Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ani - City of 1001 Churches

A Visit to Ani -- A Footprint to the Once Flourishing Armenian Cultural Center

One of the great highlights of our trip to Western Armenia was a visit to the city of Ani, located about 30 minutes from Kars in northeastern Turkey. Ani is now nothing but a shell of the magnificent city it once was -- the victim of transition in power of this historic Armenian site to Turkey in the early 20th century.

Ani's origin dates back to the 5th Century AD. At one time, its population was between 100,000 and 200,000. It was once the seat of the Armenian Catholicos, and the capital of the Armenian Bagratuni Dynasty.

Geographically, today Ani sits on the Turkish side of the border of Armenia and Turkey, with the Akhurian River ( a branch of the Arax River) forming the border. It sits above a deep ravine above the Tzaghgadzor Valley. Historically, Ani stood on various trade routes. Its many churches, palaces, and fortresses were among the most technically and artistically advanced structures in the world. Under control of Armenians until 1064, Ani was captured and its population slaughtered by Seljuk Turks in 1064 AD. From that time until the early 20th Century, Ani's governance changed hands numerous times, until 1921, when the signing of the Treaty of Kars between the Turks and Russians handed over Ani to Turkey.

Today, the once flourishing city has been left by the Turks to become a crumbling shell of what was once considered a flourishing center of trade and culture. The link in the preceding sentence will take you to an interesting virtual website from where you can read more about the excavation of Ani in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once under Turkish rule, excavation and any hope of renovation of Ani has ended.

Until recently, tourists were not permitted to photograph inside the fortress walls of Ani. Indeed, one could not even visit Ani without permission from the government of the City of Kars. However, we were lucky to visit at a time when we were left free to roam the large triangular landscape dotted with the remains of once beautiful structures -- and to take photographs to our hearts' content! We did just that.

We spent three hours at Ani, walking the uneven ground dotted with wildflowers, and less pleasant smelling droppings, and making a circle around the inside, visiting each of the ruins. As we headed toward the eastern side of the city, we approached a barbed wire fence -- a few feet from us -- on the edge of the slope leading to the ravine created by the Akhurian River. We were at the border of Turkey and Armenia -- looking across to the land just west of the City of Gumri. I became so angry at the thought that our historic land had been given to the Turks in 1921 who, like with almost every other historic Armenian monument, had allowed a magnificent piece of history to just crumble to the ground.

Our pathway led us to several churches, some which had only one wall standing, and some -- like the cathedral of of Ani -- were largely intact. Also known as Surp Asdvadzadzin (church of the Holy Mother of God), its construction was started in the year 989, under King Smbat II. Work was halted after his death, and was only finished in 1001 (or in 1010 under another reading of its building inscription). The design of the cathedral was the work of Trdat, the most celebrated architect of medieval Armenia. The cathedral is a domed basilica (the dome collapsed in 1319). The interior contains several progressive features (such as the use of pointed arches and clustered piers) that give to it the appearance of Gothic architecture (a style which the Ani cathedral predates by several centuries). On the outside, Armenian inscriptions remain, with the symbol of the cross scattered througout. Inside, the height of the cathedral is overwhelming, with tall toufa columns reaching high to support the church's arches and high dome. We once again lit candles and said Hayr Mer (the Lord's Prayer) before moving on.

On the far eastern end, one of the churches, the Church of St. Gregory of Abughamrents, which sits on the edge of the ravine, was under construction. Our experience with these types of renovations, rare as they were, led us to believe that much of the historic Armenian lettering and decorations would eventually be obliterated by more typical Islamic designs -- and eventually this church's history would be attributed to the Seljuk Turks, not the Armenians who actually designed and built it.

Across from us, on the Armenian side, we saw working quarries of the famous red tufa stone -- I wondered why the Armenians could not create a magnificent viewing point in that area for those in Armenia to see their historic Ani -- most likely, its proximity to the border would prohibit that from ever happening.

We continued our walk, passing a mosque built around the 11th century, and visiting remains of other churches. We were fortunate that during most of our visit, we had Ani largely to ourselves. About midway through our walk (which lasted 3 hours), we ran into a small group of Australian tourists, who did not visit all of the ruins, but only the major ones.

We stopped at the remains of Gagikashen (King Gaghik's Church) -- one of 4 churches built by Armenians with a round base. Zvartnots Cathedral -- the largest -- was built in Armenia and today one can visit what is left of that magnificent church not far from the Zvartnots airport in Armenia. In Ani, the next largest is Gagikashen. Today, it sits in ruins, but one can see its footprint created in 1001-1005 AD, designed by Trdat the Architect with the intent of recreating Zvartnots in Ani. Gagikashen, like Zvartnots, was discovered and excavated in the beginning of the 20th Century. Gagikashen fell into ruins not long after it was built, and a city was built on top of it. Its remains were found under a mound of dirt, and excavated in 1905 and 1906.

We stopped on the western edge of Ani and looked into the ravine where we saw caves built into the hillsides. Historically, the wealthy and royalty lived in the City of Ani, and the peasants and workers lived outside of the fortress walls, along the river, using the caves as shelter. We could see children playing in the creeks formed by the river nearby, far below us.

As we completed our visit to Ani I looked back at what was once a treasure trove of Armenian architecture, and at the country of Armenia only a few miles away, across the ravine. Once again I became angry. The land that is now called "Turkey" is historically part of the cradle of civilization - rich in the history of many cultures and dynasties that shaped its development until after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the current Turkish government created a country called "Turkey". I simply could not believe that such rich history could be allowed by any government to crumble into ruins, essentially wiping out the evidence of existence of Armenians and others, who played such an important role in the history of this area. But, this visit to Turkey gave me no choice but to believe the Turkish government is, and has been, doing just that.

On the road a few kilomenters away from Ani, which began our long journey to Mush and away from Kars, Vartan stopped at a roadside monument and insisted that we get out and take a picture. The monument was a memorial to the victims of "genocide" caused by Armenians of the Turkish villagers of Kars on April 24, 1918. Does this date sound oddly familiar?? While we did not doubt that bands of Armenian rebels in 1915-1918 may have retaliated against Turks for the heinous acts of genocide by the Ottoman Turks against our innocent ancestors, the spin with which this plaque was written was typical of what we saw, and heard, as we travelled through Turkey. Quite coincidentally, as I walked away from this monument back toward the van, sitting on the ground before me was a symbol that accurately reflected my sentiments at that moment. I have shared it with you as the last picture in the group below!

Post Script -- The City of Kars
The City of Kars dates back to 500 BC. At some point in the 10th century, it became part of the Armenian Bagratid Dynasty, and later fell to conquering tribes of Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. Its more recent history at the turn of the 20th century found Kars the center of conflict and transition between Russian and the Ottoman Empire. Strategically located, in the mid 1900's, Russia renewed its efforts to regain control of Kars by nullifying the 1921 Kars Treaty. However, it was not successful in doing so. In 1993, Turkey closed the border crossing between Kars and now independent Armenia. Although supported by neighboring Azerbajian following the Karabagh conflict of 1992 and thereafter, the closure of the border crossing has recently become a subject of renewed discussion -- the government of Turkey is campaigning to become of member of the EEU, and its closure of the border with Armenia, effectively creating a blockade, is a politically sensitive issue that is now on the forefront. The railroad between Turkey and Armenia passes through Kars -- the border closure has resulted in the closure of this important means of transport of goods to Armenia, creating a blockade.

While richly populated by Armenians in and before 1915, today the only evidence in Kars of that population is the remnants of homes with traditional Armenian designs in the city center, and an Armenian Church now converted (big surprise) to a Mosque.

Kars Fortress, also dating back to the Bagratid Dynasty, sits above the old city -- most likely having a magnificent view of the distant Ani when it was in its ultimate splendor.

Below the castle is an Armenian church known as St. Arakelotz, the Church of the Apostles. Built in the 930s under the Bagratid Dynast, it has a tetraconch plan (a square with four semicircular apses) surmounted by a spherical dome. On the exterior, the drum of the dome contains "Bas-relief" depictions of twelve figures, usually interpreted as representing the Twelve Apostles. The dome itself has a conical roof. The church was converted to a mosque in 1579, and then converted into a Russian Orthodox church in the 1880s. The Russians constructed porches in front of the church's 3 entrances, and an elaborate bell tower (now demolished) next to the church. The church was used briefly by Armenians as a church in 1918 after Turkey lost control of Kars. However, once Turkey regained control of Kars in 1921, the church was used as a warehouse from the 1930s, housed a small museum from 1963 until the late 1970s, then stood derelict for about two decades until its conversion into a mosque in 1998. Once again, an Armenian Church has seen its history and architecture bastardized by the Turks claiming that this building was commissioned and built by the Seljuk Turks. You decide who designed and built this edifice, the entry to which we were refused "because it is a mosque."

1 comment:

  1. In the museum in Van, I found lots of photos of Turkish victims of the Armenians but no photos of Armenian victims of the Turks. After wandering around for a while, I stopped a museum official and asked him why his museum didn't provide a more balanced picture of that period of history. His reply: "This is a Turkish museum." But a museum should be impartial; it shouldn't play politics. In this world, we have all committed crimes. We should acknowledge them, and move on. - Adil Ireland,