BY MATTHEW KARANIAN
Ani is the fabled city of one thousand-and-one churches and the capital of a once-mighty Armenian kingdom. The city flourished during an Armenian silver age that lasted for about a century beginning in AD 961.
For the past three hundred fifty years, however, the city has been largely abandoned, and it has been completely uninhabited for the past century. Many people today call Ani a ghost town. For Armenians, however, the city is alive. There is no place else in the world with a greater concentration of Armenian churches and artifacts than within the walls of Ani.
The remains of the city’s massive walls, stately arches, and carved domes “testify to the audacity of the people who built this place,” wrote the New York Times in a cover travel story that was published shortly after Turkey first eased its ban on travel to Ani. The Times celebrated Ani, without equivocation, as an Armenian capital.
Ani sits directly on the current border between Armenia and Turkey and is located within the region of Kars on the Armenian Plateau. The shallow Akhurian River keeps this part of historic Armenia separate and apart from the current Republic of Armenia.
It is unlikely that there were ever really 1,001 churches at Ani. Still, the actual number must have been substantial—and close enough to the truth that the number has persisted in our consciousness for a millennium.
The modern history of Ani has been heartbreaking.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Ani and the surrounding region of Kars were within the Russian Empire. A Russian archaeologist recognized the historic value of the site, and he began excavations at Ani in 1892. After more than two decades of work, he had stored thousands of artifacts at a museum he had opened within the city’s walls.
Many of these artifacts were looted or destroyed when Turkey captured the site from Armenia in 1918.
Armenia couldn’t recover the lost artifacts, but it was able to reassert its control over Ani. When the independent Republic of Armenia was established later in 1918, Ani and the surrounding region of Kars were both included within Armenia’s borders.
The Republic of Armenia’s control of Ani and Kars lasted just about two years.
Turkey invaded Armenia in 1920, seized Ani and Kars, and incorporated them both into the newly formed Republic of Turkey. The same year, Armenia was overrun by the Soviet Union. The USSR in 1921 signed a treaty with Turkey officially ceding to them Ani and Kars. Armenia wasn’t consulted.
One of Turkey’s first acts of sovereignty over Ani, in 1921, was to order that the monuments of the city be eradicated.
This obscene order was not completely fulfilled, but many Armenian churches and monuments in Ani were nevertheless destroyed. Graves were plundered. And the evidence of the Russian excavations that had begun in 1892 was obliterated.
For most of the past century, Turkey has characterized the region of Ani, which sits directly on the modern border of Turkey and Armenia, as a military zone. Tourists needed a special permit to enter the region and they had to travel to a military office in Kars, at a distance of about 45 kilometers, in order to get it. This red tape discouraged visitors generally, and visitors with Armenian surnames, particularly, from visiting Ani.
Photography was strictly prohibited. Uniformed soldiers patrolled the site to ensure there were no violations of this rule.
Today, however, the military designation has been lifted, and tourism at Ani is encouraged. Photography is permitted. The sight of a tour bus in the parking lot outside Ani is no longer remarkable.
During the past several years, the Turkish authorities have even rebuilt some structures at Ani. Some have said that their motivation for this reconstruction is political. The architectural methods used in the so-called “restoration” of Armenian churches have also been criticized, with justification.
Apart from the criticism, however, the opening of Ani, and the attention that has been given to rebuilding some of the ruins, suggests that the current custodians of this area see Ani as a site that is now worth saving and showcasing. That 1921 government order to destroy the place has apparently been repudiated.
For the first time in a century, pilgrims can freely visit what’s left of the Armenian capital of Ani. The site is still uninhabited, but the privilege of full access has made it possible for us to imagine an Ani that is once again thriving and vibrant.
Adapted from ‘Historic Armenia After 100 Years,’ (Stone Garden Press, $39.95, Pub. Feb. 2015) by Matthew Karanian. Pre-order now for $35 postpaid in the US from: Stone Garden Productions; PO Box 7758; Northridge, CA 91327 or pay with credit card by requesting an invoice from [email protected]