We came to the province of Kars in the easternmost part of Anatolia because we wanted to visit Ani, the old Armenian capital town. We had seen some pictures and knew that the area was considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its 1000-year old churches (listed since 2016). But that was about all we knew. Like our visits to the Turkish UNESCO sites of Hattusha or Mount Nemrud it turned out to be glorious.
In the early morning light, our taxi is creeping up to the hilly plateau on the border with Armenia. It is only 7.20 AM. For our visit to the historical site of Ani, we had to get up in the dark because we had agreed on sharing a taxi with three Belgian travellers who also want to visit Ani but plan to move on in the afternoon.
Finally we reach the archaeological area, a flat land with deep canyons on two sides. They form a natural protection against intruders. Only to the north, the settlers of Ani needed a wall.
The area is said to have been settled as early as the Bronze Age, but its heyday was in the 10th and 11th century. In the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, under the Byzantines and later under Seljuk and Georgian rule, Ani became an important trade centre.
Ani, city of 1000 churches
The Bagratid king Aschot III made Ani his capital city in the 10th century. The important Armenian Catholicos, or patriarch, not only agreed to the move but also moved his own seat to Ani soon after, thus making Ani into the religious centre of the kingdom.
We arrive on a grassy plain with just a number of ruined buildings standing widely dispersed. Most of them we immediately recognize as churches. Reportedly, Ani in its golden age was a city of 1000 churches, and had about 100 000 inhabitants. That would have been 100 people per church? We imagine the pious ancient Bagratides dragging every old and sick person to church to fill the space, otherwise it wouldn’t have been worthwhile building so many churches. But then, the 1000 churches are presumably just a historical exaggeration?
Church of the Redeemer
Standing between rubble is just a part of the central church tower: The Church of the Redeemer has an almost round tower that is actually an unusual 19-faced polygon.
Half of it has collapsed, and after a 19th-century earthquake the whole church is in danger of collapsing without any visible measures to prevent the deterioration.
We can peek inside to search the walls for remains of frescoes. The Pahlavan family who donated the church in 1035 AD to house a fragment of the Holy Cross, decreed that continuous prayers should be held here until the return of Christ.
Our personal favourite in Ani: The Church of St George
The most impressive one of all the churches, in our opinion, was the Church of St George right at the edge of the ravine. Built in 1215, it has a well-preserved carved façade and beautiful frescoes. Again, the sponsor of the church is still known. Tigran Honents was a wealthy merchant and member one of the most important families in town. By that time, Ani belonged to Armenian Vassals of the Georgians after a number of conquests by Seljuks and Georgians.
The virgins’ convent
The rich trader, Tigran Honents, built yet another impressive church. This one is so close to the cliff and so dilapidated that the authorities don’t allow tourists to go near it. Perhaps it’s also the proximity of the sensitive Armenian border that makes them cordon off the whole cliff.
We can only marvel at the cute little church from above, perched on a high rock. The small but high central tower has a zigzag pleaded roof that looks like a folded Japanese umbrella.
Even though we can’t go closer, we do like the story behind the patron saint of the church: According to legend, Hripsime was a nun related to the Roman imperial family. She was also very beautiful. Certain of his power, Emperor Diocletian decided he wanted to marry her. But with her fellow nuns, including a virgin by the name of Shogagat, and her abbess Gayane, Hripsime fled Rome. After travelling to Jerusalem they ended up in Armenia, where the Armenian king also started stalking Hripsime. Still, she refused and wanted to stay a nun. Eventually Hripsime and the other virgins became martyrs, but their martyrdom became one cause for the conversion of Armenia to Christianity.
Mosques and palaces of Ani
Between all the churches there are also a number of buildings that used to be palaces or Islamic buildings. The Mosque of Menuchehr (Menuçehr Camii) with its octagonal minaret is in relatively good repair compared to the church ruins. Although the multi-coloured stone is similar to the Christian Bagratid buildings, it was probably purpose-built as a mosque. Some think it was the first Seljuk (i.e. Turkish) mosque in Anatolia, right after the Turkish conquest in 1071.
The Seljuks didn’t stay very long in Ani; the town changed hands a few times between Muslim and Christian rulers. A Mongolian conquest in 1239 ended the glory days of Ani, and with an earthquake and the Timurids in the 14th century, the town gradually became deserted.
We cut our visit to Ani short before noon, because our Belgian fellow travellers wanted to catch the daily bus from Kars to Dogubayazit. Since there isn’t much else to explore in Kars, we did the same.
Should you visit Ani?
If you are travelling in Anatolia and have half a day to spend, a visit to Ani is definitely worthwhile. As not many tourists make it there it is very likely that you will have the site for yourselves. The vast area scattered with beautiful ruins made us feel quite small and emotional. And also sad, because we felt that the site is rather neglected.
How to get to Ani?
The nearest town with a tourist infrastructure is the town of Kars, 50 km west of Ani. As there are no regular buses you will have to negotiate a taxi or a mini-van.
We visited Ani in 2006 during our overland travel from Japan to Europe. We did not receive any sponsoring for the visit to Ani or for writing this post.
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