Ani, the grand medieval capital of an Armenian royal dynasty, had almost impregnable double city walls, a magnificent citadel, a cathedral, several Mosques and “a thousand and one Churches”, all built from stunning, reddish lava stone. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1236, never to recover. Located on the cold-war border between Turkey and the Soviet union it has remained a ghost town and an eerie but remarkable contested historical site.
You approach Ani on a narrow dirt road from Kars in Turkey over vast, flat grasslands when suddenly the black silhouette of its ruined city walls break the horizon. Arriving and entering through the Lion gate, you are about to discover a vast medieval ghost town about a square kilometre large where you can walk street after street with buildings collapsed on their foundations and see its wonderful remaining key features such as the 11th century cathedral by famous master architect Trdat.
I was there just some years after the end of the Cold War. You could still see the rusty Soviet watchtowers on the other side of the border river right by the city and the guides told stories of tourists having been shot by tower guards for taking photos in the wrong direction.
Ani was built as the capital of the Bagratid royal dynasty and of medieval Armenia of the 11th and 12th centuries. This was a larger realm than the present state which included large parts of present eastern Turkey. It quickly grew to a prosperous city with between 50 and 100 thousand inhabitants, hundreds of churches, strong defence works and a row of architectural masterpieces such as the cathedral.
In the late 11th century the city was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, its population slaughtered, and then followed a period of turmoil before it was thoroughly sacked by the Mongols in 1236 and victim to a devastating earthquake some decades later. It lingered on, a shadow of its former glory, before being completely abandoned in the 18th century.
Rediscovered and investigated by travellers and archaeologists in the 1800s, Ani changed hands between Ottoman and Russian empires, later being fought over by the Ottomans and the new Republic of Armenia. After being Armenian for a brief period, it now belongs to Turkey since 1921.
A truly magnificent but much neglected site right on a heavily militarized border zone for decades and a continued source of quarrels between Turkey and Armenia, the latter considering it their national heritage, Ani became UNESCO world heritage in 2016, restoration works are underway and it’s an amazing historical place to visit on a day-trip from the gloomy town of Kars.