Forty kilometers east of the Turkish city of Kars, high on the windswept steppe, is piece of land jutting into Armenia like a dagger. Surrounded on three sides by deep, nearly impassable chasms and the barbed wire fence denoting the still closed border between Turkey and Armenia, lies the ruins on the ancient city of Ani – the one time capital of the greater Armenian Kingdom of the Middle Ages.
Driving towards Ani, the first thing you can’t help but notice is the size and the magnificence of it’s once mighty walls, protecting the only section of the city that was not granted natural defenses. Passing through the inner and outer walls, the remnants of the city open up before you – an immense field of rubble, with the bare outlines of what once would have been bustling roads, full of goods from the Silk Road, winding through the foundations of long abandoned houses.
It is hard to imagine that this city – now marked as an off the beaten road tourist destination displaying the former power of Georgia, Armenia and the older Turk dynasties – was once one of the great regional powers of the medieval world, boasting a populace of up to 200,000 people one thousand years ago. Its richness, power, influence and location – on top of the Silk Road leading through Eastern Anatolia – meant that this city considered itself a rival of Constantinople in the West; but then, the world changed.
Passing from Armenian hands to Georgian, back to Armenian to Byzantine, then to Turk caused troubles for the city, but none as severe as the coming of the Mongols. After the sacking of the city, it seemingly recovered under a series of local Turkish dynasties, until it was again scattered by the next Central Asian menace – the Timurids under the control of Tamerlane. The trade routes changed after this; Ani never recovered.
Now the only testament to the power of the city are the hollow, splintered remains of the once grand Armenian churches and caravanseries somehow still standing amidst the rubble of their contemporaries behind Ani’s grand walls. Although the city gave off a mystical, powerful air, I was not all that impressed by the buildings still standing – perhaps I’ve become jaded to ruins by being surrounded by them for so long in Turkey – until we stumbled across the last church.
Hidden from the powerful winds of the steppe and the graffiti of local Turkish shepherds who graze through Ani, this church was built a good way down one of the ravines – completely hidden, unless you knew where to look. Almost perfectly preserved, the inside of the church still housed murals of Armenian saints on every surface, though the colors were obviously mute with age. Whereas the rest of the buildings in Ani seemed forgotten, this last church still managed to stand with a certain authority.
And then, it was time to go. From nowhere a massive storm seemed to have rolled in, and the sky blackened as thunder rang across the plateau.