Once the capital of Bagratid Armenia, ANI is today a melancholy, almost vacant triangular plateau, divided from Armenia by the stunning Arpa Çayı (Ahuryan river) gorge and very nearly separated from the rest of Turkey by two deep tributaries. The site is mainly an expanse of rubble, but from it rise some of the finest examples of ecclesiastical and military architecture of its time. The Armenians were master stoneworkers, and the fortifications that defend the northern, exposed side of the plateau, and the handful of churches behind, are exquisite compositions in a blend of ruddy sandstone and darker volcanic rock. Mining of the same materials has resulted in a few unsightly scars on the Armenian side of the border – surely a matter of spite, given their positioning. However, the gently undulating landscape remains as evocative as the ruins: it’s inconceivable that you’d venture east of Erzurum or Artvin without fitting Ani into your plans.
The vast boundary walls of Ani, dating from the late tenth century and studded with countless towers, are visible from several kilometres as you approach past villages teeming with sheep, buffalo, horses, donkeys and geese. The ticket office is at the Aslan Kapısı, so named because of a sculpted Selçuk lion on the wall just inside, and sole survivor of the four original gates.
Once beyond the inner wall you’re confronted with the sight of the vast forlorn, weed-tufted plateau, dotted with only the sturdiest bits of masonry that have outlasted the ages. A system of signposted paths, many of them remnants of the former main streets of Ani, lead to or past all of the principal remains.
Some 200m east, tucked down a stair-path by a course of wall overlooking the Arpa Çayı, the charming monastic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator (Tigran Honents) is the best preserved of Ani’s monuments, and somewhat confusingly one of three dedicated to the saint who brought Christianity to Armenia at the start of the fourth century. The pious foundation of a merchant nobleman in 1215, it’s unusually laid out in a rectangle divided width-wise into three (though a colonnaded narthex and small baptistry have mostly collapsed). The ground plan reflects the prominent Georgian influence in thirteenth-century Ani, and the fact that the Orthodox, not the Armenian Apostolic, rite was celebrated here. The church still sports delicate exterior relief-work, including extensive avian designs.
The church is most rewarding for its frescoes, the only ones surviving at Ani, which cover most of the interior and spill out around the current entrance onto what was once the narthex wall, giving the church its Turkish name Resimli Kilise or “Painted Church”. They are remarkable both for their high degree of realism and fluidity – especially compared to the static iconography of the contemporaneous Byzantines – and for the subject matter, depicting episodes in early Armenian Christianity as well as the doings of ordinary people.
The city first came to prominence after the local instalment of the Armenian Gamsarkan clan during the fifth century. Situated astride a major east–west caravan route, Ani prospered, receiving fresh impetus when Ashot III, fifth in the line of the Bagratid kings of Armenia, transferred his capital here from Kars in 961. For three generations the kingdom and its capital enjoyed a golden age. Beautified and strengthened militarily, with a population exceeding a hundred thousand, Ani rivalled Baghdad and Constantinople themselves.
By the middle of the eleventh century, however, wars of succession took their toll. The Byzantine Empire annexed the city in 1045, but in the process dissolved an effective bulwark against the approaching Selçuks, who took Ani with little resistance in 1064. After the collapse of the Selçuks, the Armenians returned in less than a century. The Pahlavuni and Zakhariad clans ruled over a reduced but still semi-independent Armenia for two more centuries, continuing to endow Ani with churches and monasteries. The Mongol raids of the thirteenth century, a devasting earthquake in 1319 and realigned trade routes proved mortal blows to both Ani and its hinterland; thereafter the city was gradually abandoned, and forgotten until noticed by European travellers of the nineteenth century.