Ani - City of 1001 Churches

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City of 1001 Churches. Past capitol of Armenia, now in ruins.

Caucasus: Ancient City of Ani Is So Close, Yet So Far

By Jolyon Naegele

Ani, Turkey; 28 July 1998 (RFE/RL) - Ani, the ancient, walled capital of the kings who ruled Armenia and Georgia, was in its heyday a millennium ago the rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo.

Despite earthquakes and Mongol raids, much of Ani's immense, fortified walls, as well as the city's citadel, caravansary, cathedral and six churches still stand well preserved, their stone facades a testament to a well-developed level of craftsmanship.

Today Ani is a ghost town, deserted except for the presence of Turkish border guards and the occasional tourist.

This is the end of the road -- a military base, the Kurdish village of Ocakli and the remains of Ani. Below the great walls is the winding canyon of the Arpacay river; Akhurian in Armenian. To the west are the rolling grazing lands of eastern Anatolia. To the east, virtually within shouting distance, is Armenia, with 4100 meter-high snowcapped Mount Aragats looming in the distance.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia five years ago, declaring it would only be reopened once ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is reestablished.

For the inhabitants of the grass-roofed stone huts in villages like Ocakli, this means dreams of higher living standards through new jobs in tourism and the transit trade have no chance of coming true any time soon.

Due to the proximity of the border, just as in Soviet days, visitors to Ani must first visit the district capital of Kars, 40 kilometers to the west, to obtain permission from the tourist office and the police and buy an entrance ticket for Ani.

Turkish border guards collect the passports and cameras of visitors entering Ani and escort them through parts of the ancient capital, ensuring that no one ventures too close to the border or takes pictures.

This frontier was established by the Treaty of Moscow in 1921, without Armenian participation at a time when Red Army forces had encircled Armenian (Dashnak) forces in Yerevan. In negotiations at Kars later the same year, the Soviet side urged Turkey to give back Ani on the grounds that it was "wholly devoid of any military, economic or geographical significance." But Turkey refused, arguing that handing over Ani would violate the Moscow treaty.

The Soviet delegation leader, Yakov Hanecki, expressed "deep sorrow" at the Turkish intransigence, noting "Ani means so much to the Armenians from the national, historical and artistic point of view."

Soviet-Turkish discussions in 1968 raised the possibility of restoring Ani to Armenia in exchange for two Kurdish villages to the north but nothing came of it. Ani received a small surge in visitors from Armenia six years ago during the brief period after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and before Turkey closed its border with Armenia. But Ani's significance and its location on Turkish territory, like Armenia's state symbol, Mount Ararat, so close yet so far, remain a virtually sacred issue to many Armenians.

Construction at present of a paved road to an outlook on the Armenian side of the canyon directly opposite Ani suggests that Armenian authorities intend to enable their citizens to capture a glimpse of their ancient capital even if visiting it remains out of the question for most. The nearest border crossing is on the Georgian-Turkish border, requiring a 450 km detour. Historic tensions and animosities being what they are, Armenian vehicular traffic continues to be exceedingly rare in Turkey.

(This part of a continuing series of reports from an RFE/RL correspondent who recently traveled throughout Turkey)


Frontline: Ani, Turkey - Struggle for soul of a closed city

A soldier sits smoking on the wall of a half-ruined church. Huge battlements rise across the empty plateau. This is Ani, once the fabled city of a thousand churches, now a military border post. The ruined bridge that once carried the Silk Road here cannot be repaired, because one half is in Turkey, the other in the former Soviet Republic of Armenia.

"Nobody took care of Ani. It was being ruined more and more every day," says Sarkis Seropyan, a greying former technician who writes for Agos, the weekly newspaper of the 70,000 Armenians living in Turkey. In its 10th-century heyday, Ani was the capital of an Armenian empire. The few buildings left, their walls patterned in red and black stone, show the city must have been magnificent. By the 12th century it had street lighting, drains and an underground fresh-water supply.

But Ani spent most of this century on the tense border between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and nothing was done to protect the ruins. Situated on a high plateau where winter temperatures can fall to -39C, the buildings suffered severe frost damage.

Ani is still under Turkish military control. "There are far too many restrictions on visiting Ani," Mr Seropyan says.

Though the site is advertised as a tourist attraction, visitors have to obtain permits from the tourism office, police and museum in nearby Kars before entering the site. On arrival, they are briefed by an armed soldier on where they may go. Troops patrol the site and use the ruins of a mosque as a look-out post. A ban on cameras was lifted recently, but photographers are not allowed to point their cameras at Armenia. Offenders are escorted from the site.

Turkey's long neglect of the Armenians' most important cultural monument embittered the country's tiny Armenian community. But restoration work and excavations begun since the break-up of the Soviet Union have not satisfied the Armenians. "Restoration is about preserving the existing structure; what they're doing is ruining it," one of Mr Seropyan's colleagues says. The restoration was started by the culture ministry but has ground to a halt after being unanimously condemned by Turkish and foreign archaeologists.

The dispute over the excavation is more complicated. The archaeologists, headed by Professor Beyhan Karamagali, are working hard to preserve the site and were instrumental in stopping the restoration work. Professor Karamagali has uncovered houses in Ani that she says are the earliest houses still standing in Turkey. It was she who discovered the underground drains, the water pipes and the street lighting. With the help of a French architect, she has taken emergency measures to keep aloft a church on the verge of collapse.

"It's very difficult working in a military site," says the professor, a short, stern woman with a scarf tied round her head to keep the sun off. "We have very little funding. We can only work in summer, when there's no rain, and then the heat is very bad. And when we first arrived we had problems with the Kurdish terrorists."

Professor Karamagali has set up foundations in Turkey and the United States to pay for the preservation of Ani. But she says funds have been slow to arrive. "For the first two years we got nothing," she says. She wants to see a museum set up at Ani, to attract paying visitors. "With a museum Ani could be saved."

But the Armenians are unhappy about her work. "She doesn't know whose culture Ani belongs to," Mr Seropyan says. Professor Karamagali says Ani is the work of several races and cultures. Other peoples lived in Ani under the Armenians, and the city was later conquered. The professor says these other races contributed to the city. For instance, she says, the city's mosque was built by Seljuk Turks. Mr Seropyan insists it was an Armenian building, converted later into a mosque.

"I was interested in Ani because it was not only an Armenian settlement but also a Muslim and a Zoroastrian one," the professor says.

Challenging the Armenian heritage in Anatolia is a sensitive subject: most of the region's Armenians were massacred by the Ottomans in the First World War. To this day Turkey denies that this genocide took place.

Professor Karamagali insists politics has nothing to do with her work. "We are not interested in religion or race. We are only interested in monuments, and in restoring them. Ani was a place where three different cultures, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians, lived together in peace and friendship as long ago as the 7th century."

Justin Huggler
The Independent [UK] - 9 Sept 1998

A Letter to the Editor in response to the above article, by author Christopher Walker.

The Independent (London)
September 11, 1998, Friday

Sir: How amusing that the ancient Armenian city of Ani is being characterised as multicultural by a modern Turkish archaeologist ("Struggle for soul of a closed city", 10 September), while the major culture of the site is ignored. Maybe someone will one day likewise look upon St Paul's Cathedral as an interesting site of a Mithraic temple.

Any reputable historian or traveller knows that Ani is overwhelmingly an Armenian site. Lord Kinross, the biographer of Ataturk, pointed this out four decades ago, and has some dismissive words to say about the official Turkish line. When the frontier was originally delimited in 1921 the Turks (in the person of General Kiazim Karabekir) demanded the inclusion of Ani in Turkey for no other reason than that Armenians should weep at the sight of it from across the river. All parties recognised that it was without military, economic or geographical significance.

In these post-Soviet times, we're meant to be able to tell the truth about historical matters. If Turkey cannot connect the adjective "Armenian" to Ani, isn't it time for that incomparable medieval site to be handed to its proper owner, the Republic of Armenia?

London W14