last great nomad leader, Tamburlaine, enthusiastically depicted by a number of western writers ranging from Christopher Marlowe to Edgar Allan Poe. With him, Ani disappeared from the face of the earth.

After the fourteenth century the ruins remained lost for mankind. Earthquakes, wars, vandalism, attempts at cultural and ethnic cleansing, amateur excavations and restorations, and simple neglect added to the gradual destruction of the handful remaining ruins.

"What is Ani like?" wrote Konstantin Paustovski in 1923. "There are things beyond description, no matter how hard you try."

Now only a few tumbledown churches, some sections of a castle and Marco Polo's bridge remain from what used to be a magnificent city. In some places the double city wall rises and culminates in turrets of various shapes and heights, in others it goes down, sometimes completely disappearing in the tall grass.

We take a broad dusty road, which meanders between the ruins.

Armenian architecture is one of civilization's greatest enigmas. It has its own unique appearance, but more importantly – it forms the basis of a popular European medieval phenomenon, known as Gothic style. According to Joseph Strzygowski, who wrote in the early twentieth century, Armenian engineers were the first to devise a way to put a round dome over a square space. They did this in two ways: either by transforming the square into a triangle or by building an octagonal structure to hold the dome. Their architectural genius resulted in stunningly beautiful buildings.

We slowly reach the first large building, the Church of the Redeemer, and find out where the Austrian historian carried out his field research.

The inscription on the façade says that the church was commissioned in 1035 by Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid, in order to house a piece of the cross of Christ. Bought in Constantinople, it had to rest here until Christ's second coming. Miraculously, the church managed to survive until the twentieth century: though neglected, it was in one piece until 1957 when its eastern section was destroyed by lightning. The rest was badly shaken by an earthquake in 1989 and according to architects, it is in danger of collapsing. Somebody has apparently come up with the eccentric solution to block up the former church door using some broken stones found in situ.

Now the Church of the Redeemer is reminiscent of a theatre décor: a whole façade on one side and missing walls on the other so that the audience could view the action on the "stage."

Fifty meters further, we come up against the canyon of the Arpaçay River, known on its Armenian bank as the Akhurian, which divides Turkey from Armenia. On the two opposite slopes there are ancient settlements carved into the rocks, their origins still being disputed by historians.

The cathedral looks intact, but there is a surprise lurking behind the gate: we find out that the dome is gone, the open sky above us. Startled by the noise, hundreds of pigeons take off from the column capitals and fly out like smoke through a chimney. Strzygowski must have been a romantic art history scholar, not an engineer.

As a former pontifical church, the cathedral has three entrances: the north one for the patriarch, the south one for the king, and the west one from for commoners. This was Ani's most important building, designed by the famous Armenian architect Trdat Mendet. Its dome fell in the earthquake in 1319, but this was only the beginning of a series of disasters. The western façade is now also in danger of collapse.

On the walls we notice graffiti (Vovochka+Lena=love), left by Turkish and Russian visitors. Some of the inscriptions are by Armenians who must have managed to get here during some of the gaps in Turkey's restrictive policy.

Trdat Mendet obviously had megalomania issues. After building the cathedral, he designed the huge Church of Saint Gregory half a mile north. His ambition was to build it on the model of the Saint Sophia in Istanbul. Its dome, however, collapsed shortly after it was erected and was never restored. Still, the St. Gregory church, named after the Armenians' patron saint, contains the largest number of frescoes dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, which made the Turks call it Resimli Kilise, the Church with Pictures.

We go on to the remarkable red Menüçer Mosque, whose arabesques, from a distance, evoke the Alhambra.

Naturally, the Turks and the Armenians argue over it too, as the former claim it was built by the first emir of the Shaddadid dynasty and the latter insist it dates from Bagratid times.

It remains uncertain who is right but the ruins suggest entrancing architecture. The combinations of red and black stone typical of Ani are varied with white, and the six surviving domes have different ornamentation, in a manner characteristic of the Seljuks. Though half-ruined, the mosque was used by local Muslims until 1906.

We are climbing uphill to the remarkable castle when we suddenly notice that the path beneath our feet is not covered with gravel. What we have mistaken for small stones are in fact ceramic chards. I draw my hand across them and find a couple with ornaments and several coated with a colourful glaze. Ten steps further I stop and repeat the experiment: we are literally walking on ceramics broken over the centuries.

The chips may have come from anywhere: from the city sewerage system (a remarkable technological innovation at that time), from pots in rich merchants' homes, from the often gilded church interiors, from the tiles of somebody's elegant bathroom, from a tombstone or a plaque commemorating somebody's triumph.

From this moment on I can't get rid of the feeling that I am treading on the remains of people's souls. I stalk like a stork until I reach the gates, thinking that a handful of Ani's paving material can tell us more than the thickest of history books.

Like the ruins of Troy, this is a place where you have to imagine, not just see. "À la recherche du temps perdu," politely says the Turk leaning on the same wall when he notices us go out of the Lion's Gate. Mehmed speaks an almost unaccented French.


Kars is located some 1,500 km east of Istanbul. Unless you have a car, the best way to go to Ani is by taxi (45 km, $80) Make sure that the taxi driver has understood that he has to wait for you for at least three and a half hours, because otherwise you may end up sleeping under the stars. In the summer, the temperature on the plateau where Ani stands reaches 36°C and in the winter it may fall to -42ºC.




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