Ani - The Forgotten Ghost City That Was Once The 'City of 1,001 Churches'

Ani was once one of the largest cities in the world, ruling with might over the region, and although now it is an eerie, abandoned city of ghosts that was once called the "City of 1,001 churches".
August 09, 2021 | 07:49
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East of the Turkish city of Kars lies a complex of lonely medieval churches. Octagonal towers, crumbling walls, and fallen columns lay scattered across vast grasslands. In the gorge that drops away to the Akhuryan River—which forms Turkey’s border with the modern state of Armenia—is an ancient bridge, broken in the middle.

Commissioned by a wealthy merchant named Tigran Honents, the church was completed in the year 1215. (iStock Photo)
Commissioned by a wealthy merchant named Tigran Honents, the church was completed in the year 1215. (iStock Photo)

These ruins are all that remain of Ani, the cosmopolitan capital of medieval Armenia, one of the earliest kingdoms to adopt Christianity as its state religion in the early A.D. 300s. The site of a fifth-century fortification, Ani was chosen to be Armenia’s capital in the 10th century. It became home to as many as 100,000 people, and was so richly endowed with sacred buildings that it came to be known as the “city of 1,001 churches.”

Its strategic position along trade routes between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea made it an attractive possession, condemning it to centuries of invasion—and eventually, a long period of abandonment.

Clash of empires

The ruins of the Cathedral of Ani are seen on the Turkish-Armenian border. (iStock Photo)
The ruins of the Cathedral of Ani are seen on the Turkish-Armenian border. (iStock Photo)

Following its absorption into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, Ani remained a distant memory until the early 1800s, when European travelers began to visit the site of the medieval city. The ruins of Ani were located on a geopolitical fault line at the edges of the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires. Visiting the remains of the city was risky as political tensions were running high.

Nevertheless, some visitors carried out hasty surveys and aroused interest among scholars. In 1817 Scottish diplomat and traveler Robert Ker Porter passed through and recorded his impressions. While remaining vigilant in a place whose “gloomy ruins” were perfect hiding places for “sanguinary freebooters,” Ker Porter’s account transmitted his excitement: “On entering the city, I found the whole surface of the ground covered with broken capitals, highly ornamented friezes; and other remains of ancient magnificence.”

Ani was the capital of the medieval Armenian Kingdom between 961 and 1045 (iStock Photo)
Ani was the capital of the medieval Armenian Kingdom between 961 and 1045 (iStock Photo)

Some of the churches, he wrote, were more intact than others, but even they “are as solitary as all the others structures, on which time and devastation have left more heavy strokes.” (Historians are using lasers to unlock mysteries of Gothic cathedrals.)

In 1839 British Army captain Richard Wilbraham marveled at the solidity of Ani’s defenses and the presence of Christian iconography. “The sacred symbol of Christianity is introduced in various places,” he observed. “Huge blocks of blood-red stone, let into the masonry of the tower, form gigantic crosses, which have defied the hand of the destroying Moslem [sic].” Despite these glimmers of scholarly interest, time and weather continued to take their toll on Ani. Several more decades would pass before archaeologists arrived to carry out a formal survey.

iStock Photo
iStock Photo

Still a hidden gem

The city exudes authentic beauty throughout all of the seasons. In winter, under a blanket of pristine snow, it looks like a long-lost frozen kingdom, in autumn it looks mystique and broody, hiding secrets awaiting to be discovered. Once warmer weather comes round, it almost springs back to life, growing more verdant with every raindrop and filling you up with a sense of adventure that doesn't come with many historic European sites choked by hordes of tourists. Thanks to its remote location, once you step in the ruins, it gives you this rush that makes you feel like you're the first people to (re)discover such profound age in a long time.

Armenian chroniclers such as Yeghishe and Ghazar Parpetsi first mentioned Ani in the fifth century. (iStock Photo)
Armenian chroniclers such as Yeghishe and Ghazar Parpetsi first mentioned Ani in the fifth century. (iStock Photo)

All the structures in Ani were built using local volcanic basalt, which was easy to carve, a functional insulator and came in many vibrant colors such as rosy reds and jet blacks. Not all of the buildings are situated on the central route used by guides or explorers nor are they easily accessible, and the usual half-day trips give you nowhere near enough time to explore every single one scattered across the plateau. So if you'd like to take it all in, it's best to set aside a few days.

The largest building standing in Ani is the cathedral. A rather Gothic looking structure with novel features such as pointed arches and a now nonexistent dome, the cathedral is an impressive piece of Armenian architecture. Its importance as a house of God was preserved even when it changed hands throughout history, becoming the first place where Muslim prayers were held in Anatolia after the Seljuk’s momentous victory in the Battle of Manzikert (1071), which opened up the gates of Anatolia to the Turks.

Photo: Izzet Keribar.
Photo: Izzet Keribar.

The cathedral, however, was greatly damaged in a devastating earthquake in 1319 as well as during the Mongol invasion, events that marked the beginning of the city’s great decline. By the time the 17th century rolled around, the city was left desolate.

There are numerous other sanctuaries and structures in the city that shed light on the past. The Ebul Menucehr Mosque, the first Turkish mosque on Anatolian soil, the churches of Amenaprgich (the Holy Savior Cathedral), Tigran Honentz (the Church of St. Gregory) and Abugamir Pahlavuni (the Church of the Holy Redeemer), in addition to countless monasteries and chapels dotting the vast meadows, are just a few that have contributed to Ani's historical reputation.

Photo: Izzet Keribar.
Photo: Izzet Keribar.

And as if you needed another excuse to catch the nostalgic Eastern Express, to embark on your journey to the ancient archaeological site of Ani all you need is to hop on that train from Ankara. Once you arrive in Kars' city center, it's up the hills we go by car or bus, over bends and rocks for about 42 kilometers, passing flocks of sheep and herds of cows, where the famous Kars gruyere comes from, slowly leaving behind city life to step back in time.

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