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As you approach the Turkish border with Armenia, the medieval walled city of Ani appears suddenly in all its glory.
Whether you come from the Caucasus or from the direction of Erzurum, the 1500-meter-high Kars plateau will meet you. And what all won’t you find on it? Lakes large and small, such as Çıldır, Hozapin and Aygır, and Lake Sevan further east, in a landscape which is snow-covered in winter, now frozen over, now refuge to 6-7 kg fish. The Kars and Aras Rivers and their tributaries which divide up this geography appear and disappear in the river-crossed landscape. Watering now the Kars region, now the lands of Ardahan, now Iğdır Plain, they winds in and out of Armenia briefly following the Turkey-Armenia border at Iğdır, Tuzluca and Aralık and, after forming a bend between Turkey, Nahçıvan and Armenia, finally leave Turkey to empty into the Caspian.
Meanwhile the Akkurian River (Turkish: Arpaçay), one of the major tributaries of the Aras, flows now through the plains, now through the deep valleys east of Kars plateau, contributing importantly to power production and irrigation in the region together with the waters of the Arpaçay Dam 45 km east of Kars.
A religious and commercial capital
At exactly this point, 43 km east of Kars next to the present-day village of Ocaklı, lies one of the most important cities in the history of Anatolia. I say ‘lies’ because Ani was once a thriving city that stood on its own two feet until the end of the 14th century, a medieval religious and commercial capital.
Pottery shards in the area show that Kars and the settlements in its vicinity date back to the 7th millennium B.C. They are thought to have been ruled by the communities that shared the same culture as the Tel-Afar pottery in Northern Mesopotamia in this period. Later the Hurrians, the Mitanni, the Hatti, the Urartu, the Cymmerians, the Persians, the Hellenes, the Seleucids and the Scythians made their homes here. The Karsakid dynasty, for which Kars is named, and the Arshakid, Roman, Byzantine and Armenian dynasties, as well as the Bagratids (Armenian Kingdom) in the 9-10th centuries, built Ani. It is with such feelings as we were approaching the Turkey-Armenia border that Ani and its city walls suddenly appeared before our eyes in the distance in all their glory.
THE LION GATE
If you enter this city-ruin through the gate fortified by the twin towers, you will learn from a four-line inscription half the height of the right-most of the two support towers on either side of this entrance, known as the Lion Gate, that the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan ordered the construction of this tower in 1066. A relief of a lion advancing singly towards the left directly opposite the entrance will give you an appreciation of this figure, which symbolized the strength and power of the communities of Central Asia in the pre-Christian era.
The first building boom
Just as there is a first of everything, so the first building in Ani is inside the Inner Citadel, constructed in the time of the Kamsarakans as determined by the Russian archaeologist and scholar Nikolai Marr.
Surrounded by natural valleys and rivers on the east, west and south, the area around this initial spate of construction, which followed a palace and a few churches, cemeteries and units of settlement, was extended towards the north for the first time during the reign of the Bagratid King Ashot II (961-977) with new defense walls and towers, all of different heights and importance and punctuated by seven gates, and expanded for a second time during the reign of King Smbat (977-989). A number of surviving cultural monuments, both inside and outside the walls, underscore the importance of this historic city in the 12th and 13th centuries. Travelers who crossed the Single Arch Bridge over the Arpaçay in the east also had much to say about Ani in their travel books.
MOSQUES AND CHURCHES
Apart from the area around the Inner Citadel, elements inside the city walls such as the Manuchehr and Abu’l-Muammeran Mosques and the Seljuk Palace and caravanserai, the Church of Saint Gregory built by King Gagik I, the ‘Ateşgede’ or Sacred Fire, the Church of the Apostles, the Abu’l-Garib Krikor (Polatoğlu) Church, and the Church of Tigran Honents (Şirli) as well as the Great Cathedral built by King Gagik I’s wife Katranide, the Church of the Redeemer (Surp Amenap’rkitch) and the Georgian Church all stand out in Ani as magnificent monuments to its multi-cultured, multi-faceted structure. You will encounter vegetal, geometric and figurative decorations on the interior and exterior surfaces of the buildings, on the doors and arches, and on the domes and their vaults. The interior surfaces meanwhile are given over more to frescos symbolizing subjects related to Christianity.
Evidence of a multi-cultural civilization
Expressions and signs in Arabic, Armenian, Turkish and Georgian on the same column offer concrete documentation of Ani’s multi-culturalism. And the extremely ornate palaces, markets and dwellings are evidence that Ani was a truly civilized town in the Middle Ages.
Ani, which constitutes a significant part of the cultural heritage of northeastern Anatolia, sustains its character as a tranquil, quiet, virtually sleeping city-ruin which harbors countless treasures in its bosom.
Nikolai Marr, who conducted the first Ani excavations at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and continued them at intervals, illuminated many aspects of the city’s texture. Since 1987 the excavations have been resumed with the backing of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Milli Reasürans Art Gallery has prepared for publication a 256-page book on Anatolian architecture with contributions by Prof. Dr. Metin Sözen, Prof. Dr. Hamza Gündoğdu and Prof. Dr. Şengül Öymen Gür. The city of Ani figures prominently in the book.
Turkish Airlines flies round trip Istanbul-Kars every day of the week.