The ruins of Ani have always been on my bucket list and I wanted to see them for myself. While I was studying in Istanbul a few years ago, I booked a flight to Kars, the closest city to Ani. However, in a cruel twist of fate, I missed my flight and the opportunity to visit these ruins. A year later, I found myself back in Turkey again, and this time I was determined to visit. Indeed, revisiting the ruins of Ani was the best decision I had made. Ani used to be a city of a thousand and one churches and the vast ruins of these churches were absolutely stunning. Although there are no longer a thousand churches, there is still so much to see and imagine of this once-beautiful city.
Getting to Ani is surprising difficult. There are no public buses to Ani, except for a shared minivan service that leaves at 10.30am every morning. Most hotels would be able to secure a spot for you and you have about three hours to explore the ruins. If you missed that minivan, there is no other way to get to and from Ani apart from hitchhiking. Alternatively, consider taking a tour as a guide would take you around the ruins and explain the history and significance of the various buildings.
As I arrived in the parking lot, the massive fortress walls of the ruins of Ani immediately greeted me. While a large part of it has been restored, there were still some well-preserved sections dating thousands of years old. The ancient city of Ani used to be an Armenian city, as such there were many architectural features that could still be found in Armenia today. For example, many of the bricks used in the construction of the walls were made from a unique volcanic rock that could only be found in Armenia.
While most people would head straight towards the churches in the centre of the ruins, I walked along the walls just to appreciate the grandeur of its construction. The fortress walls ended before a valley, with a meandering river as the seemingly only source of water in this barren area. On the opposite side of the valley were rock walls with hundreds of holes in it. If you have visited Cappadocia, these little holes were extremely similar. This valley used to be the cradle of an ancient population, and people lived out of these rock caves for hundreds of years.
At any point at the ruins of Ani, I could easily see most of the ruined churches scattered around the vast barren plains. Some have been restored, but the original foundations were still kept as it was. In fact, it was easy to distinguish the original pieces from the restored ones. As the ruins of Ani now belong to Turkey, Turkey does not produce the volcanic rock bricks that are unique to Armenia. As such, the restored sections looked dull in comparison with the originals.
The city of Ani is located along the Turkish-Armenian border, determined by the meandering river that separates both countries. Many Armenians would travel to a viewpoint on their side of the river just to catch a glimpse of the ruined city of Ani. To many Armenians, the city of Ani was an important part of their rich history. Ani used to be the capital of ancient Armenia and was described as one of the most beautiful cities in the past. Today, Armenians can only revel in what was once theirs, as the city of Ani is now part of Turkey.
While there was an obvious trail that connected the various churches, some of the churches were not located along the trail. In fact, the most beautiful and well-preserved churches were the ones located off it. One of them was located slightly below the main plateau and most people would miss it. While I was trying to catch a better view of the river that separated Turkey from Armenia, I chanced upon that church, with a dome sliced in half.
Most of the churches at the ruins of Ani no longer have frescos on the inside. Many of them have been vandalised or whitewashed. However, this particular church at the edge of the cliff still had beautiful frescos. The details were vivid, despite the oxidation of the colours and the odd vandalism. As I stood inside and looked up, the life-like portrait of Jesus stared back at me. It was a surreal experience to be surrounded by angels and the holy disciples.
There have been many controversies surrounding the maintenance of the ruins of Ani. Many Armenians believe that the ruins were hastily restored and that the actual history of the city was erased from Turkish-based research. There was also surprisingly no mention of Armenia in the descriptions of the churches around the ruins. However, if you spent some time reading up on the history of the Ani and took the subjectivity of the guides with a pinch of salt, the ruins of Ani would still an incredible place to visit.
If you can only visit one place in eastern Turkey, I would strongly recommend that you visit the ruins of Ani. It might be a little difficult to access, but it is living evidence of the rich history of Armenia and of Christianity. The vast ruins are impressive, and there is also much space for imagination. The Ani today is only just a few churches, yet it is magnificent. I can only imagine how beautiful it would have been as the city of a thousand and one churches.
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