Ani, The Ghost City

April 20 2013

Ani, The Ghost City

by Adam Hodge (RSS feed) on Apr 20th 2013 at 10:00AM

Ask someone to name tourist draws in Turkey and you’ll get the
obvious: Istanbul, Cappadocia, Galipoli, maybe the beaches of Antalya.
Some more familiar with the country might offer up the bizarre calcium
cascades of Pamukkale, or the monstrous gods’ heads sculptures on
Mount Nemrut. Nobody ever mentions Ani, a city that for a brief period
1,000 years ago was one of the cultural and commercial centers of the

The ruins of Ani, the erstwhile capital of an ancient Armenian
kingdom, stand overlooked in the far east of Turkey, weathered by the
elements and neglect. In 2010 the ruins were ignominiously singled out
with 11 other sites by the Global Heritage Fund as places that were in
danger of disappearing due to neglect and mismanagement. This is a
travesty. Greek, Incan, Roman, Siamese, Mayan, Khmer – you name the
civilization, the ruins of Ani are on par with all of them. They are
the most astounding ruins you have never seen.

Part of the reason is distance. At over 900 miles from tourist
central, Istanbul, Ani is actually closer to Baghdad and Tehran. It’s
still 30 miles away from Kars, the nearest city of any note, and there
is no public transportation to the site. In 2011, Turkey welcomed 31
millions visitors. Ani saw around 23,000. As you can see in this
video, they traveled a while to get there:

A friend and I arrived on a dark day in mid-November. The fields,
which in the spring are green and speckled with wildflowers, had shed
their color and taken on sepia tones. The grasses were gold and
yellow, and fallen bricks covered in green and rust-colored lichen
littered the ground. An occasional flurry of snow would burst from the
slate-grey sky and then vanish before it had time to settle on the
ground. We slipped by the sleeping guard at the entrance and through
one of Ani’s famed “40 gates,” a feature of the city’s rapid growth
that rendered redundant much of its original fortifications. We had
the entire ancient city to ourselves.

Ani is set on a triangular plateau that is naturally protected by a
river on one side and a steep valley on another. On the other side of
the river is modern-day Armenia. We heard low-frequency sounds from
tractors and drills in a quarry across the border. Armenia developed
this quarry to build the Yervan cathedral, wanting to use building
material as close as possible to the original Ani stone.
Unfortunately, blasts from the Armenian quarry have damaged the ruins.

The wind ushered these mechanical sounds through the valley and
canyon, where they wrinkled and amplified into eerie moans. Swirling
over the plateau in a swooping howl, these distorted noises were
punctuated by piercing cries from low-flying eagles. It was more than
a little spooky.

Ani’s “1,001 churches” now number only a handful. Some, like the
Cathedral of Ani shown in the lead photo, look like they could have
been designed recently. That they’re over 1,000 years old and not only
structurally sound but architecturally fresh is remarkable. Others,
though, in their cloaks of grasses, lichens and overgrowth, seem to
slip into the background. All are in a woeful state. A lightning
strike in the 1950s caused half of the Church of the Redeemer to
collapse. Some of the rubble was collected and pushed against the side
of the building in a half-hearted effort to prevent further ruin.

Archaeologically, the site is in shambles. The Church of the Apostles
suffered damage when untrained landscapers went at the overgrowth with
pickaxes. In the Church of St. Gregory, we found a worker had made a
fireplace against one wall to keep warm, and the fire had scorched and
blackened the entire apse. The Merchant’s Palace was rebuilt in 1999
using bricks of a different color, material, size and finish than the
originals. Only a small section near the doorway in the bottom left of
this photo is pre-1999.

Howard Carter is rolling in his grave.

Sometimes a good balance between decay and preservation can make for a
more genuine encounter with history. I prefer to see a bit of nature
crawling into old, dead buildings. It’s the way of things, and when
you take it away entirely you end up with Wayne Newton ruins, frozen
artificially in and inorganically buttressed against time. Few people
would argue that Ta Prohm, the famous tree-entangled Angkor temple
should be recovered from the jungle.

The restoration of Ani has gotten it wrong in both directions. The
very few sections that have been recovered have been turned into
ersatz monstrosities like the example above. Meanwhile, the rest of
the buildings are crumbling and falling down by the day.

In a way, Ani’s perverse treatment in death reflects the sad
historical trajectory of the city. In its heyday during Armenian
(Bagratid) rule, as the guidebooks like to say, it was a city on par
with other world capitals: Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad. In
reality, Ani’s population, and by extension its importance, was only
about a fifth of these other cities’. It was, however, highly regarded
as a center of commerce and culture. The unique architectural artistry
of the churches was widely renowned.

When it was made the capital of Ashot III’s Bagratid Kingdom in 971,
it grew into a major hub on the Silk Road, connecting Syria and
Byzantium with Persia and Central Asia. The seat of Armenian
Catholicism moved there in 992, and churches and dioceses sprouted up
like dandelions. At its peak, the city had 12 bishops.

Then, on a fateful day in 1064, her citizens yielded to a 25-day siege
by Sedjuk Turks. They were subsequently massacred. After the sacking,
the city never really recovered. It changed hands countless times,
passing from the Armenians to the Turks to the Kurds to the Georgians
to the Persians. Even the Mongols sacked the city. After a drawn-out
twilight, the city was abandoned completely in the 1700s.

Ani’s current decline is the result of icy diplomatic relations
between Ankara and Yerevan. Armenia often claims Turkey is
purposefully letting their cultural touchstone descend into
decrepitude. Past actions don’t help matters. After retaking Ani in
post-WWI border skirmishes, the Turkish government ordered Ani’s
monuments “wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Modern Turkish diktats aren’t nearly so explicit. While Turkey
deflects accusations of willful destruction, other Turkish activities
are at best antagonistic. In 2010, majority-Catholic Armenia was
enraged when a Turkish politician uttered a Muslim prayer in the
Cathedral of Ani. Later that year, Elle Turkey shot a fashion spread
amid the ruins, which Armenians say disrespected the site. Armenians
also complain about local cowherds encouraging their cows to graze on
Ani’s pastures. And not without reason: when we entered one of the
1,000-year-old churches, we found cows had taken shelter there and
defecated in the building.

Things are changing, though. From 2011 to 2012, the number of visitors
doubled. Turkey is gradually coming around to the view that Ani is a
potential tourism gold mine and is starting to change its tune. A
quick glance at The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s leading
English-language paper, illuminates the shift. From 2006 until late
2010, there were no mentions of Ani in the headlines. In September of
2010, the aforementioned politician came a-praying in Ani’s cathedral,
an act that the paper called a response to an Armenian prayer
gathering earlier that month. In 2011, a travelogue’s first mention of
Ani is in reference to the greatness of Turkey. In August 2012, it was
a “historic site in Kars province”; in October, “the capital of an
ancient Armenian Kingdom”; and in March 2013, “the center of a
powerful Armenian empire.”

After walking around Ani for almost five hours, the sky began to
darken noticeably and we made our way back to the car. The sleeping
guard had disappeared by the time we returned, and he had locked the
gate on the way out. For a brief moment, we were trapped in time in a
dead city. We had to scale one of Ani’s 1,000-year-old walls to get
out, and a ghostly snow flurry ushered us into the car and away the
city walls.

More visitors potentially means more damage, but it also means that
Ani finally has a shot, if only in death, at being restored to its
former renown. If all goes well, Ani could be set for the pilgrimage
it has been waiting for for almost 1,000 years.

[Photo credit: Flick user sly06 for the spring photos, all others Adam Hodge]

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