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]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Yerevan day trips: Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery

yerevan day trips

There are two obvious day trips from Yerevan, both fascinating and absolutely worth the effort: Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery. Both of these sites are located less than an hour from Yerevan by car, along scenic roads that afford, here and there, great views of Mount Ararat. Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery are compact and easily reachable sites of broad interest to many different kinds of visitors.

Garni Temple dates back to the 1st century, if not earlier–so far back, in fact, that it predates Armenia‘s conversion to Christianity. The temple was originally dedicated to Helios, the God of the sun. Its first modern excavation took place in the early 20th century. The rebuilt temple’s physical setting is also pretty amazing, situated on a bluff surrounded by rock cliffs.

To the side of the temple is a Roman bathhouse, nicely preserved. The hill above the baths affords more opportunities for appreciating the site’s scale and enjoying views over the area.

At the parking lot leading into the complex, there is a souvenir shop and a cluster of people selling various products. The most interesting objects for sale include compact discs of recorded traditional music and ropes of pastegh, a delicious candy of nuts and grape juice, often translated as “fruit leather,” which is also found in Georgia.yerevan day trips

Geghard Monastery, about five miles on from Garni, is a site of rich and extensive interest for visitors, with several churches and chapels within the complex. Some chapels are built into the rock itself. The monastery complex is reached by foot from a parking lot along a slippery cobblestone road.

The monastery’s central church and its vestry, constructed in the 13th century, are cavernous. The vestry’s carved ceilings and ghostly streams of light make for a striking impression.

It is the chapels, however, built as they are into rock, that are arguably the most exciting part of the complex. One features a stream of spring water deemed to be holy. Many Armenians visit Geghard Monastery in order to splash themselves with water from this stream.

An easy way to visit Garni and Geghard Monastery in tandem is on a five-hour tour from Yerevan. The going price for this tour is 5500 dram ($14.50), and it includes a small snack and a drink. I went with Hyur Service for my tour. The guide was lively though frankly I would have preferred to get my information from a guidebook. There are two advantages to setting up a tour with Hyur Service or another tour company: the convenience of not having to organize transportation by bus and taxi and its relatively low cost.

Be sure to check out previous installments of the Far Europe and Beyond series.

Two Yerevan tips: Lagonid Bistro-Cafe & Sergei Paradjanov Museum

yerevan tips

Here are two Yerevan tips. Though both make it into some guidebooks, neither would probably be an obvious choice for a Yerevan sojourn: the Syrian-Armenian Lagonid Bistro-Café and the Sergei Paradjanov Museum.

I never meant to wander into Lagonid Bistro-Café (37 Nalbandyan Poghots), a Syrian-Armenian restaurant in Yerevan. I wanted to eat something distinctly Armenian, or at least something within the ex-Soviet sphere. But the best sounding restaurants along these lines in my rag-tag Lonely Planet to the Caucasus were closed, some apparently for several years, restaurants with enticing names like Color of Pomegranates (Armenian and Georgian cuisine, reportedly) and Bukhara (Uzbek cuisine).

I kept walking in search of a decent lunch, and Lagonid Bistro-Café looked like it might have potential. I ordered labne, hummus, mutabel, and pomegranate juice. The hummus was creamy with lots of olive oil, better than any hummus I’d had since an eye-opening feast at Fakhr El-Din in Amman several years ago. (After Fakhr El-Din I couldn’t eat hummus for months and months. Their version was so far superior to any hummus I’d ever had previously that I wasn’t willing to pollute my palate with bad hummus.) The labne was tart and the mutabel (a puree of roasted eggplant and garlic) was spicy and satisfying. That feast ran me 3300 dram ($8.70), and frankly the only thing on my mind as I walked away was if I should return later that day or the next.yerevan tips

Another Yerevan tip: The Sergei Paradjanov Museum (15-16 Dzoragyugh Poghots). Paradjanov, born to an ethnic Armenian family in Georgia in 1924, was a bad boy of avant-garde cinema at a time when dissident behavior had frightening consequences. Uncomfortable working within the social realist confines of Soviet cinema, Paradjanov was imprisoned several times on various charges, including immorality and bribery. He had many international champions in the arts, and many famous writers and artists campaigned for his release during a long imprisonment in the 1970s. Even when Paradjanov was no longer in prison, Soviet authorities monitored him and limited his ability to work creatively.

The museum presents a psychedelic hodgepodge of Paradjanov’s artistic activities and aesthetic influences. Especially interesting items include the shrine (above) and Paradjanov’s dolls and collages. Photographs, various objects, and the artist’s collages, some very intricate, cover the walls. Paradjanov developed the collage form while he was imprisoned.

Admission to the museum is 700 drams ($1.85).

Be sure to check out other Far Europe and Beyond series installments.

Soviet Yerevan

soviet yerevan

The architectural influence of the Soviet years cannot be missed in Yerevan. Two examples in particular viscerally embody the grandiose massive-scale drama associated with Soviet architectural projects: the Armenian Genocide Monument and the 50th Anniversary of the Soviet Armenia monument. The latter can be reached from central Yerevan via the Cascade stairway.

The Armenian Genocide Monument at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex is moving and stark. The monument consists of a tall spire next to 12 enormous slabs of rock positioned in a tilted form around an eternal flame. With ghostly music playing on a loop in the background, the site is a powerful, emotionally-laden place of remembrance. The broad plaza around the monument is so big that it could easily accommodate hundreds of visitors simultaneously and not feel full. The monument dates to 1967.

The monument’s starkness has nothing on the neighboring museum, however, which documents the harrowing genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman soldiers across Anatolia from 1915 through the early 1920s. The museum approaches its tragic subject matter in an extremely methodical manner, listing the regions where Armenians were killed and in what numbers, and providing various forms of documentation of Armenian cultural life during the era in question. Entry to the museum is free.soviet yerevan

The Cascade leaves a less troubling impression. If the Genocide monument is irrevocably painful, the Cascade is joyful, utilized more or less as a park. An enormous terraced staircase, the Cascade connects central Yerevan with the Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. Construction on the Cascade began in the 1970s, and the stairway’s development has stopped and started a few times. Currently, the Cafesjian Center for the Arts is housed within it.

The Monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia towers above the Cascade. It is visible at the top of the image above. The monument has three features of note: a stone column, a low-lying rectangular building, closed to visitors, and a massive landing with great views over Yerevan. Cursory research has revealed that this monument was never completed. Today it towers over the city, commemorating Armenia’s tenure as a republic of the Soviet Union prior to independence.

These monuments are interesting and significant places for grasping Armenia’s recent past and current presence. They are essential stops for any visitor to Yerevan.

Check out other stories in Gadling’s Far Europe and Beyond series.