“Tesnem Anin u nor mernem” (‘Let me see Ani and die’)
– Line from a poem by 20th-century Armenian poet Hovhannes Shiraz
Nearing the Iran-Turkey border, the land rises like a wrinkled duvet. The wide plains between the hills are studded with herds of wild camel and men shepherding shaggy sheep. Then, looming above it all, is conical Mount Ararat — Turkey’s highest peak — crowned with snow and a skullcap of cloud. Famous as the ridge where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest, it’s a beacon that signals our crossing into Asia Minor. In the mountain’s shadow, we pass over the border at Doğubeyazıt. “Not pronounced ‘doggy biscuit’,” jokes our guide, Tolga, greeting us at the gates.
In this far northeastern nook of Turkey — 27 miles from the town of Kars — sits an archeological site of such importance it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status this year. And yet, just a decade ago, Ani was off limits to tourists without a permit from the army. “There were guards everywhere,” confirms Tolga. The morning of our visit, a cold snap has dusted snow over the ruins and quivering patches of mauve meadow flowers, and our boots crunch as we pass beneath the double line of crenellated city walls.
Founded in the fifth century, Ani grew to be the capital of the Bagratuni dynasty in the 10th century. It was a place of such magnificence, it was nicknamed ‘the city of a thousand-and-one churches’. An exaggeration, of course (evidence of only 40 religious buildings has been identified), but indicative, nonetheless, of the city’s wealth. This was accrued by offering safe harbour to Silk Road merchants. In return for paying a hefty tax, traders could rest at the town’s caravanserai — safe from bandits — have a vet attend to their animals and even indulge in a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, locals contributed blacksmithery skills and linseed-oil production knowhow to the exchange of ideas passed along the Silk Road.
Rested and resupplied, traders following the northern Black Sea route would cross a bridge spanning the Akhurian River, which, over the millennia, has carved out a deep gorge. Today, our path is blocked. The medieval bridge has collapsed in the middle and on the other side is the closed Armenian border.
Ani’s strategic position meant it was constantly attacked and occupied over the centuries. Its ruins span five empires: from the Bagratid Armenians, Byzantines, and Seljuk Turks to the Georgians and Ottomans. The worst came when it was sacked by the Mongols in 1236 and then reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1319. Then the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane captured it in the 1380s. Diminished, a small town struggled on inside its walls until 1735, when the last monks abandoned the monastery in the Virgin’s Fortress.
I shiver across the steppe towards the great dome of the Church of the Holy Redeemer, which dates from 1035. It was commissioned by Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid to house a fragment of the True Christ of Cross, brought back from a pilgrimage to Constantinople. Split in half by a bolt of lighting in 1955, the building now leans heavily on its scaffolding. Its inner structure exposed to the elements like a wound.
Most remarkable of the remaining structures in Ani is a church dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, built in 1215 by a wealthy Armenian merchant named Tigran Honents. Hidden from view, I pace down steep steps to its location on a ledge overlooking the gorge. Its outer corner has crumbled away, but inside it’s aflame with original pastel-coloured frescos depicting the life of the saint and Christ. A swirl of haloes, pomegranate trees and faded faces.
Just as we’re about to depart, three locals step through the doorway. Unable to communicate much, one moustachioed man breaks into song instead. A crooning Turkish folk tune that makes him close his eyes softly with each high note. Warmed by the music and shelter from the pinching wind, we’re loath to leave. But leave we must. Like the merchants of old, we return to the road once more. Just under 1,000 miles now lie between us and Istanbul/Constantinople.