Ani is a special place. Despite sounding cliche, this ancient Armenian capital today is a perfect blend of ancient ruins, beautiful landscapes, and complete lack of crowds… a rare combination for a historic site of such awe inspiring beauty. For those intrepid enough to venture out this far into the eastern Anatolia, Ani will most certainly be one of the most memorable places you explore in all your travel adventures.
Historical Background of Ani
Ani’s most glorious period fell between 961 CE and 1045 CE when it served as the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom. It was during this period that the city underwent a massive building and growth phase where countless churches and monuments were constructed. Ani soon became one of the largest population centers of the world with around 100,000 residing there. The wealth flowing in and out of the city would make it one of the greatest cities of its time, a shinning example of the latest cultural and architectural achievements of the day. Its size and influence also added it to the Silk Road with routes along the original route making it an additional stop to sell and exchange goods.
Ani’s glory days would abruptly come to an end in 1046 CE when the Seljuks would conquer the city, slaying or imprisoning much of the population as they went. For almost two hundred years thereafter the city would be controlled by various kingdoms, including the Georgians, until it would fall like most other things to the invading Mongols in 1236 CE.
With no need for churches and other buildings, Ani was left to decay with an earthquake in 1319 leveling much of the city and its monuments. What you see today is mostly the remnants of that earthquake as much has not changed for nearly 700 years.
Today Ani, despite being the ancient capital of Armenia, now stands in modern day Turkey. The ruins are just a stones throw away from its mother country with just a deep gorge separating the banks of Ani with Armenia. During and after WWI the Ottoman government being led by the Young Turks systematically exterminated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians from Istanbul and across Anatolia. The result was the eradication of nearly all ethnic Armenians from the region, an event that still effects Armenia to this day. It also forced the shrinking of what was traditionally the Armenian homeland to its present day borders. Due to this, many of Armenia’s most impressive monuments, such as Ani, now lie in the eastern reaches of Turkey.
Due to its remote location along the closed border with Armenia, Ani remains very quiet even today. Guard towers watch over the border along the distant hills while much of the Ani site is blocked off due to a military base being station on the Turkish and Armenian sides of the border.
Ani is one of the few archaeological sites that really speaks to you. The green plain dotted with orange and black bricked ruins that sit alone create an eerie atmosphere that takes the place over as you enter. Not having to fight for a photo among pushy tourists only adds to the natural peacefulness of this once great city. As you pass by the ruble and ruins that contrasts brightly with its surroundings, rooms and buildings seem to speak to you and come alive. Taking time to just sit and listen within the site is an experience all onto itself.
Most of the sites are spread out across the large plain that lies between the old city walls and the gorge that separates Ani from modern day Armenia. Conveniently, most of the ruins reside along the circular path that makes a large loop around the grassy plain. The path that cuts through the circle passes through the much ruined residential area of the city where you can just make out rooms and homes throughout the rubble.
The best part of visiting Ani is simply just wandering around and taking in the entire atmosphere of the place. But due to a lack of detailed sign postings, we will highlight some of the larger attractions that reside at the archaeological site.
Church of the Redeemer
The church of the Redeemer, completed in 1036 CE, was a reliquary for a piece of the True Cross. Not much of the building remains today as after a lightning strike in 1957, the remaining half is on its last leg and surrounded by supporting structures preventing its inevitable collapse. Its hard to get a close look at the church since it is the only structure surrounded by fencing.
Church of St Gregory
While the Cathedral dominates the grass strewn plain, it is the Church of St. Gregory tucked away in the far corner that is the jewel of the historical site. The ancient structure, built in 1215 CE, sits above the Arpacay gorge that divides modern day Turkey and Armenia. The bright orange stonework contrasts against the water soaked green fields that abruptly give way to the dark waters below, making it the most beautiful shot in the area.
Once descending down to the ledge where the church stands, you will soon be quick to realize that this church is much better preserved than the rest of the ancient city. Most of the facades remain, full on ancient Armenian script accompanied by images of animals and people.
Take a look inside the church for badly damaged yet incredibly colorful medieval frescoes that still cover the majority of the interior space. Many of the scenes look straight out of your high school history textbook with medieval knights and church figures fighting elegantly in battle or being tortured in excruciating ways. Other scenes depict biblical scenes with most of the frescoes on a bright blue or green background.
Convent of the Virgins
Sadly due to border security measures in place, the small chapel looking Convent of the Virgins is off limits but that doesn’t mean you can appreciate the beautiful remains from a distance. Following the unassuming path labeled Silk Road down into the gorge allows visitors a much closer and photogenic look of the old Convent. The Convent was built sometime in the 11th century CE and sits beautifully just above the country dividing river.
Silk Road Bridge
From the Convent, you can proceed a little farther down the road to catch a glimpse of the remains of a 9th century CE bridge which was supposedly used by Silk Road traders. You can’t get very close to it, but it is still pretty cool to imagine a bustling scene that must have occurred all of those years ago. Don’t venture too far down the road unless you want to meet some Turkish military police.
Standing out no matter where you are in Ani is the Cathedral, the largest structure of the site still standing today. Today the Cathedral from a distance looks more like a mansion than a church due to the fact that the massive central dome collapsed a long time ago. You can get an idea of what it looked like by checking out any Armenian church at the site with a dome. The typical tall central domes that sit atop of these churches represent Mount Ararat.
Inside the large open space that the church creates is rather lifeless today but a closer inspection on the outside brings the building to life with intricate carvings and inscriptions in Armenian. The three doorways that you see were originally separate entrances for the priests, the king, and the common people. The massive structure was completed in 1010 CE.
Once the Seljuk Turks controlled the region of Ani, they commissioned the first mosque to be built in the region which would become known as Manucehr Cami in 1072 CE. The layout and design of the mosque is rather unusual as the Seljuks used local Armenian architects to design and construct the mosque. The result ended up being a wonderful mix of Armenian niches and layouts along with Arabic inscriptions and minaret that towers over nearly all at the site today.
You can apparently climb the minaret but at the time of our visit the gate leading up the stairs was locked and there was absolutely no one around to open it for us. The mosque Armenian facing walls open up to stunning views into Armenia and makes for a great lunch or snack stop. Surrounding the mosque is a vast pile of rubble and foundations. This once was a busy section of town filled with shops and homes.
Church of the Holy Apostles
The Church of the Holy apostles, also known as Kervansaray, is still in pretty good shape for Ani standards. Much of the structure is collapsed but enough stands to give you an idea of what the church looked like. I was completed in 1031 CE but was later converted into and Caravanserai by the seljuks who also added the dome that you can stand under today.
Church of St Gregory Abughamrents
The Church of St Gregory, like many ruins in Ani, sits on a beautiful cliff overlooking the gorge and mountains beyond. One of the more well preserved structures at the site, the church was completed around 980 CE which also makes it one of the older structures you will find at Ani today. The stout little church is rather beautiful to gaze upon as the dome, representing Mount Ararat, stands tall looking out across the lush green valley. It was commissioned by one of the wealthy families that lived in the city and has stood the test of time.
Unfortunately, the gigantic ruins of the city’s once impressive citadel are off limits to visitors due to military activity. Visitors are only permitted to gaze from afar and left to wonder how impressive the view must be from the top of the hill. With the situation between Armenia and Turkey stagnated, it does not seem that the situation will change anytime soon.
Anything Else to See?
What we have listed here are merely the highlights of Ani. Much more ruined structures are littered across the lonely plateau begging for exploration. Be sure to wander the site a bit after exploring the greatest hits in order to grasp the true size and scope of the archaeological site. From a distance, you can spot other impressive churches from afar sitting in beautiful but restricted zones in the area Maybe one day visitors will get the chance to visit them but the not so distant future doesn’t seem promising in this regard.
Getting There and Away
The modern day city of Kars serves as a home base for those looking to explore the ruins of Ani. While there is not much to do or see in modern day Kars, the city is the closest transportation and accommodation point with access to Ani.
You will most likely spend a day or two in Kars. Accommodation options are limited and places that know any English is even more so. We recommend staying with Hotel Temel. While they did not speak any english, they are used to having the occasional foreign traveler and do their best to accommodate you. Food is a crap shoot here as we didn’t eat anywhere that was worth writing about. In terms of sights, Visiting the Armenian church that was converted into a mosque in addition to the nearby citadel is an afternoon well spent. There are also other sights nearby such as other mosques and baths, but they were under major restoration at the time of visit. The city itself is worth a walk if you’re interested in seeing a city in Turkey with little tourism influence.
Without your own car, there are only two options for visiting the site.
Option one, being the cheapest, is to take the daily bus that runs between Kars and Ani once daily. Unless you are really tight on funds we discourage you from taking this option as the bus leaves Kars at 9am and returns at 11:50am, leaving you with less than two hours to cover the entire site. We assure you that with this much time you will feel rushed and it will be hard for you to capture the mystical atmosphere of the area. The bus leaves Kars near the intersection of Faikbey and Gazi Ahmet Pasa caddessi. Ask your hotel for details and time changes before leaving.
Option two is to hire your own transportation with or without a guide. The easiest way to do this is to contact Celil Ersozoglu who runs tours to and from Kars. He is both friendly and professional with a wealth of knowledge about Ani and its history. Even if you opt out of his guide services, he will be sure to give you a rundown of the history behind Ani along the scenic journey to the site. Celil can be contacted at Celilani@hotmail.com . Don’t worry if you can’t find him as he will probably find you once you check into your hotel in Kars as they all know him well. We ended up bumping into him on the street and arranged our trip that way.
Ani: An Impressive City Left to be Forgotten
For those that make the rough and tumble journey out into the isolated hills of eastern Anatolia, Ani is the gem that makes the long travels all worth while. In its own right, Ani is a destination worth traveling days for. The seemingly endless green hills and gorges contrast too perfectly with the orange and black brickwork of the buildings built in the distant past. The dark looming sky, bellowing a bit of thunder every now and then only added to the eerie and lonely atmosphere that the site projects today. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds of Istanbul, and the herds found at Ephesus then Ani is your place to be.