“I think this must be Russian,” said a Turkish university student as we looked at the inscriptions on the ruined Church of the Redeemer at Ani. For a moment I was stunned.
Ani was built 1,000 years ago as the capital of an Armenian kingdom that stretched over much of what is now eastern Turkey. Today shepherds graze their sheep here in the shadow of the crumbling monuments.
On reflection, I should not have been so surprised. The large introductory sign at the entrance is an unpleasant piece of historical distortion that makes no mention of the Armenians. Nor did a Turkish guidebook that we brought with us.
“It’s not Russian,” I said, “it’s Armenian… The Armenians built this city.” She looked again with mild surprise at the inscriptions.
As striking as the dilapidation and decay of Ani is this sense of estrangement between the people who shared this land for centuries. When we visited on a late afternoon in April, there were only a handful of other sightseers. There are no bus services, so you either hire a car or take a taxi from Kars, about 30 miles away.
The ruined city is bounded on three sides by a gorge through which flows the Arpacay river, and in the distance watchtowers mark the modern-day Armenian border.
The Turkish biology students who had got a lift with me from Kars were excited to see from atop the walls what appeared to be an Armenian village in the distance. It was perhaps five miles away, but to visit we would have to travel several hundred, via Georgia or Iran. The Turkish border has been closed since 1993, when Ankara broke off ties with Yerevan after the latter went to war with Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan.
Turks and Armenians have periodically fought over this land for centuries. The Seljuks captured Ani in 1064, selling it to the Kurdish Shaddadid dynasty eight years later, who then lost it to the Georgians in around 1200.
Devastated during the Mongol invasions, the city entered a slow decline and was abandoned by the middle of 18th Century. Its death predates the events that are the main cause of bitterness between Turks and Armenians: the systematic murder and deportation between 1915 and 1918 of the entire Armenian population of eastern Turkey, during which time as many as 1.5m Armenians died.
In 1920, Turkey fought Armenia again, seizing Kars and Alexandropol (present day Gyumri, in Armenia). After around two months of fighting they signed a peace treaty that fixed the present border.
Ani’s misfortune is to be stuck on the wrong side of that border. Decades of neglect, looting, and vandalism have edged it closer to oblivion. In 2010 the Global Heritage Fund ranked it as one of 12 sites worldwide most at risk of irreversible destruction.
But the current Turkish government has apparently recognized the value of looking after the country’s rich and decaying wealth of Christian monuments – or at least the diplomatic and PR benefits of doing so. Last year, the Turkish Culture Ministry announced a project in conjunction with the World Monuments Fund to begin repairing the main cathedral and the Church of the Redeemer.
Will it come soon enough? The Church of the Redeemer was cloven clean down the middle during a storm in the 1950s. The cross section cut reveals the remarkable engineering of the building. Its walls are thin comparative to the huge, airy space they enclose, like a bubble frozen in stone. It seems miraculous that what is left of the huge drum and dome has stood for half a century in this state.
On the road back to Kars we fiddled with the radio and stumbled on an Armenian station. It was the voice of an elderly woman, soothing and measured as if telling a bedside story, and interspersed with short peals of classical music. Engrossed and mystified, we sat listening for 20 minutes or so until her voice faded into static.