Ani: the forgotten capital of Armenia

Out of Kars, on Turkey’s Eastern frontier is Ani.

Around 1000 CE Ani was capital of the Armenian empire and had inhabitants and wealth rivaling Byzantium. It stayed an important stop on the silk road when it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Persians, Georgians and Kurds. In 1239 the Mongols turned up and, being a nomadic people who didn’t see much point in cities, cleared everyone out.

What’s left today is a collection of extraordinary ruins. Sure, Ani isn’t as old as Persepolis, or as completely preserved as Machu Picchu, but it is easily as mesmerising. Its set on a glorious expanse of steppe, and the winds that whip down from the mountains give the kind of ghostly feel you really want when you visit a deserted town.

When we visited, asĀ  the seven of us that arrived in the mini van were the only visitors to the site. As we spread out across tracks that take three hours to circumnavigate, it really felt like we had the place to ourselves. Maybe because the structures and layout were slightly more modern, it was easier to believe that the ruins did indeed used to be a thriving trading point, and to marvel at a great city lost.

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At its height, Ani was called the city of a hundred and one churches. There certainly aren’t that many now, but the churches, and the mosques that superseded them, are the main structures that have survived a millennia or so of earthquakes and degradation. Its a testament to the faith of the people who lived there, and the care they put into constructing their religious buildings.

There’s a stream that cuts a steep gully on one side of the sight and also marks the border between Turkey and Armenia. The border is about where the iron curtain might have gathered if you’d drawn it down towards the Mediterranean sea. Through the latter half of the twentieth century the border between Turkey, a NATO member, and Armenia, a Soviet State, were on the edge of a highly miliatrised frontier.

Ani: not the only Armenian thing destroyed in Turkey

The Cold War is over, but the border remains closed and heavily guarded, because of events that predate it.

Armenians, and the overwhelming majority of historians, say that during the first world war the Ottoman Empire killed around 1.5 million Armenians as part of a programme to, one way or another, remove this economically powerful, ethnically different, and Christian minority group. This was genocide and, some claim, inspirational to Hitler in his planning of the holocaust.

Turkey maintains that, while there was an attempt to forcibly deport Armenians, deaths that occurred were not deliberate, much smaller in number, and part of a broader picture of WWI tragedy that also included the slaughter of Turks and Kurds at the hands of the Russians. Turkey vehemently denies that what occurred was genocide: claiming as much can even land you in jail.

There have been periodic efforts to normalise diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, and they seem to have increased in frequency since Turkey got serious about joining the EU. But the whole “You killed 1.5 million of my people and I can prove it”/”Did not!” continues.

If Turkey ever manages to confront this ugly chapter in its past, I’ve got an idea of a sweetener to show some good faith to Armenia. Let the border wiggle a little so Armenia gets Ani back. And then build a border crossing alongside. Return Ani to its former glory as a way-point for great journeys, and let people cross between Turkey and Armenia again.

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