Ani; the Rise and Fall (Part 1)

Back in May 2016, just a few months before it was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I took the family on a road-trip from our-then home in Tbilisi to the ruins of an ancient city called Ani. I had been alerted to the site by another photographer and, after following-up with a bit of on-line research, it was clear that it warranted a visit; particularly as it was only a couple of days drive from us. So, I left the dog with some friends, packed my gear, threw the family into the car and headed west for the border. We decided to make a trip of it and so planned, over a week or so, to travel from Tbilisi into Turkey via the border crossing at Çildir Yolo, down into the City of Kars (from where we would make a day-trip to Ani), over to the ski town of Erzurum, up to the mountains of Artvin and then back into Georgia, via the less-known Vale border-crossing, for a last night or two in the famous Georgian reserve of Borjomi.

The route was truly stunning (with the possible exception of the road between Erzurum and Artvin - most of which takes you through a series of tunnels carved into the mountains) and I may try to recount it all in a blog someday but, for now, I want to focus on the highlight of the trip; Ani.

  The first stop on the trip; the city of Kars

The first stop on the trip; the city of Kars

After an uneventful night in the colourful but otherwise mundane city of Kars (that seems a little unfair as the people of the city were truly welcoming, but the city does not have much else to offer), we headed due east for Ani. The trip only takes about an hour and, with the aid of a map and GPS, is very easy to find. If you're there for photography, I would advise leaving early to get the good light. I'm not sure crowd-avoidance is an issue - we were almost the only people there all day but, things may get more busy now that the site has been declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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The approach to the site is fairly flat and very open, so you can see the remains of the outer walls from fairly far away, particularly as the deep orange of the local stone, used to make them, stands out from the surrounding green pastures. Built in the 10th century, the medieval city was the capital of Armenia well into the 11th century (then, the Bagratid Armenian kingdom incorporated much of modern-day eastern-Turkey) and was the subject of many invasions, subjugations and natural disasters over the ensuing centuries. Now the site is firmly placed within the Turkish border, although modern-day Armenia is only a stones-throw away (literally - I did it) to the east.

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Whilst under the management of Turkeys' Cultural Ministry, the site has courted some controversy with Armenia decrying its current state of decay as evidence of mis-management. The Turkish government counters that much of the site has been damaged by Armenian mining activity nearby but, nevertheless, concedes to improve restoration and protection efforts - no doubt spurred-on by the more recent involvement of UNESCO.

The site is, of course, still used by the local population, primarily for livestock grazing...

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At its' height, the city of Ani was home to around 100,000 people and was a well-known and well-respected centre for trade and religion for many hundreds of years. It's difficult to get a real sense of this today as most of the city has either been completely destroyed by Mongol marauders, Turkish over-lords and massive earthquakes or remains hidden beneath the surface, yet to be uncovered by inquisitive archaeologists. However, there are several representative free-standing structures (mostly of a religious nature) that can hint at their collective past and these are impressive enough, particularly when considering their surroundings.

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It isn't known when, exactly, the Church of the Holy Apostles (above) was constructed but it was probably amongst the first structures in the city. It was used by the city's archbishops, built using an inscribed quatrefoil with corner chambers plan (for all you architects). The southern facing wall (pictured) is the only truly complete part of the building that remains but, even from the distance that this image was taken, the intricate stonework is clearly visible.

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Close to the Holy Apostles (both in time and space) sits the Church of St. Gregory (above); this was the private chapel of the family that built the larger Apostles church and was later to include their mausoleum. It has a centralised dome over a drum with six internal exedra (I'm assuming that these terms mean something to someone).

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Perhaps the most singularly impressive building on the site (and to me somewhat reminiscent of an old Yorkshire mill) is the Cathedral which dominates the skyline, sitting as it does on a rise. It was built towards the end of the 10th century (finished in the early part of the 11th century), well after its original progenitor, King Smbat II, died. It's domed roof collapsed in the 1319 earthquake but much of its interior design is still intact and has been is reminiscent of typical Gothic architecture; even though it predates that distinctive style by several hundred years.

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Another distinctive feature of the site is the gravity defying half-dome; all that remains of the Church of the Redeemer. A unique structure with a 19-sided external wall supporting a huge dome. Built in 1034, the building actually survived the various sackings and earthquakes but finally collapsed in 1955 during a large storm. The scaffolding that appeared in recent years is evidence of current attempts to restore the structure.

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Some of the buildings remain only as mere shadows of their complete selves; mere aggregations of walls and archways. King Gagik's church of St. Gregory, for example, was built during the first few years of the 11th century but collapsed not long after, only to be covered by a succession of houses. In its prime it would have been an impressive size, constructed as a re-creation of a famous 7th century Armenian cathedral, built  in the Armavir Province. Released from its grave in 1905, who knows how much longer these remnant walls will stand. Meanwhile, local horses graze at its foundations.

In the next instalment, we'll look at some of the details of the site as well as its' surroundings. In the meantime, you can read more about Ani at http://www.virtualani.org/citadel/ or, for a more condensed version (and the source of the facts and figures revealed herein), at the relevant Wikipedia page. 

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