Ruins of mediaeval Armenian capital feel like edge of the world
Burdened with the robotic directions of Satnav devices, we have lost the ability to feel like explorers. Yet, there are places that, though identifiable on Satnav, still convey the feeling that they are at the edge of the known world.
Ani on the Turkish-Armenian frontier is one such place.
Scattered on the steep bank of the border-defining Arpa Chai river, Ani is what remains of the once populous capital of Armenia. Domed churches of dark grey and red stones sprout from heaps of debris among a barren landscape: otherworldly, surreal, dreamlike.
From a distance, the churches appear minuscule, like doll houses. Just like doll houses, their walls are missing, exposing halls, narthexes and passageways often covered with old, vandalised murals of saints. Once you enter inside the abandoned churches and crane your head to see the tops of the massive ribbed pillars, you realise how big these buildings actually are.
In the 9th-11th centuries Ani used to be a city of 100,000 inhabitants, flourishing because of its location on one of the routes on the Silk Road.
The fortification walls of Ani encircled the entire city. Today a fraction remains
The Armenians settled on the plateau where Ani is in the 5th century BC. Large-scale construction here began when the Bagratuni dynasty took the region from the Arabs in the 10th century and King Ashot III made Ani his capital, in 961. Most of the buildings that now stand were built prior to 1045.
The following centuries were more than tumultuous. Ani was hotly disputed by all the players of the day: the Byzantines, the Seljuks, the Georgians, the Armenians. The destruction that the Mongols brought about in the 12th century was so severe that the city barely recovered. A devastating earthquake in 1319 dealt the final blow.
The people of Ani left. The city began to disintegrate, a victim of looters, the elements and the occasional lightning hitting a roof here and there.
Marco Polo probably passed through Ani on his way to Kublai Khan's China. Westerners, however, rediscovered Ani as late as the 19th century. Archaeological excavations began at the end of the century, when the region was within the Russian Empire. When the Ottoman army advanced towards Ani in 1918, during the First World War, the local museum's collection was sent to Yerevan, the capital of modern Armenia. It is still there.
Ani became a part of modern Turkey in 1921 following the Treaty of Kars. The Armenian sentiment for this piece of their mediaeval history – one of the brightest moments in their nation's long past – remains strong.
The uneasy relationship between Turkey and Armenia has reflected on the fate of Ani. For decades the site was abandoned and forgotten on the border between the two countries. Until the early 2000s, an outsider needed a special permit to visit it. Taking photographs was forbidden.
The narrow gorge of the Arpa Chai river defines the border between Armenia, to the left, and Turkey
Things changed in the 2010s, when archaeological digs and restorations resumed, and a ticket-booth was installed at the gates of the Ani fortress. The site appeared on TripAdvisor. Organised tourists started coming in. Ani is now again lively, although some of the restorations works appear to damage the ancient city's otherworldly atmosphere.
From the Armenian side of the Arpa Chai, however, nothing has changed. The only way to see the ruins of Ani from there is to convince the Russian border guards to let you through. If you are successful, you will be pointed to a certain bend in the river. From there domes of Ani's churches are barely visible: tiny, toy-house structures on the barren hills, a vision of a city on the edge of the known world.
Fading and vandalised frescoes from St Gregory of the Abughamrents
St Gregory of the Abughamrents before the 2010s restorations