The City of a Thousand and One Churches

Today a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, a thousand years ago Ani was a bustling commercial city where East and West converged. By Robert Ousterhout. Photographs by Brian McKee

  • ST GREGORY OF THE ABUGHAMRENTS Set dramatically at the edge of the plateau near the centre of Ani, this small family chapel built in the late 10th century for Grigor Pahlavuni is typical of the fine, centrally planned churches of medieval Armenia. It has six sides internally and twelve externally, with a distinctive conical roof

The ruins of Ani, now at the end of the road at Turkey’s closed border with the Republic of Armenia, offer a melancholy spectacle of isolated monuments amid rolling pastureland. A drive from the nearest city, Kars, is uneventful, the landscape bleak and treeless, with fields and flocks dwarfed beneath an oversized sky. The weather commands our attention, as the clouds jostle for prominence and sudden downpours appear out of nowhere. Beyond an occasional shepherd, there are few signs of habitation, fewer of modernity.

And suddenly we arrive. The grand stone towers of the fortification wall stand sentinel, though it is not immediately clear what they are guarding. As we approach, the vagaries of the landscape come into sharper focus: the walls are preceded by a dry moat that drops dramatically on either flank, and behind the wall, the triangular plateau on which the city once rose is framed by deep, unexpected ravines – impassable gouges in the landscape. In the mid-10th century, the Bagratid family had acquired the Citadel of Ani and surrounding properties, and in 961, Ashot III Bagratuni moved his capital from Kars to Ani. The city grew quickly, beyond the Citadel: Ashot had built his city walls at the narrowest point of the plateau, but by 989 new walls were constructed to the north, enclosing a much larger area, more than a kilometre square.

The uninhabited vastness is striking, today seemingly empty save for a few scattered monuments – distinctive, dark red stone rising above green moorland. On closer inspection, foundation walls, fallen ashlars, intricately carved blocks, vestiges of the distant past, are everywhere: beneath the thin layer of pasturage lie the remains of a grand, densely settled city, much of it still waiting to be discovered.

An entrepôt at an important crossroads, Ani controlled East–West caravan routes and became a centre of trade and production in its own right. In 992, the seat of the Armenian Church was transferred to Ani, which became a spiritual centre. At its height in the 11th century, the city was renowned for its wealth and boasted a population of more than 100,000. Excavations are revealing significant elements of the street system, as well as shops, houses and baths. It was once known as the “city of 1,001 churches”; only a handful stand today.The region had been under Arab rule since the seventh century, but by the mid-eighth century, several members of the Bagratid family had emerged as rulers of Arab protectorates. Initially styling themselves princes, with increasing power and autonomy, by the 880s they styled themselves kings. But the region remained a series of small, semi-independent, often feuding polities, set between the expanding power of Byzantium to the west and the emerging threat of the Seljuks to the east, with borders and political alliances remaining fluid.

After a period of flourishing Left A striking view into the dome of the Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents. Just 5 metres across, it looks more impressive thanks to its six horseshoe nichesand rapid growth in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, the rulers of Ani realised their precarious position. As a consequence, at his death in 1041, Hovhannes-Sembat willed his kingdom to the Byzantine emperor. But Byzantine rule was contested and short-lived: in 1064 the city fell to the Seljuk Turks, followed by a period of instability. Captured by the Georgians in 1200, Ani was given to the Mkhargrdzeli family, who ruled initially as their vassals and subsequently as vassals of the Mongols after 1237. Ani regained something of its prosperity, but with the increasingly volatile political situation, the city was gradually abandoned as the region came under the control of the Karakoyunlu Turks, who moved the capital to Yerevan

Ani endured for several centuries as a small village amid its grand ruins. Travellers of the 17th century claim to have seen 200 churches in and around Ani. By the early 19th century, however, the site was completely abandoned, only to be “rediscovered” by British and European adventurer-travellers thrilled by its unique and evocative architecture. The region came under Russian control in 1878, and Ani was excavated, intermittently from 1882 to 1917, by the Georgian-born historian and linguist Nikolai Marr. The border region was contested over the following decade, however, during which many of the artefacts and monuments, and even Marr’s excavation records, were destroyed. Ani became virtually inaccessible for much of the 20th century. Isolation, combined with the romantic evocations of 19th-century travellers, provided Ani with a unique cachet as mysterious, exotic and even mystical: in the 1920s, George Gurdjieff posited that Ani had preserved the secret knowledge of the ancient Assyrians, while in 1918, Josef Strzygowski claimed Ani was the ultimate source of European Gothic architecture. Now regularly visited by tourists, the monuments of Ani are again receiving the attention of archaeologists, architectural historians and conservators.

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