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 all but separated from the rest of Turkey by two deep tributaries.

While the site now consists of little more than an expanse of rubble, 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 that lie behind, are exquisite compositions in a blend of ruddy sandstone and darker volcanic rock. Recent mining of the same materials has resulted in a few unsightly scars on the Armenian side of the border – which is surely the result of spite, given their positioning. However, the gently undulating landscape remains every bit as evocative as the ruins: it’s inconceivable to venture east of Erzurum or Artvin without fitting Ani into your plans.

Be sure you’re prepared for a trip to Ani. Midsummer is usually very hot, so you’re advised to bring a hat, sun cream and water to tour the site, as well as snacks. Note also that the site itself nudges up against the highly sensitive Armenian border, and whole areas remain out of bounds. The jandarma, who patrol the site continuously, will let you know which areas to avoid.

Ani’s vast tenth-century walls, studded with towers, are visible from afar, as you approach past villages teeming with sheep, buffalo, horses, donkeys and geese. Aslan Kapısı, site of the ticket office and named for a sculpted Selçuk lion on the wall just inside, is sole survivor of the four original gates. Once beyond the inner wall you’re confronted by the forlorn, weed-tufted plateau, dotted with only the sturdiest bits of masonry that have outlasted the ages.

Signposted paths, many of them remnants of Ani’s former streets, lead to or past all of the principal remains.

Brief history

Ani first came to prominence after the local installment of the Armenian Gamsarkan clan during the fifth century. Situated astride a major east–west caravan route, the city 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 one 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 devastating 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.