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]

Drunk Italians Dancing In The Streets And Other Very Good Reasons To Visit Lecce And Salento

ostuniAs I sit in the cool open-air courtyard of our rented apartment, on a hard-to-find street behind Lecce’s Duomo, the sound of carefully spaced church bells punctuates the silence of the mid-day pausa – Italy’s siesta. Our American instinct is to get out and “do something” on this warm, sunny day. But our newfound Italian inclination is to laze about, digest lunch, and think about what we’ll have for dinner.

When the mood strikes us, we venture back into the web of streets in this sultry city between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, smack near the butt end of Italy’s heel. The streets of Lecce’s baroque centro storico were made for walking and the town’s well dressed residents are out in force, eating gelato, enjoying glasses of wine in sidewalk enotecas and stopping to greet one another, with an exchange of cheek kisses and a flurry of smiles. Overhead, crazy flocks of blackbirds, called rondini, in these parts, swirl and swoop in wild packs, making a racket and creating an eerie, tropical din I’ve never before encountered.

On our first passegiata in the city, we notice music and a crowd forming on Via Templari Street and follow our ears to see what’s going on. A street-side piano player is leading a group of middle aged Italians in a rousing version of what I later learned is a famous WWI era, Neapolitan love song, “‘O Surdato ‘Nnamurato” (The Soldier In Love). I’m not accustomed to seeing people set up pianos on the street, and I hadn’t seen people have so much fun in a very long time. I assumed it was some sort of special festa we were unaware of, but onlookers quickly disabused me of that notion.

“Nesuna festa,” the youngest member of the group told me. There was no festival.
“It’s drunk Naples people.”

But you don’t have to be drunk to want to break out in song on the streets of Lecce. Every evening, there’s a free show waiting to be experienced in the city’s atmospheric baroque piazzas and narrow cobbled streets. Life is lived on the streets here – the weather is warm, the wine is tasty and the Pugliese people are incredibly warm and welcoming.

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Lecce and the Salento peninsula, which makes up the south end of the heel, has long been a trendy place for Romans and Neapolitans to vacation, but it’s quickly finding its way onto the radar of stranieri (foreigners) as well, thanks to a stream of good press of late. In 2010, Lonely Planet named Lecce one of the top ten places to visit in the world, and just recently, Fodor’s named the greater Puglia region as one of four “undiscovered” Italian destinations to visit in 2012.

Fabio Leo, an engaging tour guide who works in Lecce’s tourism office, assured me that Lecce was poised to conquer the world.

“The last two summers we’ve had more tourists visit Salento than any other place in Italy,” he said.

“More than Rome, Florence or Venice?” I asked, not quite believing it.

Assolutamente!” he said.

Mr. Leo’s numbers may be off by a few hundred thousand, but the point is clear – Lecce and Salento aren’t the far-flung backwaters they once were. Salento is prosperous enough that there’s a movement to secede from Puglia and become its own official province. Below you’ll find several reasons why Lecce and the Salento peninsula make up one of the most underrated regions in Italy.

Lecce. I was based in Lecce for 10 days and every time I thought I’d seen everything, I’d discover a new street or piazza that warranted exploration, an inexpensive restaurant so good that I wished I had time to become a regular or another baroque church I’d want to visit. The city has a relaxed vibe and a huge percentage of the town’s residents turn out for the evening passegiata.

Food and Wine. Every region in Italy has its specialties and Salento is no different. Try the orchiette, the minestrone di fave con cicoria, pasticiottos, and the Salice Salentino wine.

Great Beaches and a Terrific Climate. This is one of the warmest, sunniest corners of Italy and the beaches, on both the Ionian and Adriatic coasts are quite nice. One word of caution on this front – if you don’t have a car, it is very difficult to reach the best beaches in places like Porto Cesareo and the Ionian Coast between Gallipoli and Santa Maria de Leuca via public transportation, especially off-season or in the shoulder seasons.

Endless Day Trip Possibilities. If you have a car, make a circuit of the entire peninsula. If you don’t, your options will be more limited, but you can still get to historic towns like Gallipoli and Otranto on the FSE Regional train line from Lecce’s main train station, and you can also get within 5 miles of Santa Maria de Leuca, where the two seas meet. (Take a connecting bus to complete the trip.)

Incredibly Welcoming Locals. Italians are a friendly, gregarious lot in general but I found the people of Salento to be remarkably warm and welcoming. We had complete strangers offer to drive us to get pasticiottos, I was welcomed into a local soccer supporters club, and my two little boys, ages 2 and 4, were accorded cheek pinches and kisses everywhere they went.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Gallipoli battlefield being mapped by GPS

Gallipoli
Archaeologists in Turkey are making a detailed survey of the famous World War One battle of Gallipoli. Using period military maps and GPS technology, they’re mapping the old trenches and redoubts used by both sides.

Gallipoli was the scene of fierce fighting starting in 1915. A peninsula with highlands dominating the Dardanelles strait linking the Black and the Aegean seas, it guarded the western approach to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was on Germany’s side during World War One and the British Empire’s high command believed an attack on Gallipoli would be the first step to knocking the Ottomans out of the war.

They were wrong. The Ottoman Empire, long dismissed “the sick man of Europe”, put up a determined resistance and the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops got stuck on the beaches as Ottoman troops pummeled them from the highlands. After nine bloody months, the allies sailed away.

The international team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists and historians have discovered large numbers of artifacts from the battle and are busy working out a complete map of the complicated network of trenches, many of which can still be clearly seen today.

The battle started 25 April 1915, and this date is marked as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who did some of the toughest fighting in the campaign. Many people in both of these countries feel the soldiers’ efforts proved the worth of the two young nations.

Last year archaeologists discovered the HMS Lewis and a barge sunk off the shore.

Startling underwater discovery at Gallipoli battlefield


Underwater archaeologists exploring off the coast of Gallipoli, Turkey, have found a somber relic from the famous WWI battle. A barge that removed dead and wounded soldiers from the beachhead back to a hospital ship was found at the bottom of the sea. The team also found the wreck of the HMS Lewis, a British destroyer.

Gallipoli is a Turkish peninsula that controls access between the Black and the Aegean seas. It also guards the western approach to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which fought on Germany’s side in World War One. In 1915, UK’s First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill decided it was of crucial strategic importance and landed troops there. What followed was a disaster. Allied troops got pinned down on the beaches and endured months of constant fighting before they finally pulled out. The Turks suffered too, with each side losing a quarter of a million men.

The Allied side included not only UK, French, and Canadian troops, but also a large number of men from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The ANZACs, as they’re commonly called, became heroes back home and are national icons to this day. The hospital barge was found near ANZAC Cove, shown here, and was probably sunk while carrying casualties from this famous unit.

Gallipoli is one of the most popular destinations in Turkey. Faint traces of the trenches from 90 years ago are still visible, and guided tours show visitors the locations of the various armies fighting it out for control of the beach and overlooking mountains.

A nice detail about this story is that the archaeologists are a joint Australian-Turkish team. Looks like these folks are remembering their history while putting it behind them.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.