Simply silent

Like walking through a temple… You will find five thousand years of sacred silence waiting for you in the city of Anı.

He began by invoking the name of Allah on that great day: “I, Seljuk Sultan Alparslan, conquered the city of Anı and gave the administration of the city to the Şeddatoğulları, who are under my rule.” These proud words are legible in the Kufic inscription of the Seljuk sultan who set foot in the city in 1064. In other words, exactly four thousand sixty-four years elapsed from the arrival of the first people to appreciate the fertility of this wetland plateau and seek refuge in its hillside caves until Alparslan entered it in the 11th century. Even today the remnants of a civilization that commenced with a handful of people in the Bronze Age continue to be a final destination on the journeys of curious travelers who are willing to cover a few thousand kilometers to get there.

THE GEOGRAPHY
Immediately adjacent to the village of Ocaklı 45 kilometers from Turkey’s eastern city of Kars, the town of Anı nestles in the valley of the Arpaçay, a tributary of the Aras River in the east. The Bostanlar river borders it on the west and northwest. Situated on a plateau cleaved by valleys on three sides, the city is exposed on its south-southwest side, which is protected by thick defenses whose original load-bearing walls have collapsed today. What we are talking about here is a city protected both geologically and strategically, whose land combines fertility with security. This made it one of the most sought-after stops on the Silk Road for both travelers and conquest-hungry sultans and kings.

A PRONUNCIATION ERROR
The renowned 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi is said to have called it ‘the city of An’ in his Seyahatname. Appearing in Latin inscriptions as ‘ANI’ in capitals, it was later written as ‘Ani’ since there was no lowercase undotted ‘ı’ in the period when it first began appearing in western sources. Not knowing any better, those encountering it for the first time read it in this way. Undotted ‘ı’ is also used on the maps of the Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, while the world-famous local guide Celil Ersözoğlu points out that the original settlers who inhabited caves in the environs until the earthquake of 1949 also called it ‘Anı’ (with an undotted ‘ı’) and that the other pronunciation is due entirely to error.

LITERATURE ON THE SUBJECT
A welter of conflicting names and dates are given in the not insignificant number of books or articles that have been written about the city. Meanwhile excavation continues in the area today and, unlike the other ancient cities in Turkey, not all of Anı’s secrets have yet been unearthed, a situation which shows first of all that a place may have more than one name when many tribes have passed through it or taken it under their rule. For every period made  additions to the area according to its own needs, and called it by a new name for a certain period of time as the cycle of life continued. The name of the city dates to the first quarter of the 20th century in a scholarly study by Josef Strzygowski, the oldest work on the subject written in modern times. As the reports of the excavations being carried out today are published, more in-depth literature on the subject is being produced.

NATURAL DEVASTATION
Just like the valleys we said surround it on three sides, there are gaps in the chronological history of Anı as well, caused by earthquakes. The destruction wreaked by the attack in 1249 of the Mongols, who had overrun all of Asia and parts of Europe, was a sharp turning point. For a period of almost a hundred years from that date, the advance of civilization in the city came to a halt. The earthquakes and the ruthless Mongol invasion all coincide with the period when the city lost large numbers of people to migration and the population dwindled considerably. Its days as the ‘City of Forty Gates’ and the ‘City of 1001 Churches’ with a population of over 100,000 at the start of the 11th century had been left far behind.

STANDING ON THE BORDER
While strolling around Anı, I stop at one of the farthest outposts of Turkey I can possibly reach. I’m not just near the border, I am on the border, so close that the distance cannot be measured on any ordinary map.
I am standing almost directly on the red line visible on the map. Dynamite being exploded at a stone quarry on the ‘other side’ of the Arpaçay, in other words of the border, until about five years ago is said to have been responsible in large measure for the destruction of the city’s ancient monuments.

CITY OF TEMPLES
These ruins exhibit one characteristic immediately discernible even to a visitor with no knowledge of the city, namely, that they are the unique surviving remains of a people and culture. Something whispers to us of the possible magnitude of the civilization that flourished here: its temples.

Anı is a sacred place, adorned with monuments of religious belief that stand as a testimony to what can be accomplished through faith over the generations. There is a virtual feast of art history here, from the Zoroastrian fire-temple to Christian architectural decoration and the octagonal minareted Islamic mosque. The Manuchehr Mosque (1072) has the distinction of being the first mosque built by the Seljuks in Anatolia. Another Islamic monument is the Ebul Muammeral Mosque (Boz Minare). The (Keçeli) Church) of the Saviors (1034) still  stands miraculously despite having been rent in two by lightning. The Tigran Honents Church (1215) is one of the most important buildings of the period for the ornamentation on the interior of its dome. Other important works include the Abughamrent Gregor Church (998), built by the Great King Gagik II, and the Pigeon Church (Genç Kızlar Kilisesi), the date of whose construction on steep rocks difficult to scale even today is uncertain. The best-preserved building in the city today, and a masterpiece of Armenian architecture, is the Great Cathedral (Fethiye Cami) (987-1010), which was temporarily used as a mosque after Alparslan’s conquest of the city in 1064. The Church of the Apostles (1031) meanwhile was originally built as the patriarchate and enlarged and converted into a caravanserai after the Seljuk conquest.

AN INVISIBLE HAND
Whatever flag waved from its city walls in whatever period, what we have here is a city in whose streets resounded probably all the languages of the nearby lands and seas. And what explains the diversity that was spread over an area of such breadth is something magical, the work of an invisible hand: trade. Even the ruined state of the Silk Road Bridge that separates yet actually joins the two countries quietly whispers that trade relations are not the only thing that came to an end. The quintessential orderly roads and marketplaces associated with Eastern Rome and the Seljuk caravanserais that served to ensure the safety of the Silk Road are a constant reminder of those old days, days when the city was a wealthy stop on the medieval trade route. One of the safest centers of accommodation and trade despite the wars that raged right next door, when the bad times set in Anı became a place to be avoided at all costs.

WHERE FACT AND LEGEND INTERMINGLE
Truth and rumor, history and legend have intermingled here. Time came to a standstill so long ago that it is not important today even where the sun rises and sets. Practically every scrap of information we give about Anı has to be qualified with a ‘so they say’. As I leave for home passing beneath the great gate I had quietly slipped through earlier, I know that one day some perceptive and open-minded people are going to decode the whispers among all these tablets and Kufic inscriptions. And then the past is going to speak, scattering truth over the legends that surround this sad and solitary city. I feel I’m leaving behind the only place in the world where I can find so much sadness side by side with so much tranquility. Leaving Anı behind to return again...