Turkey: Ani, the biggest abandoned city you've never heard of


What? 
A ruined Armenian ghost city, dramatically situated in the Turkish steppe on the border with Armenia.

Why visit? 
Ani combines spectacular natural beauty with evocative medieval architecture, political stalemate and a high-security fence.

A thousand years ago, this was one of the largest cities in Europe. Now, just windswept steppe with crumbling ruins and a forbidden land, just across the river. 

It all just begs for an Ozymandias quotation: 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'


Where? 
This is where it gets interesting. In the far east of Turkey, smack on the border with Armenia (which has been closed for years). Map.


ANI REALLY OUGHT to be a Major Sight. It gets several pages in the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey. But when I visited, there were 4 other visitors; this on a site that covers several square kilometers! In spite of being featured in some guidebooks, Ani gets only a trickle of visitors, and it would benefit hugely from more attention which would help preserve this magical place.

Getting there is the first challenge. I first read about Ani in a coffee table book of ruined cities. But it took me 13 years before I finally made it down the Yellow Brick Road to the Turkish-Armenian border. But when I got there I was not disappointed: it's firmly ensconced in my top 5 of places visited.  Perhaps others can be similarly inspired. (Though I hope it will take you less time than it took me.)

20th century history in this part of the world is a messy business, but few disagree that a thousand years ago these lands were part of an Armenian kingdom, with Ani its capital, known as the 'City of a Thousand-and-One Churches'.

Various invaders and an earthquake led to slow but inevitable decline and by the 18th century Ani had become a ghost town. Now, its glory days well behind it, Ani is the biggest abandoned city you've never heard of. 

Although nobody has lived here for more than 300 years, Ani remains very much a disputed city. In 1921 Ani was ceded to the Turkish Republic, to the dismay of many Armenians, for whom this is a spiritual home. For many years, Ani was an off-limits military zone, right on the border. And as Turkey and Armenia are not exactly best buddies, that border has been closed for years.

(As a sign of how much Armenians yearn for their lost medieval city, the name 'Ani' is one of their most popular names for girls.)

Maintaining Ani is difficult enough, given its remoteness. But given the political acrimony and the inconvenient truth of this once having been a large Armenian kingdom, on what's now Turkish territory, it's not surprising that there have been accusations of the Turkish authorities being disinterested in protecting Ani's Armenian heritage on Turkish soil.

Politics aside, let's look at the attractions, shall we?
Ani is ringed by walls, with several entrance gates. 
Ani is massive. The steppe stretches out in all directions and in the gently undulating grassy hills there are numerous churches and other buildings left, all in various states of photogenic dilapidation.
Once through the gates, Ani stretches out in front of you- lots of grass with ruins scattered about. 
Ani's cathedral, dating back to the 10th & 11th centuries.
The Church of the Redeemer looks like it's been split in two by a giant cleaver. 
You need several hours to do Ani justice. You also need to bring sunscreen. And water, as there are no snack bars in sight. Little concession is made to visitors. You will have most of the churches and various ruins to yourself when exploring.
The Church of Tigran Honents, The river below forms the border with Armenia, Going for a swim is not recommended. 
This church is still richly decorated with frescoes and carvings. 
Church of St Gregory. The caves in the canyon below were part of a cave city outside the walls. 
The Armenian inscriptions above the entrance door to St Gregory.
If you like stone carving, you've come to the right place!
Getting there:Forget about reaching Ani from Armenia. It's probably easier to cross the border between North and South Korea than the one here between Turkey and Armenia. 

Kars, the regional capital, is the obvious starting point (there are flights from Istanbul or, for the masochistically inclined, overnight buses from various parts in Anatolia.) 

In Kars, your hotel can help you arrange transport, which will most likely be with the knowledgable and friendly Celil Ersozoglu (celilani AT hotmail.com) who seems to have cornered the 'independent traveller to Ani' market. He's helpful and speaks good English. 

Like many Turks, he has some views on the Armenian genocide and the current closing of the border that may differ from what you have heard at home. In these kind of situations it is always best to nod politely and not initiate any arguments. Don't mention the war!

Useful links:
Virtual Ani is a repository of all things Ani. 


6 comments:

  1. Amazing..I've wanted to go to Ani(and Eastern turkey) since long time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Apparently there was a professor that was trying to raise funds for more excavations but due to the size of old Ani, it would take millions!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HI Natalie, Ani could do with some financial support- but as you noted the site is huge so it's never going to be an easy task.

      Also, as with many things regarding Ani, there's been a lot of controversy regarding work to protect the site:
      http://www.virtualani.org/2008/index.htm

      Even UNESCO states that Turkish-led restorations have occasionally been damaging: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5725/

      So perhaps it's only for teh better that no money is available for more excavations now...

      Delete
  3. Ani is and always will be in our hearts and minds. We will not forget it, we will not abandon it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31K8S2L0AR8

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ani will always be in our hearts and minds, we will not forget it, we will not abandon it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31K8S2L0AR8

    ReplyDelete

Have you been here? Or are you planning to go? Either way, we would love to hear about it.

 

Find Minor Sights on a map

What is this site all about?