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.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 56

Issue 56, October 2017 Brave Old World
£12.00 / $16.73 / 68.45 TL
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 56
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  • Jam Tomorrow

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    After a road trip like no other, taking in many of the best of Turkey’s burgeoning wineries, Kevin Gould and the Cornucopia tasting panel raise a glass (or several) and recommend the best of an impressive bunch

Buy the issue
Issue 56, October 2017 Brave Old World
£12.00 / $16.73 / 68.45 TL
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