Ani, The Ghost City

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 world.

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 a 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-Christian 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.

After walking around the ruins 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 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. A sudden snow flurry pursued us like a ghostly whisper at our back as we drove away from the city walls.

Things are changing for the ghosts of Ani, 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.”

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]