Ani, the neglected ruins of an Armenian Kingdom, are crumbling in a distant province of Turkey.
The watchtowers stare back menacingly from across the steep ravine. I can’t see past the darkened windows of the steel structures, but I wonder if the Armenian border guards are watching me as I traipse through the ruins of their people’s history, taking photographs and admiring the remains of this once great Armenian city.
Ani, the ruined capital of an ancient Armenian Kingdom, is where Turkey meets Armenia. I can see Armenia across the river that forms the border in the deep ravine below, but no one can cross. Political relations between these two nations are so insufferable that no border is open between the countries.
When the modern boundaries of these two countries were drawn, this historically important site was claimed by Turkey. Ani however, was founded by an Armenian dynasty in the 5th Century AD, and grew to become the thriving capital of an Armenian Kingdom which ruled from the city in the 10th Century AD.
Armenian influence dwindled though, as the Byzantines, and then the Seljuk Turks came to dominate Ani and the surrounding lands. The city was fought over and passed between successive Kingdoms and Empires, destroyed by Mongol armies and by earthquakes, and by the 15th Century this once great seat of Armenian power lay abandoned in dusty fields in the distant lands of the Ottoman Empire.
Recent history was no kinder to the ruins of Ani.
As the Russian Empire extended its way through the Caucasus nations, Kars fell into their hands. The First World War wrought destruction across both the Russian and Ottoman Empires, and they both fought for control of Kars. By the end the conflict, a newly independent Armenian state had taken back the ancient ruins. This wasn’t to last though, and as Ataturk fought for the creation of modern Turkey, Ani once again fell from Armenian control. The 1921 Treaty of Kars gave the ruins to Turkey and created the boundaries that would separate Turkey from what became the Soviet Union.
I walk under the archway that leads through the ruined walls of the city.
I can’t miss the enormous Turkish flag flies above Ani, fluttering in the wind above the ruins.
I follow the dusty roads through the green fields which are strewn with the fallen bricks and mortar of ancient buildings that have collapsed over the centuries. I look out over a distinctly Armenian church which faces from the cliff the city is built along, and across to the watch towers of Armenia in the distance.
I stumble across a rusting warning sign. Being for so many decades on the border of the Iron Curtain, Ani fell into the confines of a tightly secured Turkish military zone.
It was off limits to visitors for years. This was a hostile border and consequently, the ruins never really received the restoration or attention they deserved. And with sour relations between Turkey and Armenia continuing, there’s been little emphasis for the Turkish government to preserve what they see as predominantly Armenian legacies.
While things aren’t quite as tense as they once were, across the river there is a huge Russian Army base, and the border is still closed, immovably dividing these two countries. The ruins of Ani are, however, finally beginning to be protected by the government, and in 2015 the site was nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That means that after years of neglect, the ruins are receiving some much needed restoration work.
The Church of the Holy Redeemer is covered in scaffolding, as attempts are made to stop the remaining half of the building from collapsing, while the extravagantly large Cathedral of Ani, built at the height of the Armenian Kingdom’s reign here, is being restored after numerous earthquakes over the centuries have shaken the huge structure to its foundations.
More than anything the Cathedral of Ani is an Ozymandian reminder that empires fall, borders change and history marches on. The interior is hollow, yet still grandiose. A lasting legacy to the Armenians of old that built this city, and lived within its walls.
From the Cathedral I follow a steep path down into the ravine. I don’t quite know where the border is, so I hesitatingly step through the security fence which runs along the river, and walk through the bottom of the ravine. My phone GPS tells me that I’m in Armenia. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the watch towers are a long way off still.
Along the river are the remains of the demolished or collapsed bridges that once connected the city to trade routes which led across the Caucasus and to the Silk Road.
Today, I can’t cross the river, so I turn back up the hill, passing more ruined Armenian churches along the way, before I reach the Menüchehr Mosque, a prominent reminder of the multi religious history of Ani.
The mosque was built by the new Turkish rulers in the 10th Century AD, after the Armenian Kingdom was defeated, and is in a better state of repair than much of the rest of the city. UNESCO describes this mosque as the first built on the Anatolian Plateau, a demonstration of the importance of Ani not just in Armenian history, but in Turkish history too.
The presence of such historic monuments leads me to beg the question of why these ruins receive such little attention, and so few visitors. Politics plays its inevitable role, as does Ani’s location on a potentially volatile border, but surely the importance to both cultures of these ruins should outweigh these negatives?
Right now, it’s quiet. And aside from a few horses and grazing cattle I have the ruins of Ani to myself.
I climb to the top of the ruined citadel which sits atop the tallest point within the walls of the city, and from here I can look out across the entirety of the city.
From the old watch towers I can see the new watch towers of the border guards, while in the distance towards the city gates I can see the red of the Turkish flag still flying in the wind.
I can see the remains of the Armenian churches, and the ruins of Turkish mosques splayed out before me on the land below.
I can see the lands of Anatolia, and of Armenia and Turkey.
The ruins of Ani are caught between the conflicts of modern nations, but these conflicts can inevitably be traced back to the founding stones this very city was built upon. The ruins are on the border of two cultures, and this once mighty Kingdom has found itself neglected by the empires which conquered it, and separated from the descendants who claim it as their own history.
The history of Ani is inevitable- although the writing of history has proven it to be malleable- but the future of Ani is uncertain. The bricks that Ani was built from can be restored, or they can be left to turn into dust again.
If it can be protected, then it’s a sight that’s beautiful and historic enough to become an integral attraction within Turkey. If politics interferes though, then Ani will unfortunately remain a neglected and withering footnote in history.
Ani Travel Advice!
If you are in Eastern Anatolia, then Ani simply cannot be missed. There is no where else quite like it in Turkey. You can walk the site on foot, and a half day is enough time to take in all the ruins. Entrance to the site is 8 TL per person.
The best way to visit is from the city of Kars, which is around 45 minutes away by car. There was no public transport when I visited- in March 2016- so you will need your own transport or to hire a taxi from Kars.
If you are staying in Kars, your hotel will be able to arrange transport for you. They usually contact an English speaking man named Cecile, who is very knowledgeable about the history, and talkative on the drive, but will leave you at the gates to walk around by yourself. He charged 50 TL per person, with a minimum of 2 people. Other taxis would charge a similar price for the trip and it’s best to haggle.
I travelled to Kars from the city of Van, there were direct busses once a day. I travelled onward to the Georgian border at Hopa, and again there was one bus a day. Kars also has links to Erzurum and Trabzon.